Cohen-Levi: The Tribe, the Family Heritage

The Tribe

Timeline of Kohanim & Levites

Years ago



Aharon HaKohen—First Kohen Gadol, founder of the dynasty


Pinchas—Earned the kehuna/priesthood, identified as Eliyahu HaNavi.


Eli HaKohenKohen Gadol and judge at Shiloh, teacher of Shmuel HaNavi.


Tzadok—First Kohen Gadol of the First Temple, loyal to Kings David and Shlomo.


Yirmeyahu/Yechezkel—Major prophets.


Ezra HaSofer—Leader in the Babylonian exile, organized the return to the Second Temple.


Yehoshua HaKohen HaGadol—First Kohen Gadol of the Second Temple.


Shimon HaTzaddikKohen Gadol who met with Alexander the Great.


The Hasmonean Dynasty/Maccabees—Reinaugurated the Temple service, established Chanukah.


Abaye and Rabah—Amoraim of the Babylonian Talmud.


HaRav Shabtai bar Meir HaKohen (the Shach)—Commentary on the Shulchan Aruch.


HaRav Moshe Kalfon HaKohen—Scholar and leader of the ancient Kohanim community of Jerba, Tunisia.


Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim)—Leader of European Jewry, promoted Temple studies, particularly for Kohanim.


Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook—First Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel.

Eliyahu HaNavi—Comes to prepare the final redemption, soon in our days.

An Outline and History of Cohen and Levi Heritage

1. Pre-Sinai

Among many non-Jewish nations a priestly class existed to perform religious ritual. The Torah describes the Kohanim of ancient Egypt. Yitro, Kohen of Midyan, was experienced in all the world's religious rites.

Malkei Tzedik of Salem, ancient Jerusalem, was Kohen to El'Elyon. He was Shem, the son of Noach. Avraham earned the role of Kohen to God at his encounter with Malkei Tzedik. Avraham passed this role of spiritual leadership to his son, Yitzhak, who passed it to his son, Ya'akov.

Among the Jewish people, the bringing of offerings in God's service was originally the birthright of the firstborn of all the tribes. They were the original Kohanim of the Jewish people and performed the service.

When the firstborn proved unworthy at the incident of the Golden Calf, the privilege of the service was transferred to the tribe of Levi.

Levi was the third son of Ya'akov/Yisrael. This tribe developed a unique character throughout its generations. Ya'akov chastised Levi for his anger and excessive zealousness. These traits were manifest in the retribution exacted on the city of Shechem and in his active role in the plotting against Joseph, his younger brother.

In Egypt, the sons of Levi were set (themselves) apart by G.... and Y.... dedicated themselves to the tents of learning. In doing so, they avoided the slavery experience suffered by the other tribes and remained involved only in holy endeavors.

Amram, a grandson of Levi, and his wife Yocheved, Levi's daughter, demonstrated great faithfulness in their defiance of Egypt's evil decrees. To this righteous couple, the ultimate leader of the Jewish people was born, Moshe, who was destined to lead the people out of Egypt.

When Moshe hesitated to accept the task of being God's spokesman to the Jews and to Pharaoh, Aharon, his older brother, was appointed to serve at Moshe's side. it would be Aharon and his descendants who would be designated to become the line of the Kohanim.

The earliest members of the tribe of Levi never served idols and were decreed to die during the 40 years before the entry to the L-rd.

The tribe of Levi further distinguished itself at the incident of the Golden Calf by refusing to succumb to the prompting of the idolaters. They were quick to respond when called to the side of Moshe, to defend God's honor and to exact punishment on the evildoers. This demonstrated that the Levites were able to channel their zeal to the service of God. In recognition of this ability, the Levites were chosen to replace the firstborn of Israel in performing the Divine Service.

2. Aharon HaKohen and sons

Aharon, the elder brother of Moshe, a great-grandson of Levi, was chosen by God to be the first Kohen Gadol. he first served in his official capacity as Kohen Gadol at the inauguration of the mishkan of the month of Nissan, one year after the Exodus. His service and prayer brought the Divine Presence to the mishkan. He was inaugurated by being dressed in the eight garments unique to the Kohen Gadol and was anointed with oil.

Aharon and his sons were the first Kohanim to officiate at the mishkan, the portable Temple which traveled with the Jewish people in the desert for forty years. This Tabernacle was located in the center of the camp. The encampment of the Kohanim and the Levites surrounded the mishkan. The remaining tribes surrounded them.

Aharon HaKohen had four sons. His two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, were struck dead at the mishkan's inauguration when, although they were not commanded to do so, they attempted to bring a incense offering. This tragic event emphasized the strictness and seriousness of the holy service, the men who were meant to offer sacrifices became systematic groups themselves.

