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The Synagogue

Cohen, Levi and Yisroel

I have recently been asked to fill out a formal application for my local synagogue. One of the questions on the form is whether I am of the Cohen, Levi or Yisroel. What exactly do each of these groups represent, and how am I able to find out which one I belong to? My mother is Jewish.

Thank you for your question. The Jewish nation is divided up into 12 tribes (the children of each of Jacob’s 12 sons). One of these sons is Levi, and a subgroup of Levi is Cohen. Levi and Cohen were singled out to be the ones to work in the Temple. There are special laws relating to them, which are different than to everyone else.

The main difference nowadays in Synagogue is that the first person called to the Torah reading is always a Cohen and the second a Levi (unless there are none in the Synagogue, in which case anyone may be called up).

Tribal affiliation is passed down through the father, therefore someone is a Cohen or Levi if their father was. Otherwise they are called Yisrael, which is the generic name for everyone else. I understand from what you wrote that your father is not Jewish (I may be have read incorrectly), therefore you would fall into the category of Yisrael.

Women take on the tribal affiliation of their husband. If a woman marries a Cohen or a Levi, she (and her children) will become part of that tribe. Until the Temple is rebuilt this doesn’t make much practical difference, but is interesting to know anyway.

Rabbi David Sedley

8 Follow-ups »

  1. I was curious. I am Levite. I married a woman whom had children from a previous marriage. Their bio-father is not Jewish. My wife is confirmed by Orthodox Law, Jewish. The bio-father will not allow me to legally adopt the children. I was explained the children are Yisroel even though we are a Levite house. If I could legally adopt the children would they be Yisroel or Levite?

    Tribal status in Judaism goes solely by the birth father. Whether you legally adopt or not, the children will not become Levi’im. Since their birth father is not Jewish they will be called up to the Torah as a Yisrael. In fact, a few weeks ago we had a Bar Mitzvah in our Shul where the father is a Levi and the son was adopted, so was called up as a Yisrael.
    Rabbi David Sedley

    Comment by ATR — August 18, 2006 @ 4:49 am

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