Torah and Genealogy
Yikhus (lineage) has always been an integral part of Judaism.
In the opening chapters of the Bible, in the weekly Torah
portion, the concept of recording the history of mankind
appears with the use of the term Sefer Toldot Adam (Book
of the history of man), Bereishit (Genesis) 5:1. The Midrash
(Midrash Rabba, Parasha 24) explains this term to indicate
that Adam, the first man, was given a preview of all the
generations that were destined to descend from him:
God revealed to Adam each generation with its scholars,
each generation and its wise men, each generation and its
writers, each generation and its leaders. Adam was the only
one who saw the yikhus which descended from him, until the
end of all generations. (Yalkut Shimoni)
The Midrash asserts that the Messiah will arrive only when
all those generations that were predestined to live have
in fact been born.
The course of the Biblical narrative revolves around the
sequence of the generations, from the early generations
descended from Adam, through the division of the nations
descended from Noakh, and down to the Jewish Patriarchs:
Avraham, Yitskhak and Yaakov (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob). Each
major figure is introduced in the Bible first by a narration
of his descent, connecting him with all the previous generations.
Thus, the great Jewish teacher Moshe (Moses) is introduced
through his father's descent from the tribe of Levi. From
the time of the descent of the Children of Israel to Egypt
and following their liberation from Egyptian bondage, their
genealogy is noted at the very beginning of the book of
Shmot (Exodus). Time and time again throughout the Bible,
lengthy genealogical lists are recorded.
The Torah includes 477 genealogical records. The Prophets
and other books of the Bible include 2,756 genealogical
records. Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles) is almost entirely
concerned with genealogy.
For the Jews returning from the Babylonian Exile, it was
particularly important that they retained knowledge of their
descent. This knowledge conferred upon them their status
in society, which was often based on their relationships
with prominent families, in particular, the ruling House
of David. Those who had assimilated with their non-Jewish
neighbours in Babylon found that their lineage was held
in suspicion, particularly if they belonged to the priesthood.
Such problems are portrayed in detail in the book of Ezra:
They sought their genealogical records, but they were
no longer available, and so they were banished from the
priesthood. Those immigrants could not state which was their
father's house or whether they were of the seed of Yisrael.
The Talmud in the Tractate Kiddushin (Chapter 4) stresses
the importance of yikhus:
Ten lineages emigrated from Babylon. The Holy One, Blessed
Be He, does not bestow his Divine Presence, other than on
Israeli families of noble Yikhus.
Yet the Rambam (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim, Chapter
12, Halakha 3) gives hope in the future for those who have
lost the records of their lineage:
In the time of the king Mashiakh, when his kingdom is
established and all Yisrael are gathered, their lineage
will be revealed by the Holy Spirit which will rest upon
him, and he will announce to everyone in Yisrael to which
tribe he belongs.
The Torah places importance on yikhus because man is influenced
by the qualities and characteristics of his forefathers,
both genetically and by the moral values that are passed
from generation to generation. The book of Mishlei (Proverbs,
Heed, my son, the moral advice of your father, and do
not abandon the teaching of your mother.
The Gaon of Vilna comments on this sentence:
Man has three partners: the Holy One Blessed Be He,
his father and his mother.
This theme is taken up in the Talmud (Avot 3:1):
Know from whence you came, and where you are going, and
to Whom you will have to give account in the future.
