Levites: 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

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

LEVITES, or sons of Levi (son of Jacob by Leah), a sacred caste in ancient Israel, the guardians of the temple service at Jerusalem.' 1. Place Ritual. - In the developed hierarchical system the ministers of the sanctuary are divided into distinct grades. All are "Levites" by descent, and are thus correlated in the genealogical and other lists, but the true priesthood is confined to the sons of Aaron, while the mass of the Levites are subordinate servants who are not entitled to approach the altar or to perform any strictly priestly function. All access to the Deity is restricted to the one priesthood and to the one sanctuary at Jerusalem; the worshipping subject is the nation of Israel as a unity, and the function of worship is discharged on its behalf by divinely chosen priests. The ordinary individual may not intrude under penalty of death; only those of Levitical origin may perform service, and they are essentially the servants and hereditary serfs of the Aaronite priests (see Num. xviii.). But such a scheme finds no place in the monarchy; it presupposes a hierocracy under which the priesthood increased its rights by claiming the privileges which past kings had enjoyed; it is the outcome of a complicated development in Old Testament religion in the light of which it is to be followed (see Hebrew Religion).

First (a), in the earlier biblical writings which describe the state of affairs under the Hebrew monarchy there is not this fundamental distinction among the Levites, and, although a list of Aaronite high-priests is preserved in a late source, internal details and the evidence of the historical books render its value extremely doubtful (1 Chron. vi. 31 5, 49-53). In Jerusalem itself the subordinate officers of the temple were not members of a holy gild, but of the royal body-guard, or bond-slaves who had access to the sacred courts, and might even be uncircumcised foreigners (Josh. ix. 27; I Kings xiv. 28; 2 Kings xi.; cf. Zeph. i. 8 seq.; Zech. xiv. 21). Moreover, ordinary individuals might serve as priests (I Sam. ii. 11, 18, vii. I; see 2 Sam. viii. 18, deliberately altered in 1 Chron. xviii. 17); however, every Levite was a priest, or at least qualified to become one (Deut. x. 8, xviii. 7; Judges xvii. 5-13), and when the author of 1 Kings xii. 31, wishes to represent Jeroboam's priests as illegitimate, he does not say that they were not Aaronites, but that they were not of the sons of Levi.

The next stage (b) is connected with the suppression of the local high-places or minor shrines in favour of a central sanctuary. This involved the suppression of the Levitical priests in the country (cf. perhaps the allusion in Deut. xxi. 5); and the present book of Deuteronomy, in promulgating the reform, represents the Levites as poor scattered "sojourners" and recommends them to the charity of the people (Deut. xii. 12, 18 seq., xiv. 27, 29, xvi. 11, 14, xxvi. II sqq.). However, they are permitted to congregate at "the place which Yahweh shall choose," where they may perform the usual priestly duties together with their brethren who "stand there before Yahweh," and they are ' For the derivation of "Levi" see below § 4 end.

allowed their share of the offerings (Deut. xviii. 6-8)2 The Deuteronomic history of the monarchy actually ascribes to the Judaean king Josiah (621 B.C.) the suppression of the high-places, and states that the local priests were brought to Jerusalem and received support, but did not minister at the altar (2 Kings xxiii. 9). Finally, a scheme of ritual for the second temple raises this exclusion to the rank of a principle. The Levites who had been idolatrous are punished by exclusion from the proper priestly work, and take the subordinate offices which the uncircumcised and polluted foreigners had formerly filled, while the sons of Zadok, who had remained faithful, are henceforth the legitimate priests, the only descendants of Levi who are allowed to minister unto Yahweh (Ezek. xliv. 6-15, cf. xl. 46, xliii. 19, xlviii. I I). "A threefold cord is not quickly broken," and these three independent witnesses agree in describing a significant innovation which ends with the supremacy of the Zadokites of Jerusalem over their brethren.

