Tribes of Israel
In Jewish tradition, a Levite (Hebrew: לֵוִי, Modern Levi Tiberian Lēwî ; "Attached") is a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi. When Joshua led the Israelites into the land of Canaan, the Levites were the only Israelite tribe who received cities but no tribal land "because the Lord the God of Israel himself is their inheritance". 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 the Levites, particularly the tithe known as the Maaser Rishon or Levite Tithe.
In the Bible
Kohath's son Amram was the father of Miriam, Aaron and Moses. The descendants of Aaron: the Kohanim ("Priests"), had the special role as priests in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and also in the Temple in Jerusalem. The remaining Levites (Levi'yim in Hebrew), divided into three groups (the descendants of Gershon, or Gershonites, the descendants of Kohath, or Kohathites, and the descendants of Merari, or Merarites) each filled different roles in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple services.
Levites' principal roles in the Temple included singing Psalms during Temple services, performing construction and maintenance for the Temple, serving as guards, and performing other services. Levites also served as teachers and judges, maintaining cities of refuge in Biblical times. The Book of Ezra reports that the Levites were responsible for the construction of the Second Temple and also translated and explained the Torah when it was publicly read.
In Egypt the Levites were the only tribe that remained committed to God. During the Exodus the Levite tribe were particularly zealous in protecting the Mosaic law in the face of those worshipping the Golden Calf, which may have been a reason for their priestly status.
In the Torah
2 And with you bring your brother also, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, that they may join you and minister to you while you and your sons with you are before the tent of the testimony. 3 They shall keep guard over you and over the whole tent, but shall not come near to the vessels of the sanctuary or to the altar lest they, and you, die. 4 They shall join you and keep guard over the tent of meeting for all the service of the tent, and no outsider shall come near you. 5 And you shall keep guard over the sanctuary and over the altar, that there may never again be wrath on the people of Israel. 6 And behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to the Lord, to do the service of the tent of meeting. Numbers 18:2-4;6 (ESV)
In the Prophets
The Book of Jeremiah speaks of a covenant with the Kohanim (priests) and Levites, connecting it with the covenant with the seed of King David:
- As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured; so will I multiply the seed of David My servant, and the Levites that minister unto Me.
- And the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, saying:
- 'Considerest thou not what this people have spoken, saying: The two families which the LORD did choose, He hath cast them off? Jeremiah 33:22-24
The prophet Malachi also spoke of a covenant with Levi:
- Know then that I have sent this commandment unto you, that My covenant might be with Levi, saith the LORD of hosts.
- My covenant was with him of life and peace, and I gave them to him, and of fear, and he feared Me, and was afraid of My name.
- The law of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and did turn many away from iniquity. Malachi 2:4-6
Malachi connected a purification of the "sons of Levi" with the coming of God's messenger:
- Behold, I send My messenger, and he shall clear the way before Me; and the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to His temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in, behold, he cometh, saith the LORD of hosts.
- But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap;
- And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver; and there shall be they that shall offer unto the LORD offerings in righteousness. Malachi 3:1-3
In contemporary Jewish practice
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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. A tiny minority of Orthodox Jews support 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.
Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism do not believe in a future Temple at all, or in a form of worship in which role is determined by ancestry. However, some Reform synagogues will refer to members who volunteer to help with services and other functions as "Levites." This is more of an honorific title and has no basis of lineage.
A Bat Levi (daughter of a Levite) is recognized as having lineal sanctity in both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, 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 ceremony because of this lineal sanctity.
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.
Some Levites have adopted a related last name to signify their status. Because of diverse geographical locations, the names have several variations:
- Levi, Lévy - Hebrew for "Levite", equally common in Ashkenazic and Sephardic groups.
- HaLevi, Halevi and Halevy are Hebrew language and all translate to "the Levi" or "the Levite."
- Levin - a Russian variation, also Levine or Lavine (pronounced \le-°vēn\, rhyming with "ravine" or in some cases, anglicised as \lə-°vīn\ rhyming with "divine") and Lewin a Polish variation. Sometimes supplemented with German 'thal' (valley) to Levinthal or Leventhal and -sohn and -son to Levinson or Levinsohn as a patronymic, and with Slavic -ski and -sky suffixes Levinski, Levinsky, Lewinski and Lewinsky (the 'e' often replaced with 'a' in German areas).
- Lev a simplified Russian variation
- Lewicki Polish "of the Levites", also Lewicka, Lewycka, Lewycki, Lewycky, Lewicky, Levicki, Levicky (can also originate from placenames in Poland).
- 'Levit, also Levitt, typically from the Bessarabia region of Romania, Moldova and southern Ukraine.
- Lewita Polish "Levite" or Levita Latinized, with Slavic suffix -an/in Lewitan, Levitan (the greatest family name of Levite origin), Levitin, Lewitin, Lewitinn, and with additional suffix -ski/sky Levitanski, Lewitanski, Levitansky, also Lewitas, Levitas, Belarusian.
- Variants from yiddish "Leyvik", a pet form of Leyvi: Levitch Ukrainian variant, also Levicz, Levis, Levitz, Lewicz, Lewitz, Lewis, and with -ski and -sky suffixes Leviczky, Levitski, Levitsky, Lewitski and Lewitsky ('e' and 's' often replaced with 'a' and 'z' in German areas).
- Loewy, Löwi, Löwy, and Loewe German or Swiss variations (although the usual origin for these names is Loewe, the German word for "lion").
- Leevi - a Finnish variation.
- "Leven"- a Swedish variation
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. In traditional Judaism, tribal status is determined by patrilineal descent, so a child whose biological father is a Levite is a Levite (in cases of adoption or artificial insemination, status is determined by the genetic father). Because Jewish status is traditionally determined by matrilineal descent, conferring levitical status on 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 conferrable 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 conferrable by matrilineal descent. It is either conferable patrilineally, in the traditional manner, or it does not exist and is not conferred at all.
Levites and priests may have been responsible for stamping the LMLK seals on Judean storage jars during the reign of Hezekiah (ca. 700 BCE). The associated personal seals on the same jars may have represented various courses of Levites overseeing the proper production of 10 percent for tithing in the same manner that modern authorities on kashruth (mashgihim) approve kosher food and wine (Grena, 2004, pp. 75–6).
In Biblical criticism
The parts of the Torah attributed by advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis to the Elohist, seem to treat Levite as a descriptive attribute for someone particularly suited to the priesthood, rather than as the designator of a tribe and feel that Moses and Aaron are being portrayed as part of the Joseph group rather than being part of a tribe called Levi. The Levites are not mentioned by the Song of Deborah considered one of the oldest passages of the Bible. Jahwist passages have more ambiguous language; traditionally interpreted as referring to a person named Levi they could also be interpreted as just referring to a social position titled levi. In the Blessing of Jacob (later than the Song of Deborah), Levi is treated as a tribe, cursing them to become scattered; critics regard this as an aetiological postdiction to explain how a tribe could be so scattered, the simpler solution being that the priesthood was originally open to any tribe, but gradually became seen as a distinct tribe to themselves. In the Priestly Source and Blessing of Moses, which critical scholars view as originating centuries later, the Levites are firmly established as a tribe, and the only tribe with the right to be priests.
- "Levites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Levites. , cited in
- From "Levites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Levites. quoting
- Joel Roth, The Status of Daughters of Kohanim and Leviyim for Aliyot, Rabbinical Assembly
- This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- Peake's commentary on the Bible
- Grena, G.M. (2004). LMLK--A Mystery Belonging to the King vol. 1. Redondo Beach, California: 4000 Years of Writing History. ISBN 0-9748786-0-X.
|This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Levite. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.|