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A Paradox of Jewish Inheritance

Before DNA testing, there was no way to prove paternity, so it was understandable that Judaism would be passed on through the maternal line. So why doesn’t the transmission of status—whether you are one of the three “castes” of Judaism: Kohen, Levi or Yisrael—require the same certainty as the transmission of religion? A kohen (one descended from the priestly class with special duties in the Temple more than 2000 years ago) is always given the honor of the first aliyah during a Torah reading and gives the “priestly blessing” at a synagogue service.

But, strangely enough, though a Jewish identity passes from a mother to both her sons and her daughters, her priestly lineage, if she should be a Bat (daughter of a) Kohen ends with her. Only a father can pass along this Jewish status to his children, and only his sons may pass it along to their children. Why?

Forty years ago, my mother asked that same question. Her father was a kohen. When my brother was born, my mother took it upon herself to decide that she need not have a pidyon ha ‘hen for my brother, her first child. The “redemption of the first-born son” is a ceremony in which a first-born male, thought to belong to the priest or kohen, must be symbolically bought back from a member of the kohen caste or tribe. A kohen needn’t be redeemed, and since she is a kohen, she decided, why shouldn’t her son be one as well? No matter that my father is of the tribe of Yisrael.

So, by my mother’s logic, I am a kohen too.

Should I ask for the first aliyah?

Debra Rubin is editor of the Washington Jewish Week.


Each of us has a name

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

Adaptation of a Hebrew poem by Zelda, by MARCIA FALK Reprinted with permission from The Book of Blessings (HarperSanFrancisco).