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The 24 Families of Kohanim: Halacha and History

Parsha Halacha - Parshat Va'etchanan - Shabbat Nachamu

The 24 Families of Kohanim

Halacha and History 

Sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. Michael Marcus in memory of his grandfather, Moshe Ben Avraham, Yohrtzeit Menachem Av 16. May his neshoma have an aliyah

Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner and Dr. Morton Berg in loving memory of Stephen's father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella's parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen.

Click here for a print version of this article 

In the Torah portion of Va’et’chanan Moshe prophecizes that the Jewish people would be exiled from the land,[1]  a prophecy which was fulfilled, unfortunately, more than once. 

In connection with this, we will discuss the 24 familial groups of Kohanim and how they were exiled to 24 different villages in the Galilee after the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple).

The 24 Family Groups

King David divided the Kohanim into 24 family groups and instituted that they each serve in the Mishkan (and later, in the Beit HaMikdash) for one week on a rotational basis.[2] Meaning that each group would get a turn once every 24 weeks. The names of these groups are found in I Chronicles 24:7-18. Earlier, they had been divided by Moshe Rabeinu and subsequently by the prophet Samuel into a smaller number of groups.[3]

Much of the information about the settlements of these families comes from one of the Kinot recited on Tisha B’Av morning that was composed by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir(possibly of the 7th Century) which begins with the words Eicha Yashva Chavatzelet HaSharon.

The Return with Ezra

After the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash and the 70 years of exile in Babylonia, Ezra led a group of Jews back to Jerusalem. Only four of the original 24 family groups of Kohanim were among the returnees.[4] They were then subdivided by the prophets of that era into 24 groups[5] which were (re)named using the original names of the 24 families.[6] If any Kohen who had remained in Babylonia would decide to come to Jerusalem, they would then serve in the family group that bore the name of their family.[7]

The Diaspora in the Galilee

After the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash, these families all settled in various villages in the Galilee, each family in a separate village. It has been suggested that they did this in order to maintain their identities as individual families so that they would be able to serve in the Third Beit HaMikdash which they were hoping would be built imminently.[8]

Weekly Recitals

It was customary in many shuls, up until at least the 11th century, to recite poetic prayers (called a piyut) on Shabbat that mentioned these family groups and specified the name of the family group that was supposed to serve in the coming week. (According to this article, the family of Delayah which lived in Ginton Tzalmin, is supposed to be serving this coming week.) A poem of this kind was found in the Cairo Genizah. It has been dated to the year 1034.

The liturgy was often recited in a question-and-answer form, as follows:

היום שבת קדש, שבת קדש לה׳ היום – Today is the holy Shabbat to Hashem. (It is) today.

 איזו היא המשמרת? כך וכך, משמרת כך וכך – Which is the family group? Such and such, Mishmeret such and such.

הרחמן ישיב את המשמרות למקומן במהרה בימינו אמן – May the Merciful One return the groups to their place speedily in our days, Amen.

Synagogue Inscriptions

In addition, during several excavations of ancient synagogues, inscriptions were found on the walls or pillars of the synagogue which list these families and the names of their cities.[9] Specifically, one was found in the ruins of an ancient synagogue in Caesarea, while another was found on the pillar of an ancient mosque (which presumably had been a synagogue at some point) in a village outside of Sa’ana, Yemen.[10] It has been suggested that these inscriptions were used to make the weekly announcement as to which family group should begin its turn that week.

Knowing Your Family

According to the Talmud,[11] if a Kohen knew to which family he belonged, he wasn’t allowed to drink wine during the week that his family was supposed to serve. Being sober would allow him to begin service immediately upon the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash which could happen at any time. The reason Kohanim may drink wine nowadays is that they no longer know to which family they belong. Since it will take time to sort out all the families, they may drink wine as there will be time to sober up before they begin their service.[12]

24 Families – 24 Villages

Here is a list of the 24 families as found in I Chronicles 24:7-18 together with the names of the villages they later inhabited as found in the Kinnah Eicha Yashva by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir. (The identification of these villages in the present day is based on various sources.[13])

1)     Yehoriv. The first and second destruction of the two Temples happened during their roster.[14] They subsequently lived in Miron. The Hasmoneans may have been members of this family.[15]

2)     Yadaya. They were exiled to Tzipori which was the seat of the Sanhedrin for some time.[16]

3)     Charim, who lived in Mifshata, which is identified as the Arab village of Fasuta.

4)     Se’orim, who lived in Ayta Lo. This may be the village of Eylut which, some say, is the burial place of the Biblical Lot.

5)     Malchiah, who settled in Beit Lechem, in the area of the tribe of Zevulun.[17]

6)     Miyamin, who was exiled to Yudfas, a town mentioned several times in the Talmud.[18] Josephus fought (and lost) his last battle in that town before engineering a mass suicide and then surrendering to the Romans.

7)     Hakotz. They lived in Eilevo, which may be the Arab town of Elbon near the Kineret.

8)     Aviyah, who lived in Uziel, which may be the town of Uza that is mentioned in the Talmud.[19] This may be the Bedouin town of Uzir near the valley of Beit Netofah.

