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>JN Oct. 1, 1998, Vol. 6, No. 174
Jewish Priestly Line Maintains Legacy - and Genetic Marker
Sholom Cohen's family tree has extraordinarily deep roots and long
branches. It stretches from Pittsburgh, through Eastern Europe and
far back into the Middle East. In fact, he traces his kin 3,300
years into the pages of the Torah, or Old Testament.
Cohen, along with hundreds of other Jews living in Western
Pennsylvania and about 350,000 Jews around the world, are kohanim,
a Hebrew word literally meaning "priests."
According to the Torah, the first priest was Aaron, who was
appointed to the position by his younger brother Moses after the
debacle of the golden calf at Mount Sinai.
During the time of the First and Second Temples and up until the
latter's destruction in 70 CE, the kohanim were responsible for
performing elaborate rituals of animal sacrifices and grain
It's an inheritance in Judaism that has been passed from fathers to
sons for generations. For many, like Cohen and others named Kohn,
Kahn or Coen, their surnames often indicate their priestly status.
But this summer, researchers reported that there was a genetic
underpinning to that legacy.
Based on a study of 306 Jewish men in Israel, Canada and England,
the researchers discovered that the 106 Jews who had identified
themselves as kohanim shared genetic markers in their Y chromosomes
that members of the general Jewish population did not.
As the study's originator, Dr. Karl Skorecki, head of molecular
medicine at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel,
and a kohen himself, has said, "The simplest, most structured
explanation is that these men have the Y chromosome of Aaron."
Additionally, the researchers dated the inception of the Aaronide
line to be more than 3,200 years old, a period that would date
roughly back to the time of the Hebrews' exodus from Egypt as
written in the Torah. Study researcher David Goldstein has said the
findings show that the "oral tradition is actually right (and) that
it has been followed over some period of time."
The research has stimulated debate between geneticists and
biological anthropologists, and ignited some concern among Jews
about whether individual congregations might begin testing the
legitimacy of their kohanims' legacies.
If nothing else, the study, published in July in the British
science journal Nature, has caused attention to be focused on the
little-understood aspect of Jewish priestly lineage.
Distinctive chromosome Students of the Old Testament know the
ancient Hebrews were divided into 12 tribes, including the tribe of
Levi. Moses, who led the Jews out of Egypt and through 40 years of
wandering in the desert, was a Levi (LAY'-vee). Initially,
first-born males were designated to be the priests, but after they
participated in the golden calf episode the honor was passed to the
tribe of Levi.
As it is written in the Torah, God told Moses to make Aaron the new
nation's top priest, or kohen gadol, with all his descendants also
becoming priests. The rest of the levites were designated to help
the priests, and carry materials of the sanctuary, including the
ark containing the Ten Commandments. In later years at the temples
in Jerusalem, the levites served as guardians, musicians and
But it's the kohanim who have maintained their patrilineal
connection over the long run. And it's been all by word of mouth.
The Y chromosome, so named for its shape, is carried only by males
(females carry two X's), making it easy to track. Researchers
studied two of the chromosome's genetic markers, or sections, of
DNA, the double-stranded molecule that carries our encoded genetic
material. While most chromosomes rearrange themselves randomly
through succeeding generations, increasing genetic diversity, these
were more homogenous.
The study also found a predominance of certain chromosome features
in kohanim of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi origin. Ashkenazim are
Eastern European Jews and Sephardim originated in Spain and
Researchers said this was further evidence that the shared priestly
genes predated the split of world Jewry into these two distinct
ethnic groups more than 1,000 years ago. But Jonathan Marks, a
biological anthropologist at the University of California at
Berkeley, has difficulty accepting the study's results. "I'm a
skeptic," he said. "What they're doing is Mickey Mouse social
science." The problem, he said, is their interpretation of the
Marks said people with shared surnames tend to be more closely
related anyway than people with different last names. "If you look
at a sample of people named Horowitz, you would tend to find
the same thing" as the study found, Marks said. "My question is,
`Would people named Horowitz differ from Jews in general?' I think
Besides, he continued, "there's no reason to think that there even
was a priestly Aaron. It's an origin myth. To take at random
something from the deep hoary past as if it's literally true and
use that as your starting point, there's a problem with that. It's
Michael Hammer, a geneticist at the University of Arizona who
worked on parts of the study, said Marks' criticisms missed the
point. For the study, Hammer said, "surnames were fairly
irrelevant. It was a test case for genetics to see if the Y
chromosome can be consistent with patrilineal descent. It was not
to take genetic data and tell who is whom. "(And) men who claim to
be Jewish priests do have a signal of a shared lineage."
