Total population
~500,000–600,000 worldwide[a]
Regions with significant populations
 United States200,000
Hebrew, English and numerous other languages in the Jewish diaspora
Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic
Judaism, Samaritanism
Related ethnic groups
other Jews, Samaritans

Total percentage of Levites among Jews is about 4%.

Levites (/ˈlvt/ LEE-vyte; Hebrew: לְוִיִּם, romanizedLǝvīyyīm) or Levi[3] are Jewish males who claim patrilineal descent from the Tribe of Levi.[4] The Tribe of Levi descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah. The surname Halevi, which consists of the Hebrew definite article "ה" Ha- ('the') plus Levi ('Levite'), is not conclusive regarding being a Levite; a titular use of HaLevi indicates being a Levite. The daughter of a Levite is a Bat Levi (Bat being Hebrew for 'daughter').

The Tribe of Levi served particular religious duties for the Israelites and had political (administering cities of refuge) and educational responsibilities as well. In return, the landed tribes were expected to support the Levites with a tithe (Numbers 18:21–25), particularly the tithe known as the First tithe, ma'aser rishon. The Kohanim, a subset of the Levites, were the priests, who performed the work of holiness in the Temple. The Levites, referring to those who were not Kohanim, were specifically assigned to:

When Joshua led the Israelites into the land of Canaan (Joshua 13:33), the Sons of Levi were the only Israelite tribe that received cities but were not allowed to be landowners "because the Lord the God of Israel Himself is their inheritance" (Deuteronomy 18:2).[6]

In modern times, Levites are integrated in Jewish communities, but keep a distinct status. There are estimated 300,000 Levites among Ashkenazi Jewish communities,[7] and a similar number among Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews combined. The total percentage of Levites among the wider Jewish population is about 4%.

In contemporary Jewish practice

Today, Levites in Orthodox Judaism continue to have additional rights and obligations compared to lay people, although these responsibilities have diminished with the destruction of the Temple. For instance, Kohanim are eligible to be called to the Torah first, followed by the Levites. Levites also provide assistance to the Kohanim, particularly washing their hands, before the Kohanim recite the Priestly Blessing.[8][9]

Since Levites (and Kohanim) are traditionally pledged to Divine service, there is no Pidyon HaBen (redemption of the firstborn) ceremony for:

Orthodox Judaism believes in the eventual rebuilding of a Temple in Jerusalem and a resumption of the Levitical role. A small number of schools, primarily in Israel, train priests and Levites in their respective roles.[12]

Conservative Judaism—which believes in a restoration of the Temple as a house of worship and in some special role for Levites, although not the ancient sacrificial system as previously practised—recognizes Levites as having special status. Not all Conservative congregations call Kohanim and Levites to the first and second reading of the Torah, and many no longer perform rituals such as the Priestly Blessing and Pidyon HaBen in which Kohanim and Levites have a special role.

Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism do not observe distinctions between Kohanim, Levites, and other Jews.

Relationship with Kohanim

Main articles: Kohen and Priesthood (Ancient Israel)

The Kohanim are traditionally believed and halachically required to be of direct patrilineal descent from the biblical Aaron of the Tribe of Levi. The origins of the name/term "Levy" in Hebrew remain unclear. Some hypotheses link this name with the Hebrew root lwh, the Aramaic root lwy, or the Arabic root lwy.

The noun kohen is used in the Torah to refer to priests, both Israelite and non-Israelite, such as the Israelite nation as a whole,[13] as well as the priests (Hebrew kohanim) of Baal. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, Kohanim performed the daily and holiday (Yom Tov) duties of sacrificial offerings.

Today kohanim retain a lesser though somewhat distinct status within Judaism, and are bound by additional restrictions according to Orthodox Judaism. During the Priestly Blessing, the Levites traditionally wash the hands of the Kohanim prior to the blessing of the House of Israel.[14] ("A first-born son washes the Kohen's hands if there is no Levite".[15][16])

Bat Levi

In Orthodox Judaism, children of a Bat Levi, like those of a Bat-Kohen, regardless of the child's father's tribe or the mother's marital status, retain the traditional exemption for their children from the requirement of being redeemed through the Pidyon HaBen.[17]

Conservative Judaism permits a Bat Levi to perform essentially all the rituals a male Levi would perform, including being called to the Torah for the Levite aliyah in those Conservative synagogues which have both retained traditional tribal roles and modified traditional gender roles.[18] In Israel, Conservative/Masorti Judaism has not extended Torah honors either to a bat Kohen or to a bat Levi.[19]