Elazar and Itamar, Aharon's remaining sons, served as Kohanim along with their father. Although Pinchas, the son of Elazar, was not officially born into the role of Kohen, his zealousness in the defense of God's honor earned for him the title of Kohen, a unique event in Jewish history.

At the age of 123, on the first of Av, Aharon died, at which time, Elazar, Aharon's eldest son, was dressed in the garments and anointed Kohen Gadol, in his stead and put in charge of the Levi'im and the service.

The line of Kohanim Gadolim passed through Elazar's descendants for many generations until the time of the Judges, when Eli HaKohen, himself one of the Judges, became Kohen Gadol. Eli was a descendant of Itamar. However, Eli's sons were found wanting of the perfect character and temperament behooved of a Kohen.

Until the construction of the First Temple, the Kohanim Gadolim continued to be descendants of Itamar. With Tzadok, the first Kohen Gadol of the First Temple, the line of Kohanim Gadolim returned to Elazar's descendants.

3. The mishkan - Tabernacle into Eretz Yisrael

As described in the Book of Joshua, the Kohanim carried the holy Ark across the Jordan River at the miraculous entry into the land of Israel. It was the Kohanim who encircled Jericho, blew the shofars and brought down its walls.

The Kohanim and Levites were given cities throughout the territories of the various tribes. The Kohanim were given 13 cities, all of them located in the areas of Judah and Benjamin (near Jerusalem)

For 440 years during the time of the Judges, the mishkan stood in various temporary locations in the land of Israel. These were the following: Gilgal - 14 years; Shilo, where Eli HaKohen served as Kohen Gadol - 369 years; Nov - 13 years; and Givon - 44 years. At this time, individuals were to erect altars to offer sacrifices to God.

4. The First Temple in Jerusalem

The site of the First Temple was chosen by King David through Divine inspiration and prophetic revelations. He made the preparations for the building of the Temple.

a. The actual construction of the First Temple was undertaken by King Solomon who was privileged to inaugurate the Temple. Once the Temple was established in its place on Mount Moriah, the service could no longer be performed in any other location.

The highest spiritual level was attained in the First Temple, where the Divine Presence was clearly revealed.

18 Kohanim Gadolim served during its 410 year history. The first Kohen Gadol of the First Temple was Tzadok ben Achitov, the last Kohen Gadol was Saraya ben Azariya.

5. The Second Temple

The Second Temple was rebuilt with the permission of the Persian rulers, under the supervision of Nechemia and Ezra HaSofer, a Kohen, after the 70 year Babylonian Exile.

A high spiritual level was maintained in the Second Temple until the passing of the Kohen Gadol Shimon HaTzadik, a member of the Great Assembly. Until the very end of the Temple, open miracles took place daily.

The first Kohen Gadol of the Second Temple was Yehoshua ben Yehotzadik, the grandson of Saraya, who was the last Kohen Gadol of the First Temple.

Three hundred Kohanim Gadolim served during its 420 year history, for many were unworthy to serve even one year in office.

Midway through the time of the Second Temple, the Kohanic family of the Hashmonaim led the revolt against Greek influence which culminated in the rededicating of the Temple, commemorated in the holiday of Chanukah. In the later years of the Second Temple, corruption and factionalism even reached the office of the Kohen Gadol.

Kohanim faithfully performed their service in the Temple until the day of its destruction. That day, the Ninth of Av, 70 CE, the Kohanim continued to serve even as the flames consumed the buildings around them.

At the destruction, Kohanim took the keys to the Temple and hurled them skyward saying, "Here are Your keys back which You have entrusted to us for we have not been faithful custodians to carry out the duties set by the King and we are no longer worthy to eat from the King's table" (Avot d'Rebbi Natan 4:5).

Destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans was done with a vengeance. The inhabitants who were not killed were sold as slaves or fled, leaving the Jewish Nation in a desperate condition.

In the nearly two thousand years since the Destruction, the Jewish people have been scattered to the four corners of the Earth, but have never lost the memory and the desire for the Temple.

Kohanim and Levites were also scattered throughout the Exile, some becoming lost to assimilation. However, many Kohanim and Levite families protected their identities and tradition and the line of Kohanim and Levi'im is uninterrupted to this day.

In 1949 CE, a third Jewish State came into being. In 1967, Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, returned to Jewish sovereignty. The process of the return to the land of Israel, its physical flourishing and an ongoing in gathering of the exiles give cause for hope that the fulfillment of the promises of a spiritual reawakening and the rebuilding of the Temple may be close at hand. May we see it soon and in our days. 

The Tribe