In the Hebrew year 2365, corresponding to 1396 BCE,(F1) there was born in Egypt to Amram and Yochebed, a son, Aaron.(F2) His older sister was Miriam, and a brother (born later) was Moses. After the Exodus from Egypt, God instructed Moses to build the Tabernacle (a portable Temple in the desert of Sinai), and to "advance his brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to ordain them, and consecrate them to serve Him as priests. It shall be a law for him and for his offspring for all time to come."(F3) Thus Aaron became the High Priest (Kohen Gadol), and throughout Jewish history his lineal male descendants were priests (Kohanim).
As long as the First and Second Temple existed, the priests were serving, offering sacrifices to God, and blessing the people on Holidays. One of them, from Aaron down through generations, was a hereditary High Priest. He was the only one who could enter the Holy of Holies (Inner Sanctum) in the Temple on Yom Kippur "to make atonement for his own House and for the people Israel." The Kohanim were subject to special laws designed to keep them pure and conforming to the high level of their position. The High Priest was anointed like a king at his coronation.
Their dynasty supplied a long succession of High Priests and other priests for many generations. Until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE there were 82 High Priests. (I saw in the UCLA Research Library a Hebrew book which had their names and some history. Alas, I did not at the time note its title or number). There are genealogical lists of High Priests in Ezra 7:1-5, and in I Chronicles 5:18-41 and 6:35-38. The Encyclopaedia Judaica Index (1:506) has a list of some 66 names of High Priests mentioned in several volumes. Some of the High Priests exercised a power and influence in political and social matters as great as that of the King.
The Kohanim were a priestly caste separated from the rest of the people by their religious role and by the "laws of purity" they had to observe. They were also guardians of ritualistic purity in clothing, in body, in food and drink, and in moral conduct. The Priestly Code required the priest to have no physical deformity and to be of irreproachable moral character. He could not marry a convert, a divorcee, a "harlot", a woman born to a Kohen by a woman he was forbidden to marry, or even remarry his own divorced wife. There is a dispute whether he can marry a daughter of a convert. He could not touch a corpse, or even have physical contact with anyone who had done so. Even entering a cemetery defiled him. It is his duty to defile himself only for his close relatives.(F4)
The sacrificial function of the High Priest and the hierarchy lasted until the Destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. After that, Rabbinic Laws declared that even though the Temple in Jerusalem was a ruin and the priests could not minister there, their direct male descendants, down to the end of time, must maintain the same purity. They must preserve their pedigree unstained. For, when the Messiah arrives with the Redemption, and raises a New Temple on Mount Zion, they -- the descendants of the Kohanim -- are expected to be morally and spiritually worthy and ready to assume the priestly roles that their forefathers were forced to drop centuries before.(F5)
To this day, in all the synagogues in the world, only those Jewish males who are Kohanim are privileged to recite the Priestly Blessing of the people while standing before the Ark of the Torah.
The original name "Kohen" has been used in various versions, spellings and languages. Thus we find Cohen, Cohn, Cahan, Kahane, Kahn, Kagan, Kogen, Kaganovitch (in Russian), Kaplan (Polish), Sacerdote (in Italian), Koyen (Yiddish), and Kohanski (Hebrew-Polish). A special case is Katz, often (but not always) an abbreviation of Kohen-Tzedek ("righteous priest").
Now we have news of a surprising development in genetics. Dr. Karl Skorecki, a researcher at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and his colleagues in England and the U.S., applied the techniques of modern biology to members of the Kohanim. Priestly status has been passed down through the ages from fathers to sons through word of mouth. To this day, all the Kohanim are considered descendants of Aaron, not just figuratively, but by blood. But not anyone with one of the various forms of the name Kohen is necessarily one of the priestly Kohanim. Until this study there has been no known genetic tie linking the Kohanim. Dr. Skorecki and his fellow researchers compared 68 Kohanim(F6) and 120 non-priestly Jews. They examined certain portions of the Y chromosome, which belongs only to men, and is passed strictly from fathers to sons. The researchers reported in the journal Lancet that the men who have been told that they were Kohanim shared certain distinctive genetic traits, indicating that they represent a single line tracing back to one male forbear, perhaps even to Aaron.
The scientists' original intention was to find out whether there was physical evidence that would support the traditional explanation of the Kohanim lineage. The test they developed cannot in its present form pick out individual Kohanim. Nevertheless, this possibility exists. And now many Jewish men, some named Cohen and some not, wanted to know whether they had a rightful place among the Kohanim. It is an emotionally charged search. The last couple of generations, many people have lost touch with their religious sources. Now they hear that they are of this lineage, but it's not part of their life. They want to know if they really are Kohanim.
Although there are no genetic tests now to help trace one's lineage, researchers said that judging from the response to the findings on the priesthood, people would line up for any such test that did become available. Those who were most interested in the genetic test were the ones who had lost track of their cultural heritage. They want to find out what their roots are. Many Kohanim are in doubt about whether they are really Kohanim. Some rabbis point out that the study not only confirms the genetic links among the Kohanim, it also validates the reliability of the word-of-mouth, father-to-son transmission of the priesthood. "It confirms that the Jewish people have for 3400 years maintained their authenticity and familial integrity." (F7)
The Jewish Time-Line Encyclopedia, Mattes Kantor, Northvale, NJ;
London, 1989. (return)
Editor's footnote: For further information on genetics and Jewish genealogy, see the Links - Genetics section.
David Einsiedler has devoted his retirement years to rabbinic genealogical research and is a member of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. He is a native of pre-war Poland and lives in Reseda, California. This article was originally published in the Spring 1997 edition of Roots-Key: Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles, and is reprinted with kind permission.