The Levites and the Holocaust

Main article: Holocaust theology

In 1938, with the outbreak of violence that would come to be known as Kristallnacht, American Orthodox rabbi Menachem HaKohen Risikoff wrote about the central role he saw for Priests and Levites in terms of Jewish and world responses, in worship, liturgy, and teshuva, repentance. In The Priests and the Levites (1940),[20] he stressed that members of these groups exist in the realm between history (below) and redemption (above), and must act in a unique way to help move others to prayer and action, and help bring an end to suffering. He wrote, "Today, we also are living through a time of flood, Not of water, but of a bright fire, which burns and turns Jewish life into ruin. We are now drowning in a flood of blood. ... Through the Kohanim and Levi'im help will come to all Israel."[21]

Levite population

Levite Y-chromosome studies

A 2003 study of the Y-chromosome by Behar et al. pointed to multiple origins for Ashkenazi Levites, who comprise approximately 4% among the Ashkenazi Jews. It found that Haplogroup R1a1a (R-M17), uncommon in the Middle East or among Sephardic Jews, is present in over 50% of Ashkenazi Levites, while the rest of Ashkenazi Levites' paternal lineage is of certain Middle Eastern origin, including Y-chromosome haplogroups E3b, J2, F, R1b, K, I, Q, N and L.[22] Haplogroup R1a1a is found at the highest levels among people of Eastern European descent, with 50 to 65% among Sorbs, Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians.[23] In South Asia, R1a1a has often been observed with high frequency in a number of demographic groups, reaching over 70% in West Bengal Brahmins in India and among the Mohani people in Sindh, Pakistan.[citation needed] Behar's data suggested a founding event, involving an 'introgression' of anywhere from one to fifty non-Jewish European men, occurring at a time close to the initial formation and settlement of the Ashkenazi community as a possible explanation.[22] As Nebel, Behar and Goldstein speculate:

although neither the NRY haplogroup composition of the majority of Ashkenazi Jews nor the microsatellite haplotype composition of the R1a1 haplogroup within Ashkenazi Levites is consistent with a major Khazar or other European origin, as has been speculated by some authors (Baron 1957; Dunlop 1967; Ben-Sasson 1976; Keys 1999), one cannot rule out the important contribution of a single or a few founders among contemporary Ashkenazi Levites."[24]

A 2013 paper by Siiri Rootsi et al. confirmed a Near or Middle Eastern origin for all Ashkenazi Levites, including the R1a Y-chromosome carriers, and refuted the Khazar hypothesis of Ashkenazi ancestry:

Previous Y-chromosome studies have demonstrated that Ashkenazi Levites, members of a paternally inherited Jewish Levite caste, display a distinctive founder event within R1a, the most prevalent Y-chromosome haplogroup in Eastern Europe. Here we report the analysis of 16 whole R1 sequences and show that a set of 19 unique nucleotide substitutions defines the Ashkenazi R1a lineage. While our survey of one of these, M582, in 2,834 R1a samples reveals its absence in 922 Eastern Europeans, we show it is present in all sampled R1a Ashkenazi Levites, as well as in 33.8% of other R1a Ashkenazi Jewish males and 5.9% of 303 R1a Near Eastern males, where it shows considerably higher diversity. Moreover, the M582 lineage also occurs at low frequencies in non-Ashkenazi Jewish populations. In contrast to the previously suggested Eastern European origin for Ashkenazi Levites, the current data are indicative of a geographic source of the Levite founder lineage in the Near East and its likely presence among pre-Diaspora Hebrews.[25]

In a later 2017 study Behar et al. revised their initially mitigated position, concluding that a "Middle Eastern origin of the Ashkenazi Levite lineage based on what was previously a relatively limited number of reported samples, can now be considered firmly validated", precising that a "rich variation of haplogroup R1a outside of Europe which is phylogenetically separate from the typically European R1a branches", referring to the R1a-Y2619 sub-clade.[7]


Having a last name of Levi or a related term does not necessarily mean a person is a Levite, and many well-known Levites do not have such last names.[26]

Levitical status is passed down in families from father[c] to child born from a Jewish mother, as part of a family's genealogical tradition. Tribal status of Levite is determined by patrilineal descent, so a child whose biological father is a Levite (in cases of adoption or artificial insemination, status is determined by the genetic father), is also considered a Levite. Jewish status is determined by matrilineal descent, thus conferring levitical status onto children requires both biological parents to be Israelites and the biological father to be a Levite.

