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Jewish priestly line maintains legacy -- and genetic marker

Saturday, September 19, 1998

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sholom Cohen's family tree has extraordinarily deep roots and long branches. It stretches from Pittsburgh, through Eastern Europe and far back into the Middle East. In fact, he traces his kin 3,300 years into the pages of the Torah, or Old Testament.

  Sholom Cohen, center, with his sons, Mende, 16, left, and Yisroel, 14, at their Squirrel Hill home. The Cohens have an inheritance in Judaism that has been passed from fathers to sons for generations. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Cohen, along with hundreds of other Jews living in Western Pennsylvania and about 350,000 Jews around the world, are kohanim, a Hebrew word literally meaning "priests." According to the Torah, the first priest was Aaron, who was appointed to the position by his younger brother Moses after the debacle of the golden calf at Mount Sinai.

During the time of the First and Second Temples and up until the latter's destruction in 70 A.D., the kohanim were responsible for performing elaborate rituals of animal sacrifices and grain offerings. Monday and Tuesday, as part of Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish new year of 5759, Cohen and other kohanim around the world will discharge one of the few required duties surviving for them over the millennia: blessing their congregations with the special prayer known as birkat kohanim, or priestly benediction.

"My father told me when I was 8 or 9 that I was a kohen," said Cohen, a software consultant who has lived in Squirrel Hill for the past 11 years. "There's nothing that you yourself do to qualify for it. It's just an inheritance."

It's an inheritance in Judaism that has been passed from fathers to sons for generations. For many, like Cohen and others named Kohn, Kahn or Coen, their surnames often indicate their priestly status. But this summer, researchers reported that there was a genetic underpinning to that legacy.

Based on a study of 306 Jewish men in Israel, Canada and England, the researchers discovered that the 106 Jews who had identified themselves as kohanim shared genetic markers in their Y chromosomes that members of the general Jewish population did not. As the study's originator, Dr. Karl Skorecki, head of molecular medicine at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, and a kohen himself, has said, "The simplest, most structured explanation is that these men have the Y chromosome of Aaron."

Additionally, the researchers dated the inception of the Aaronide line to be more than 3,200 years old, a period that would date roughly back to the time of the Hebrews' exodus from Egypt as written in the Torah. Study researcher David B. Goldstein has said the findings show that the "oral tradition is actually right (and) that it has been followed over some period of time."

The research has stimulated debate between geneticists and biological anthropologists, and ignited some concern among Jews about whether individual congregations might begin testing the legitimacy of their kohanims' legacies.

If nothing else, the study, published in July in the British science journal Nature, has caused attention to be focused on the little-understood aspect of Jewish priestly lineage.

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