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Whither the Tribe of Levi

July 4, 2010 – 2:26 pm13 Comments

Some whithered Levis. Image source: sabbah.biz

By David Werdiger

It’s a common scene in a Shul on Shabbat.  Shortly before the reading of the Torah, the gabbai (that fellow who makes sure all the parts of the shul service that have to be done, are done) walks up to a stranger or guest and asks “Are you a Levi?”

The Jewish nation can be divided into three “classes”: Kohen, Levi and Israel. Of the twelve tribes (the progenitors of which were the sons of patriarch Jacob), the tribe of Levi was designated to work in the Temple, and as teachers. Within the tribe of Levi, the descendants of Aaron (brother of Moses) were designated as Kohanim – priests – and they enjoyed special privileges in return for their service in the Temple.

Today, some these privileges still apply. When we read the Torah, a Kohen is called first, then a Levi, and then one or more Israelites. On holy days (and every day in Israel), the Kohanim bless the congregation and the Levi’im (Hebrew plural, Levites in English) wash the hands of the Kohanim before they perform this ritual. And there’s more.

Assuming that the population growth among Jews did not substantially vary from tribe to tribe, the proportion of Kohanim and Levi’im should stay about the same over the long term. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In contemporary times, there seems to be a relative shortage of Levi’im.

When one considers the traditional agricultural tithes of Maaser (given to Levi’im) which is 10% of produce, and Terumah (given to Kohanim), which is about 2% of produce, these proportions are consistent with the tribe of Levi being about one twelfth (8.3%) of the population, and the Kohanim being a small subset of the tribe of Levi. However, modern day figures are entirely inconsistent with these numbers.

From studies done in Jewish cemeteries, Kohanim appear to be around 5% of Jewish males. Given the fact that Kohanim descended from one member of a tribe, that number seems very high. The dispersion of the lost ten tribes might account for an increased proportion of Kohanim in the general Jewish population, but it certainly doesn’t account for the relatively small numbers of Levi’im.

Why might this be so?

One reason might be the so-called “silver medallist syndrome”. The field of social psychology suggests that the emotional response to certain events is driven by people considering “what might have been”. To quote the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James (back in 1892):

“So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has ‘pitted’ himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts”.

Our objective achievements so often matter less than how they are subjectively construed. This is not unlike what has been described to me as the law of relative misery: a 5% raise can be quite exhilarating until one learns that the person down the hall received an 8% raise.

In the field of sport, the gold medallist has achieved the best possible outcome in the event. But the emotional response of the silver medallist is to consider “what might have been” in terms of missing out on the gold medal – “if only” they had performed a little better, they would have received the gold medal. The bronze medallist, on the other hand, compares their outcome to the lesser one of coming fourth, in which case they would have been part of the pack that received no medal at all. So they end up happier with their performance than the person who, objectively, did better.

In the same way, rather than accepting their objective status as a privileged tribe, the Levi’im may view their status relative to the prestige of being a Kohen (which particularly in post-Temple times, carries far more privileges), even though they have no control over this. Because of their reduced pride in their identity, they may be less likely to convey the details of their lineage to their children, or perhaps their children may be less likely to identify as Levi’im. This would lead to a long term decline in the relative proportion of Levi’im in the Jewish population.

Further, it is interesting to note that unlike the common societal division of upper/middle/lower classes, the relative proportions (in earlier times) of Kohen/Levi/Israel are approximately 2%/8%/90%. These numbers position the Levi’im as less of a middle class with a clear identity of their own, and more of a “second class elite”. This reinforces the notion that they are more likely to view themselves relative to “what might have been”.

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