Accordingly, there is currently no branch of Judaism that regards levitical status as conferrable by matrilineal descent. It is either conferrable patrilineally with a Jewish mother, in the traditional manner, or it does not exist and is not conferred at all.

Levite surnames

Some Levites have adopted a related last name to signify their status. Because of diverse geographical locations, the names have several variations:[27]

Modern Levites

The following are some Levites with non-Levite-like last names in modern times:

Notable Levites

See also

Explanatory footnotes

  1. ^ Levites comprise a subgroup of about 4% of world Jewry.[1] Combined with Kohanim, who are also Levites, the subgroup forms roughly 8% of the Jewish population worldwide,[1] or about 1–1.1 million. Levites also comprise one of the four surviving families of Samaritans, where they serve the role of High Priests due to the fact that the last Samaritan High Priest Cohanic family went extinct in the 17th century.[2]
  2. ^ a Levite assigned to one area was punishable by death for encroaching on one of the other two areas. Kohathites who carried the holy items could not look at the ark or they died, since they were not descendants of Aaron Numbers 4.17-20
  3. ^ The child of a Bat Levi [daughter of a Levi] has no Levi status.


  1. ^ a b Bradman et al. 1999.
  2. ^ Sean Ireton (2003). "The Samaritans – A Jewish Sect in Israel: Strategies for Survival of an Ethno-religious Minority in the Twenty First Century". Anthrobase. Retrieved 2007-11-29.
  3. ^ "Levite synonyms, Levite antonyms". freethesaurus.com. Synonyms for Levite ... noun a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi … the branch that provided male assistants to ...
  4. ^ "Membership in the Levites is determined by paternal descent." "Medical Definition of Levite". Retrieved 2017-02-19.
  5. ^ "The Holy Temple Music". tractate Arachin (11a) that oral music was never to be uttered by anyone other than a Levite
  6. ^ Joshua 13:33, cited in Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Levites" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  7. ^ a b Behar, Doron M.; Saag, Lauri; Karmin, Monika; Gover, Meir G.; Wexler, Jeffrey D.; Sanchez, Luisa Fernanda; Greenspan, Elliott; Kushniarevich, Alena; Davydenko, Oleg; Sahakyan, Hovhannes; Yepiskoposyan, Levon; Boattini, Alessio; Sarno, Stefania; Pagani, Luca; Carmi, Shai; Tzur, Shay; Metspalu, Ene; Bormans, Concetta; Skorecki, Karl; Metspalu, Mait; Rootsi, Siiri; Villems, Richard (2017). "The genetic variation in the R1a clade among the Ashkenazi Levites' y chromosome". Scientific Reports. 7 (1): 14969. Bibcode:2017NatSR...714969B. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-14761-7. PMC 5668307. PMID 29097670.
  8. ^ Rabbi Isaac Rice (June 22, 2017). "The Levi Washing the Hands of the Kohen". YUTorah.org.
  9. ^ Nissan Dovid Dubov. "Kohanim and Leviim - Jewish Essentials". chabad.org. In preparation for Duchaning, the Kohen has his hands washed by a Levi
  10. ^ "Who Is Obligated in Pidyon Haben? – Lifecycle Events". The son of a Levi's daughter does not have a pidyon haben
  11. ^ "Pidyon Ha'ben – Redemption of First Born". 15 February 2010. Pidyon Ha'Ben, the "redemption of the first born son," takes place when a ... 4) The father of the baby is not a Kohen or a Levi, and the mother's father is ...
  12. ^ "Temple Institute announces school to train Levitical priests – Israel". March 8, 2016. The Temple Institute, dedicated to reestablishing the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, announces school for training Kohanim. ... on the Temple service
  13. ^ MamLeChes KoHaNim – ממלכת כהנים
  14. ^ "Priestly Blessing". Jewish Virtual Library. Archived from the original on 2014-04-27. The general procedure of the Priestly Blessing is: After *Kedushah the priests prepare themselves, removing their shoes and washing their hands with the assistance of the levites, whereafter they ascend the platform before the Ark.
