Parshat Emor, 5759
The "Priestly Gene" and The Eternity of the "Kehunah," the Priesthood
The Biblical Book of Vayikra (Leviticus), which is currently being read in synagogues on Shabbat, is known as "Torat Kohanim," the Law of the Priests, because a significant portion of its content is devoted to matters involving the Temple. The beginning of this week's Parshah, Emor, in particular, is as follows, "And the L-rd said to Moshe, 'Speak to the Priests, the sons of Aharon, and say to them that they are not to allow themselves to become ritually impure by contact with the corpse of a fellow Jew.'"
The Commentators discuss the enigmatic phrase "the priests, the sons of Aharon," with regard to the question, "Isn't it obvious that the priests are the sons of Aharon?" Rabbi Shimshon Rephoel Hirsch explains the phrase to mean "You are Kohanim by virtue of the fact that you are the sons of Aharon."
The words of Rav Hirsch seem to take on extra meaning in light of the cover story of the Jerusalem report of May 10, 1999, concerning the discovery of the "Priestly Gene," distinct DNA patterns in a very high percentage of men who consider themselves Kohanim. Further, these genetic markers seem to point to their origin in a single individual, presumably Aharon HaKohen, some 3,000 years ago.
The methodology of the research used to come to the above conclusions was DNA-Analysis of throat swabs taken at the Kotel in Israel, and in the U.K. The sampled population consisted of Orthodox Jews of Ashenazi and of Sephardi background.
The idea to conduct the research experiment was Dr. Karl Skorecki's. Skorecki, an Orthodox Jew and himself a Kohen, was wondering if any biological relationship could be detected linking all Kohanim. He realized that since the status of Kohen is obtained, in Jewish Law, through patrilineal inheritance, via the Y Chromosome, the chromosome of male-ness, that chromosome could be analyzed for features common to all Kohanim.
The results were spectacular! Studies showed that the incidence of common gene markers among those claiming the status of kohen exceeded 70, and perhaps 80, percent.
The next question was whether a date could be attached to the origin of the Kehunah-linked gene. Since the Kohen chromosome had been found both among the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi communities, this indicated that the origin pre-dated the split of the Jewish community centuries ago.
"Enter Oxford Genetic Evolution expert Professor Goldstein. Using a method for genetic dating based on the rate at which certain bits of the Y Chromosome mutate, Goldstein came up with an estimate consistent with the oral tradition: 3000 years," and says that "with a high degree of certainty we can rule out a recent origin."
As an aside, this method cannot be used to look for common genetic patterns among all Jews for several reasons. Chief among these is that at various times in history, there was large-scale conversion into Judaism, disturbing the genetic pattern of the Jewish People, if that were important, which it isn't. This proves that Judaism is not race-based; anybody can become a Jew: Spaniards (in fact, many did join the Jewish faith at one time), Vietnamese, Chinese or Eskimos can become Jewish. No national or ethnic grouping is excluded, provided that the proper Conversion procedures are followed.
This demonstrates that the Jewish People as a whole is essentially a "faith-community," the common faith and joyful acceptance of the "yolk" of the Mitzvot binding all of its adherents into a nation which is called by G-d a "Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation."
However, the three classes which exist within Jewish society, namely the "Kehunah," the Priestly Class, the "Leviah," descendants of Levi, to which the Kohanim also belong (a Kohen is, as it were, a "super-Levi"), and the basic class of "Yisrael," descendants of Yaakov Avinu, Jacob our Father (who was called "Yisrael" by G-d), are determined by paterlineal ancestral descent, and Conversion simply does not apply.
Another necessary assumption for the existence of the Priestly gene, and a fact proved by its existence, is the "high fidelity" of the wives of the Jewish Priests.
In our tradition, we find instances where the Jewish People took measures on their own to guarantee the "purity" of the Kohen line, and sources which suggest Divine support of this effort.
In the first category belong the following two references:
In the area of Divine aid, we find, among others, the following:
In the Old City of Jerusalem, there is a group called "Ateret Kohanim," "Crown of the Kohanim," who are working at the re-fashioning of the vessels of the Temple. They are also studying the Laws of the Divine Service, in preparation for the Redemption, and the Rebuilding, never to be destroyed again, of the Bait HaMikdash.
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU