Parasha Emor — What it Means to be a Jew

I am going to give you a quiz tonight. Are you ready? Which one of the following common Jewish surnames does not belong in the group:  Katz; Rappaport; Kahan; Kagan; Kornfeld. ……….  The answer: Kornfeld does not belong with the others.  The rest are all surnames that are associated with being from the priestly class of the Jewish people. If your surname is “Cohen”, for example, it may be that you are descended from the Ko-hens addressed by Moses in this week’s Torah portion –The High Priest Aaron and his sons. The surname “Katz” is an acronym of Kohen Tzedek, or righteous Kohen. The surname Kaplan is an acronym for “Kohen Plony” – or “Ordinary Kohen”. The surname “Kagan” is the Russian version of Kohen with the “g” replacing the “h”, since there is no “h” sound in Russian. If your family surname is “Rapoport” you may be descended from a well-known family of priests, the Rapas or Porto, Italy. “Barkans” are “bar-kohens”, literally, sons of Kohens. The surname “Mazar” is an acronym of “Me-zerah Aharon” – from the seed of Aaron.

Of course, having one of these surnames does not automatically make one a Kohen. Moreover, you may be a Kohen without having one of these surnames! The only way a person usually knows that they are a Kohen is that their fathers or mothers have told them they are kohens. This information has presumably been passed down through the generations, one family at a time. Another way of discovering if you are a Kohen is by visiting your ancestors at a Jewish cemetery. If, engraved on the monument you find a pair of raised hands, thumbs touching and fingers spread, it means that the person buried there is a Kohen. If that is your paternal grandfather, and you are a male, that makes you a Kohen too.

Although the actor Leonard Nimoy was not a Kohen, he was raised an Orthodox Jew and recalled attending services as a child with his father where the Kohanim blessed the congregation. The Kohanim would get on the bima, cover their heads with their prayer-shawls, and reach out toward the congregation with their fingers splayed as they would intone the Priestly Blessing. Nimoy drew on this gesture when his character, Spock, would give the “Vulcan” greeting “Live long and prosper”.

A number of years ago Dr. Karl Skorecki of the University of Toronto and the Rambam Medical center was in synagogue in Toronto when a visitor was called to the Torah for the first Aliyah. The visitor was identified as a Kohen – a dark skinned Jew from a Sephardi background. Dr. Skorecki, who is a fair skinned Jew of Ashkenazi descent, noted that this man looked quite different from himself. Yet, according to Jewish tradition, both Dr. Skorecki and the visitor were descended from the same man, Aaron the High Priest. Dr. Skorecki, who was involved in the field of molecular genetics, thought that if they were indeed descended from Aaron the Priest, they ought to share a set of genetic markers. He set out to discover if there were indeed genetic markers that Kohanim shared that other Jews did not.  The results of the first study, published in Nature magazine in 1997, revealed that 98% of self-identified Kohens shared a genetic marker on the Y chromosome. This genetic marker is not found among other Jews, or in non-Jewish populations. Further studies and date calculations based on the variation of mutations in the genes of Kohens today revealed that these men shared a common ancestor from 3,300 years ago – the precise time we believe that the Exodus from Egypt occurred, and Aaron would have lived!

In 1999, this research was used to corroborate a tradition of the Lemba Tribe of South Africa and Zimbabwe that they are descendants of Jews from the Middle East. The Lemba are an African tribe whose customs include a ban on pork, male circumcision and ritual slaughter of animals. They also rest one day of the week. There are many African tribes have oral traditions that they are descendants of Biblical Israelites, but the Lemba are the only ones who have the genetic marker on the Y chromosome to support the claim. The genetic signature of priests is particularly prevalent among the men of the senior of the 12 clans of the Lemba, known as the Babu.

Our Parasha for this week opens with G-d telling Moses to “Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them……..”  In examining a text where every word is the word of G-d, and therefore each and every word has significance, the rabbis wondered, “Why does the Torah use the word “speak” and then “say”. Would it not be sufficient for G-d to tell Moses either to “Speak to the sons of Aaron” or “Say to the sons of Aaron”? From the apparently redundant use of “speak” and “say” we can learn a lesson. The word “speak” indicates that source of a Kohen’s holiness is in his genetic relationship to Aaron. The holiness of a Kohen is connected to his being a male descendant of Aaron. That is a necessary but not sufficient source of holiness. So the Torah adds the word “say” to teach that one cannot be satisfied only to be related to Aaron, one must achieve holiness through one’s own effort as well

Long before genetic markers on the Y chromosome could be used to identify a person’s lineage, the Talmud gave us three specific markers that could identify a Jew:  A Jew was a person who demonstrated compassion toward others, modesty, and loving-kindness in all aspects of their lives. Maimonides even writes that if a Jewish person is cruel, there is reason to suspect their lineage! He also writes, “One who has no compassion for his fellow creature cannot possibly be of the seed of Abraham and Sarah!”

Judaism is not passed down by assuming the last name of one’s father. Judaism is not simply carried on a chromosome. It cannot be genetically bequeathed from parent to child. It is an inheritance that cannot simply be passively accepted. Judaism must be actively taken up and embraced through cultivating qualities and values of kindness, modesty and compassion toward others. This is at the heart of what it means to be a Jew.

Shabbat Shalom