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Matthew 12:5 NASB

5 Or have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple [c]violate the Sabbath, and yet are innocent?

But according to the law the priests on duty had a mandate to maintain the fire,offer sacrifices even during the Sabbath.

Leviticus 6:12-13 NASB

12 The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it. It shall not go out, but the priest shall burn wood on it every morning; and he shall lay out the burnt offering on it, and offer up in smoke the fat portions of the peace offerings on it. 13 Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; it is not to go out.

Did the priest violate the Sabbath?

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In a literal sense, the priests did violate the Sabbath because they worked and earned their living on the Sabbath, see Ex 20:8-11, Deut 5:12-15 that prohibited regular work on the weekly Sabbath.

In a strict legal sense, they did not violate the Sabbath because the same series of Torah laws required the priests to do such things to maintain the temple services and ritual. See the many rules about what priest were supposed to do on Sabbath such as sacrifices (Num 28:9, 10) and ceremonial rites (Ex 25:30, Lev 24:7, 8) and judicial components (Ex 31:14, 15, 35:2, Num 15:32-36).

Thus Jesus is (predictably) correct in saying:

Matt 12:5 - Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are innocent?

Benson correctly observes:

Matthew 12:5-6. Have ye not read in the law, &c. — He does not mean that the words following were to be found in the law, but only that they might read in the law, how the priests were obliged, on the sabbath days, to perform such servile work in the temple as, considered separately from the end of it, would have been a profanation of the sabbath, but really was not so, because it was necessary to the public worship of God, on account of which the sabbath was instituted. If it be asked what servile work the priests performed on the sabbath, the answer is obvious. On that day, as well as on other days, they made up the fires, killed, flayed, and dressed the sacrifices, and performed other pieces of manual labour necessary to the religious service which God had established among them. Nay, besides the continual burnt offering, the priests were obliged, on the sabbaths, to sacrifice two lambs extraordinary, by which their servile work was that day double of what it was on the other days of the week. See Numbers 28:9. But in this place is one greater than the temple — As if he had said, “If you reply that the priests were not culpable in those actions, because they were undertaken for the temple service, I acknowledge it; but at the same time I must observe, that if the temple, with its service, is of such importance as to merit a particular dispensation from the law of the sabbath, I and my disciples, whose business of promoting the salvation of men is a matter of more importance, may, on that account, with more reason take the same liberty in a case of the like necessity. According to this interpretation, the reading μειζον, a greater work, instead of μειζων, a greater person, which is authorized by many manuscripts, will have a peculiar elegance. Then the sense will be, ‘There is here a much more noble work carrying on than the temple service.’” — Macknight.

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English Standard Version

Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?

The priests were allowed and required to work in the temple on the Sabbath:

Numbers 28:9

"'On the Sabbath day, make an offering of two lambs a year old without defect, together with its drink offering and a grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with olive oil.

Benson explains it this way:

Matthew 12:5-6. Have ye not read in the law, &c. — He does not mean that the words following were to be found in the law, but only that they might read in the law, how the priests were obliged, on the sabbath days, to perform such servile work in the temple as, considered separately from the end of it, would have been a profanation of the sabbath,

I.e., they would have profaned the Sabbath if they were not asked by God.

but really was not so, because it was necessary to the public worship of God, on account of which the sabbath was instituted. If it be asked what servile work the priests performed on the sabbath, the answer is obvious. On that day, as well as on other days, they made up the fires, killed, flayed, and dressed the sacrifices, and performed other pieces of manual labour necessary to the religious service which God had established among them. Nay, besides the continual burnt offering, the priests were obliged, on the sabbaths, to sacrifice two lambs extraordinary, by which their servile work was that day double of what it was on the other days of the week.

The priests were not guilty of breaking the Sabbath as alluded to by Jesus in Matthew 12:5.

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