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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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  • frosh says:

    Interestingly, genetic studies (Y-chromosomal) have shown that those males identifying as Kohanim today, regardless of ethnicity (Sephardi, Ashkenazi etc), lergely have distinct genetic markers (relative to control groups) that indicated they are from a distinct tribe (or common ancestor). That is, the vast majority of those who identify today as Kohanim probably are, and the percentage of those identifying as Kohanim who do not have these distinct genetic markers is very low.

    However, genetic studies have not so far been able to confirm the same for Levis. This could be because they are decended from the same tribe, but not a single individual (or at least not as recently a single individual).

  • Aaron -> Amram -> Kehat -> Levi

    Levi was Aaron’s great-grandfather – only 3 generations further back. You’d think they’d be able to find similar markers for the whole tribe of Levi.

  • frosh says:

    How there were so few generations after so many years of slavery, I’m not sure.

    I guess there must be another answer, perhaps lying in what is known as Founder Effect. At some point in history, someone who was supposedly a Levi (but was not actually Levi by genetic lineage – e.g either a delibarate fraud by him or by one of his ancerstors, or a case of mistaken paterntity) migrated somewhere, this resulted in the Levi’im of a large region (that descended from this founder) not being ‘real’ Levi’im. If I recall the scientific literature correctly, the situation was that Levi’im did have a common ancestor, but not across different ethnic groups (Ashkenazim, Sephardim etc), whereas with Kohanim, even those from different ethnic groups were shown to have the same ancestor (this, by the way, is the evidence that demonstrates that Shlomo Sand’s recent book about Ashkenazim not being descended from the Israelites is utter nonsesnse).

  • Ari says:

    Perhaps a possible reason for the descrepancy lies in the words of Ezra8:15. This perhaps shows a lack of desire on behalf of the Levi’im to leave Bavel for Eretz Yisrael. Perhaps in Iraqi Jewish communities the numbers are different?
    Regardless, I don’t think one can simply infer birth rates and assume that they remain the same. Many things have happened to the Jews and many historical events could have affected different groups differently.

  • Mandi Katz says:

    David this rings true – our boys will be barmitzvah in a few months and thinking about who who we would like to see called up on the shabbat- we had to go beyond our closest circle to find a Levi – but not so to find a Cohen (mind you my mother was a Cohen, and my father is a Katz so we’re over represented that way)but you’re right , its always the way…

    one of the many reason I chose not to change my name when I married was that I didn’t want to give up the Cohen heritage – no mind that as a woman it means nothing and can’t be passed to my sons or daughter.

    you can be Jewish by choice but you can only be a Cohen or Levi by birth (and I suppose maleness)
    (its a little like candidacy for the US presidency-probably the only thing left in the US determined by your birth rather than citizenship?)

    How does the conservative movement treat this?anyone know?

  • Mandi Katz says:

    would also be interested to know the halachik position for adopted sons of Kohanim and Levi’im – might provide insight into the characterisation of the inheritance – patriarchal (sociological) vs patrilinial (biological)

  • gedalia says:

    Great post.

    I’ve been researching my family tree and have discovered on my paternal line 4 generations back and onwards that my family were levvim. I’ve begun to wonder through a combination of research, genetic testing etc whether or not I might be able to reclaim the Levi lineage. Would be a great Bar Mitzvah accomplishment for my son if that could happen. I’m not sure of any halachic discussion on matters such as this.

  • ariel says:

    “The Olympics is really my favorite sporting event. Although, I think I have a problem with that silver medal. Because when you think about it,you win the gold – you feel good, you win the bronze – you think, “Well, at least I got something”. But when you win that silver it’s like, “Congratulations, you *almost* won. Of all the losers *you* came in first of that group. You’re the number one *loser*. No one lost ahead of you!” ”
    – Jerry Seinfeld

  • Akiva says:

    As far as I know – and I am by no means an authority – the conservative movement accepts both men and women as kohanim, although the descent remains patrilineal (I think). Women may be called up as kohen etc although in the Conservative stream, there is no requirement to call a kohen first, although shuls are free to follow a more traditional practice, if they wish.

    Aside from this, the Conservative leadership, after inclining to this for a few decades has suspended the associated rules and strictures in their entirety (but not the identification itself) and the children of prohibited marriages retain kohen status, with both father and children continuing to perform priestly functions.

    I think that within this general Conservative approach, there is some room for variation either way. But as I say – am not an authority, and feel free to correct me.

  • Perry Zamek says:

    Mandi – adoption has no bearing on Kohen/Levi status – the status depends on the child’s biological father (assuming he was Jewish), and not on the adoptive father. This, of course, raises issues for adoptive parents as far as personal status is concerned in Halacha (and in Israel, this means when dealing with marriage at the Rabbinate) – e.g., can the adopted son of a Kohen marry a divorcee?

    Gedalia – I would suggest that you seek guidance from an Orthodox rabbi, since the question would arise regarding the types of proofs of your descent from those Levi’im.

  • AccidentialKorach says:

    The traditional answer to the question of status is that it follows the father – see Babylonaian Talmud Kiddushin 3:12 “Wherever there is betrothal and no sin, the child goes after the male. What case is this? This is a Priestly woman, a Levitess, or an (ordinary) Jewess who married a Priest, a Levite or an (ordinary) Jew.”

  • Mandi Katz says:

    thanks gentlemen.
    David – one more reflection on this – a few years ago our daughter’s Jewish studies teacher was asked and didn’t know why Vayikrah was called Leviticus in English, and asked the kids to find out for homework. In fairness said teacher was like “oh, of course” when our daughter offered what we thought the answer, was but maybe even to someone who does have a good knowledge of Tanakh – and I think this teacher was a lovely Tanakh teacher – the role of Levi’im doesn’t loom large in modern Jewish consciousness, and yet the role of the Kohan still does.or maybe the teacher never just connected the word Leviticus to Levi’im…just a reflection.

  • Mandi,

    1. The Levi’im had a much more active role in the times of the Temple, while many of the honours bestowed on Kohanim are still practiced today.

    2. In earlier times, the tribe of Levi were designated as teachers, and unlike the other tribes, had their own cities spread all over Israel instead of a contiguous region. I wonder if there is a link to the decline in respect for the profession of teaching (although that’s probably relatively recent).

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