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Writing Jewish Characters: Groups in Judaism Part III

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

It’s time for the third (and hopefully final) part of our series on Groups in Judaism.

So far we’ve covered sects and locational/ethnic groups. This time around, we’re covering tribes


The twelve tribes of Israel come directly from the children of the patriarch Jacob, who as you may recall, had twelve sons (plus one daughter).

Unlike Jacob’s brother and uncle, all of his sons were counted as Jews – or, as they came to be known, the people of Israel… Israel being one of Jacob’s other names, from when he wrestled with the angel. (Literally, Israel means “contends with God” or “struggles with God” and there is something incredibly poetic about the Jewish people – who argue all the time over our laws – being known by that name.)

Jacob’s twelve sons are: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. And originally, these twelve (and their descendants) became the twelve tribes. (Sorry, Dinah, but you’re female… you don’t get a tribe.)

At various points, a couple of these groups lost tribal status, while others either gained it or regained it.

Based on land allotment and modern conceptions, the twelve tribes are most often listed as: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin.

As you can see, Levi and Joseph got removed and Manasseh and Ephraim got added. Manasseh and Ephraim were Joseph’s sons, which essentially gave him and his descendants a double portion, and Levi was… honestly, the best way to describe it is special.

Unlike the twelve tribes, the Levites did not get land when they came to Israel after leaving Egypt (as we retell every year on Passover). Instead, they got dominion over six Cities of Refuge and the Temple in Jerusalem. They become the priestly class, which you can scroll down to find out more about.

There weren’t many differences between the twelve tribes other than the size and locations of their land allotments. All were comparable (based on the populations of the tribes), just kept slightly separate.

Is any of this story true? Honestly, who knows. As the Wikipedia article so eloquently states, “Modern scholarship has called into question the beginning, middle, and end of this picture.”

The same is the case for The United Monarchy, which supposedly existed and then split to form the Kingdom of Israel (also known as Samaria) and the Kingdom of Judah.

Both of those definitely existed. But whether they came from one kingdom is completely up for debate, as is any history before that.


Between 740 and 722 BCE, the Kingdom of Israel lost a war to Assyria, with its people eventually being forcibly resettled throughout the Assyrian empire. This group has become known as the Ten Lost Tribes – since they were not kept as one group and integrated into the population, rather than remaining a separated Jewish people. 

It is likely that most of them lost the culture/traditions/religion and intermarried into the local populations. Now, how much choice they had in the matter… well, we don’t explicitly call this groups slaves in our history, but what are the chances that none of them were? On top of that, even if you’re not officially a slave, being forced to move somewhere without most of your people and losing a connection to your entire society still means you don’t have a whole lot of – if any – choice. And either way, your religion and customs might be completely forbidden to you.

Nowadays, Judaism is an odd cross between a religion and an ethnic group, and Judaism is traditionally passed through the mother, though some of the more liberal branches are accepting a person as Jewish if either parent is Jewish and they are raised as a Jew. This is in direct opposition to the Bible, where people were Jewish because their father was – for instance, Moses and Joseph both married non-Jewish women. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the insistence on matriarchal inheritance comes from stories like this one.

Because historically, if you kill most of the men and force the women of a conquered people to marry men of your own, what religion are their children? Judaism has been a conquered people enough times that I suspect that’s why we go through the mother.

Either way, the Ten Lost Tribes were forcibly moved and assimilated enough that they are no longer considered part of the Jewish people.

The Kingdom of Judah, commonly considered to be made up of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Simeon (which had been absorbed into Judah at some point), bits of Manasseh and Ephraim, and some Levites, was not absorbed into Assyria. They were able to stay their own kingdom, a Jewish kingdom.

Somewhere around this point, all of those tribes except for the Levites began to lose their tribal identity and essentially merge into what’s now known as Israel. So… I have to admit, defining exactly what I mean by Israel is a bit complicated. Israel is a modern country, another name for Jacob, another name for the Jewish people, multiple historical kingdoms, and the group who are part of any tribe other than the Levites (and Kohens, their subgroup – see below for more details). In this case, we’re discussing the last definition. The tribes merged into Israel and lost their specific tribal definitions.

However, a few centuries later, the Kingdom of Judah lost its own war against Babylon. The date for the destruction of the First Temple is given alternately as 587 BCE, 423 BCE, and 403 BCE. (I always learned 587 BCE – the other dates are based on rabbinic methods of dating, which may or may not be accurate.)

During this war, the entire Kingdom of Judah was essentially deported and sent to live in Babylonia for a period of approximately 80 years. However, unlike the Ten Lost Tribes, this group was kept together in exile, and thus managed to stay Jewish – practicing the religion, marrying within the community, etc. Basically, by the time they returned from Babylonia, they still felt they were Jewish, while the people who had eventually returned from Assyria did not qualify… at least in the minds of those who were in charge.  Which, by the way, was the group who was exiled to Babylonia.

