Total population
Around 500–600 thousand worldwide[a]
Regions with significant populations
 Israel 240,000
 United States 200,000
 France 16,000
 Canada 12,000
Hebrew, English
Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic
Judaism, Samaritanism
Related ethnic groups
Jews, Samaritans

Levites are the descendants of the Tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes. In addition to Levites, the Kohens (priests) are also descended from Levi. Both are integrated in Jewish and Samaritan communities, but keep a distinct status.

In Jewish tradition, a Levite (/ˈlvt/, Hebrew: לֵוִי, Modern Levi, Tiberian Lēwî; "Attached") is a member of the Israelite Tribe of Levi, descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah.

The Tribe of Levi served particular religious duties for the Israelites and had political responsibilities as well. In return, the landed tribes were expected to give tithe to support the Levites,[1] particularly the tithe known as the 'Maaser Rishon'. The Kohanim were the priests, who performed the work of holiness in the Temple. The Levites who were not Kohanim played music in the Temple or served as guards.

When Joshua led the Israelites into the land of Canaan (Joshua 13:33), the Sons of Levi were the only Israelite tribe that received cities but were not allowed to be landowners "because the Lord the God of Israel Himself is their inheritance" (Deuteronomy 18:2).[2][3]

In contemporary Jewish practice

Today, Levites in Orthodox Judaism continue to have additional rights and obligations compared to lay people, although these responsibilities have diminished with the destruction of the Temple. For instance, Kohanim are eligible to be called to the Torah first, followed by the Levites. Levites also provide assistance to the Kohanim, particularly washing their hands, before the Kohanim recite the Priestly Blessing. They also do not participate in the Pidyon HaBen (redemption of the firstborn) ceremony, because they are traditionally pledged to Divine service. Conservative Judaism recognizes Levites as having special status, but not all Conservative congregations call Kohanim and Levites to the first and second reading of the Torah, and many no longer perform rituals such as the Priestly Blessing and Pidyon HaBen in which Kohanim and Levites have a special role. Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism do not observe the distinctions between Kohanim, Levites, and other Jews.

Orthodox Judaism believes in the eventual rebuilding of a Temple in Jerusalem and a resumption of the Levitical role. There are a small number of schools, primarily in Israel, to train priests and Levites in their respective roles. Conservative Judaism believes in a restoration of the Temple as a house of worship and in some special role for Levites, although not the ancient sacrificial system as previously practiced.

Relationship with Kohanim

The Kohanim are traditionally believed and halachically required to be of direct patrilineal descent from the Biblical Aaron of the Levi tribe.

The noun kohen is used in the Torah to refer to priests, both Israelite and non-Israelite, such as the Israelite nation as a whole, as well as the priests (Hebrew kohanim) of Baal. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, Kohanim performed the daily and holiday (Yom Tov) duties of sacrificial offerings.

Today kohanim retain a lesser though somewhat distinct status within Judaism, and are bound by additional restrictions according to Orthodox Judaism. During the Priestly Blessing, the Levites traditionally wash the hands of the Kohanim prior to the blessing of the House of Israel.[4]

Bat Levi

A Bat Levi (daughter of a Levite) is no longer recognized by many rishonim as having lineal sanctity in both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism,[5] stemming from her traditional eligibility to receive proceeds of the Levitical tithe (Maaser Rishon). In both Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism, children of a Bat Levi, regardless of her marital status or husband's tribe, retain the traditional exemption for their children from the requirement of being redeemed through the Pidyon HaBen. Contrary to popular belief, this is not due to any sort of lineal sanctity,[6] but rather, it is a mitzvah similar to all other mitzvahs.

Conservative Judaism permits a Bat Levi to perform essentially all the rituals a male Levi would perform, including being called to the Torah for the Levite aliyah in those Conservative synagogues which have both retained traditional tribal roles and modified traditional gender roles.[7] In Israel, Conservative/Masorti Judaism has not extended Torah honors to either a bat Kohen or a bat Levi.[8]

The Levites and the Holocaust

Main article: Holocaust theology

In 1938, with the outbreak of violence that would come to be known as Kristallnacht, American Orthodox rabbi Menachem HaKohen Risikoff wrote about the central role he saw for Priests and Levites in terms of Jewish and world responses, in worship, liturgy, and teshuva, repentance. In The Priests and the Levites,[9] he stressed that members of these groups exist in the realm between history (below) and redemption (above), and must act in a unique way to help move others to prayer and action, and help bring an end to suffering. He wrote, "Today, we also are living through a time of flood, Not of water, but of a bright fire, which burns and turns Jewish life into ruin. We are now drowning in a flood of blood... Through the Kohanim and Levi'im help will come to all Israel."[10]

Levite population

Levite Y-chromosome studies

A 2003 study of the Y-chromosome by Behar et al. pointed to multiple origins for Ashkenasi Levites, a priestly class who comprise approximately 4% among the Ashkenazi Jews. It found that Haplogroup R1a1a (R-M17), uncommon in the Middle East or among Sephardi Jews, originating in South or Central Asia and dominant in Central Europe and Indian subcontinent at 30-65%, is present in over 50% of Ashkenazi Levites, while the rest of Ashkenazi Levites' paternal lineage is of certain Middle Eastern origin. Behar suggested a founding event, probably involving one or very few European men, occurring at a time close to the initial formation and settlement of the Ashkenazi community as a possible explanation.[11] As Nebel, Behar and Goldstein speculate, "although neither the NRY haplogroup composition of the majority of Ashkenazi Jews nor the microsatellite haplotype composition of the R1a1 haplogroup within Ashkenazi Levites is consistent with a major Khazar or other European origin, as has been speculated by some authors (Baron 1957; Dunlop 1967; Ben-Sasson 1976; Keys 1999), one cannot rule out the important contribution of a single or a few founders among contemporary Ashkenazi Levites."[12]