In the last stage (c) the exclusion of the ordinary Levites from all share in the priesthood of the sons of Aaron is looked upon as a matter of course, dating from the institution of priestly worship by Moses. The two classes are supposed to have been founded separately (Exod. xxviii., cf. xxix. 9; Num. iii. 6-10), and so far from any degradation being attached to the rank and file of the Levites, their position is naturally an honourable one compared with that of the mass of non-Levitical worshippers (see Num. i. 50-53), and they are taken by Yahweh as a surrogate for the male first-born of Israel (iii. 11-13). They are inferior only to the Aaronites to whom they are "joined" (xviii. 2, a play on the name Levi) as assistants. Various adjustments and modifications still continue, and a number of scattered details may indicate that internal rivalries made themselves felt. But the different steps can hardly be recovered clearly, although the fact that the priesthood was extended beyond the Zadokites to families of the dispossessed priests points to some compromise (1 Chron. xxiv.). Further, it is subsequently found that certain classes of temple servants, the singers and porters, who had once been outside the Levitical gilds, became absorbed as the term "Levite" was widened, and this change is formally expressed by the genealogies which ascribe to Levi, the common "ancestor" of them all, the singers and even certain families whose heathenish and foreign names show that they were once merely servants of the temple.3 2. Significance of the Development. - Although the legal basis for the final stage is found in the legislation of the time of Moses (latter part of the second millennium B.C.), it is in reality scarcely earlier than the 5th century B.C., and the Jewish theory finds analogies when developments of the Levitical service are referred to David (I Chron. xv. seq., xxiii. sqq.), Hezekiah (2 Chron. xxix.) and Josiah (xxxv.) - contrast the history in the earlier books of Samuel and Kings - or when the still later book of Jubilees (xxxii.) places the rise of the Levitical priesthood in the patriarchal period. The traditional theory of the Mosaic origin of the elaborate Levitical legislation cannot be maintained save by the most arbitrary and inconsequential treatment of the evidence and by an entire indifference to the historical spirit; and, although numerous points of detail still remain very obscure, the three leading stages in the Levitical institutions are now recognized by nearly all independent scholars. These stages with a number of concomitant features confirm the literary hypothesis that biblical history is in the main due to two leading recensions, the Deuteronomic and the Priestly (cf. [b] and [c] above), which have incorporated older sources.' If the hierarchical system as 2 The words "beside that which cometh of the sale of his patrimony" (lit. "his sellings according to the fathers") are obscure; they seem to imply some additional source of income which the Levite enjoys at the central sanctuary.

For the nethinim ("` given") and "children of the slaves of Solomon" (whose hereditary service would give them a pre-eminence over the temple slaves), see art. Nethinim, and Benzinger, Ency. Bib. cols. 3397 sqq.

4 In defence of the traditional view, see S. I. Curtiss, The Levitical Priests (1877), with which his later attitude should be contrasted (see Primitive Semitic Religion To-day, pp. 14, 50, 133 seq., 171, 238 sqq., 241 sqq.); W. L. Baxter, Sanctuary and Sacrifice (2895)' it existed in the post-exilic age was really the work of Moses, it is inexplicable that all trace of it was so completely lost that the degradation of the non-Zadokites in Ezekiel was a new feature and a punishment, whereas in the Mosaic law the ordinary Levites, on the traditional view, was already forbidden priestly rights under penalty of death. There is in fact no clear evidence of the existence of a distinction between priests and Levites in any Hebrew writing demonstrably earlier than the Deuteronomic stage, although, even as the Pentateuch contains ordinances which have been carried back by means of a "legal convention" to the days of Moses, writers have occasionally altered earlier records of the history to agree with later standpoints.' No argument in support of the traditional theory can be drawn from the account of Korah's revolt (Num. xvi. sqq., see § 3) or from the Levitical cities (Num. xxxv.; Josh. xxi.). Some of the latter were either not conquered by the Israelites until long after the invasion, or, if conquered, were not held by Levites; and names are wanting of places in which priests are actually known to have lived. Certainly the names are largely identical with ancient holy cities, which, however, are holy because they possessed noted shrines, not because the inhabitants were members of a holy tribe. Gezer and Taanach, for example, are said to have remained in the hands of Canaanites (Judges i. 27, 29; cf. i Kings ix. 16), and recent excavation has shown how far the cultus of these cities was removed from Mosaic religion and ritual and how long the grosser elements persisted.' On the other hand, the sanctuaries obviously had always their local ministers, all of whom in time could be called Levitical, and it is only in this sense, not in that of the late priestly legislation, that a place like Shechem could ever have been included. Further, instead of holding cities and pasture-grounds, the Levites are sometimes described as scattered and divided (Gen. xlix. 7; Deut. xviii. 6), and though they may naturally possess property as private individuals, they alone of all the tribes of Israel possess no tribal inheritance (Num. xviii. 23, xxvi. 62; Deut. x. 9; Josh. xiv. 3). This fluctuation finds a parallel in the age at which the Levites were to serve; for neither has any reasonable explanation been found on the traditional view. Num. iv. 3 fixes the age at thirty, although in i. 3 it has been reduced to twenty; but in i Chron. xxiii. 3, David is said to have numbered them from the higher limit, whereas in vv. 24, 27 the lower figure is given on the authority of "the last words (or acts) of David." In Num. viii. 23-26, the age is given as twenty-five, but twenty became usual and recurs in Ezra iii. 8 and 2 Chron. xxxi. 17. There are, however, independent grounds for believing that i Chron. xxiii. 24, 27, 2 Chron. xxxi. 17 belong to later insertions and that Ezr. iii. 8 is relatively late.

