QUESTION: I have heard that no Jews today know from what tribe they are descended. Is that true, and if so, how long has it been since Jews have known their tribal lineage?
ANSWER: Some scholars teach that when the Temple was destroyed, and Jerusalem was sacked in 70 A.D. and again in 132 A.D., all of the ancient Jewish family records were lost.
It is true that the deeds of land and records of ownership were lost at that time. However, it is doubtful that the Jewish people relied only upon real estate records to identify and remember their lineage. Aside from written records, information about ancestral descent would have been passed down from generation to generation. Later, in the Diaspora, with no real estate or other lucrative gain at stake, there would have been no reason for anyone to lie about their lineage. The family information handed down from father to son would have remained reliable.
Certain Jewish surnames clearly indicate tribal identity. The Hebrew word for priest is kohen. Today if you meet a Jewish person whose name is Cohen, Katz (most likely an abbreviation for kohen tzaddik,” “righteous priest”), Levi or one of their derivatives such as Kohn, Cohn, Levitt and Levine, you can be reasonably certain that he is descended from the kohanim, the high priestly lineage of Aaron, or at least from the tribe of Levi.
Even in the Diaspora the information concerning tribal lineage would have been carefully guarded because it was essential to the Jewish religion. To varying degrees Orthodox Jewry has clung to the hope for Messiah, son of David. One of the identifying marks of the Messiah would be His descent from the tribe of Judah. Then, too, Orthodox Jews still pray for the Temple to be rebuilt, and linked to that is the resumption of the sacrifices that were performed only by the high priest and the Levites.
Besides the potential reinstitution of the sacrificial system, other aspects of the Jewish religion also require the ministry of an identifiable priest or Levite. (For this reason, known kohanim avoid the ritual uncleanness of contact with a corpse, i.e. attendance at funerals, except where the deceased is an immediate family member. Also, by Jewish law the widow of a kohen may only remarry another kohen.)
One of the prevalent rites of Orthodox Judaism requiring the services of a kohen or priest is the pidyan ha ben ceremony (the redemption of the firstborn based on Numbers 8:17). In this ritual a silver shekel or its money equivalent is “paid” by the parents of a firstborn Jewish male to one who is recognized by name and reputation as a kohen. Also the Aaronic benediction, still a part of the synagogue service, rightly should be pronounced by a kohen.
For all these reasons, at least some Jewish people down through the centuries, especially those from the tribes of Levi or Judah, have been careful to remember their lineage.