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The Kohen Gene

The Kohen Gene


Ever looked around a synagogue and noticed the incredible array of people from different races wandering the aisles? Hard to believe we’ve got anything in common, let alone common ancestry and religion.

In the late ’90s, a study came out attempting to prove that kohanim (priests), no matter their facial or racial makeup, all descend from a common paternal ancestor. The geneticists involved collected DNA samples from hundreds of kohanim, and searched for common markers on the Y-chromosome. Incredibly, they found that over 98% of men with a family tradition of priesthood showed evidence of descent from the same great-great-great grandfather.1

Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Yemenites and Italians can trace their backgrounds back to the Jews of the ExodusI find it fascinating that Moses’ older brother, the biblical High Priest Aaron the kohen, lived some 3,300 years ago but bequeathed his genetic signature to these men. Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite and Italian kohanim can actually trace their backgrounds back to the Jews of the Exodus. And if modern science has given us the tools to prove common ancestry, isn’t the next obvious step to dedicate ourselves to our common purpose—G‑d’s Torah and mitzvot?

The Fidelity Gene

Recently, I came across a statistic that absolutely floored me. According to one Australian laboratory, nearly one-quarter of the DNA tests performed demonstrate the assumed father not to be the real biological parent. One quarter!

Contrast this sorry record with that of Jews throughout history. What would happen if a kohen’s wife committed adultery? The resulting illegitimate child would be an assumed kohen. He’d join his “father” on the dais and recite the Priestly Blessing; he’d get dibs on the first aliyah. He’d hand down a tradition of priesthood to his own sons . . . But in reality he’s no kohen, and his DNA and that of his future male descendents would not bear those crucial markers.

But almost 100% of all men with family tradition of priesthood do descend from kohanim. Generation after generation of Jewish women were faithful to their husbands and their tradition. What a proud record of fidelity. Geneticists describe these results as “the highest record of paternity-certainty ever recorded,” and there is no reason to assume that their sisters married to Levites and Israelites were any less faithful to their spouses and religion.

Geneticists describe these results as “the highest record of paternity-certainty ever recorded”This devotion to our spouses and our G‑d has always been the way of the Jew. Even during our slavery in Egypt, subject to the capricious demands of an evil nation, our women distinguished themselves. The Book of Leviticus2 records the only example of illegitimacy, the product of the rape of a Jewess by an Egyptian overseer. The Torah hints that this woman’s flirtatious manner may have precipitated the dreadful occurrence, but the crime was committed by the Egyptian.

This sad exception only demonstrates how refreshingly modest and chaste were all other Jews. The very worst and most unfortunate incident of all the time they were in slavery was not a case of adultery, G‑d forbid, but abuse. It is to the credit of our ancestors that, no matter the temptations, irrespective of the dangers, they fought to stay faithful, and almost without exception they succeeded. This proud heritage they vouchsafed to us.

Jewish marriages throughout history are a model for all humanity, and the oaths and bonds that unite us with our partners and Creator will remain firm and unwavering for now and eternity.

Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum is spiritual leader of Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation and co-director of L’Chaim Chabad in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia.
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Gnarlodious Santa Fe October 6, 2013

That reminds me... The insinuation being that a female Jew is less righteous than a male Egyptian. The woman caused him to sin. That reminds me of another story. Reply

Anonymous Palos Verdes, Ca July 30, 2013

Unequivalent comparisons > According to one Australian laboratory, nearly one-quarter of the DNA tests
> performed demonstrate the assumed father not to be the real biological parent.
> One quarter!
> Contrast this sorry record with that of Jews throughout history.

This 'sorry record' is from a sample population highly biased toward children whose paternity were in doubt---DNA testing is still expensive enough that, for most people, it were affordable only when something important were at stake.

I believe that most Jewish men and women have been faithful, but so have most Gentile people---there are certainly pious Jews for whom social censure were not the worst consequence of adultery, but not believing as other nations do does not mean ignoring the fact that most of those beliefs include valuing fidelity, and there are certainly Gentiles pious in their terms but most people have been faithful simply because it could mean death to be shunned by your community, regardless of your community. Reply

Anonymous Arizona, USA April 26, 2013

The Kohen Gene/And the Raped Woman To the MD in Baltimore: I was raped in my home. I do not dress in a provocative manner. Nor do I flirt with any man. I do not believe that any "man" have the right to rape any "woman" because of any reason. Rape is a violation of a person's right. She does not deserve to be rape. I do not even know who this person was. I was 62 yrs old. Have been celibate for 37 yrs because of my religious belief. How dare you or anyone judge. Men like you have always point a finger to women. And, I believe, the reason is because you, like those rapists, think that we are all alike. Every human being is different. Have different values. You cannot judge everyone the same. I love HaShem, blessed be He, with all my heart and soul. And b'cause of what I have been through in my life, gave myself to Him. In His service. He is the Rightful Judge. Not you or any man. He will judge the world, as it is written. It is coming, because of the evil going on. Blessed be HaShem! Reply