When, in accordance with the usual methods of Hebrew genealogical history, the Levites are defined as the descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob by Leah (Gen. xxix. 3 4), a literal interpretation is unnecessary, and the only narrative wherein Levi appears as a person evidently delineates under the form of personification events in the history of the Levites (Gen. xxxiv.). 3 They take their place in Israel as the tribe set apart for sacred duties, and without entering into the large question how far the tribal schemes can be used for the earlier history A. van Hoonacker, Le Sacerdote levitique (1899); and J. Orr, Problem of the O.T. (1905). These and other apologetic writings have so far failed to produce any adequate alternative hypothesis, and while they argue for the traditional theory, later revision not being excluded, the modern critical view accepts late dates for the literary sources in their present form, and explicitly recognizes the presence of much that is ancient. Note the curious old tradition that Ezra wrote out the law which had been burnt (2 Esdr. xiv. 21 sqq.).

1 For example, in 1 Kings viii. 4, there are many indications that the context has undergone considerable editing at a fairly late date. The Septuagint translators did not read the clause which speaks of "priests and Levites," and 2 Chron. v. 5 reads "the Levite priests," the phrase characteristic of the Deuteronomic identification of priestly and Levitical ministry. r Sam. vi. 15, too, brings in the Levites, but the verse breaks the connexion between 14 and 16. For the present disorder in the text of 2 Sam. xv. 24, see the commentaries.

I See Father H. Vincent, O.P., Canaan d'apres l'exploration re'cente (1907), pp. 151, 200 sqq., 463 sq.

' So Gen. xxxiv. 7, Hamor has wrought folly "in Israel" (cf. Judges xx. 6 and often), and in v. 30 "Jacob" is not a personal but a collective idea, for he says, "I am a few men," and the capture and destruction of a considerable city is in the nature of things the work of more than two individuals. In the allusion to Levi and Simeon in Gen. xlix. the two are spoken of as "brothers" with a communal assembly. See, for other examples of personification, Genealogy: Biblical. of Israel, it may be observed that no adequate interpretation has yet been found of the ethnological traditions of Levi and other sons of Leah in their historical relation to one another or to the other tribes. However intelligible may be the notion of a tribe reserved for priestly service, the fact that it does not apply to early biblical history is apparent from the heterogeneous details of the Levitical divisions. The incorporation of singers and porters is indeed a late process, but it is typical of the tendency to co-ordinate all the religious classes (see Genealogy: Biblical). The genealogies in their complete form pay little heed to Moses, although Aaron and Moses could typify the priesthood and other Levites generally (i Chron. xxiii. 14). Certain priesthoods in the first stage (§ 1 [a]) claimed descent from these prototypes, and it is interesting to observe (1) the growing importance of Aaron in the later sources of "the Exodus," and (2) the relation between Mosheh (Moses) and his two sons Gershom and Eliezer, on the one side, and the Levitical names Mushi (i.e. the Mosaite), Gershon and the Aaronite priest Eleazar, on the other. There are links, also, which unite Moses with Kenite, Rechabite, Calebite and Edomite families, and the Levitical names themselves are equally connected with the southern tribes - of Judah and Simeon and with the Edomites.4 It is to be inferred, therefore, that some relationship subsisted, or was thought to subsist, among (i) the Levites, (2) clans actually located in the south of Palestine, and (3) families whose names and traditions point to a southern origin. The exact meaning of these features is not clear, but if it be remembered (a) that the Levites of post-exilic literature represent only the result of a long and intricate development, (b) that the name "Levite," in the later stages at least, was extended to include all priestly servants, and (c) that the priesthoods, in tending to become hereditary, included priests who were Levites by adoption and not by descent, it will be recognized that the examination of the evidence for the earlier stages cannot confine itself to those narratives where the specific term alone occurs.