9)     Yeshuah, who settled in Arbel, a town mentioned in the Tanach[20] and Mishnah,[21] which is also the burial site of Nitai of Arbel and many other righteous men and women.[22] The Moshav of Arbel is located near the site of the ancient Arbel.

10) Shechenyahu, who lived in Kavul. This town is mentioned in Tanach[23] and in the Talmud.[24] This may be the Arab city of Kabul in the Western Galilee.

11) Elyashiv, who resided in Elkanah, a city mentioned in the Talmud[25] and identified with the Arab town of Kana.

12) Yekum, who moved to the holy city of Tzfat. In the time of Ezra, this family was also known as the family of Pashchur.

13) Chupa, who lived in Beit Ma’on, which is mentioned in the Talmud[26] and was near the city of Tiberius.[27]

14) Yeshevav, who lived in Chutzfit, which is near Sichin, a town that, according to the Talmud[28] was destroyed for the sin of practicing witchcraft.

15) Bilgah, who is mentioned in the Talmud[29] in a negative light, moved to the city of Ma’adyah, which may be the Druze town of Mager.

16) Imar, who lived in Avnit near Biriyah. It is, according to tradition, the burial site of Abaye and Rava.

17) Chezir, who moved to Mamlach

18) HaPitzetz, who lived in the town of Nazereth

19) Petachya, who moved to Achla Arav. It has been suggested that this town was a suburb of the Arab city of Arav as the word “achla” means to consume, i.e., that this village consumed some of the space near Arav. Furthermore, it is possible that Kohanim would choose to live separately in small villages rather than in large cities so that they could maintain their higher standards of ritual purity.[30]

20) Yechezkel, who moved to Migdal Nunya, a fishing village near Tiberius (Nunya means “fish” in Aramaic). The village of Magdala’ah is mentioned numerous times in the Talmud.[31]

21) Yachin, who lived in the village of Yochana or Chaninah, which is the traditional burial site of Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya.

22) Gamul, who lived in Choviyah, a town mentioned in the Talmud.[32]

23) Delayah (also called Ginton), who lived in Tzalmin, a place mentioned both in Psalms[33] and the Mishnah.[34]

24) Ma’azyahu who lived in Chamat Ari’ach, a town near the hot baths of Tiberius (Chamat means “heat”). This city was fortified since the time of Joshua[35] and is mentioned in the Talmud[36] as merging with the city of Tiberius.

May it be G-d’s will that we soon have the restoration of these family groups and their service – in the Third Beit HaMikdash!

[1] See Deut. 4:26 and on

[2] I Chronicles 24:3

[3] Ta’anit 27a

[4] Ezra 2:36-39

[5] Ta’anit 27a and b

[6] Responsa of Rav Hai Gaon, printed in Teshuvos LeGe’onim Kadmonim by Rabbi Shlomo Ahron Wertheimer (Jerusalem 1992), page 29 

[7] Ibid

[8] Much of the information in this article come from an article by Alter Velner in Orot Chaim (Tel Aviv 2000), page 199 and on. See there for additional sources.

[9] While only parts of the inscriptions have been found, they seem to come from complete lists of these families. 

[10] This was discovered by Dr. William W. Muller on Sep. 16, 1970, in the town of Bait al-Ḥāḍir. See here.

[11] Tosefta, Ta’anit 2:3 and Sanhedrin 22b

[12] Rambam, Bi’at HaMikdash 1:7

[13] Alter Velner in Orot Chayim ibid and Rabbi Yechezkel Solomon in Kovetz Ohr Yisrael (Monsey) vol. 4 page 171 and on 

[14] Tosefta Ta’anit 3:8 and Jerusalem Talmud Ta’anit 4:5

[15] I Sefer HaMakabim 2:1 This book is not considered an authoritative source in Rabbinic literature. 

[16] Rosh HaShana 31b

[17] See Joshua 19:15. This town was near the town of Nazereth and should not be confused with the town near Jerusalem by the same name.

[18] See Mishnah, Erkhin 9:6Tosefta Niddah 3:5 and Zevachim 110a

[19] See Nedarim 38b (Rabbi Yehoshua of Uza)  

[20] Hoshea 10:14

[21] Avot 1:6-7

[22] Including Seth, the son of Adam, Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Dina, the children of Yaakov. See here.

[23] Yehoshua 19:27

[24] Pesachim 51a

[25] Tractate Sofrim 21

[26] Shabbat 139a and b

[27] Jerusalem Talmud, Eiruvin, 5:1

[28] Ibid Ta’anit 4:6

[29] Sukkah 56b

[30] Rabbi Shmuel Klein, quoted by Alter Velner in Orot Chayim, ibid

[31] Pesachim 46a (it was near Tiberius) Jerusalem Talmud, Brachot 9:2 (Rav Yudan of Magdala’ah) and Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 2:1 (Reish Lakish ran away there).

[32] See Ta’anit 24a and Chullin 12b as understood by Tosfot D.H. Demin

[33] See Psalms 68:12 with Ibn Ezra

[34] Kilayim, 4:9 and Yevamot 16:6

[35] Joshua 19:35

[36] Jerusalem Talmud Eiruvin 5:7

Wishing you a Shabbat Nachamu Shalom Umevorach!

Sun, June 23 2024 17 Sivan 5784