Anonymous florida April 25, 2013

no such thing as an evil nation just an evil leader Was Egypt not the name of Ham's son who was the son of Noah. Was Ishmael not a son of Abraham who's mother was an Egyptian. It was not the nation who was evil just the ruler running the nation at that time. One human race we are all brothers God created one human race and not everyone is evil. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA April 25, 2013

Not The Only Ones... Unless I Would Also Be A Cohen Too! At the Hamilton Genealogical Society the Hamilton clan often reliably traces our lineage back 1,000 years or so because there are certain markers for a Y Hamilton chromosome. There are 2 different Y chromosomes that are Hamilton that are considered to be noble, while there are some non-noble Hamilton's, for example, slaves that took on our last name, such that within roughly the last 1,000 years my lineage only had 1 non-paternal event. We, Clan Hamilton, are Scotland's Preeminent noble family. Likewise, thoughts of my wife cheating on me, my parents, or grandparents cheating on my fathers side of the family is inconceivable. Reply

Anonymous May 4, 2011

the bigger picture The bigger picture is the virtue of marital fidelity. We are proud of women like Ester and are all meant to learn from our heritage as recorded. We came out of Egypt and should not turn back.

Many a crime has been committed against Jewish women over the ages, some events like Tamar's evoke a sense of asserting our position as a people no matter our numbers Reply

Anonymous Camarillo, CA May 3, 2011

Adultery by other Jews This article says "there is no reason to assume that their sisters married to Levites and Israelites were any less faithful to their spouses and religion."

Not only are there two reasons, the article has a footnote referencing one of them.

The second footnote goes to an article about the study that says that they also ran DNA testing on Levites and did not find similar evidence of a common ancestor. The very study that found evidence of faithfulness found that it lacking in Levite and Israelite DNA.

Israelites could lack the DNA of Jacob (because of conversions), but Levites lack it only if there was adultery in their family.

Also, a Kohen cannot marry a divorced woman or a woman conceived through certain prohibited unions. Women who are less failthful are more likely to become divorced, so remarried divorcees would be less faithful than Kohens' wives. If tendency to commit adultery is genetic, then women conceived that way would be more prone to it than Kohen's wives. Reply

M Green MA via May 13, 2009

Blaming the victim? Yaira, the author clearly wrote that although the incident may have been "precipitated" by her conduct (not caused or deserved, G-d forbid), nevertheless the "crime was perpetrated by the Egyptian," e.g. that the criminal was fully responsible for his ugly crime.
This idea is hinted to in the Biblical text itself, as pointed out by our Sages (& Rashi). Their point was not to assign guilt or even pass judgement on the poor victim, & certainly not to mitigate the criminal's guilt.
Rather, the point was to admonish others about being more careful. Had Shelomit had a bit more common sense and refrained from being overly friendly with strangers in a depraved society such as Egypt, perhaps she could have avoided being targeted by the rapist. Reply

Binyamin Rothstein Baltimore, MD May 13, 2009

an illegitimate reference the comment by Yairah is both moving and enlightening. It is also a bit misguided. While rape is certainly wrong no matter what the excuse, we cannot be so insensitive and blind so as to absolve all victims. There are those instances where the behavior was provoked and the rapist unable or unwilling to control him or herself, acted in a criminal way. This does not excuse the rapist nor does it but the onus entirely on the victim, it does however place responsibility on the victim to act in a cautious manner. Just as we lock our cars and homes, we must protect our bodies with modest behavior and dress. So if your car gets stolen and the doors were unlocked, the thief is a thief but the owner of the car was a fool and partially responsible for the theft. Women need to be modest and wearing provocative clothing is like leaving the door to your home unlocked. Reply

Yairah Shalhevet Boston, MA - USA May 7, 2009

An illegitimate reference How horrifying to read, in this superb forum, the perpetuation of the unconscionable notion that rape, that brutal, dehumanizing crime of power, sadism and violence is somehow an act of sexuality. For you then to let stand unchallenged the comment "this woman's flirtatious manner may have precipitated the dreadful occurrence" gives a free pass to thugs who thrill at blaming and demonizing the victim, and placates those who expect to deflect accountability by claiming themselves to be "victims" of uncontrollable involuntary urges caused by actions of their prey. For you to cite this twisted claim without an unambiguous authoritative repudiation is to psychologically "re-rape" every woman, every man, every child who ever found herself or himself in a position of weakness, without protection, power or defense, a vulnerable target for depraved brutes. I weep now for the assault you committed on that Jewess here, today. I weep for us all, for each of us is that Jewess, raped anew, today. Reply

A Shulman West Hempstead, New York May 7, 2009

Kohen gene this is the organization that started the testing

R' Yaakov Kleiman
972-2-626-0632 Reply

Juan Herrera Garland, Texas/USA December 4, 2008

The rape of the jewess in Leviticus I am curious, as to what happened to this unfortunate woman. Was she stoned, shunned or banned by her people? What would have happened to her offspring? I found your article very fascinating. Reply

hmj352 Savannah, GA July 28, 2008

Jewish marriage a model. Perhaps when you look at the women, you see a model. However, what happened to the men? Reply

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