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Raise Your Hand If You’re A Kohen

Raise Your Hand If You’re A Kohen


Jews have an aristocracy. An aristocracy, however, without castles, but with titles, privileges, duties and restrictions. Unlike most aristocracies, the Jewish aristocracy does not use formal salutations such as “Your Grace” or “My Lord.” For Jews, these aristocrats are the kohanim, the priests who once served in the Temple of Jerusalem. A kohen (singular form of kohanim) is just like any baron, marquis or duke—but not quite. And then there are their assistants, the Levites.

According to the Torah, Jacob had twelve sons. Each son was the founder of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Each tribe had a separate territory, with the exception of the tribe of Levi.

Are these tribal affiliations just a matter of folklore and tradition?During the Exodus, when the Israelites made the Golden Calf, only the Levites refused to worship it. As a result, they were appointed servants to G‑d. Of the members of this tribe, those who were descended from Aaron, brother of Moses, became the kohanim. Aaron was the first kohen, and also the first high priest.

Ever since then, many Jews have identified themselves as either Levites (levi’im) or kohanim. Throughout the centuries down to modern times, these Jews identified themselves as descendants simply because their fathers were kohanim or levi’im. But are these tribal affiliations just a matter of folklore and tradition? Can such claims actually be proven?

Today they can, and the key is DNA testing. The principle is that if all kohanim are in fact descended from Aaron, they should all share the same genetic traits. In the various studies that have been done with Jewish males in numerous parts of the world, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, over 98 percent of those who claimed to be kohanim were found to have the Y-chromosome Alu Polymorphism (YAP) marker. The principle is that the male Y-chromosome does not change from generation to generation.

Prof. Karl Skorecki, director of Nephrology and Molecular Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine at Technion in Haifa, has been quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying, “The simplest, most straightforward explanation is that these men have the Y-chromosome of Aaron.” He stated that “the study suggests that a 3,000-year-old tradition is correct and has a biological counterpart.”

Dr. Henry Ostrer, chair of the Human Genetics Program at New York University, confirmed this conclusion.

“The study suggests that a 3,000-year-old tradition has a biological counterpart.”The result is that anyone can be tested as to whether he carries the genetic markers of someone who is a kohen. This breakthrough came about in 1997 as a result of a cooperative research venture at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, the University College of London and the University of Arizona.

In fact, there is now an International Kohanim Society with thousands of kohanim in many parts of the world registered in a computerized database. It is being expanded to include Levites.

In 2007, the first Kohen-Levi family reunion in 2,000 years was held in Jerusalem. The gathering was organized by the Center for Kohanim in Jerusalem and its director, Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman, who is also the author of DNA & Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews.

Of particular interest was the discovery that both Ashkenazi and Sephardi kohanim shared a common set of genetic markers. This clearly indicated that the genetic line predated the separate development of the two communities, which began around 1000 CE, and indicates that the two communities are part of the same people. The conclusion is that the tradition of identifying oneself as a kohen does in fact conform with genetic realities, and directly links all kohanim to a common ancestor. The accuracy of these findings is largely due to the historically very low rate of intermarriage between Diaspora Jews and gentiles. It is also due to the fact that converts could never become kohanim, and the status of being a kohen passed only from father to son. Therefore, the set of Y-chromosomal markers known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype remained fairly consistent and points to descent from a common ancestor.

(However, it should be noted that the Cohen Modal Haplotype has been found in certain groups of non-Jews, particularly in southern Africa and among the Kurds.1)

What does it mean to be a kohen?

All privileges come with a price, and the restrictions on kohanim are manyThe kohanim have the privilege of being called for the first aliyah to say the blessing over the Torah during religious services. There is also the privilege of saying the priestly blessing. In Israel, and in Sephardic synagogues in the Diaspora, this blessing is recited on a daily (or weekly) basis. In Ashkenazi communities in the Diaspora, it is recited on major Jewish holidays.

However, all privileges come with a price, and the restrictions on kohanim are many. Many of these restrictions were designed to maintain what is referred to as ritual purity, since the kohanim formed a holy order in the Temple of Jerusalem. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, many of the laws and practices are still maintained in traditional Judaism, except those which could only be followed in the actual presence of the Temple.

Kohanim are forbidden to be in contact with dead bodies, take active part in a funeral, or even be under the same roof as a corpse, except in the case of the death of a close relative. This includes entering any place in which a dead body is present, such as a cemetery. A male kohen is prohibited from marrying a woman who is a divorcee or a convert. Failure to abide by the marriage prohibitions does not invalidate the marriage, but the kohen loses his status as long as he is married, and his offspring from that relationship do not have the status of a kohen.

Although the Temple no longer exists, and the kohanim no longer carry out the ancient rituals that were an integral part of Temple practice, Jews are awaiting the messiah, upon whose arrival the Temple will be rebuilt.

The wife or unmarried daughter of a kohen has the status to a certain extent of a kohen, even though she does not have all the duties, rights, responsibilities and restrictions of a kohen.

Jewish men and women are Jewish because their mothers are Jewish. Their tribal affiliation, however, such as being a kohen or a Levi, comes from their fathers. When a woman marries, she takes on the tribal affiliation of her husband (Kohen, Levi or Israel) regardless of the status of her father. The affiliation that the woman received from her father goes into abeyance.

Any children of the marriage will take their tribal affiliation from their father, not their mother, just as their mother takes her status from her husband after marriage. If the couple adopt children, they will not automatically take on the Judaism of the mother, nor the tribal affiliation of the father.

In order to have a functioning Temple, an educated and trained priesthood is necessary. For some, this is the motivation in identifying those who are truly kohanim. There are many programs designed to educate them on their responsibilities and their role in the traditional Jewish religious aristocracy.


This doesn’t at all contradict the notion that all who carry this gene descend from Aaron. It is eminently possible that these carriers are descended from a kohen. Nonetheless, as Judaism is a matrilineal religion, they are not Jewish—and as such would not retain their kohen status even (if we were certain that they were of kohanic descent, and even) were they to convert.

Lorne E. Rozovsky (1943-2013) was a lawyer, author, educator, health management consultant, and an inquisitive Jew.

This article is based on the author’s article which originally appeared in The Jewish News, Richmond, Virginia.
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Discussion (46)
January 26, 2016
the word
Jews believe the torah is the truth. The torah was created to connect with ashem, the truth.
We teach our children that the Word was created to communicate the truth.
The prophets used this creation: the Word.
After the prophets the kohanim kept working with the same Word.
After the destruction of the rebilt temple, rabbis took the place of the kohanim. The rabbis kept the kohanim idea as a jewish symbol,a living kotel.
As of today jews connect with ashem with this wonderful creation: the Word.
January 16, 2016
Haha that’s pretty funny! It probably means you are a meshugah kohen, every one I have met is. Always talking about kabbala and esoteric stuff is a dead giveaway. Jewish aristocracy!
Santa Fe
January 12, 2016
Father saying Cohen, but Grandmother saying mushuga
Calling you "mushuga" means you are crazy or an idiot. It is an insult. It is not aristocratic.
Camarillo, CA, USA
January 12, 2016
My Father told me I was a Cohen, but my Grandmother said I was a Mushuga - which is more aristocratic?
May 27, 2015
my maternal grandmother was a bat levi but my paternal grandmother was a bat kohen
I understand because my father is a Yisroel I am a Yisroel, but genetically how am I affected with both my grandmothers as directly descended from Levi ben Israel and my Maternal Grandmother from Aharon ben Amram. How could I find out?
Brian בצלאל Saide
New York, NY.
May 23, 2015
kohanim kehuna
kehuna,kohanim,the kotel are all symbols. The kotel has nothing to do with the way the stones were cut neither by the behavior of the people who carried them. The kotel is a symbol of all that kohanim had to do to follow a´shem's instructions.
Only kohanim had the authority to decide who was to do what. Kohanim are a symbol of how ashem wanted things to be done. Men have always questioned ashem's ways and place all kinds of restrictions gueared towards improving ashem´s orders.Those people know better than ashem they decide that people are more important than the symbol.The kohen gadol is a symbol of how important is for a jew to take good care of all sacred things. Let ashem be the judge.Most of the activities in Yom hakipurim are performed by the symbol of a kohen not by the people who repeat the words which represent the actions carried on by chosen individuals, dresed in a diferent way with they feet in close contact with the blood spilled by chosen animals. Kashrut is a symbol.
leon roiter
May 19, 2015
How, during the last 2000 yrs of the diaspora have there been records about one's lineage?
Thank-you for your thoughtful answer. I learned of my maternal grandfather's own
Identification to his being a kohen, from him. However, despite his wife's ( my grandmother's) statement that her father and accordingly, her brother were kohenim when their father passed away during the 1918 pandemic and did not survive long enough to be able to pass that knowledge to his son who arrived not only at a young age, but several weeks after his father had passed away. How have any records survived the holocaust?
Claudia Hexter
St. Louis Park, Mn.
May 17, 2015
Answer to Claudia hexter's question as to whether "female children of a kohen, [are] kohenim themselves"?
If your children's father is a Kohen and you were Jewish were your children were born, then your children are Kohenim.

If your children's father was not a Kohen (or, less commonly, if he is a Kohen but you are not Jewish are converted to Judaism after your children were born), then your children are not Jewish.

Whether any of your own ancestors were Kohenim has nothing to do with it.

[However, if your father was a Kohen or a Levi, then your firstborn son does not have to be redeemed in the way that firstborns are if both of their paternal grandparents are Israelites or gentiles.]
Camarillo, CA, USA
May 16, 2015
Are female children of a kohen, kohenim themselves?
My mother told me that both of her parents were Kohenim, in fact, my maternal grandparents were cousins. I realize that my mother's late brother was a Cohen, as are his sons. Does this mean that neither my mother, nor myself are kohenim?
And, if I am not a Cohen, are my 3 sons?
Claudia hexter
St. Louis Park, man.
February 5, 2015
Kohanim who have withstood more tan three thousand years of persecutions and kept their faith on a´shem, have stayed away from the temptations of assimilitation,
share their time amongst a minyan should not be exposed to limitations fabricated by curious torah interpretations.They, kohanim belong to the resistance as the Partisans do.
leon roiter