Levite: Wikis


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In Jewish tradition, a Levite (Hebrew: לֵוִי, Modern Levi Tiberian Lēwî ; "Attached") is a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi. When Joshua led the Israelites into the land of Canaan, the Levites were the only Israelite tribe that received cities but no tribal land "because the Lord the God of Israel himself is their inheritance".[1][2] The Tribe of Levi served particular religious duties for the Israelites and had political responsibilities as well. In return, the landed tribes were expected to give tithe to the Levites, particularly the tithe known as the Maaser Rishon or Levite Tithe. Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Levites enjoy very limited rights and responsibilities in modern Jewish practice, largely linked to synagogue Torah reading and the ritual of pidyon haben.

Moses and his brother, Aaron, were both Levites. The descendants of Aaron, who was the first kohen gadol, high priest, of Judaism, were designated as the priestly class, the kohanim. As such, kohanim comprise a family dynasty within the tribe of Levi. All kohanim are therefore Levites, but not all Levites are kohanim.


In the Bible

The tribe is named after Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob (also called Israel). Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Genesis  46:11).


Kohath's son Amram was the father of Miriam, Aaron and Moses. The descendants of Aaron: the Kohanim ("Priests"), had the special role as priests in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and also in the Temple in Jerusalem. The remaining Levites (Levi'yim in Hebrew), divided into three groups (the descendants of Gershon, or Gershonites, the descendants of Kohath, or Kohathites, and the descendants of Merari, or Merarites) each filled different roles in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple services.

Levites' principal roles in the Temple included singing Psalms during Temple services, performing construction and maintenance for the Temple, serving as guards, and performing other services. Levites also served as teachers and judges, maintaining cities of refuge in Biblical times. The Book of Ezra reports that the Levites were responsible for the construction of the Second Temple and also translated and explained the Torah when it was publicly read.

In Egypt the Levites were the only tribe that remained committed to God. During the Exodus the Levite tribe were particularly zealous in protecting the Mosaic law in the face of those worshipping the Golden Calf, which may have been a reason for their priestly status.[3]


In the Torah

In the Book of Numbers the Levites were charged with ministering to the Kohanim (priests) and keeping watch over the Tabernacle:

2 And with you bring your brother also, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, that they may join you and minister to you while you and your sons with you are before the tent of the testimony. 3 They shall keep guard over you and over the whole tent, but shall not come near to the vessels of the sanctuary or to the altar lest they, and you, die. 4 They shall join you and keep guard over the tent of meeting for all the service of the tent, and no outsider shall come near you. 5 And you shall keep guard over the sanctuary and over the altar, that there may never again be wrath on the people of Israel. 6 And behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to the Lord, to do the service of the tent of meeting. Numbers 18:2-4;6 (ESV)

In the Prophets

The Book of Jeremiah speaks of a covenant with the Kohanim (priests) and Levites, connecting it with the covenant with the seed of King David:

As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured; so will I multiply the seed of David My servant, and the Levites that minister unto Me.
And the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, saying:
'Considerest thou not what this people have spoken, saying: The two families which the LORD did choose, He hath cast them off? Jeremiah 33:22-24

The prophet Malachi also spoke of a covenant with Levi:

Know then that I have sent this commandment unto you, that My covenant might be with Levi, saith the LORD of hosts.
My covenant was with him of life and peace, and I gave them to him, and of fear, and he feared Me, and was afraid of My name.
The law of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and did turn many away from iniquity. Malachi 2:4-6

Malachi connected a purification of the "sons of Levi" with the coming of God's messenger:

Behold, I send My messenger, and he shall clear the way before Me; and the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to His temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in, behold, he cometh, saith the LORD of hosts.
But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap;
And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver; and there shall be they that shall offer unto the LORD offerings in righteousness. Malachi 3:1-3

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. They also do not participate in the Pidyon haben (redemption of the firstborn) ceremony, because they are traditionally pledged to Divine service. Conservative Judaism recognizes Levites as having special status, but 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.

