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Levites are the descendants of the Tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Levites are integrated in Jewish and Samaritan communities, but keep a distinct status. There are estimated 300,000 Levites among Ashkenazi Jewish communities. Total percentage of Levites among Jews is about 4%.
Levites (or Levi) (//, Hebrew: לְוִיִּם Lēvīyyīm) are Jewish males who claim patrilineal descent from the Tribe of Levi. 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 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).
In modern times, Levites are integrated in Jewish communities, but keep a distinct status. There are estimated 300,000 Levites among Ashkenazi Jewish communities, and a similar number among Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews combined. The total percentage of Levites among the wider Jewish population is about 4%.
In a 2020 study by Polish historian Łukasz Niesiołowski-Spanò, the Levites were linguistically identified with the Greek term *la-wo (in later Greek laoi) - "the people" or "armed men". Niesiołowski-Spanò concluded that the Levites were a group of Mycenaean Greek mercenaries who managed to settle down in Canaan and integrate with the local population, preserving their own group name.
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.
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. There are a small number of schools, primarily in Israel, to train priests and Levites in their respective roles.
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 practiced, 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 the distinctions between Kohanim, Levites, and other Jews.
The Kohanim are traditionally believed and halachically required to be of direct patrilineal descent from the biblical Aaron of the Levi tribe. The origins of the name/term Levy in Hebrew is not clear. Some hypothesis links this name with Hebrew root lwh, Aramaic root lwy, or 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, 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. ("A first-born son washes the Kohen's hands if there is no Levite".)
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.
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. In Israel, Conservative/Masorti Judaism has not extended Torah honors to either a bat Kohen or a bat Levi.
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, 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."
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 Sephardi 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. Haplogroup R1a1a is found at the highest levels among people of Eastern European descent, with 50 to 65% among Sorbs, Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians. 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 tribe in Sindh province in Pakistan. Behar suggested a founding event, probably involving one or very few European men, occurring at a time close to the initial formation and settlement of the Ashkenazi community as a possible explanation. 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."
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 origin:
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.
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.
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.
Levitical status is passed down in families from father 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 conferable by matrilineal descent. It is either conferable patrilineally with a Jewish mother, in the traditional manner, or it does not exist and is not conferred at all.
Some Levites have adopted a related last name to signify their status. Because of diverse geographical locations, the names have several variations:
The following are some Levites with non-Levite-like last names in modern times:
^ Levites comprise a subgroup of about 4% of world Jewry. Combined with Kohanim, who are also Levites, the subgroup forms roughly 8% of the Jewish population worldwide, 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.
Synonyms for Levite ... noun a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi .. the branch that provided male assistants to ...
tractate Arachin (11a) that oral music was never to be uttered by anyone other than a Levite
In preparation for Duchaning, the Kohen has his hands washed by a Levi
The son of a Levi's daughter does not have a pidyon haben
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 ...
The Temple Institute, dedicated to reestablishing the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, announces school for training Kohanim. ... on the Temple service
Joseph ben Ephraim ha-Levi Benveniste
The son of the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog