The Twelve Tribes of Israel are descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, who was later called Israel.
Reform Jews do not believe that any congregation should have a different type of status compared to another. However, for Conservative and Orthodox Jews, the very foundation of their faith derives from the three original tribes of Israel: Levis, Kohens and Israelites. Each of the three main tribes has a long and rich history that has evolved over thousands of years.
These groups began with the division of the Jewish nation between the twelve children of Jacob, one of whom was Levi. In the Torah, the Levites are addressed at the beginning of Numbers. God tells Moses not to include them in the tribes and appoint a chief or leader. In the Bible, Numbers 1:51 defines the purpose of the Levites as protectors and caretakers of the tabernacle:
“Whenever the tabernacle is to move, the Levites are to take it down, and whenever it is to be pitched, the Levites are to set it up. Any outsider who goes near it must be put to death.”
The Levis may be the smallest tribe, but they are regarded as spiritual leaders, and traditionally held several religious roles within the Temple, such as playing music or serving as guards.
Kohens are considered high priests and must be direct descendants of Aaron. In the tribe of Levi, Aaron and his descendants were designated as priests to serve in the Temple. God declared the first-born of every Jewish family would be designated as a Kohen, or the priest who would serve as that family’s representative at the Holy Temple.
However, after the Golden Calf incident at Mount Sinai, only the Levites remained loyal by not worshipping the graven image and were then designated as the priestly tribe.
Israelites are descendants of Abraham, Sarah and Jacob (who was later known as Israel), or “children of Israel”, which is where their name derives from.
Someone who converts to Judaism takes on the status of being an Israelite, along with their descendants. In many cases, Jewish communities keep meticulous records of each family’s lineage that dates back to the days of Moses. If there’s no proven path passed on from generation-to-generation, these people are also categorized as Israelites. Traditionally, a woman will adopt the status of her husband when she marries; if a bat Kohen (the daughter of a father who is Kohen)marries an Israelite, she and her offspring are Israelites.
Certain icons are associated with the tribes of Kohens and Levis. These symbolic images are often engraved into monuments and are considered one of the most notable expressions of traditional Jewish art.
The symbol of blessing hands are often engraved on monuments of deceased Kohens. The image of these hands is meant to represent the priestly blessing given to them as a symbol of Kohanim.
The artwork displayed on the grave markers of some in the Levi tribe is commonly adorned with a pitcher and water basin. Levis had a number of different duties given to them as a part of their Jewish spiritual and religious lives. The most notable of these tasks was the ritual washing of hands prior to the priestly blessing. A water pitcher, jug or cup that is used for this cleansing process has become synonymous with the Levis.
Among many of the time-honored rituals and traditions of the proud Jewish faith are those associated with the passing of a loved one. Whether it’s sitting Shiva or planning for this important memorial service, we sometimes see images of their religious statutes written in stone after someone has died.