Orthodox Judaism believes in the eventual rebuilding of a Temple in Jerusalem and a resumption of the Levitical role. A tiny minority of Orthodox Jews support schools, primarily in Israel, to train priests and Levites in their respective roles. Conservative Judaism 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.

Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism do not believe in a future Temple at all, or in a form of worship in which role is determined by ancestry. However, some Reform synagogues will refer to members who volunteer to help with services and other functions as "Levites." This is more of an honorific title and has no basis of lineage.

Bat Levi

A Bat Levi (daughter of a Levite) is recognized as having lineal sanctity in both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, stemming from her traditional eligibility to receive proceeds of the Levitical tithe (Maaser Rishon). In both Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism, children of a Bat Levi, regardless of her marital status or husband's tribe, retain the traditional exemption for their children from the requirement of being redeemed through the Pidyon HaBen ceremony because of this lineal sanctity.

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.[4]

Family name

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

  • Levi, Lévy - Hebrew for "Levite", equally common in Ashkenazic and Sephardic groups.
  • HaLevi, Halevi and Halevy are Hebrew language and all translate to "the Levi" or "the Levite."
  • Levin - a Russian variation, also Levine or Lavine (pronounced \le-°vēn\, rhyming with "ravine" or in some cases, anglicised as \lə-°vīn\ rhyming with "divine") and Lewin a Polish variation. Sometimes supplemented with German 'thal' (valley) to Levinthal or Leventhal and -sohn and -son to Levinson or Levinsohn as a patronymic, and with slavic -ski and -sky suffixes Levinski, Levinsky, Lewinski and Lewinsky (the 'e' often replaced with 'a' in German areas).
  • Lev a simplified Russian variation
  • Lewicki Polish "of the Levites", also Lewicka, Lewycka, Lewycki, Lewycky, Lewicky, Levicki, Levicky (can also originate from placenames in Poland).
  • 'Levit, also Levitt, typically from the Bessarabia region of Romania, Moldova and southern Ukraine.
  • Lewita Polish "Levite" or Levita Latinized, with Slavic suffix -an/in Lewitan, Levitan (the greatest family name of Levite origin), Levitin, Lewitin, Lewitinn, and with additional suffix -ski/sky Levitanski, Lewitanski, Levitansky, also Lewitas, Levitas, Belarusian.
  • Variants from yiddish "Leyvik", a pet form of Leyvi: Levitch Ukrainian variant, also Levicz, Levis, Levitz, Lewicz, Lewitz, Lewis, and with -ski and -sky suffixes Leviczky, Levitski, Levitsky, Lewitski and Lewitsky ('e' and 's' often replaced with 'a' and 'z' in German areas).
  • Loewy, Löwi, Löwy, and Loewe German or Swiss variations (although the usual origin for these names is Loewe, the German word for "lion").
  • Leevi - a Finnish variation.
  • "Leven"- a Swedish variation
  • Levian/Livian/Benlevi/Liviem - Persian-Jewish variations.

Having a last name of Levi or a related term does not necessarily mean a person is a Levite, and many Levites do not have such last names. Levitical status is passed down in families from parent to child, as part of a family's genealogical tradition. In traditional Judaism, tribal status is determined by patrilineal descent, so a child whose biological father is a Levite is a Levite (in cases of adoption or artificial insemination, status is determined by the genetic father). Because Jewish status is traditionally determined by matrilineal descent, conferring levitical status on children requires both biological parents to be Jews and the biological father to be a Levite.

Currently the only branches of Judaism which regard Jewish status as being conferrable by both parents have also abolished tribal statuses and distinctions, due to a view in both cases that egalitarian principles override halakha (traditional Jewish law). Accordingly, there is currently no branch of Judaism that regards levitical status as conferrable by matrilineal descent. It is either conferable patrilineally, in the traditional manner, or it does not exist and is not conferred at all.

In archaeology

Levites and priests may have been responsible for stamping the LMLK seals on Judean storage jars during the reign of Hezekiah (ca. 700 BCE). The associated personal seals on the same jars may have represented various courses of Levites overseeing the proper production of 10 percent for tithing in the same manner that modern authorities on kashruth (mashgihim) approve kosher food and wine (Grena, 2004, pp. 75–6).

