If your paternal DNA shows that you are descended from the tribe of Levi, you have certain privileges and duties that other Jewish people do not have.  For one, whether you are male or female, your first-born son does not need to be redeemed.  The redemption ceremony, called Pidyon ha-ben in Hebrew, consists of the baby’s father handing a cohen a symbolic amount – traditionally five coins – to confirm his son’s status as a member of his family and not a priest.  The pidyon ha-ben takes place on the 30th day of the baby’s life and offers the family an opportunity for a happy celebration.

          Naturally, that means the family first has to find a cohen – a descendant of Aaron the ancient High Priest — who can conduct the ceremony.  Being a cohen myself, I remember one pidyon ha-ben I had scheduled for a young local couple.  Arriving at their apartment, I found the place full of relatives and friends laughing and enjoying each other’s company.  With the young parents and one grandfather, I sat down to make out the certificate.  When we came to the mother’s Hebrew name and her father’s Hebrew name, he added the word ha-Levi.  Woops!  Surprise.  I had to tell them we couldn’t do the ceremony because their son did not need to be redeemed.  His mother being the daughter of a levi, he was exempt.

          “What will we do?” the mother asked.

          I looked around at the guests and said, “Have a party.  Welcome your son!”  They did.

          The Biblical background for this whole scenario comes from the 8th chapter of the Book of Numbers – this week’s Torah reading.  And it draws on the account in Exodus, the story of the Golden Calf.  In the turmoil that followed Moses’ shock when he came down the mountain with the Tablets of the Law and found his people dancing around a calf-shaped idol, it was the tribe of Levi that came to his aid.  Therefore, Levi becomes G-d’s chosen elite, a Divinely ordained “first-born,” to replace the firstborn of all the Israelites that got spared in the extinction of the Tenth Plague in Egypt.  As we read here, Moses gets the Divine message: “The Levites shall be Mine.”  They are numbered separately, they have special locations in the desert camp, and each of their families has definite religious duties including transporting the Ark and the Tabernacle.  In later centuries, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, it was the Levites who formed the sacred choir and orchestra that stood on the steps of the sanctuary and sang the psalms.

In modern times too, descendants of the tribe of Levi have specific roles.  To some people, it may look as if the levi plays second fiddle, since he never gets the first aliya – the first call to the Torah reading, always the second, following the cohen.  Even when there is no cohen at services, the levi doesn’t go first.  But it is the levi who washes the cohen’s hands to prepare him for reciting the Priestly Blessing.  And this is significant.  After all, Aaron, like his brother Moses and sister Miriam, came from a Levitic family.  So his descendants constitute an offshoot of the tribe of Levi.  Not a separate tribe.   Also, remember that when the people were ready to give up on Moses ever coming down from Mount Sinai who was it they pressured for help?  Aaron.  And what did Aaron do?  He made them a golden calf.  So he was involved in their sin.  The rest of the Levites were involved in their punishment.  Despite his grave error, Aaron retained his priesthood because, as the Mishna reminds us, he was a rodef shalom – a pursuer of peace; he healed wounds between people.  The Levites gained their status, replacing the firstborn of every family, by their courage and loyalty in crisis.

          So, if you are a Levi, you have a history to be proud of. 


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