Lineage, and especially Yichus - Pedigree, has always been of great importance to the Jewish People. To have pedigree as Jew, one had to be descended from distinguished ancestors, such as famous Rabbis and community leaders. Families with Yichus were careful to try to record it, along with trying to marry off their sons and daughters to those with distinguished lineage. Life for the Jews in Eastern and Western Europe made it quite difficult to keep records of lineage in general, and many records such as birth and death certificates were lost or destroyed.
Difficulties of Genealogy
The events that caused the destruction of recorded lineage unfolded across Europe for hundreds of years. The hostility of the Christians toward the Jews led to sometimes forcing the Jews to convert, confiscating their property, burning synagogues, burning Jews at the stake, and expulsions, among other methods of persecution. In the 11th century, the first crusade started out from France, seeking to take control of Israel. Along the way, the crusaders passed through Germany and mercilessly wiped out entire Jewish communities, murdering thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
Fast forward a few hundred years, during which the Jewish People continued to be persecuted, expelled from their homes, tortured, and murdered, to the infamous programs of 1648/49. A Ukrainian rebellion broke out against the Poles occupying their land, and they were led by a Ukrainian Cossack named Bogdan Chmielnicki. Chmielnicki was a vicious anti-Semite who wanted to annihilate the Jewish People. Chmielnicki’s forces killed 100,000 Jews and destroyed 300 Jewish communities in the most sadistic ways imaginable. These examples of Jewish persecution are just a tiny fraction of the numerous instances of horrors inflicted on them. It is no wonder then, that the records of lineage were largely lost amidst such pandemonium.
Despite the difficulty, the records of Yichus of many truly illustrious Rabbinic families were preserved, surviving all the upheaval. These genealogies are a precious treasure, as they provide the Jewish community with a way to connect to their ancestry if they have relation to these lineages. According to Dr. Jeffrey Mark Paull, because Jews mostly married within the tribe, many, if not most descend from a prominent Rabbi or Rabbinic lineage, although they may not be aware of it.
Dr. Paull writes in a paper to say that all Ashkenazi Jews are related or that all Ashkenazi Jews descend from Rashi is not as much as an overstatement as one might think. According to Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA, any Ashkenazi Jew who takes the Family Finder autosomal DNA test will match more than 80 percent of the other Ashkenazi Jews in the database. So there really is a pretty good chance of the average Ashkenazi Jew finding a Rabbinic Family somewhere in their ancestry. From there they become privy to a wealth of genealogical literature, and open a door to discovering more about their past.
Be that as it may, many contemporary Jews have no idea if they have any connection to a Rabbinic Lineage. They have no-one to ask and no paper trail to follow. This situation came to be because many Jews that came to the United States from Eastern Europe wanted to completely cut ties with their past and assimilate into American culture. They hardly spoke of their past to their children and after a few generations, all seems lost.
That is where the modern gift of Y-DNA testing comes in.
With the recent advances in genetic genealogy and DNA technology, it is possible to find your connection to Rabbinic Families. Dr. Jeffrey Mark Paull writes that,
“The goal of our rabbinical heritage genetic genealogy research studies is to identify the unique attributes of the Y-chromosome of Jewry’s most renowned Rabbi’s, Tzaddikim, and Rabbinical Families. Anyone who matches one of these Y-DNA genetic signatures shares a common ancestor with the patrilineal descendants of that lineage. Identifying that common ancestor could enable one to link to a paper trail that may be many centuries old.”
The Y-DNA testing of Rabbinic Lineages not only determines the Y-DNA signature of a particular lineage, but also identifies previously unknown descendants is that lineage (as long as they are in the database). In a study of the Katzenellenbogen Rabbinical Lineage, Dr. Paull and his colleagues identified its unique Y-DNA genetic signature. This study also brought to light that this Rabbinic lineage, long thought to be of Ashkenazic descent, most likely has a Sephardic origin! It's quite astounding how this study was able to reach even farther into the past, discovering what traditional genealogy research could not.
Another study they did was of the Savran-Bendery chassidic dynasty. The Savran-Bendery dynasty comprises of the Wertheim lineage, descending from Rabbi Aryeh Leib Wertheim of Bendery, and the Giterman lineage, descending from his brother, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Giterman of Savran. After finding the genealogical and genetic data that characterize the Savran-Bendery dynasty, they were able to identify twenty-one previously unknown male descendants, who had no prior knowledge of their Rabbinic ancestry.
This is quite phenomenal, for even if one were to try to discover his relatives from a shared ancestor, they cannot depend on searching for common surnames. This is because, in terms of history, surnames were only taken in by the majority of Ashkenazic Jewry quite recently. If the common ancestor was from before this time, his descendants would be divided among many different surnames associated with their town, career, identifying feature, etc.
With turmoil and upheaval a constant in Jewish history, records of lineage were often not preserved. The exception to this are illustrious Rabbinic Families, whose documentation of lineage was carefully guarded. This presents a special opportunity for contemporary Jews who don't possess any insight into their ancestry, yet who most certainly have a high chance of relation to a Rabbinic lineage. Joining the forces of Y-DNA research and Rabbinic lineage opens up many new pathways to many people's pasts, making it an exciting prospect for our people's present and future!