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When the Torah is read, a Cohen (or Kohen) is called to make the blessings over reading the first portion. Then a Levite is called for the second portion.  A Yisroel (Israelite) may then be called for the remaining portions to be read.  A Cohen is usually accorded greater honor or precedence before a Levite or an Israel.  What do these titles mean and how did they come about?

Jewish history starts with our forefather, Avraham (Abraham).  His son Yitzhak (Isaac) continued the traditions and passed them on to his son, Ya'akov (Jacob).  Twelve sons were born to Ya'akov: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Zevulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Yosef (Joseph) and Binyamin.  These were the original 12 tribes of Israel.  Because of a special blessing from Ya'akov to Yosef, his portion was given to his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, who were then elevated to equal status with Yosef's brothers -- so there were really 13 tribes!

Until the transgression of the Golden Calf, the firstborn sons were the ones who were designated to do the holy service in the Mishkan, the Portable Sanctuary, in the Desert.  No one from the Tribe of Levi worshipped the Golden Calf and, therefore, the Almighty replaced the firstborn with the Tribe of Levi to serve in the sanctuary (Numbers 3:11-12).  Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kehath and Merari.  The work of the Sanctuary --erecting, dismantling, carrying, singing, assisting the Cohanim -- was divided amongst the three families.

Moshe (Moses) and Aharon (Aaron) were brothers -- descended from Amram the son of Kehath.  While Moshe was the leader of the Jewish people in the desert, the Almighty designated Aharon as the Cohen Gadol (High Priest).  For all time, Aharon and his descendants would be Cohanim (also spelled "Kohanim").  The Cohanim were the priests who performed the actual service in the Mishkan and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Throughout the 40 years in the desert, the Jewish people traveled according to their tribe.  When we entered into the Land of Israel (1273 B.C.E.), each tribe received a specific territory (except the Tribe of Levi which was given specific cities to live in).  After the split of the Kingdom into Israel and Judah following the death of King Solomon, the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and exiled the Ten Tribes.  Since then the Ten Tribes were not heard from and Jews can now only trace their lineage to the Kohanim and Levites.  The rest of us reside under the designation of "Israelites" -- not sure from which tribe we descend.

How does one find out if he is a Cohen or a Levi?  If you can't ask your father or your grandfather, then one can look through genealogical records for marriage certificates or official records.  If one knows where his paternal forefathers are buried, he can check the tombstones for inscriptions.  Sometimes on the tombstones of a Cohen are two hands with fingers spread as a Cohen would form his hands when blessing the Jewish people. 

On the tombstone of a Levi there is sometimes an engraving of a pitcher symbolizing the service of the Levite in washing the Cohen's hands before the Cohen would bless the Jewish people.

Then again, one can always wait for Eliyahu (Elijah) the prophet who will precede the Moshiach (Messiah) and who will be able to inform us of our true tribal lineage!