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Who's a Cohain?

 

In recent years, people of all ethnic backgrounds have taken interest in their genealogical roots and expend a great deal of time and effort searching for their family and national origins. “Yichus,” family descent, is entirely important for Torah observant Jews. If there is an improper relationship in the genealogy, an individual may be denied full entry into the Jewish community.

Observant Jews are completely aware of their parental background and more distant ancestry. If both parents are legitimately Jewish, without any blemished relationship, then the offspring follows the paternal descent, e.g. if the father is a Cohain, the child, if male, is considered a Cohain, with all privileges and restrictions. He may not marry a divorcee, a convert, or “cholol,” someone who is the offspring of a relationship between a Cohain and one he is forbidden to marry. The male Cohain is forbidden to enter any building that has part of a cadaver, and he may certainly not enter a cemetery. He has the honor and obligation of publicly blessing the congregation at specific times of the year. He is given the first Torah Aliyah, regardless of anyone else’s status.

However, a dilemma may arise when those who have no consistent tradition of Cohain lineage because of generations lacking in Torah adherence strive to identify themselves as Cohanim. The fact that the family name is Cohen, or some other close derivative, is in itself no positive indication of being designated as a Cohain. Research has shown that for convenience’s sake, some immigration officials changed the new arrival’s name from some complicated foreign name to Cohen, with no regard whatsoever to Cohain status.

The great rabbinic decisor Rabbi Moshe Feinstein O.B.M. ruled that if the entire knowledge of one’s “Yichus” of being a Cohain comes from generations of non-observant people, it is not reliable and the descendants cannot be accepted as Cohanim. (Igros Moshe Even Ezer IV, II) His guidelines in this area have clarified and resolved many difficult situations in families and communities. Consequently, these matters must be carefully investigated and clarified so that the generational continuity of the Jewish people extends as a source of honor and pride.

 

HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Shlit"a
Rosh Beth Din

HaRav Yona Reiss, Shlit"a
Av Beth Din

 

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane
Kashruth Administrator

Rabbi Levi Mostofsky
Executive Director

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