“Tribal” Affiliation: Kohanim and Leviim ¹

Since certain rabbinical families were Kohanim, others Leviim and Yisraelim, it is important to determine the “tribal” descent of alleged descendants.

In the technical Halakhic sense no person can be a Kohen unless his father was a Kohen.

Members of the ancient family of Rapaport were Kohanim. Similarly old rabbinical families such as Horowitz, Landau and Epstein were Leviim. Yet there are families which bear these names and are not Kohanim or Leviim.

There are several explanations for the situation where a supposedly Kohanic family name is carried by non-Kohanim.

1. Certain families, unrelated to the above "old" lines of these families, adopted the same surnames randomly when legislation required Jews to adopt surnames.

2. There was an actual relationship between the Kohanic and non-Kohanic families which arose when a son-in-law adopted the surname of his wife's family. This took place for several reasons, most frequently to avoid cruel military service in Tsarist Russia, or for taxation purposes. Even if these sons-in-law were not Kohanim or Leviim, in this particular situation, their subsequent descendants are in fact descended from the old families, although through a female line. This situation is documented in a number of rabbinical families.

It is really quite a problem for genealogists.

It is a situation which highlights the need for Jews to preserve knowledge of their families' Kohanic or Levitical descent, so that it not be forgotten with the passage of time.

Once one could depend on such information being recorded on tombstones. Indeed the absence or presence of Kohen or Levi designation on a tombstone often helped genealogists to clarify relationships. Now, unfortunately, some families have forgotten this aspect of their ancient descent and have failed to record it on their tombstones.

Chaim Freedman
Petah Tikva, Israel


1. Excerpted from: Freedman, Chaim. Beit Rabbanan: Sources of Rabbinic Genealogy. Petah Tikva, Israel: self-published, 2001. Used with permission. (return)

4Editor's note: For further information, see "The Oldest Jewish Dynasty: A 3400-Year Line of Descendants.