The name Levy (לוי) generally (but not always) indicates that its bearer is a member of the Tribe of Levi, descendants of Levi, son of Jacob.

This name is the second most popular family name in Israel (following Cohen), belonging to approximately 1.2 percent of the population (including Arabs).

Many families in Israel spell their name Levi, ending with an “i” instead of a “y.” While this difference is technically not relevant, it is interesting to note that most Ashkenazi Levys spell their name with a “y,” while the majority of contemporary Sephardim spell it like the given name Levi, with an “i.”

Among Eastern-European Jews, this name has spawned the spin-off לוין, often spelled Levin, Levine, or Lewin. Other variations include Levitin and Levitansky.

Not everyone whose name is Levy or Levin, however, is actually a Levite. A classic example would be Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the famed “tzaddik (saint) of Jerusalem,” who was not of Levite stock. How is this? Every family has their own story. Here are some common scenarios:

  1. The name may have been conferred because a relatively recent ancestor of the family was named Levi, a fairly common given name among Jewish people.
  2. They may have inherited an originally Levite-related last name through the female line or via adoption, while tribal affiliation is conferred exclusively through the biological male line.
  3. People often assumed false last names in order to avoid conscription into the Czarist army or to cross borders, and the new last names stuck even after they were no longer needed.

If you are a Levite, you may indicate this by attaching הלוי (ha-Levi) to your name. Thus a Levite named Levi Levine would style himself לוי הלוי לוין, Levi, ha-Levi, Levine.

Is your name Levy but you are not sure if you are of Levite stock? A great place to look would be the headstones of your direct paternal ancestors, as far back as you can go. If you find הלוי (ha-Levi) after a name, you’ve lucked out. Another clue can be in the decorations. Does the stone bear the image of a pitcher? This is a sign of the Levites, whose duties include pouring water over the hands of the Kohanim prior to the Priestly Blessing.

Another place to look is old documents, such as the ketubah (marriage contract), get (divorce), or whatever else you can dig up.

Still drawing a blank? Don’t be disheartened. In today’s post-Temple era, there are not many perks to being a Levite. Three exceptions are being called to wash the hands of the Kohanim prior to the Priestly Blessing (as mentioned above), being called to read from the Torah for the second aliyah, and that your kids (and grandkids) are exempt from the Redemption of the Firstborn.

Also take heart from the timeless teaching of Maimonides:

Not only the tribe of Levi [was chosen by G‑d], but any human—man or woman—who is spiritually motivated and has the intellectual understanding to set himself aside and stand before G‑d to serve Him and minister to Him and to know G‑d, proceeding justly as G‑d made him, removing from his neck the burden of the many plans people pursue, he is sanctified as holy of holies and G‑d will be his portion and heritage forever…1