A Recent Event Solely for Genetic Levites?
As the Hebrew Bible makes clear and Jewish tradition preserves, the ancient kingdoms of Judea and Samaria were tribal. The biblical narrative includes 12 tribes each one descending paternally from a son of the Biblical Jacob, grandson of Abraham. Since the destruction of the First Temple (~ 586 BCE) and subsequent exile, the political relations between these tribes fell into irrelevancy and intermingling between the tribes was not safeguarded which lead to the general mixing of these families and their tribal identity became overall unimportant to Jewish life.
The major exceptions to the loss of tribal identities are those families that were seen to have eventual relevance in the coming Redemption as Judaism began to see it. Thus the royal Davidic lineage was closely guarded in many Jewish communities around the world, for example.
Another tribal identity closely guarded is that of the Levites. In almost all Jewish communities throughout the world there are families that claim direct paternal descent from Levi son of Jacob. The importance of this tribe is the service this tribe had traditionally performed in the Temple. Jewish communities vigorously guarded the identities of these descendants so that in a future Temple in Jerusalem these people may fulfill their Divine directive. As a sign of pride in their heritage many Levite families today have chosen family names to reflect their special status within the Jewish community - names like Levy, Levine and Loewy are common.
In regards to the type of service this tribe was commanded with we need not look any further than the Mosaic Law as recorded in the books of Leviticus and Numbers where the Levite service is described as twofold: gatekeepers and singers during Temple sacrifices. These two services were kept by the Levite families during both Temples in Jerusalem. During the Return to Zion following Cyrus the Great's decree of religious freedom in 538 BCE Ezra actively searched for descendants of this tribe for these two jobs. As Ezra described in his book, an important part of the return to Zion was the reinstatement of Temple ceremony - procedures requiring Levite input:
"...and of the children of Levi I did not find there: And I sent... to bring attendants for the House of our God:" (Ezra 8:17)
But if the paternal identity of these families was so rigorously guarded over the generations we should expect these identities to appear in genetic research of these families across Jewish communities. In fact, the past two decades of genetic research have wrought fascinating discoveries in this field and the most updated research has suggested the existence of a "Levite gene." Genetic research has discovered that male characteristics are inherited through a single chromosome that is passed down from father to son only. What this means practically is that mutations of this chromosome that take place across tens of thousands of years of generations can be tracked - any two males with the same variation of this sex-determining chromosome are very likely descendants of the same male ancestor.
Although a full coverage is beyond the scope of this post I want to briefly discuss perhaps the most recent of the research papers covering the Levite Gene. In 2017 Dr. Doron Behar published a research paper entitled: The Genetic Variation in the R1a Clade Among Ashkenazi Levites' Y Chromosome. Previous research into the gene had determined that over 50% of all Ashkenazi Jews claiming to be of the Levite tribe indeed shared a common sex-determining chromosome that is designated R1a-Y2619. Behar expanded this discovery and concluded that the progenitor of this chromosome came from Asia and lived approximately 1,743 years from the present. He also concluded that this gene mutation is part of a subcluster of gene mutations that come directly from a male progenitor approximately 3,000 years ago in the Middle East. The paper is founded on recent and established genetic principles in the field of Molecular Phylogenetics and I would suggest reading it
or a summary of it along with more information on the Levite Gene research
Although genetic research can be used to question the validity of family traditions, Jewish Law does not yet rely on such assertions. The Halachic determination of Levite lineage is determined still by familial and community tradition. Levites even today see themselves as descendants of Levi son of Jacob regardless of genetic testing. And as the birthright of this tribe would dictate, some Levites have began to prepare for return to that same service in Temple.
(The official clip from the 'Levite Song' event in October 2019)
This October (2019) on the holiday of Sukkot a big event was organized by a number of Temple activist organizations with funding from The Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem - a company who's entirety of shares are owned by Israel's Ministry of Construction. It was only for Levites. The event was meant as a 'practice' for their singing in the Temple. The book of Psalms was largely composed for use in the Temple ceremonies. As such, it was sung by groups of Levites in Temple times. The Levites that came to the event sang various Psalms with musical accompaniment. The event would seem to have been aimed at building a more comprehensive Levite identity; one where members of this identity view themselves as an integral part of Temple procedure in the hopes that they will one day be able to be part and parcel of Temple life.
In any case, as a guide on the Temple Mount and as a person who follows the Jewish traditions connected to the holiness of the site, I can firmly express my disappointment with what this tribe has become. As mentioned above, the Levites are commanded with the gatekeeping of the Temple complex. This included the responsibilities of allowing the masses into the Temple Mount complex and making sure they do not enter parts of the mount whose holiness is off limits. They essentially acted in a way similar to how I see my duty as a religious guide on the Temple Mount today.
In the quote from the book of Ezra above it is recorded that much of the tribe of Levi did not heed the call to return to Zion or to their responsibilities in the Temple. Are we seeing history repeat itself? I and many of my fellow guides are not Levites, yet together we have done more than half a million Levites alive today in 'opening the Temple Mount gates' and connecting Jew and Gentile to the holy site and its permitted areas.
Being a guide in the holiest place in Judaism is a great honor but the biblical responsibility rests on others. Where are they?
(I have attached a window to Sefaria where the Mishna of Midot detailing the duties of the Levites in the Second Temple can be reviewed.)