Who is a Cohen?
And it shall be for them an appointment as Kohanim
Halacha, Torah Law, specifies that membership in the Jewish people is derived through the mother, while tribal membership is determined by the father.
The twelve tribes of Israel are the descendants of twelve sons of Jacob. The third son of Jacob was Levi. A fourth generation descendant of Levi was Aharon. The first son of Amram and Yocheved.
Aharon, his four sons and all his descendants were designated by God to be Kohanim forever. Genealogically, a Cohen is:
A Cohen M’yuchas is a Cohen of verifiable lineage. This status is only possible through the testimony of two qualified witnesses through direct knowledge that his paternal family served in the Temple. Only those Kohanim whose status was thoroughly investigated by the sanhedrin, the high court, were allowed to participate in the Temple Service.
After the Babylonian Exile, with the reinstitution of the Temple Service in Jerusalem, Ezra Hasofer, a Cohen Gadol and member of the great assembly, examined the genealogy of his contemporary Kohanim. Those unable to bring proof of their lineage were refused the privilege of serving in the Temple until Divine inspiration could confirm their status.
A Cohen Muchzak is one who has family tradition that he is a Cohen, with no known reason to suspect otherwise.
Today, without the Temple, the privileges of a Cohen are limited. A Cohen does not receive Teruma, the tithing of produce; and as there is no sacrificial service, he does not receive a share of offerings. Therefore, if one claims to be a Cohen, his claim is generally accepted, unless there is reason to suspect otherwise, whereupon he would need to bring evidence supporting his Kohanic status.
Presently, we are unable to establish who is a Cohen of pure descent, hence all Kohanim have the status of Cohen Chazakah. A man whose father and grandfather were known to be Kohanim, or has reliably based evidence, such as information from a gravestone or ketubah, is assumed to be a Cohen. He is therefore required to live within the restriction which apply to a Cohen, including selecting an appropriate wife and maintaining ritual purity.
A family name is not sufficient in determining who is Cohen. Certain names, however, suggest Kohanic lineage. For example, the names Cohen, Kahn, Kahana, and the like, are usually derived from the Hebrew cohen . Other common names of Kohanim are include Kaplan – derived from the same root as the word chaplain, a religious leader; Rappaport – a family of Kohanim from the port city in Italy; Aaronson – after Aharon haCohen; and Cohen-Tzedek, meaning a righteous Cohen, or it’s more common shortened version,Katz
Many Kohanim trace their ancestry to Jewish communities thousands of years old, such as the Kohanim from Babylonia – Iraq and Persia – Iran. The island of Jebra off the coast of Tunisia was the home of a community of Kohanim from the time of the Temple. They now reside in Israel.
In the time of the Temple, Kohanim were organized into twenty four service groups called Mishmarot. Each of the mishmarot was subdivided into family devisions known as a Bais Av; (literally, fathers house). The Mishmarot served on a rotational basis, with each Mishmar serving for one week and each Bait Av for one day within its Mishmar’s week.
In the future, definitive Kohanic status will be determined through prophecy. With the re-introduction of the Temple Service, the Sanhedrin will again be responsible for the examination of a Cohen’s genealogical acceptability to serve. We have God’s promise that the line of Kohanim and Levites will never be lost.