Tribal Affiliation

“Tribal” affiliation – Kohanim, Levi’im and Yisraelim

Chaim Freedman, March 27, 2006.

Postings to Jewishgen over the years show that there is misunderstanding about the divison of Jews according to tribal affiliation as Kohanim, Levi’im or Yisraelim.

Jews were once divided into twelve tribes according to the sons of the Biblical patriarch Jacob. Due to the visicitudes of Jewish history, knowledge of tribal affiliation for most Jews has been forgotten over time. Over the last 2,000 or so years, most Jews are considered to belong to one amorphous tribe called Yisrael (Israel), plural Yisraelim. The only Jews who retained knowledge of their tribal descent were the Kohanim (priests) and Levi’im (Levites). While both descend from the patriarch Jacob’s son Levi, the Kohanim descend specifically from Levi’s great-grandson Aharon (Aaron), the founder of the Priesthood. The Levi’im descend from Levi’s other descendants. Some think that Leviim descend from Aharon’s brother Moshe (Moses), but although he was a Levi, there are no known descendants beyond his two sons.

For genealogists, knowledge of tribal affiliation is useful as it may help distinguish theoretical relatives from each other. Practically speaking, if two supposed relatives believe they share male descent from a common ancestor, should one of the relatives be a Kohen or Levi and the other not, then it can be said with reasonable certainty that they do not descend from a common male ancestor.

In the technical Halakhic sense no person can be a Kohen unless his father was a Kohen. No person can be a Levi unless his father was a Levi. Some postings to Jewishgen have suggested that a woman who is the daughter of a Kohen may pass that status to her sons. That is not the case. The son inherits his status from his father. Only one aspect of the mother’s tribal affiliation effects the son. The firstborn son of the daughter of a Kohen or Levi is exemp from the ceremony of Pidyon Haben (redemption of the firstborn).

Members of the ancient family of Rapaport were Kohanim. Similarly old rabbinical families such as Horowitz, Landau and Epstein were Leviim. Yet there are families which bear these names and are not Kohanim or Leviim.

It should be noted that the surnames Cohen or Levi do not necessarily indicate tribal affiliation.

There are several explanations for the situation where a supposedly Kohanic family name is carried by non-Kohanim.

i) Certain families, unrelated to the above "old" lines of these families, adopted the same surnames randomly when legislation required Jews to adopt surnames.

ii) There was an actual relationship between the Kohanic and non-Kohanic families which arose when a son-in-law adopted the surname of his wife's family. Even if these sons-in-law were not Kohanim or Leviim, in this particular situation, their subsequent descendants are in fact descended from the old families, although through a female line.

Care should also be taken when a woman marries twice, once to a Kohen or Levi and has children by him who are therefore Kohanim or Levi’im respectively, then secondly to a Yisrael. Children of the second marriage are Yisraelim. Descendants of half brothers may become confused as to their tribal affiliation, particularly if it is not known from which husband they descend.

It should be noted that Israeli civil registration does not include Kohen, Levi or Yisrael status. That appears on religious documents such as Ketubah (marriage certificate), synagogue membership lists, and tombstones.

A word of caution: families which became assimilated may have forgotten their tribal status, such that the absence of such, even on religious certification or tombstones, in modern times, does not necessarily negate the possibility of Kohen or Levi ancestry in the male line.Once one could depend on such information being recorded on tombstones. Indeed the absence or presence of Kohen or Levi designation on a tombstone often helped genealogists to clarify relationships. Now, unfortunately, some families have forgotten this aspect of their ancient descent and have failed to record it on their tombstones.

This situation highlights the need for Jews to preserve knowledge of their families' Kohanic or Levitical descent, so that it not be forgotten with the passage of time.

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