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What is a Levite?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg


Library » Jewish Identity » Kohains and Levites » The Holy Tribe | Subscribe | What is RSS?


Originally, firstborn sons were designated to be the holy tribe, the ones who would serve in the Tabernacle and the Temples, and be the spiritual leaders of our nation; G-d having "acquired" them when He spared them during the Plague of the Firstborn in Egypt. When the Tribe of Levi proved their mettle during the debacle of the Golden Calf, G-d removed the privilege of priesthood from the firstborns and instead sanctified the entire tribe of Levi.

Moses blessed the tribe of Levi, saying, "They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob, and Your Torah to Israel." Aside for their Temple duties, the tribe served as the rabbis and teachers of their Israelite brethren. For this reason, the Levites were not allotted a portion of the Land of Israel; instead, the other tribes were commanded to provide them with 48 cities where they would dwell. While the rest of Israel earned a livelihood by tending to their fields, orchards and livestock, the Levites preoccupied themselves with their spiritual calling. "[The Levite] shall have no inheritance among his brothers; the L-rd is his inheritance".1

After the destruction of the Temple, the Levites cut off their thumbs rather than allow the fingers which played instruments for G-d to play for their pagan captors
Their Temple duties included:

• Carrying the Tabernacle and its vessels when the Jews traveled in the desert.

• Serving as the choir and orchestra of the Holy Temple. Similar to their Kohen cousins, the Levites, were also divided into 48 shifts, with shifts changing every week.
Interestingly, Psalm 137 describes how, after the destruction of the Temple, the Babylonians captors requested of the Levites: "sing for us the songs of Zion." The Levites responded, "How shall we sing the song of the L-rd on foreign soil?" The Midrash points out that they did not say "we shall not sing," but rather, "how shall we sing," implying that they were incapable of singing the songs of Zion. This is because after the destruction of the Temple, the Levites cut off their thumbs rather than allow the fingers which played instruments for G-d to play for their pagan captors!

• Guarding the Temple as watchmen and doormen.

• Assisting the Kohanim whenever possible in discharging the priestly service.
In exchange for their public service, the Levites were given one tenth of the crops of the Israelites.

Nowadays, the Levite retains several distinctions:

• The Levite follows the Kohen and receives the second Aliyah of every public Torah reading. If there is no Kohen present to receive the opening aliyah, technically the gabbai is not required to honor the Levite with the first aliyah, however, it is considered to be a Segulah for longevity to do so.

• The Levites wash the hands of the Kohanim before they administer the Priestly Blessing. The sanctifying waters are all the more potent when they are issued from the sanctified hands of the Levites.

• Because the Levites are themselves sanctified, it isn't necessary for them to "redeem" their firstborn sons from the Kohen. Thus the firstborn son of a Levite father or mother does not have a Pidyon Haben.

• The Levites don't share any of the restrictions which are the lot of their Kohen cousins. They marry any Jewish woman, and they may become tamei via contact with a corpse.


  • 1. Deuteronomy 18:2.


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Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
A descendant of Levi, son of Jacob. The Levites were the teachers and spiritual leaders in the Land of Israel. They had various responsibilities in the Holy Temple, including choir and orchestral duties.
Plural form of Kohain. Priests of G-d. This title belongs to the male descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses. The primary function of the Kohain was to serve in the Holy Temple. Today the Kohain is still revered and it is his function to recite the Priestly Blessings on certain occasions.
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Literally means to rise up. Has two popular meanings: 1. Being called up to the Torah scroll and recite the blessings when the Torah is being read. 2. To emigrate to the Holy Land.
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
An act which is a harbinger of something beneficial.
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
Pidyon Haben
Literally: "Redemption of the Son." Firstborn sons born to an Israelite father and mother must be redeemed on the 31st day after birth. At this ceremony, the father gives the equivalent if five silver shekels to a Priest.
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
1. Name of Patriarch Jacob's third son. 2. A Levite -- a Jew who is a patrilineal descendant of Levi. Levites had special duties in the Holy Temple, and are still accorded special respect.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.
Ritually impure.