A 2013 paper by Siiri Rootsi et al. confirmed a Near or Middle Eastern origin for all Ashkenazi Levites, including the R1a Y-chromosome carriers, and refuted the Khazar origin:

Previous Y-chromosome studies have demonstrated that Ashkenazi Levites, members of a paternally inherited Jewish priestly caste, display a distinctive founder event within R1a, the most prevalent Y-chromosome haplogroup in Eastern Europe. Here we report the analysis of 16 whole R1 sequences and show that a set of 19 unique nucleotide substitutions defines the Ashkenazi R1a lineage. While our survey of one of these, M582, in 2,834 R1a samples reveals its absence in 922 Eastern Europeans, we show it is present in all sampled R1a Ashkenazi Levites, as well as in 33.8% of other R1a Ashkenazi Jewish males and 5.9% of 303 R1a Near Eastern males, where it shows considerably higher diversity. Moreover, the M582 lineage also occurs at low frequencies in non-Ashkenazi Jewish populations. In contrast to the previously suggested Eastern European origin for Ashkenazi Levites, the current data are indicative of a geographic source of the Levite founder lineage in the Near East and its likely presence among pre-Diaspora Hebrews.[13]


Having a last name of Levi or a related term does not necessarily mean a person is a Levite, and many Levites do not have such last names. Levitical status is passed down in families from parent to child, as part of a family's genealogical tradition. Tribal status is determined by patrilineal descent, so a child whose biological father is a Levite (in cases of adoption or artificial insemination, status is determined by the genetic father), is also considered a Levite. Jewish status is determined by matrilineal descent, thus conferring levitical status onto children requires both biological parents to be Jews and the biological father to be a Levite.

Currently the only branches of Judaism which regard Jewish status as being conferable by both parents have also abolished tribal statuses and distinctions, due to a view in both cases that egalitarian principles override halakha (traditional Jewish law). Accordingly, there is currently no branch of Judaism that regards levitical status as conferable by matrilineal descent. It is either conferable patrilineally, in the traditional manner, or it does not exist and is not conferred at all.

Notable descendants

In tradition

Levite surnames

Some Levites have adopted a related last name to signify their priestly status. Not necessarily all carriers of the downlisted surnames are descended from Levite tribe, but it is usually considered a good indication of genuine Levite ancestry through the ages. Because of diverse geographical locations, the names have several variations:

Modern Levites

The following is a list of Levites in modern times:

See also


^ Levites comprise a subgroup of about 4% of world Jewry.[18] Combined with Kohanim, who are also Levites, the subgroup forms roughly 8% of the Jewish population worldwide,[18] or about 1–1.1 million.


  1. Numbers 18:21-25
  2. Joshua 13:33, cited in  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Levites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  3. Deuteronomy 18:2
  4. "The general procedure of the Priestly Blessing is: After *Kedushah the priests prepare themselves, removing their shoes and washing their hands with the assistance of the levites, whereafter they ascend the platform before the Ark."
  5. Rivash" 15; "Divrei Yatziv" by R' Y. Halberstam, E.H. 6; "Yechaveh Da'at" by R' O. Yosef, V 61)
  6. "Rivash" 15; "Divrei Yatziv" by R' Y. Halberstam
  7. Joel Roth, The Status of Daughters of Kohanim and Leviyim for Aliyot, Rabbinical Assembly
  8. See: Robert A. (Rafael) Harris, Rabbinical Assembly of Israel's Law Committee Teshuvah: "The First Two Aliyot for a Bat Kohen and a Bat Levi." Pages 31–33 in Responsa of the Va’ad Halacha of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel 5748–5749 (1989). Volume 3. Jerusalem: The Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and the Masorti Movement (Hebrew; English Summary, vii–viii). http://www.responsafortoday.com/vol3/3.pdf
  9. הכהנים והלוים HaKohanim vHaLeviim(1940)
  10. Gershon Greenberg, “Kristallnacht: The American Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Theology of Response,” in Maria Mazzenga (editor), American Religious Responses to Kristallnacht, Palgrave MacMillan:2009, pp158-172.
  11. Behar DM, Thomas MG, Skorecki K, et al. (October 2003). "Multiple origins of Ashkenazi Levites: Y chromosome evidence for both Near Eastern and European ancestries". American Journal of Human Genetics. 73 (4): 768–779. doi:10.1086/378506. PMC 1180600Freely accessible. PMID 13680527.
  12. Goldstein, David B. (2008). "3". Jacob's legacy: A genetic view of Jewish history. Yale University Press. pp. location 873 (Kindle for PC). ISBN 978-0-300-12583-2.
  13. Siiri Rootsi; Doron M. Behar; Mari Järve; Alice A. Lin; et al. (2013). "Phylogenetic applications of whole Y-chromosome sequences and the Near Eastern origin of Ashkenazi Levites". Nature Communications. 4: 1. doi:10.1038/ncomms3928.
  14. Luke 1:5-6
  15. "David Cameron 'may be directly descended from Moses'". Mail Online. 20 July 2009. Retrieved 18 December 2013.
  16. PBS Show Finding Your Roots broadcast February 2, 2016
  17. PBS Show Finding Your Roots broadcast January 26, 2016
  18. 1 2 Bradman et al. 1999.

Further reading

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