Later, they were allowed to return to Israel, where they built the Second Temple. (Though it’s somewhat destroyed, the Second Temple does still stand today, so if you go to Jerusalem and visit, that’s what you’re seeing.) This is Judaism’s main religious site, and even though we don’t use it for its actual purpose now, it’s still a major site of Jewish worship.

The Jewish people were exiled again in 70 CE and did not return until the late 1800s, but after that, Judaism became a religion based in the diaspora and turned into the much more modern form of rabbinic Judaism. By this point, the merging of most of the tribes into one group called Israel was complete, and the only group which was still differentiated was the tribe of Levi (and the subgroup of Kohen).

Ten Lost Tribes

While the traditional history of the ten lost tribes says that they were absorbed into Assyria entirely and lost their identity as a Jewish people, various groups have claimed descent.

These include:

Some of these are more likely than others – Samaritans, almost certainly; Mormons, almost certainly not. Other groups… who knows? They could be, or they could be descended from the Kingdom of Judah, or they could have converted at some point. There’s really no way to tell.

Most Jews don’t consider people from any of these groups to be Jewish unless they do a full conversion. (I’ll be discussing conversion in depth at some point.) A very few (Cochin Jews, Bene Israel, Beta Israel, Bnei Menashe) have managed to affiliate themselves with Judaism, but most haven’t. 

If you want to write a character from one of these groups, props to you! But I suggest you do a lot of research, and I am definitely not the person to counsel you on that – speaking to a person from said group would probably a good start.

Which Tribe Am I In?

Unlike Judaism in general, which counts descent through the mother as the side that matters, which tribe you’re a member of is determined by your father.

Sons of Kohens are Kohens, sons of Levites are Levites, sons of men who belong to Israel are Israel. Daughters are identified as Bat Kohen (daughter of a Kohen) or Bat Levi rather than as Kohen or Levi outright, and when they marry, they pretty much join their husband’s tribe. This was true even in the Bible, when land allotment mattered – the Daughters of Zelophehad (try saying that ten times fast) were able to inherit from their father since they had no brothers, but they had to marry within their tribe – Manasseh, in their case.

If you do not have a Jewish father, you default to Israel. This includes people who converted to Judaism, people who are Jewish because they have a Jewish mother but whose fathers are unknown or not Jewish, and (in the modern day) people who are born to Jewish women via sperm donor.

Basically, your character will know if they’re Kohen or Levi, and if they’re not, they’re going to be considered Israel. It’s not like being Israel is a bad thing! I’m Israel, as are most Jews who I know. We don’t lose anything by not being Kohen or Levi, we’re just not “special”… but honestly, there’s not a lot to gain by being one of those groups, as you’ll see in the next section..

Frankly, if you’re writing a Jewish character and don’t want to be confused, just default them to Israel – it’s easiest. Or don’t even mention it! Most of the time, unless they’re in synagogue, it won’t even come up.

Levites and Kohens

Throughout the Temple period, Levites were the religious class, with Kohens, a specific subset, being the priestly class. (FYI, I may use the terms Levites or Levi’im, Kohens or Kohanim – one is the more English version, the other a direct transliteration of the Hebrew.)

Levites and Kohens are all descended from Levi (shocking, I know), while Kohens are specifically descended from Aaron, Moses’s brother – the first High Priest. This is descent in the male line specifically; children of women who were born to the Levi or Kohen class belong to whatever tribe their husband is a part of. While this has probably not always been strictly adhered to (and the direct descent from both Levi and Aaron is quite possibly fictional), there is a greater than chance likelihood that all Kohanim are, in fact, related – well over 50% of the men have the same Y chromosome. This points to at least some sort of shared descent, specifically in the male line.

So back to the Temple period! Kohanim were the priests, with the oldest son of the oldest son going straight back to Aaron being the High Priest (Kohen Gadol). If there’s no son, you start hitting up brothers – think about how royalty passes along when there’s no direct male heir but there are other male relatives. Pure patriarchy, though – lines through women wouldn’t have counted. Later on, this became more political than genealogical, though as far as I know, the High Priest was always chosen from the priestly class if not the most direct descendants.

Priests were in charge of sacrifices, and they also received what are essentially tithes from the rest of the people. There were a number of rules they specifically had to obey, mostly related to purity and not being near dead bodies, as they were considered closer to God – the ones who performed sacrifices, thus making sure the prayers would be heard. 

Levites fulfilled other temple roles, such as musicians and guards. They took care of the various sanctuaries – everything from construction to maintenance. They also received tithes from the rest of the people.

This was the case up until 70 CE, at which point the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews were once again exiled from Israel – in this case, by the Romans.

By the way, the Temple Mount is now in Israeli (and thus Jewish) hands, so why haven’t the Jewish people returned to this form of worship? A number of reasons!

