Families and Family Trees
A Kohen today has the status of Kohen Muhzak, assumed Kohanic status Halachically, the status of Kohan Miyuchas, of veritable lineage, requires witnesses or equivalent, that his father's father's father, etc. served as a Kohen in the Temple in Jerusalem.
There are, however, families of Kohanim among the Jewish people which have particularly strong traditions of their families' roots and branches.
Among the Sephardim there are Kohanim families with traditions reaching back to Temple times. A community of Kohanim existed on the island of Jerba, off the Mediterranean Coast of Tunisia, for more than 1,000 years. Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian Jewry trace their origins to ancient exile communities of Persia, Babylonia and Aram.
Well known Ashkenazi Kohanim families include the Cohens, the Katz's, the Kohanas and the Shapiros, Perhaps the best documented of these selected families are the Rapaports.
The earliest known Rapaport is Rabbi Yaakov HaKohen of Porto, who is known by the Rapaport name from 1462. It is likely that his immediate predecessors fled Ashkenaz, Germany around this time which was the year of the expulsion of Jews from Mainz. The region of Southern Germany left was known as Rapa. They came to Porto, a river city in the Padua region of Northern Italy. Thus the name Rapaport tells of the families' geographical origins.
Many great rabbinical leaders and scholars, intellectuals and statesmen are found in the families' lineage. Among them are Rabbi Meshulam Yekutiel HaKohen of Rafa, the publisher in 1472 of the first Hebrew book ever printed. Rabbi HaKohen Rapaport was the light of the exile, serving as Av Beit Din, head of the Rabbinical court in the descendants of "The Shach". Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen wrote Sifte Kohen (1622-1663) a major commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, also formed a branch of the family.
A widely known legend is that the Vilna Gaon, a first born, would seek out pedigreed Kohanim to perform a pidyon - redemption for him. Upon finding a Rapaport to perform the ceremony, he was satisfied that he had successfully accomplished the mitzvah.
The Baal Shem Tov is storied to have said that the Rapaports are verifiable among the Kohanim, and the Horowitz family among the Levites.
The Rapaport family now has members living in practically every location in the world. Dr. Chanon Rapaport of Jerusalem has compiled a family tree covering some 25 generations. With the help of a computer genealogy program known as "My Brothers Keeper", he keeps track of over 11,000 entries. The family continues to produce chief rabbis and authors, scientists and intellectuals.
The Jerba Kohanim - Among the oldest known continuous communities of Kohanim in the Diaspora is the community founded on Jerba, an island off the Mediterranean Coast of Tunisia.
Within the community and among the other inhabitants of the island, a general consensus reigns about the antiquity of the Jewish settlements and the uninterrupted Jewish presence in Jerba. In the indigenous chronology, the Jewish settlement antedates the coming of Islam. It antedates the hegemony of the Romans. It antedates the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D. and possibly even the destruction of the first 586 B.C. On some level, Jerba is perceived as the original and first Diaspora. In spite of this consensus regarding its antiquity, there is, surprisingly, no single, recognized version of the community's myth of origin. There are many versions which, even when not mutually contradictory, differ in detail and chronology. nevertheless, they all make the same statement and have the same meaning.
The most popular account dates back to the first Jewish settlement in Jerba to the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C. A group of priests, Kohanim, serving in the Temple escaped from Jerusalem and found their way to Jerba, carrying with them a door and some stones from the Jerusalem sanctuary. These were incorporated into the "marvelous synagogue", Ghriba, which they erected in Jerba, and it is on account of its antiquity and its connection with the holy Temple of Jerusalem that the Ghriba was and continues to be a locus of pilgrimage and veneration. The priestly refugees from Jerusalem settled in a village nearby this new sanctuary and were the founders of Hara Sghira, also known as Dighet, a supposedly Berberized form of the Hebrew delet, meaning door.
Until recently, the town was said to be populated only by Kohanim, members of the priestly caste descended directly from those who fled Jerusalem in the sixth century before the common era.
While the oral form of this tradition probably dates back many centuries, its earliest appearance in written form is apparently that found in a book, Hashomer Emet, by Rabbi Abraham Haim Addadi of Tripoli, published in Livorno in 1849.
Other traditions hold that it was priestly refugees, not of the first but of the second Temple (70 A.D.) who were the first Jewish settlers on the island.
Various archaeological artifacts - inscriptions, gravestones, remnants of ancient synagogues, genealogies engraved on stone - which were said to offer material proof for one or another of these myths of origin are now lost and survive only as part of an oral tradition.