That Seems Uncharacteristically Harsh…By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
G-d told Moshe that kohanim had to free of physical imperfections to perform the service. Examples of disqualifying conditions include blindness, non-working or malformed limbs, dwarfism and extreme skin conditions, among others. Kohanim with such conditions may still eat the portions reserved for priests, they just can’t perform the service.
Why is a kohein with certain conditions disqualified from performing the service? The Rambam explains in Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) 3:45 that the esteem of the Temple required that the kohanim and Leviim receive great honor from the people. Certain kohanim and Leviim had to be exempted from service because the masses do not judge a person by the content of his character, but by his outward appearance. It is only because of the shortcomings of the general populace that certain kohanim couldn’t perform the service. (If this sounds like apologetics, keep in mind that the Rambam lived in the 12th century, long before it ever occurred to anyone to be politically correct.)
G-d told Moshe to caution the kohanim about ritual impurity; offering sacrifices in a state of impurity carries the penalty of kareis (excision).
Similarly, a kohein who is a metzora or a zav, or who has a seminal emission, may not eat from the sacrifices until he immerses in a mikvah. (Refer back to parshas Metzora for details on these.) The same is true of a kohein who has been rendered ritually impure by a dead creature or another person. (Refer back to parshas Shemini for details on touching certain animal carcasses.) Eating an animal that died on its own would also render a kohein unclean.
Non-priests may not eat the portions designated as exclusive to kohanim. This includes guests and employees whom the kohein may be responsible for feeding. A slave belonging to a kohein, however, is considered a member of his household and can eat what other family members eat.
If a kohein’s daughter marries a non-kohein, she loses the right to eat terumah, the priestly portion of grain and produce. If she becomes widowed or divorced without children, she may return to her father’s home and resume eating terumah.
If a non-kohein eats priestly food by accident, he must replace it, adding a fifth.