3. The Traditions of the Levites

In the "Blessing of Moses" (Deut. xxxiii. 8-11), Levi is a collective name for the priesthood, probably that of (north) Israel. He is the guardian of the sacred oracles, knowing no kin, and enjoying his privileges for proofs of fidelity at Massah and Meribah. That these places (in the district of Kadesh) were traditionally associated with the origin of the Levites is suggested by various Levitical stories, although it is in a narrative now in a context pointing to Horeb or Sinai that the Levites are Israelites who for some cause (now lost) severed themselves from their people and took up a stand on behalf of Yahweh (Exod. xxxii.). Other evidence allows us to link together the Kenites, Calebites and Danites in a tradition of some movement into Palestine, evidently quite distinct from the great invasion of Israelite tribes which predominates in the existing records. The priesthood of Dan certainly traced its origin to Moses (Judges xvii. 9, xviii. 30); that of Shiloh claimed an equally high ancestry (r Sam. ii. 27 seq.).5 Some tradition of a widespread movement appears to be ascribed to the age of Jehu, whose accession, promoted by the prophet Elisha, marks the end of the conflict between Yahweh and Baal. To a Rechabite (the clan is allied to the Kenites) is definitely ascribed a hand in Jehu's sanguinary measures, and, though little is told of the obviously momentous events, one writer clearly alludes to a bloody period when reforms were to be effected by the sword (1 Kings xix. 17). Similarly the story of the original selection of the Levites in the wilderness mentions an uncompromising massacre of idolaters. Consequently, it is very noteworthy that popular tradition preserves the recollection of some attack by the "brothers" Levi and Simeon 4 See E. Meyer, Israeliten u. ihre Nachbarstamme, pp. 2 99 sqq. (passim); S. A. Cook, Ency. Bib. col. 1665 seq.; Crit. Notes on 0.T. History, pp. 84 sqq., 122-125.

5 The second element of the name Abiathar is connected with Jether or Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, and even Ichabod (1 Sam. iv. 21) seems to be an intentional reshaping of Jochebed, which is elsewhere the name of the mother of Moses. Phinehas, Eli's son, becomes in later writings the name of a prominent Aaronite priest in the days of the exodus from Egypt.

upon the famous holy city of Shechem to avenge their "sister" Dinah (Gen. xxxiv.), and that a detailed narrative tells of the bloodthirsty though pious Danites who sacked an Ephrairriite shrine on their journey to a new home (Judges xvii. sq.).

The older records utilized by the Deuteronomic and later compilers indicate some common tradition which has found expression in these varying forms. Different religious standpoints are represented in the biblical writings, and it is now important to observe that the prophecies of Hosea unmistakably show another attitude to the Israelite priesthood. The condemnation of Jehu's bloodshed (Hos.

i. 4) gives another view of events in which both Elijah and Elisha were concerned, and the change is more vividly realized when it is found that even to Moses and Aaron, the traditional founders of Israelite religion and ritual, is ascribed an offence whereby they incurred Yahweh's wrath (Num. xx. 12, 24, xxvii. 14; Deut. ix. 20, xxxii. 51). The sanctuaries of Shiloh and Dan lasted until the deportation of Israel (Judges xviii. 30 seq.), and some of their history is still preserved in the account of the late premonarchical age (12th-I Ith centuries B.C.). Shiloh's priestly gild is condemned for its iniquity (I Sam. iii. 11-14), the sanctuary mysteriously disappears, and the priests are subsequently found at Nob outside Jerusalem (I Sam. xxi. seq.). All idea of historical perspective has been lost, since the fall of Shiloh was apparently a recent event at the close of the 7th century (Jer. vii. 12-15, xxvi. 6-9). But the tendency to ascribe the disasters of northern Israel to the priesthood (see esp. Hosea) takes another form when an inserted prophecy revokes the privileges of the ancient and honourable family, foretells its overthrow, and announces the rise of a new faithful and everlasting priesthood, at whose hands the dispossessed survivors, reduced to poverty, would beg some priestly office to secure a livelihood (i Sam.

