The beginning part of this week’s parsha refers to the special laws and status regarding kohanim – the descendants of Aharon. It is common knowledge that a study based on the DNA samples of many current day kohanim revealed a common genetic strain amongst a considerable number of those who participated in the study. This strain was found to be common even amongst people who lived in different areas of the world separated by thousands of miles and centuries of differing ethnicities.
The jury is still out whether these DNA findings have any halachic validity and as to what exactly these findings prove. Over the centuries of Jewish life the kohanim have fiercely protected their lineal descent from Aharon and zealously guarded their status of legitimacy as being kohanim. Kohanim are held in high regard in the Jewish world and are entitled to certain special privileges and honors in the Jewish religious society.
Though it seems that it is permissible for a kohein to waive some of those privileges if he so wishes, preferred behavior dictates that he not do so. The status of the kohein is to be preserved as a remembrance of their special role in the Temple services in Jerusalem. But in a deeper sense it is to be preserved to remind us of their special mission “to guard with their lips knowledge and to teach Torah to those who request it.”
They are to be a blessing to the people of Israel and they are commanded to in turn bless the people of Israel. Blessed are those that are commanded to bless others. Thus the status of a kohein is representative of all that is noble and positive in Jewish life and tradition – knowledge, Torah, grace, security and peace.
The question of ersatz kohanim is discussed widely in connection with halachic decisions. Not every person who claims to be a kohein is really a kohein. Since true pedigrees are very difficult to truly ascertain today, the halacha adopts a position that who is really a kohein is a matter of doubt. Therefore great rabbinic decisors, especially in the United States, have oftenm, in cases of dire circumstances, “annulled” the kehuna of an individual.
In the confusion of immigration to the United States at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries there were people who disguised themselves as kohanim in order to earn the monies of pidyon haben – the redemption of the first born son from the kohein. These people were charlatans, but many other simple Jews assumed that somehow they were kohanim without any real proof of the matter. Even tombstones that declared that one’s father was a kohein were not to be accepted as definitive proof of the matter. Therefore the DNA results are most interesting and provocative.
The halacha has not yet determined with certainty the trustworthiness of DNA results in matters that require halachic decision. Therefore it is premature to speculate whether DNA testing will ever be used as a method of determining one’s true status as a kohein. But ever is a long time coming so we will have to see. Meanwhile the kohanim should retain their tradition of pedigree to the best of their abilities.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com