Only if we know from where we originate in terms of our
family heritage will we be in a position to decide what
path in life we should take in the future. The late Rabbi
Shmuel Gorr, who dedicated his entire life to genealogical
Just as we perform many Mitzvot as an act of zeikher
le'maaseh bereishit (commemoration of the act of the creation),
so the study of our family history can be considered as
another aspect of this Mitzvah. When we see ourselves obligated
to preserve the continuity of our people's existence in
the world, so will we fulfill our task as it was prescribed
by the Holy One Blessed Be He from the time of the creation
The study of genealogy, therefore, can be considered as
an act of zeikher le'maaseh bereishit, as we seek to link
ourselves, through the generations of our ancestors, with
the first living man, Adam. Yet, from the outset, the Biblical
commentators explained that illustrious lineage alone was
not worthy of note. Commenting on the verses of Bereishit
These are the generations of Noakh; Noakh begat three
The essence of the history of righteous men is their
One of the most comprehensive collections of genealogical
quotations based on Jewish religious sources appears in
Rabbi Yosef Zekhariah Stern's Zekher Leyehosef (1898). The
following are some examples:
It is worthy of all who seek righteousness to look to
the rock from which they were hewn (Yeshayahu, Isaiah 52)
and should be Asons of sons are a crown to the elderly,
and the glory of sons are their fathers. (Mishlei, Proverbs
Like a crown without a kingdom and a gold ring in the
nose of one who embraces garbage, so is the value of ancestral
Yikhus without personal Yikhus to abandon evil ways. (Yalkut
If you see a Tsaddik who is the son of righteous fathers,
he will not hastily sin (Midrash Mishlei 14)
But what of the person who is not descended from ancestry
worthy of note? Stern answers:
It is important to the Almighty that man should abandon
the ways of his ancestors (if they were not worthy) and
follow the ways of God about whom it is said, "Peace
to the distant, who is the seed of distant ones, but came
Stern stresses the duty to perpetuate the memory of former
How can we not stretch out in our hearts to our ancestors
who may be forgotten within two or three generations as
if they never existed?
In our generation, after our ancestors left the countries
where their families lived for many generations and emigrated
to other countries, we should perpetuate their history.
In particular we have a duty to immortalise the memories
of the communities and families that perished Afor the sanctification
of the Holy Name during the Holocaust or during anti-Semitic
acts throughout the course of Jewish history:
To do justice with the deceased and give them a memory
upon the face of the earth.
The Midrash (Midrash Rabba, Parasha 37) explains the origin
of man's naming system:
The early generations that knew their lineage well,
gave names to commemorate an event. But we, who do not know
well our lineage, give names after our ancestors.
The Gaon of Vilna comments on the term used in reference
to a deceased person, "May the righteous be remembered
for a blessing, and may the name of the wicked decay"
(Mishlei, Proverbs 10:7):
Remembrance is recalling that which happened in the
past, that is, after the death of a righteous person, he
is not just a memory, but he is a blessing. But as for the
wicked, even his name is contemptible.
Throughout Jewish prayer the concept of recalling our ancestors
is a recurrent theme. The central prayer of the three daily
services, the Shmonah Esreh, begins with:
God of Avraham, God of Yitskhak, God of Yaakov...remember
the good deeds of our fathers and bring the redeemer to
their sons' sons.
Amongst the most important statutes given to the People
of Israel, the Ten Commandments, is the commandment:
Honour your father and your mother....
In the High Holy Day liturgy the relationship between God
and man is couched in familial terms:
If you regard us as sons, have pity upon us like a father.
Our Father, our King....
The tracing of family history is a most effective way to
appreciate Jewish history on a personal level. As we recite
in the Hagaddah of the Pesakh (Passover) festival:
In each generation man must regard himself as if he
himself came out of Egypt, as it is said and you should
relate it to your son on that day, saying...
People make history by their reaction to the demands and
opportunities of their environment. An awareness of personal
family history establishes a link in the chain of Jewish
Jews left Babylon and Eretz Yisrael and spread out through
the Diaspora. Many of their genealogical records were lost.
Yet certain families painstakingly preserved their traditions
of descent. The scholarly family of the Kalonymides, which
believed in its Davidic descent, left Babylon about the
eighth century, settled in Italy, and then moved to the
Rhineland and France in the ninth and tenth centuries. From
this family emanated the great Biblical and Talmudic commentator
Rashi (1040-1105). Rashi's family and disciples established
centers of learning in many towns in Western Europe and
later, in the fourteenth century, in Eastern Europe. Thus
a vast interrelated dynasty of rabbinic families spread
across Europe, establishing a framework for future genealogical
Many of the sources quoted above were collected by the late
Rabbi Shmuel Gorr as part of an article he wrote titled
"Torah and Genealogy.
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