I am a Jew descended from and through the tribe of Levi. I live in an area of the country in the State of Montana where there are no rabbis. I have a gentile friend who seems to be somewhat of a biblical theologian. He questions how I know that I am a Levite, considering that all of the records of the twelve tribes of Israel were destroyed. Can you help me with some answers? Where is the proof? Is it still written somewhere, or has the information about my descendants been merely passed down through the generations orally? My parents are dead, so there is no one to ask. Can you help?
Your friend’s assertion that all the genealogical records of the Jewish people were destroyed is untrue and unfounded. No such event ever occurred in Jewish history and there is no historian or ancient source that supports his claim.
The genealogies of the twelve tribes of Israel were not stored in the Temple and they were never destroyed. Moreover, the majority of the Jewish people did not live in Israel during the first century and their genealogical records would have been unaffected by the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 C.E.
With regard to your personal genealogical ancestry, bear in mind that there is no segment of the Jewish people who are more aware of their tribal affiliation and more mindful to properly transmit this distinctive ancestry to the descendants than the tribe of Levi. It has always been critical for members of the tribe of Levi to be aware of the unique place and status among the nation of Israel. This is true for a number of reasons. For instance, there are numerous distinct laws that apply only to this unique tribe. For example, there are certain women who a priest (kohen), who is a descendant of the tribe of Levi, may not marry. In addition, a priest isprohibited from coming into contact with adead body. Also, only descendants from the tribe of Levi are involved in the Aaronic Benediction ceremony celebrated every festival throughout the world. Simply put, every family from the tribe of Levi is knownto the Jewish people.
Moreover, not only are the descendants of Levi keenly aware of their unique ancestry,but the Jewish community as a whole has always been well aware of their identity as well. For example, only members of the tribe of Leviare honored with the first two blessings during the Torah reading in the synagogue. Also, anydescendant of the tribe of Levi is identified as such on all legal documents, including marriagecontracts and divorces.
Bear in mind that there were hundreds of thousands of priests and Levites throughout the Romanempire during the first century. Did they all have sudden amnesia? Did they all forget who theirfathers were? This genealogy was well known and meticulously documented by the Jewish people. This information was carefully passed down from father to son and was often recorded in a family’s Sefer Yuchsin (a record book of family genealogy).
I found your question particularly interesting, because my family has a Sefer Yuchsin which dates my ancestry back to biblical times. In it, every male between Aaron the High Priest (Moses’ brother) and myself is carefully recorded.
Rabbi Tovia Singer, HaKohen