  1. There’s a giant Mosque sitting on top of the Temple, which makes it a very contested location, and if Jews suddenly destroyed the Mosque in order to recreate the Temple in its correct form, it would cause even more problems than already exist.

  2. The Temple is no longer ritually correct, and we aren’t entirely certain how to make it ritually correct – some of the descriptions in the Torah are either vague or in measurements we don’t currently have a translation for.

  3. We have no idea who should be High Priest. Clearly it’s a man who’s a Kohen, but other than that… well, no one has any clue.

  4. A lot of Jews don’t want to return to animal sacrifices and Temple worship; we like our religion as it is and aren’t really in favor of that whole killing animals bit.

  5. A lot of Jews who do want to return to Temple worship believe that they can’t until the Messiah comes and restores the world. (And to us, Jesus is not the Messiah.)

So all of this is historical. For the modern, go down to the next section.

Modern Judaism

Congratulations, you no longer have a Temple. So what do you do with your priests and the rest of your religious class, now that their reason for being no longer exists?

Well, you figure out other roles.

Rabbis (who can come from Kohanim, Levi’im, or Israel) became the spiritual leaders, as sacrifices could no longer be performed. Cantors took on the musical leadership. And everyone else, well, they found jobs or became farmers or did what needed to be done to survive.

Kohens still receive some of the twenty-four priestly gifts, though far fewer than they did during the time of the Temple.

They are also differentiated in a few other ways, but not many.

Kohens and Levis have their titles in their full Hebrew names – which I’ll explain more when I get to names. Suffice it to say for now that someone will be identified as the child of a Kohen or Levi in their full Hebrew name.

During any service where the Torah is read, people are called up to say a blessing over the Torah. This can range from three blessings to… well, I’ve seen ten or twelve, but that’s unusual. Seven (plus one special), however, is absolutely normal for a Saturday morning. In all cases, the first blessing goes to a Kohen (or Bat Kohen), the second to a Levi (or Bat Levi), and whatever is left goes to Israel – which can be one on a weekday morning or five on a normal Saturday morning, or even more if they’ve been split for some reason. The last one on Saturday morning (and holidays) is a specific blessing which is said by whoever is reading the Haftarah (a reading from the Prophets or Writings) after the Torah service, and that can go to anyone.

During certain holidays (for Ashkenazi Jews) and every day (for Sephardi Jews), Kohanim give the priestly blessing – and Levi’im help them prepare, by helping with washing hands and purification. This is not always done in non-Orthodox synagogues (you need Kohanim who are willing and able to do the blessing and a congregation that wants it). One of my funniest memories is being in synagogue at the age of 17, and our only Kohen who wanted to do the priestly blessing was 13… and the Levi who helped him prepare was the Rabbi’s also 13-year-old son. But hey, 13 is adult (we’ll discuss this more when I get to bar/bat mitzvahs), so it counts!

Kohens are technically not supposed to marry converts, divorcees, or, uh, women who can be described as impure. Reform and Conservative Jews no longer follow that prohibition, though I’m sure some Orthodox Jews do. But some of my parents’ closest friends are a couple which consists of a man who is a Kohen and a woman who converted to Judaism. Some men do still follow it, and it can be an issue – but mostly in Orthodox Judaism.

Kohens also receive the money which is given in Pidyon HaBen – redemption of the firstborn son. All firstborn sons of Israel were essentially considered priests of the family and were given over to divine service, but they can be removed from that service via a quick ceremony and payment of five silver coins which is done soon after birth – we’ll discuss that when we get to my section on birth and post-birth (which, by the way, was supposed to be the next post until I realized I needed to define groups in Judaism… and it’s become a monster, so it will be more than one anyway). No one sends their sons to be priests nowadays, so the ceremony is performed often… but it’s a very nominal amount of money.

The last way in which Kohens are different is that they cannot be near dead bodies unless they are the bodies of very close family members (parents, children, siblings, spouses), as this affects their purity. Orthodox Jews definitely avoid this; non-Orthodox Jews are much less likely to. This will limit hospital visits and possibly job choice – a Kohen is not likely to become an emergency room doctor or a homicide detective, for instance.

All in all, there’s not a lot of differences between the three groups. Most Jews know which one they belong to, but from there, it’s going to depend on the exact level of religiosity and how much they care.

For writing, putting your character in Israel is definitely the easiest way to go and the one that will be the most common. And if they’re a Kohen or a Levi it will be part of their familial identity, so be prepared to include some level of that if you choose to go in that direction.

The most likely form of that is family expectations (Marry a Jewish girl! Don’t become a medical examiner!) and how your character reacts. But unless you want that to be important, or feel like you need to show scenes in synagogue, I’d either just ignore the issue or make your character Israel.

As always, if you have more questions, let us know!

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