Priests and Ministers

By Michael Bernet, New York

Kohanim and levites

Questions are frequently posed about rabbinical dynasties and descent from Kohanim (priests in the Jerusalem Temple between ca 950 bce and 70 ce).

This is a somewhat complicate matter but can be of great importance when tracing one's ancestry, and understanding their professions.

The priests in the temple in Jerusalem were the Kohanim, descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, members of the tribe of Levi. The duties of the Kohanim were all connected with the Temple sacrifices and sacraments. The Kohanim did not sing in the Temple; that was the task of the Levites. The Kohanim did not teach (except train other Kohanim to follow the priestly rituals). Teaching, too, was the duty of the Levites. Some of the Levites also assisted the Kohanim in Temple tasks of a less-sacred nature than the sacrifices.

The rabbis of the last 2000 years are not priests but teachers. The word is from the Hebrew "Rabb-i"--my master (in the sense of revered teacher). Rabbis have absolutely no sacramental obligations; in Judaism, the entire prayer services, and all marriages, circumcisions, baby-naming, bar/bat mitzva, burial and so on can be conducted by a knowledgable lay person without the presence of, or permission from, a rabbi.

In the Sefardi community, rabbis are know as Chacham, "Sage." Among Chasidim the grand rabbis of each sect is known as "Admor," an acronym for "Our Master, our teacher."

The cantors, likewise, are simply skilled leaders in reading the Torah and leading the prayer services. There was no ordination for cantors until late in the 19th century. Most congregations today do not have full time cantors or ordained cantors, and many, many, have the prayers led by a knowledgable congregant, perhaps calling in a more experienced cantor or lay cantor for special occasions like a wedding or the High Holidays.

The Kohanim have had no sacramental duties since the year 0070, CE. Out of respect for their ancestry, they are given special honors of a minor nature, which are outweighed by two major restrictions:
they may not enter a cemetery or a house (including hospital) in which a death has taken place, and they may not marry a convert or a divorcee. The former is an important hindrance in what today are rabbinical duties and may account for the fact that not many rabbis are Kohanim.

Being a Kohen is an exlusively hereditary line, father to son. It is not transmitted through daughters, nor to wives or widows. Recent DNA research suggests that this line of descent has been relatively "pure" for the past 3000 years.

As both a Levite and a lay cantor, and professional teacher and spiritual healer (psychologist, OK?), I have often wondered if there is a genetic link between singing and teaching and Levitic ancestry.

Levitic descent is also transmitted directly to sons only and not wife or daughter. The DNA links are much weaker, which some scholars associate with the "recruting" of non-Levites at the time of the Second Temple, because not enough Levites had returnned from Babylonia.

Here is a way to help trace ancestry. Most Cohen, Kohn, Kahn families are Kohanim. So also are Katz, Kaplan, Kagan, Rappaport. Some of these names are sometimes followed by a suffix, eg Katzenfeld, Kaganovitch. These names are by no means absolute proof but a bearer of one of these names would more likely than not be a Kohen. And there are many other names by which a particular family of Kohanim may be known. There is no "H" in Russian and a "G" is substituted for it. Thus, the name Kahn, Kohen etc becomes Kagan in Russia. By chance, Kagan is a Russian word and means--"Priest."

A Kohen ancestor's grave would be inscribed with two outstretched hands, thunbs adjoining--a glyph that indicates their chief remaining task in some synagogues, raising their hands in blessing. In old Hebrew records their names would always be followed by "HaKohen," the priest

Kohen's grave
Levite's grave

Levites may be surnamed Levi, Levit, Levinsohn, Lewinsky, Levinstein and so on, and also Segal (but not Siegel). Loeven, Levinstein do present a problem; these names are equally likely to be derived from Levi or from Loew or Loeb, which would be Judah in Hebrew. Their tombstones are marked with a water pitcher-- for their sole symbolic role today of washing the hands of the Kohanim before these ascend to utter the priestly blessings. Their Hebrew name in Hebrew documents is always followed by HaLevi, the Levite.