In Biblical criticism

The parts of the Torah attributed by advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis to the Elohist, seem to treat Levite as a descriptive attribute for someone particularly suited to the priesthood, rather than as the designator of a tribe and feel that Moses and Aaron are being portrayed as part of the Joseph group rather than being part of a tribe called Levi[5]. The Levites are not mentioned by the Song of Deborah considered one of the oldest passages of the Bible. Jahwist passages have more ambiguous language; traditionally interpreted as referring to a person named Levi they could also be interpreted as just referring to a social position titled levi[6]. In the Blessing of Jacob (later than the Song of Deborah), Levi is treated as a tribe, cursing them to become scattered; critics regard this as an aetiological postdiction to explain how a tribe could be so scattered, the simpler solution being that the priesthood was originally open to any tribe, but gradually became seen as a distinct tribe to themselves[7][8]. In the Priestly Source and Blessing of Moses, which critical scholars view as originating centuries later, the Levites are firmly established as a tribe, and the only tribe with the right to be priests.

The Levite and the Holocaust

In 1938, with the outbreak of violence that would come to be known as Kristallnacht, American Orthodx rabbi Mnachem 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 הכהנים והלוים HaKohanim vHaLeviim(1940), 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."[9]

Notable descendants

Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Samuel, Ezekiel, Ezra, Malachi, John the Baptist

See also


  1. ^ Joshua 13:33, cited in  "Levites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Levites. 
  2. ^ Deuteronomy 18:2
  3. ^ From  "Levites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Levites.  quoting Exodus 32:25-32:29
  4. ^ Joel Roth, The Status of Daughters of Kohanim and Leviyim for Aliyot, Rabbinical Assembly
  5. ^ This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.
  6. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia
  7. ^ ibid
  8. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible
  9. ^ Gershon Greenberg, “Kristallnacht: The American Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Theology of Response,” in Maria Mazzenga (editor), American Religious Responses to Kristallnacht, Palgrave MacMillan:2009, pp158-172.


  • Grena, G.M. (2004). LMLK--A Mystery Belonging to the King vol. 1. Redondo Beach, California: 4000 Years of Writing History. ISBN 0-9748786-0-X. 

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

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Proper noun

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Levite (plural Levites)

  1. a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi

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From BibleWiki


—Biblical Data:

Of the Levites, Aaron and his sons were chosen for the priestly office (Ex. xxviii. 1 et seq.); the menial services of the Tabernacle were assigned to the rest of the tribe (Num. i. 47 et seq.). The Kohathites were to bear the sacred furniture of the Tabernacle; the Gershonites, its curtains; and the Merarites, its boards, pins, and poles (Num. iv. 4-16, 22-28, 29-33). It is distinctly stated that the Levites shall not approach the most holy things (Num. iv. 19)—that is, they shall not act as priests, a function which the context reserves for Aaron and his sons.

In Deuteronomy the representation is quite different; "priests" and "Levites" are there synonymousterms, and the one is regularly placed in apposition with the other. In Deut. xviii. 1, apparently, every Levite is a potential priest. In Joshua, as in Numbers, the Levites consist of the clans of Kohath, Gershon, and Merari, and to each clan a large number of cities is assigned (comp. Josh. xxi.; see Levi, Tribe of). The Levites, as the servants of the Temple, appear next in I Chronicles, where David is represented as dividing them into "courses" to wait on the sons of Aaron by doing the menial work of the Temple because they were no longer needed to carry the Tabernacle (comp. I Chron. xxiii., especially 26-28). He also appointed some to be doorkeepers of the Temple, some to have charge of its treasure, and some to be singers (I Chron. xxv.-xxvi.).

Ezekiel, however, gives a somewhat different impression of the personnel of the Temple service in pre-exilic times. In ch. xliv. 9-13 he declares that in future no uncircumcised foreigner shall enter the Temple, and that the Levites who have served at idolatrous shrines shall be deposed from the priesthood and perform the menial services of the sanctuary, such as keeping the gates and slaying the offerings. This seems to imply that before the Exile this service had been performed not by Levites, but by foreigners (an impression which Josh. ix. 23 deepens), and that those who were accounted Levites in this subordinate sense had formerly exercised a priesthood, of which Ezekiel did not approve.

