The Levites, descendants of Jacob’s son Levi, were selected to serve G‑d in the Holy Temple. Most served in peripheral roles, playing music, opening and closing the gates, and standing guard. In the case of the portable Tabernacle (which preceded the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), they were responsible for packing up, transporting, and reconstructing the Tabernacle whenever the Israelites travelled to a new camp.
The most sacred tasks, including bringing the sacrifices, were reserved for the kohanim (priests), descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses.
How Was Levi Selected?
Originally, the firstborn sons were to have been the priests. When G‑d spared the Jewish firstborns in Egypt, He “acquired” them and designated them for this special role.
When the Jewish people made and worshipped a golden calf after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the only tribe that did not participate was Levi. At this time, the firstborns lost their special status, and it was transferred to the Levites.
In truth, however, the Levites were special from beforehand. Even during the Egyptian bondage, they were exempt from the crushing labor and permitted to devote themselves to spiritual pursuits, providing the rest of the Israelites with much needed encouragement and a strong moral compass (Read: Why Didn’t Pharaoh Enslave the Tribe of Levi?)
How Were the Levites Divided?
Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kehot, and Merari. When transporting the Temple, each clan had different duties. Kehot would transport the Holy Ark and other accouterments, Gershon carried the curtains, Merari carried the beams, sockets, and bars.
In later generations, as the population grew, the Levites were divided into 24 mishmarot (guards). Each group served one week in the Temple before relinquishing their place to the next mishmar in the roster.
Aaron’s descendants had their own set of duties, honors, and responsibilities. Expected to be ready to serve in the Temple at a moment’s notice, they were forbidden to drink too much wine, defile themselves by coming into contact with corpses, or marry certain women. In the Temple, they had their own uniform: a linen tunic, turban, and trousers, and a colourful sash. The priests were given the mitzvah to bless the people of Israel using a special formula, which is still done today (Explore: The Priestly Blessing)
In every generation, there was a High Priest (Kohen Gadol), heir to Aaron, who was tasked with performing the most sacred Temple duties. His uniform comprised eight garments, richly woven of golden thread, and adorned with gems. On Yom Kippur, he performed the most sacred service, which included entering the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was housed (Explore: The High Priest in Jewish Tradition)
Where Did They Live?
When Israel was apportioned among the 12 Tribes, the Levites were not given any land of their own. Instead they lived in certain towns scattered all over Israel. Many of these were designated as cities of refuge, where people accused of manslaughter could live, safe from vengeful relatives of the victim, and be inspired by the devout Levites to become more caring and spiritual (Cities of Refuge Demystified).
Priestly Gifts: With no land of their own, the Levites were not able to farm. Additionally, their Temple duties may have prevented them from investing themselves in working a trade. They were supported through a system of tithes and other “gifts” outlined in the Torah. Every Jewish farmer gave maaser, a tenth of his produce, to the Levite, and terumah, a smaller amount, to a kohen. The kohanim would also receive portions of the animals and meal offerings brought to the Temple.
Levites Today - Unique Family Names
Many Jewish families treasure the fact that they are of Levite or kohen heritage (following a direct line of males). Levine, Levy, Segal, Horowitz, and their various iterations are all trademark Levi surnames. Cohen, Kagan, Katz, and Azulay are some examples of common kohen names. It is important to note, however, that many people of kohen or Levite ancestry do not have surnames that reflect this aspect of their ancestry, and many people with these last names don’t have a tradition indicating that they are Levites.
In the absence of the Temple and most tithes, the Levites live much the same as other Jews. There are some key things to keep in mind.
As a mark of honour, it is customary that the first aliyah (being called to the Torah) is given to a kohen and the second is given to a Levite. When they are called up, the words HaKohen or HaLevi are appended to their Hebrew names.
The male kohen is still to avoid contact with the body of a deceased person, unless it is immediate family. This includes not going to cemeteries or funerals, except of those of his immediate family.
The kohanim bless the congregation with the priestly blessing. The widespread custom in the Diaspora is to do this only on holidays. In Israel, however, many do this on a daily basis. Before the blessing, the Levites wash the hands of the kohanim.
The kohanim (but not other Levites) can only marry certain women.
Despite the importance placed on the Levite lineage, it is important to note that anyone can accomplish greatness, and that G‑d is equally accessible to all. In the words of Maimonides:
Not only the tribe of Levi [was chosen by G‑d], but any human, man or woman, who is spiritually motivated and has the intellectual understanding to set himself aside and stand before G‑d to serve Him and minister to Him and to know G‑d, proceeding justly as G‑d made him, removing from his neck the burden of the many plans people pursue, he is sanctified as holy of holies and G‑d will be his portion and heritage forever…1 (Laws of Shemitah 13:13.)