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Never Too Late To Be a Kohein

Rachel Bachrach

An obscure document. A forgotten tombstone. A grandfather’s memory. Suddenly, after decades of being just a “regular” Jew, a man discovers he’s really a Kohein or a Levi. What does the minyan think? How do his sons react? And most importantly, what are the personal obligations of a man who discovers he really has a special identity?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Fifteen years ago, when she was in labor with her first child, Mr. Allan Binder’s wife Monet developed a fever. Mrs. Binder was quickly wheeled into the operating room for an emergency Cesarean section. She cried the whole way in, because she knew if her son wasn’t born naturally, he would not have a pidyon haben.

In retrospect, the Binders realized that the C-section prevented them from making a brachah levatalah. Kohanim and Leviim are not obligated to redeem their firstborn sons — but at that point, Mr. Binder was unaware that he was a Levi. Although Mr. Binder’s father and other family members were aware of their lineage, they didn’t realize its significance, or that it would matter to their religious relative.

“My father thought there was no real difference between a Levi and a Yisrael,” says Mr. Binder, who has been a baal teshuvah for eleven years now. “He didn’t think to tell us.”

Mr. Binder found out this startling piece of information almost by accident, just last year. He was chatting with his father, explaining that he needed to figure out how to properly assign the aliyos for his second son Aden’s upcoming bar mitzvah. He explained that Aden’s bar mitzvah would be on Parshas Bechukosai, a parshah that includes the frightening section of tochachah, which many prefer not to be called up for. Rishon and sheni would be easy, he explained to his father, because the first would go to a Kohein, which they didn’t have in the family, and the second would go to a Levi, which they also didn’t have.

“Oh, I’m a Levi,” Mr. Binder’s father interrupted nonchalantly.

“I said, ‘What? Excuse me?’ ” Mr. Binder remembers. “I said, ‘Dad, you’re changing my life here!’ ”

Members of the tribe of Levi have special communal duties. Nowadays, they wash the hands of the Kohein prior to Bircas Kohanim, and are honored with the second aliyah during the Torah reading. Leviim are also exempt from performing a pidyon haben on their sons. In the times of the Beis HaMikdash, the Leviim guarded the doors of the sanctuary, sang during korbanos, and were given maaser rishon. They also lived in the arei miklat, the cities of refuge, where they taught Torah to the inhabitants.

Mr. Binder questioned his father for details. But the more he pushed, the more his father backed off, uncertain if he was remembering correctly. He sought the advice of his rabbi, but was told that with no way to verify the fact, his lineage would be considered status quo.

Several months later, Mr. Binder was speaking to a religious cousin from his father’s side. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned what his father had said. “Yeah, what’s the big deal?” his cousin replied, adding that their grandfather had told him when he was young, and he always got called up as a Levi.

“He couldn’t believe we didn’t know,” Mr. Binder says. Later, he found out his older brother had also known all along.

On Chol HaMoed Succos, Mr. Binder spoke to a posek about “changing” his status. Once he was given the all-clear, he collected mazel tovs in his shul in Richmond Hill, New York, and on Shemini Atzeres, he washed a Kohein’s hands and was honored with the Levi aliyah for the first time. After Succos, on his first trip ever to Israel, he did the same several times at the Kosel’s vasikin minyan.

“I have to tell you, it was an amazing experience,” Mr. Binder says.

 

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