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Torah Reading

What’s a Levite?

Question: I have just been told that my fathers family were Leviim (Levites) which makes me a Levi. I would like a detailed description of what this means and the best way to make my children understand how important this is.

Answer: Thank you for your excellent question. I will give a two-tiered answer to your question, the practical level and the philosophical level.

Practically speaking, the Levite today is the one who washes the hands of the Kohen before the Kohen bestows the Priestly benediction on the congregation. In most Ashkenazic communities outside of the Holy Land, this is observed on major Biblical holidays, whereas in most communities in the Holy Land, and most Sefardic communities around the world, the Kohanim bless the congregation every morning. Additionally, the Levite receives the second Aliyah (the honor of making a blessing on the Torah Reading on behalf of the congregation)  after the Kohen receives the first Aliyah (in the case there is no Kohen, anyone can receive the first aliyah and the second aliyah).

One should be proud to be a Levite, and recognize this when refering to onesself in Hebrew, by adding “HaLevi” after one’s name when writing it in Hebrew, etc. In the Temple, the Levites sang the Psalms and performed custodial duties, which was considered to be a great honor. In Biblical times, the Levites did not have regular jobs or tribal inheritance in the Holy Land, as God said “I am their Portion”. The Levites were given the tithes from the produce as the source of their livelihood. They spent most of their time studying and teaching the Torah (including the Oral Tradition), and they lived in the cities of refuge where accidental murderers would take refuge from their victims’ relatives. Moses, who was the first Levite, blessed the Levites before his death, and said their position is to teach God’s Law to Israel.

This brings us to the major philosophical aspect of being a Levi. A Levite should recognize his special position in studying and teaching God’s Word to the Jewish people, and strive to study as much as they can. Although every Jew is required to study, there is a special responsibility upon the Levite to focus on this. It is a very special blessing to be a Levite, one you share with major Biblical figures, such as Moses and Samuel.

May God bless you and your sons to live up to this sacred duty bestowed upon the sons of Levi.

All the best.

Rabbi Kolakowski

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