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Levite status


Rabbi David Sperling

Elul 9, 5775
My grandfather told my father that he was a yisroel, and my father and I have always regarded ourselved as yisroelim. I have recently met some second cousins who have told me that their branch of the family are all levites. In other words my paternal grandfather’s brother’s descendants are leviim and I am apparently not. We know of no adoptions or unusual circumstances for this discrepancy. How does this affect me and my sons and our status in the community. Is it worth getting a gene test to confirm that the apparent Levite branch of the family are indeed blood relatives, which I believe to be the case. Many thanks.
Shalom, Thank you for your question. What an interesting situation! Imagine thinking your family were all "Israels" and then meeting distant relatives and finding they all were "Levis"! Let me begin by saying that I do not wish to give you an outright halachic ruling (that would obligate you to follow it). This is because there are many factors that could change such a ruling that are missing from your email. For example – when you say that your grandfather told your father he was an Israel – why did he need to tell him? Were they not religious, and so your father never saw his father being called up in synagogue? (I don't believe I've ever told my children that we are Israels, because since they were little they came to shule with me and saw that I was an Israel). Because if so, then his statement that he was an Israel has less halachic weight to it (See Shevet HaLevi, volume 10,225). Or for example, is there a third branch of the family that could tip the scales in one direction or the other? Perhaps some easy historical research is available, such as looking at early wedding contracts, or gravestones. For these and other reasons I would like to give you a response to your question – but at the same time you should feel free to personally take your case to a Rabbi who can give you a better ruling. Based on what you have written to me, it would seem that it would be advisable to continue with the working assumption you have, which is that you are an Israel. This is both because you were told so by your father, from his father, and also because most Jews are Israel, and that is the defacto state we use. (I assume that your relatives have written to a different website to find out whether they should stop being Levis because they have met your side of the family who are Israels! They have a much trickier question to deal with). Also, there is very little to lose by acting as Israels even if in heaven you are really a Levi – as opposed to the situation where the question was of doubtfully being a Cohen, where all types of questions relating to forbidden marriages etc would arise. There may even be a valid reason as to why you are Israels and the relatives are Levis – such as a conversion or adoption. And although you write that you are unaware of anything like this, perhaps it was kept quiet out of fear of embarrassing someone (in which case your investigations will only cause someone anguish). As to gene testing – I do not advise it, and as far as I am aware it is not used as halachic evidence to the extent that you would change your status based on it. Blessings.
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