Members of the tribe of Levi, specifically, those not included in the order of the priests. They were chosen for service in the Tabernacle and Temple in place of the first-born (Num. 3:12; 8:16) as a reward for their loyalty to Moses during the episode of the Golden Calf and their zealousness in punishing the guilty (Ex. 32:26–29). The Levites were consecrated by Moses in the wilderness in a special ceremony outlined in Numbers 3:41–51. Their specific tasks included the transporting of the Tabernacle and its vessels, assisting the priests in their duties, taking care of the altar, and serving as gatekeepers, musicians and singers in the Temple.
During the Israelite settlement and division of the land, the Levites were denied a fixed allocation; instead, they lived in 48 cities assigned to them by the other tribes of Israel (see Levitical Cities). They continued to serve in the Tabernacle and were sustained by the tithes donated by the people. With the completion of the First Temple, the Tabernacle came to its permanent resting place and the Levites' service was subsequently divided into 24 watches (I Chron. 24–26). From the ranks of the Levites were appointed judges, officials, soferim (scribes) and public teachers of the Torah.
In the period of the Second Temple, the division of labor between the Levites and the priests was more clearly defined. The Levites were excluded entirely from altar service, their roles being confined to that of singers, musicians, gatekeepers and public servants in the Temple and in the synagogues.
In the social hierarchy before the Temple's destruction, the Levites were ranked second to the priests; however, after the destruction, few privileges remained that distinguished them from the rest of the nation. However, with regard to the Torah reading, a Levite is called up after a kohen (priest), and a levite pours water over the hands of the kohen before his reciting of the priestly blessing.