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The implication of Numbers 4 is that priests began serving in the temple when they were thirty years old.

But what did they do before then?

Were they expected to train to be priests? If so, were they studying or performing minor roles or some form of apprenticeship?

Or were they expected to go into secular work to broaden their horizons before taking on a priestly role?

Update:

My reason for asking is based on Ezekiel, who was probably 25 (Ezekiel 1:1-2) when taken into exile in Babylon. Had he stayed in Jerusalem, he would have been a priest (Ezekiel 1:3) when he reached 30 (Ezekiel 1:1). However God called him to be a prophet (Ezekiel 2:3-5). Yet he was apparently able to support himself and his wife (Ezekiel 24:18) in Babylon. I'm wondering if he therefore learnt a secular occupation.

In addition, Nebuchadnezzar took the skilled people into exile (2 Kings 24:13-14) which further implies that Ezekiel would have had a skill useful in Babylon. Furthermore, others who were priests when the Babylonians returned were not so lucky (2 Kings 25:18-21), still further implying that simply being a priest was not a useful skill for the Babylonians.

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  • Not sure whether this is a 100% fit here - advice welcome. Mar 25 '14 at 9:08
  • They were altar boys until then. :) Mar 26 '14 at 4:04
  • 2
    Might be interesting to note that the age limit changes in the Hebrew Bible. Numbers 8:24–26 puts the lower bound at 25 and King David further reduced it in 1 Chronicles 23:27.
    – Frank Luke
    Mar 26 '14 at 15:40
  • @FrankLuke: this gets more confusing by the hour... :S Mar 26 '14 at 16:13
  • @Wikis I have no idea what everyone did before he was 30 years old. However, I believe that in Ezekiel 1:1-3 he was in his 30th year, but not yet 30 years old. "In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day..." (NIVUK) There I believe he's talking about his 30th year of life. May 17 '14 at 18:13
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As was described in this Mi Yodeya article, priests only actually worked in the temple for 2 days a year. This is a result of the priests being divided up into 24 groups (mishmarim) for Temple service, with each group being further subdivided by family. So even priests over the age of thirty would have had a lot of time on their hands to do things other than the Temple service.

As Israel was a predominantly agrarian society before the Roman occupation, the default trade for an Israelite was probably something related to farming. This would have been no different for priests, who were also allowed to own land within Levitical cities (q.v. Leviticus 25:32-34 and Leviticus 27:21). So a priest who lived a life as a common man (am ha'aretz) would likely have been involved with farming. However, according to the Chofetz Chaim, a rabbinic commentator, one day of service in the Temple required 6 months of preparation. Along this line of thinking, the priests were expected to essentially be Torah scholars while not working in the Temple. In practice, we might be justified to imagine priests as being Torah scholars who also did some part-time farming.

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  • But the priests also worked during the feasts. So it wasn't only 2 days/ year.
    – user862
    Jan 5 '15 at 0:03
  • Priestly service was not at all restricted to inner-temple service. There was a nation of people that the priests served. Dec 13 '17 at 2:49
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The service of the tabernacle was to be done by the tribe of Levi. What was the required age of the priests that served in the temple? Answer: Numbers 4:47 (KJV) They counted or numbered the Levites:

From thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old, every one that came to do the service of the ministry, and the service of the burden in the tabernacle of the congregation,

But those that were to serve were: Numbers 8 (KJV):

22 And after that went the Levites in to do their service in the tabernacle of the congregation before Aaron, and before his sons: as the LORD had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so did they unto them.
 
23 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 24 This is it that belongeth unto the Levites: from twenty and five years old and upward they shall go in to wait upon the service of the tabernacle of the congregation: 25 And from the age of fifty years they shall cease waiting upon the service thereof, and shall serve no more: 26 But shall minister with their brethren in the tabernacle of the congregation, to keep the charge, and shall do no service. Thus shalt thou do unto the Levites touching their charge.

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