After the Exile the Temple organization, as reflected in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, is the same as that portrayed in Chronicles. The plan of Ezekiel was not altogether carried out, for the Nethinim, who were descended from slaves whom David had given to the Temple (Ezra viii. 20), shared with the Levites the subordinate work of the sanctuary (Ezra vii. 24). In later times it would seem that the distinction between Levites and Nethinim gradually disappeared; present information on this point consists solely of the fact that the Nethinim were given genealogies along with the Levites (Ezra ii. 40 et seq.). At the beginning of the common era the Levites were an important class of religious officials (comp. Luke x. 32; John i. 19).

—Critical View:

The Biblical data thus present two inconsistent views. According to Leviticus, Numbers, the greater part of Joshua, and Chronicles, the priesthood was confined to the house of Aaron from the first, and the Levites existed as a menial class for the performance of the subordinate work of the sanctuary from the time of Moses. The portions of Leviticus, Numbers, and Joshua which contain this point of view are all from the P stratum of the Hexateuch—a post-exilic document, as the Graf-Wellhausen school believes. Chronicles, too, is a work written some time after the Exile.

Earlier Accounts.

In the older books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings the priestly offices are represented as not exclusively performed by Levites, who, however, were from the first preferred for these services and gradually monopolized them (see Levi, Tribe of). These services were not confined to any one sanctuary, but were performed in temples all over the land (comp. Judges xviii. 30). This condition of affairs apparently continued until Josiah, in 621 B.C., instituted a reform on the basis of the Deuteronomic law (II Kings xxiii.), when all sanctuaries except that at Jerusalem were abolished. This, left a large number of priests without a vocation, and they were consequently recommended to the charity of their brethren along with the widow, the fatherless, and the resident alien (Deut. xii. 18, 19; xiv. 27, 29; xvi. 11, 16). In this code every Levite is still regarded as a possible priest, however, and it is distinctly stipulated that if one of them goes to Jerusalem he shall have the same privileges in the exercise of the priestly office as are enjoyed by any other-Levite (Deut. xviii. 6-7). But the influence of the Jerusalem priesthood seems to have been so great that even Josiah could not enforce this provision, and the provincial priests were never accorded in fact the privileges in the Temple on Zion which Deuteronomy had granted them (comp. II Kings xxiii. 9). Ezekiel's plan for the reorganization of the Temple services proposed to utilize these men for the menial work of the sanctuary; this proposal was actually embodied in the legislation of P and became a part of the post-exilic religious organization.

After Josiah.

The view of the Graf-Wellhausen critical school is that last outlined—that the cleavage between priests and Levites was not begun until the time of Josiah, that it received a further impetus from Ezekiel, and that it became a real feature of the permanent religious organization after the return from Babylon. This view is strengthened by the fact that J in Josh. ix. 23 represents Joshua as presenting the foreign Gibeonites to the Temple as slaves, "hewers of wood and drawers of water," and that Ezekiel shows that foreigners continued to fill the menial offices down to the time of the Exile. Van Hoonacker ("Le Sacerdoce dans la Loi et dans l'Histoire des Hébreux," 1899) contends that Chronicles records pre-exilic conditions (comp. Baudissin in "Theologische Literaturzeitung," 1899, cols. 359-363). The picture of the Levites given in Leviticus, Numbers, the P portions of Joshua, and Chronicles is thought by others to be a projection by the writers of the institutions of their own times into the distant past.

Bibliography: Wellhausen, Prolegomena zur Gesch. Israels, 5th ed., 1899, ch. iv.; Baudissin, Die Gesch. des Alttestamentlichen Priestertumes, 1889; H. Vogelstein, Der Kampf Zwischen Priestern und Leviten seit den Tagen Ezechiels, 1889; Nowack, Hebräische Archäologie, 1894; Benzinger, Hebräische Archäologie.

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.
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