(Just to confuse matters and make you aware of the difficulties, I know a rabbinic family from England, and later Israel, surnamed Cohen. They are actually Levites!)

Warning: Levi is also a first name, the name of one of the sons of Jacob. I don't think a Levite would ever give his son that name because of the confusion and you can safely bet that someone with the Hebrew personal name Levi is NOT a Levite.

In many parts of Ashkenazi Europe in the 18th century and earlier, Jews generally had no family names; a man tagged his father's name on to his own, so Joseph Jacob would be the name of Joseph who was the son of Jacob; he might well have named a son in honor of the grandfather and called him Jacob Joseph. If a man named Levi has a son Simon, he would in centuries past be named Simon Levi. So, beware of mistaking the paternal name Levi with the tribal name Levi. HaLevy, however, is an almost certain guarantee of Levitic ancestry.
Levi "jeans" Strauss, of Buttenbach, a neighbor and distant relative of my ancestors, was NOT a Levite-that was just his first name.


Elie Antebi, born in Damascus in 1878.
Rabbi in Paris beginning 20th century

The great teachers and spiritual leaders during the past 200 years have almost all been rabbis. They spend many years studying Jewish texts, commentaries and religious laws covering every aspect of life, overlain with twenty two centuries of exegesis. Traditionally when their studies have reached a high enouch level they then seek out a renowned rabbi who will examine their skills carefully before granting Smichut (ordination). It was a tradition for many centuries that rabbis, however exalted, also have regular jobs and sources of income, from Yochanan the Shoemaker to Rashi the winegrower and Rambam the physician.

Some rabbis were wealthy perhaps from their other trader, perhaps from the tribute of their congregants. Others chose to remain dirt-poor. Either way, a rabbinical scholar had a high social standing, wealthy leaders often arranged matches to give them a "rabbinic" son- or daughter-in-law. Rabbinic study was not available to the majority of impoversihed and unlettered villagers, so that a tendency developed for rabbis to teach their sons and encourage them to be rabbis in turn, which gives us the many rabbinic dynasties, intertwinings and lines. A lesser pattern developed, too, for the village teacher--who invariably was hired from another more learned village--who doubled also as cantor and shochet. Teachers, too, were often descended from many generations of teachers).

There is no easy way of tracing "teacher" ancestry unless the records say so specifically. No tombstone markers, though the fact that he was a teacher might be inscribed on the tombstone. The common Hebrew word for teacher is Melamed or Lamdan; Malamud would be a name to associate with a Hebrew teacher, as would Lehrer, the German (and Yiddish) for teacher. Moreh is also Hebrew for a teacher but was generally used for a grater "authority" than the impoverished village teacher.

There are a range of decorations that may appear on a rabbi's tombstone, but these are not necessarily reliable. Beware of the title "Reb" or even "Rabbi" (in Hebrew) on a tombstone or document; these titles are usually a matter of courtesy, much like "Mr." A true rabbi would be marked, in documents and on stones, by the Hebrew title HeRav (the Rabbi) or more likely "Moreynu heRav," or "HeRav Haga'on" and even longer concatenations of honorifics. There are various acronyms for these honorifics but it would take too much to list them all. There are some publications that list the meanings of abbreviations on tombstones and in documents, or you should ask someone truly knowledgeable to help you decipher these codes. The beauty of true traditional rabbinical lines is that once you're latched onto one there is likely to be a well documented list of ancestors going back, often for a thousand years or more, a sort of all-ladders, no chutes..

Remember, then, that the Kohanim were priests only and were not teachers or cantors and they can in no way be considered to be the ancestors of our modern-day rabbis and cantors.

The standard easily available book on Jewish names, their meanings and usage, is a paperback by Rabbi Benzion Kaganoff. It will answer many of the questions frequently asked here, by newbies and even the wisest of us. I suggest you read it well and consult it, if you want to know how people are named, why, and what it can tell you of their origin, trade, family history . .

[My only interest in Kaganoff's book is in having it constantly available on my desk].

Michael Bernet, New York

With the kind authorization of Michael Bernet


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