Like most things in life, even a priestly genetic link is a mixed
blessing. For starters, it applies only to males. While Jewish law
- except among Reconstructionist and Reform congregations -
dictates that a person's Jewish identity is passed only through the
mother, the tribal legacy of priesthood is passed only through
fathers. (The other two designations of tribal connections, levites
and israelites, are also paternal legacies.)
Any male children born to a "Jewish" woman and a kohen are kohanim.
There are no specific laws governing bas kohen, or daughters of
kohen, although some families have the custom of them marrying
kohanim or scholars.
According to Jewish law, kohanim are not allowed to marry divorcees
or converts. Nor can they attend funerals of anyone but family
members. Kohanim are accorded honors, such as being called first to
any reading of the Torah, leading blessings after meals and
officiating at ceremonies marking the redemption of first-born
But not all Jews who are kohanim accept the birthright. Leaders of
Reconstructionist, Reform and some Conservative synagogues say such
designations are anachronisms. "Those are archaic and we don't pay
any attention to them," said Rabbi Robert Tabak, director of
administration for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, an
organization representing 90 North American congregations.
"The whole notion in the Reform movement of priesthood and lineage
is not a concern for us," said Rabbi Elliot Stevens, executive
secretary of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a Reform
umbrella group. "The notion of priesthood has been defunct for the
last 2,000 years."
"My name is Irish," said LaLanna Coen, who is not Jewish. Neither
is Secretary of Defense William Cohen. But beloved American
songwriter and playwright George M. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" Keoghan
was. He was better known by his transliterated last name of Cohan.
Other common surnames for kohanim include Kahan, Katz, Shapiro and
Rapaport. Many of the names have intriguing origins. Kogan and
Kagan, for example, are Russian for Cohen and Kahan. The Russian
language has no "h" sound and replaced it with a hard "g." Kaganoff
and Kaganovitch are Slavic for "son of a kohen." Broch is adapted
from the Hebrew word bracha, or blessing, suggesting the kohanim's
duty to bless the Jewish people.
Other names come from acronyms. Katz is an acronym for the Hebrew
term kohen tzedek, or "authentic kohen." The name originated during
a time in Jewish history when nonkohanim were claiming Aaronide
ancestry. The surname Mazeh is an acronym for "... of the seed of
Aaron the priest."
Rapaport, and its various spellings, is believed to have originated
from the 16th century Rabbi Avraham Menahem Hakohen Rapa, of Porto,
Italy. His escutcheon in Hebrew speaks of "Rapa of Porto," which
over the years was consolidated.
Adler means "eagle" in German, a name adopted to describe the
outstretched arms of the kohanim during the priestly blessing.
During that chanted 15-word blessing, when the kohanim face the
rest of the congregation, they split the four fingers of each hand.
It's the same split-finger formation that actor Leonard Nimoy used
for the Vulcan greeting ("live long and prosper") popularized by
his Mr. Spock character in television's "Star Trek." Nimoy, who is
Jewish, has said he recalled the sign from synagogue.
According to custom, the split fingers serve as a channel for God's
voice to reach the congregation through the kohanim. Custom also
says that when Elijah announces the arrival of Moshiach, or the
messiah, the prophet will bring with him a list of all the
legitimate kohanim. But some people aren't waiting.
A Jerusalem-based group known as the Movement for Establishing the
Temple has begun a campaign to get expectant mothers whose husbands
are kohanim to allow the group to raise the newborn boys to the age
of 13 in a special compound. This would protect the boys from any
kind of ritual defilement, such as accidentally coming in contact
with unknown graves.
The group points to the biblical admonition that ritually pure
priests are needed in order to purify the Jewish people when the
Third Temple is built.
Interested in discovering whether you are a kohen? To receive a
test kit, write to Michael Hammer, Dept. of EEB, Biosciences West,
University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721.
(All material on these web pages is © 2001-2012
by Electronic World Communications, Inc.)