  15. ^ Raymond Apple (2011). Let's Ask the Rabbi. p. 163.
  16. ^ "Duchening: The Basics".
  17. ^ "Rivash" 15; "Divrei Yatziv" by R' Y. Halberstam, E.H. 6; "Yechaveh Da'at" by R' O. Yosef, V 61)
  18. ^ Joel Roth, The Status of Daughters of Kohanim and Leviyim for Aliyot, Rabbinical Assembly
  19. ^ "See: Robert A. (Rafael) Harris, Rabbinical Assembly of Israel's Law Committee Teshuvah: "The First Two Aliyot for a Bat Kohen and a Bat Levi." pp. 31–33 in Responsa of the Va'ad Halacha of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel 5748–5749 (1989). Volume 3. Jerusalem: The Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and the Masorti Movement (Hebrew; English Summary, vii–viii)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-09-26. Retrieved 2013-05-17.
  20. ^ הכהנים והלוים HaKohanim vHaLeviim (1940)
  21. ^ Gershon Greenberg, "Kristallnacht: The American Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Theology of Response," in Maria Mazzenga (editor), American Religious Responses to Kristallnacht, Palgrave MacMillan: 2009, pp. 158–172.
  22. ^ a b Behar DM, Thomas MG, Skorecki K, et al. (October 2003). "Multiple origins of Ashkenazi Levites: Y chromosome evidence for both Near Eastern and European ancestries". American Journal of Human Genetics. 73 (4): 768–779. doi:10.1086/378506. PMC 1180600. PMID 13680527.
  23. ^ Underhill, PA; Myres, NM; Rootsi, S; Metspalu, M; Zhivotovsky, LA; King, RJ; Lin, AA; Chow, CE; Semino, O; Battaglia, V; Kutuev, I; Järve, M; Chaubey, G; Ayub, Q; Mohyuddin, A; Mehdi, SQ; Sengupta, S; Rogaev, EI; Khusnutdinova, EK; Pshenichnov, A; Balanovsky, O; Balanovska, E; Jeran, N; Augustin, DH; Baldovic, M; Herrera, RJ; Thangaraj, K; Singh, V; Singh, L; Majumder, P; Rudan, P; Primorac, D; Villems, R; Kivisild, T (2010). "Separating the post-Glacial coancestry of European and Asian Y chromosomes within haplogroup R1a". Eur. J. Hum. Genet. 18 (4): 479–484. doi:10.1038/ejhg.2009.194. PMC 2987245. PMID 19888303.
  24. ^ Goldstein, David B. (2008). "3". Jacob's legacy: A genetic view of Jewish history. Yale University Press. pp. location 873 (Kindle for PC). ISBN 978-0-300-12583-2.
  25. ^ Siiri Rootsi; Doron M. Behar; Mari Järve; Alice A. Lin; et al. (2013). "Phylogenetic applications of whole Y-chromosome sequences and the Near Eastern origin of Ashkenazi Levites". Nature Communications. 4: 2928. Bibcode:2013NatCo...4.2928R. doi:10.1038/ncomms3928. PMC 3905698. PMID 24346185.
  26. ^ Some examples of having the title HaLevi, but not in their last name are: Baruch Epstein, Yisroel Belsky, Abraham Fraenkel, Shmuel Wosner, Meir Abulafia, Samuel ibn Naghrillah, Yehuda Ashlag, Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, Pinchas Horowitz, Hillel Paritcher, The Chozeh (seer) of Lublin, Shmuel Schecter, Joseph Weiler, Yom-Tov Lipman Heller, Abraham ibn Daud, Salomon ibn Parhon, Shlomo Wahrman, Salomon Alkabetz, Issachar Berend Lehmann, Avraham Bromberg, Max Letteris, Joseph ibn Migash, Yechezkel Landau, Jacob Moelin, Luis de Torres, Chaim Herzog, Avraham Gombiner
  27. ^ a b c "What's in a name?". 18 October 2014. Levi not only has variations like Lewita (Polish) and Loewe (German/Swiss), but also Segal and Zemmel. They sound nothing like the original name, and that's because they're acronyms in the Hebrew alphabet – a great way to hide your Jewish heritage while keeping true to the family identity. Segal stands for 'SeGan Leviyyah', which is roughly translated as 'deputy Levite', since Levites served as deputies to kohanim. Segal itself has variations too, like Chagall (French).
  28. ^ "Don Judah de la Cavalleria Ha Levi (Benveniste "Cavalier") (c. 1227 – 1286)". 2 February 2024.
  29. ^ "BENVENISTE". JewishEncyclopedia.com. Joseph ben Ephraim ha-Levi Benveniste
  30. ^ PBS Show Finding Your Roots broadcast February 2, 2016
  31. ^ "Chaim Herzog". The son of the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog
  32. ^ PBS Show Finding Your Roots broadcast January 26, 2016

Further reading