ii. 27-36). The sequel to this phase is placed in the reign of Solomon, when David's old priest Abiathar, sole survivor of the priests of Shiloh, is expelled to Anathoth (near Jerusalem), and Zadok becomes the first chief priest contemporary with the foundation of the first temple (1 Kings ii. 27, 35). These situations cannot be severed from what is known elsewhere of the Deuteronomic teaching, of the reform ascribed to Josiah, or of the principle inculcated by Ezekiel (see § r [b]). The late specific tendency in favour of Jerusalem agrees with the Deuteronomic editor of Kings who condemns the sanctuaries of Dan and Bethel for -, calf-worship (1 Kings xii. 28-31), and does not acknowledge the northern priesthood to be Levitical (I Kings xii. 31, note the interpretation in 2 Chron. xi. 14, xiii. 9). It is from a similar standpoint that Aaron is condemned for the manufacture of the golden calf, and a compiler (not the original writer) finds its sequel in the election of the faithful Levites.' In the third great stage there is another change in the tone. The present (priestly) recension of Gen. xxxiv. has practically justified Levi and Simeon from its standpoint of opposition to intermarriage, and in spite of Jacob's curse (Gen. xlix. 5-7) later traditions continue to extol the slaughter of the Shechemites as a pious duty. Post-exilic revision has also hopelessly obscured the offence of Moses and Aaron, although there was already a tendency to place the blame upon the people (Deut. 1. 37, iii. 26, iv. 21). When two-thirds of the priestly families are said to be Zadokites and one-third are of the families of Abiathar, some reconciliation, some adjustment of rivalries, is to be recognized (1 Chron. xxiv.). Again, in the composite story of Korah's revolt, one version reflects a contest between Aaronites and the other Levites who claimed the priesthood (Num. xvi. 8-1r, 36-40), while another shows the supremacy of the Levites as a caste either over the rest of the people (? cf. the prayer, Deut. xxxiii. 11), or, since the latter are under the leadership of Korah, later the eponym of a gild of singers, perhaps over the more subordinate ministers who once formed a separate class. 2 In the composite work Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah (dating after the post-exilic Levitical legislation) a peculiar interest is taken in the Levites, more particularly in the singers, and certain passages even reveal With this development in Israelite religion, observe that Judaean cult included the worship of a brazen serpent, the institution of which was ascribed to Moses, and that, according to the compiler of Kings, Hezekiah was the first to destroy it when he suppressed idolatrous worship in Judah (2 Kings xviii. 4). It may be added that the faithful Kenites (found in N. Palestine, Judges iv. II) appear in another light when threatened with captivity by Asshur (Num. xxiv. 22; cf. fall of Dan and Shiloh), and if their eponym is Cain, the story of Cain and Abel serves, amid a variety of purposes, to condemn the murder of the settled agriculturist by the nomad, but curiously allows that any retaliation upon Cain shall be avenged (see below, note 5).

2 The name Korah itself is elsewhere Edomite (Gen. xxxvi. 5, 14, 18) and Calebite (1 Chron. ii. 43). See Ency. Bib., s.v. some animus against the Aaronites (2 Chron. xxix. 34, xxx. 3). A Levite probably had a hand in the work, and this, with the evidence for the Levitical Psalms (see Psalms), gives the caste an interesting place in the study of the transmission of the biblical records. 3 But the history of the Levites in the early post-exilic stage and onwards is a separate problem, and the work of criticism has not advanced sufficiently for a proper estimate of the various vicissitudes. However, the feeling which was aroused among the priests when some centuries later the singers obtained from Agrippa the privilege of wearing the priestly linen dress (Josephus, Ant. xx. 9.6), at least enables one to appreciate more vividly the scantier hints of internal jealousies during the preceding years.' 4. Summary. - From the inevitable conclusion that there are three stages in the written sources for the Levitical institutions, the next step is the correlation of allied traditions on the basis of the genealogical evidence. But the problem of fitting these into the history of Israel still remains The assumption that the earlier sources for the pre-monarchical history, as incorporated by late compilers, are necessarily trustworthy confuses the inquiry (on Gen. xxxiv., see Simeon), and even the probability of a reforming spirit in Jehu's age depends upon the internal criticism of the related records (see Jews, §§ 11-14). The view that the Levites came from the south may be combined with the conviction that there Yahweh had his seat (cf. Deut. xxxiii. 2; Judges v. 4; Hab. iii. 3), but the latter is only one view, and the traditions of the patriarchs point to another belief (cf. also Gen. iv. 26). The two are reconciled when the God of the patriarchs reveals His name for the first time unto Moses (Exod.

iii. 15, vi. 3). With these variations is involved the problem of the early history of the Israelites. 5 Moreover, the real Judaean tendency which associates the fall of Eli's priesthood at Shiloh with the rise of the Zadokites involves the literary problems of Deuteronomy, a composite work whose age is not certainly known, and of the twofold Deuteronomic redaction elsewhere, one phase of which is more distinctly Judaean and anti-Samaritan. There are vicissitudes and varying standpoints which point to a complicated literary history and require some historical background, and, apart from actual changes in the history of the Levites, some allowance must be made for the real character of the circles where the diverse records originated or through which they passed. The key must be sought in the exilic and post-exilic age where, unfortunately, direct and decisive evidence is lacking. It is clear that the Zadokite priests were rendered legitimate by finding a place for their ancestor in the Levitical genealogies - through Phinehas (cf. Num. xxv. i 2 seq.), and Aaron - there was a feeling that a legitimate priest must be an Aaronite, but the historical reason for this is uncertain (see R. H. Kennett, Journ. Theolog. Stud., 1905, pp. 161 sqq.). Hence, it is impossible at present to trace the earlier steps which led to the grand hierarchy of post-exilic Judaism. Even the name Levite itself is of uncertain origin. Though popularly connected with lavah, " be joined, attached," an ethnic from Leah has found some favour; the Assyrian li'u "powerful, wise," has also been suggested. The term has been more plausibly identified with l-v-' (fern. l-v-'-t), the narhe given in old Arabian inscriptions (e.g. at al-`01ä, south-east of Elath) to the priests and priestesses of the Arabian god Vadd (so especially Hommel, Anc. Heb. Trad., pp. 278 seq.). The date of the evidence, however, has not been fixed with unanimity, and this very The musical service of the temple has no place in the Pentateuch, but was considerably developed under the second temple and attracted the special attention of Greek observers (Theophrastus, apud Porphyry, de Abstin. ii. 26); see on this subject, R. Kittel's Handkommentar on Chronicles, pp. 90 sqq.

4 Even the tithes enjoyed by the Levites (Num. xviii. 21 seq.) were finally transferred to the priests (so in the Talmud: see Yebamoth, fol. 86a, Carpzov, App. ad Godw. p. 624; Hottinger, De Dec. vi. 8, ix. 17).

For some suggestive remarks on the relation between nomadism and the Levites, and their influence upon Israelite religion and literary tradition, see E. Meyer, Die Israeliten u. ihre Nachbarstamme (2906), pp. 82-89, 138; on the problems of early Israelite history, see SIMEON (end), JEWS, §§ 5, 8, and PALESTINE, History. attractive and suggestive view requires confirmation and independent support. Authorities. - For the argument in § i, see Wellhausen, Prolegomena, pp. 121-151; W. R. Smith, Old Test. in Jew. Church (2nd ed., Index, s.v. "Levites"); A. Kuenen, Hexateuch, §§ 3 n. 16; II, pp. 203 sqq.; 15 n. 15 (more technical); also the larger commentaries on Exodus-Joshua and the ordinary critical works on Old Testament literature. In § i and part of § 2 use has been freely made of W. R. Smith's article "Levites" in the 9th edition of the Ency. Brit. (see the revision by A. Bertholet, Ency. Bib. col. 2770 sqq.). For the history of the Levites in the post-exilic and later ages, see the commentaries on Numbers (by G. B. Gray) and Chronicles (E. L. Curtis), and especially H. Vogelstein, Der Kampf zwischen Priestern u. Leviten seit den Tagen Ezechiels, with Kuenen's review in his Gesammelte Abhandlungen (ed. K. Budde, 1894). See further PRIEST. (S. A. C.)

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary


Proper noun




  1. Plural form of Levite.

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Up to date as of January 23, 2010

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—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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