By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Ancestry.com is the world’s largest online resource for family history, with approximately 2.7 million paying subscribers, and growing, across all family history sites. Since starting as a publishing company in 1983, Ancestry.com has been a leader in the family history market for more than 30 years and has helped pioneer the market for online family history research. Ancestry.com’s objective assumes that most people have a fundamental desire to understand who they are and from where they came, and that anyone interested in discovering, preserving, and sharing their family history is a potential user of their service. Ancestry.com is designed to serve those from the most committed family historians to those taking their first steps towards satisfying their curiosity about their family stories. Considering that Ancestry.com is not selling a tangible commodity or a needed service, its success is quite impressive.
Jewish ancestry, however, is a needed certification for many considerations. Those from families of kohanim are given certain religious privileges, as well as certain restrictions. Families of Levi’im are also given religious privileges. Priorities in many realms are given to kohanim. Restrictions include their men being prohibited from marrying, amongst other restricted categories, divorced women or converts.
One of the requirements of many shidduch searches is family genealogy. Families that trace their ancestry to great rabbis and historical personalities are given great preference in shidduch considerations. As the now dated colloquial expression is often recited, yichus (family genealogy) and a token will get you on the subway.
Genealogy has always been an active pursuit of knowledge in Jewish communities. Every prominent family had a “yichus brieve,” a detailed lineage of their genealogy. In some families, their prized possession, if not their only possession, was their yichus brieve. A yichus brieve alone is no certification of a person’s virtues. On the contrary, a person without a yichus brieve could very well be a refined lady or gentleman, eminent scholar, or dedicated community activist.
When one of our great historical chassidishe rebbes was a child, his home burned to the ground. His mother wailed that her precious yichus brieve was destroyed and lost forever. The child consoled his mother and told her not to worry—his yichus brieve will begin with him.
The foundation for the establishment of Mechon Yochsin was the result of the colossal loss, in the millions, of family yichus brieves. As Holocaust survivors returned home after WWII, they found their families murdered, their kehillos destroyed, their homes ruined, looted, or inhabited by gentiles. Family possessions, including yichus brieves, were gone, lost to history, and never to be found again.
Rabbi Naftali Halberstam, Sanz-Gribover Rav, is well known for his mammoth work in resurrecting genealogical research. That was his response to the destruction of European Jewry. No human could resurrect the 6 million Jews murdered. However, their individual family histories and their lineages, with Heaven’s help, were still salvageable. Rabbi Halberstam established Mechon Yochsin, the institute of Jewish genealogy, and has accumulated and preserved more than millions and millions of pages of family genealogical tracings. Rabbi Halberstam indicated that tens of millions of dollars have, through the years, been invested in acquiring developing cutting edge technology to help in researching material and in data storage. Mechon Yochsin is the premier institution of Jewish genealogy and is open to organizations, rabbis, and private individuals for assistance in discovering genealogical roots.
Rabbi Naftali Halberstam, Sanz-Gribover Rebbe, who established his beis midrash in Boro Park in 1952, is today’s longest serving rav in Boro Park. In 1952, the rav was only one of a small handful of pioneers who wore a shtreimel. He is the son of Rabbi Boruch Halberstam, zt’l, Hy’d (1903–1942), Gribover Rav; son of Rabbi Mordechai Zev, zt’l, Hy’d (1882–1942), Sanzer Rav; son of Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Halberstam, zt’l (1852–1935), Sanzer Rav; son of Rabbi Aaron Halberstam, zt’l (1826–1903), Sanzer Rav; son of Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, zt’l (1797–1876), revered Sanzer Rav and author of Divrei Chaim. Every rav of the city of Sanz who succeeded the Divrei Chaim was first rav in the adjoining city of Gribov before becoming rav of Sanz.
With the issue of “Who is a Jew” still a major item on the agenda of the Knesset and at the forefront of Jewish contemplation, every applicant to be married in Israel must bring proof that he or she is Jewish, a child of a Jewish mother. Increasingly, this poses a major difficulty to recent immigrants from eastern European countries where Jewish infrastructures were destroyed during the Holocaust and where kehillah records were burned. Surviving Jews who returned did not have a benefit of communal continuity. Witnesses to establish that one’s mother was Jewish were murdered during the Holocaust. Today, 70 years later, this problem is compounded. In Israel, an entire bureaucracy is devoted to affirming or denying Jewish identity. This includes affirming that a male kohen is not a descendant of a kohen who married a convert or a divorced woman.
Outside of Israel, the problem of establishing Jewish identity abounds. In order to establish Jewish identity, Mechon Yochsin is expanding and offering a service to certify lineage. The yichus brieve to be issued by Mechon Yochsin will confirm genealogical linkage to great rabbis and/or historical personalities of the past. The yichus brieve will include all genealogical tracings, citing chapter and verse of published sefarim, books, kehillah records (where available), newspapers, and all other sources.
Mechon Yochsin has tens of thousands of tomes of genealogical studies, hard copies, on its shelves, that it has conducted on major families. In addition, trillions of pieces of information are in its databases. Those research projects continue. Mechon Yochsin has direct linkage to every major museum and library in the world, including that of the Vatican, Moscow, Congress, and every major university.
The Iyar 5704–2003 Igud HaRabbanim Torah Conference was hosted at Beis Medrash Sanz Gribov at 1505 48th Street in Boro Park. The keynote speaker was Rabbi Menachem Zvi Halberstam, rosh kollel of Sanz-Gribov and son of the Sanz-Gribover Rebbe. The rosh kollel delivered wonderful divrei Torah beginning with the medrashic underpinnings of celebrating rosh chodesh and halachic aspects of genealogy. The rosh kollel focused on the Mishnah describing exact genealogy of every kohen being an absolute requirement for the privilege of serving in the Beis HaMikdash.
If a woman married to a kohen of distinguished lineage were to become a widow, she was required to wait 92 days before marrying, especially to another kohen. Had she not waited and married another kohen within that timeframe, any child born within nine months after the death of her first husband would cast doubt upon the parentage of the child, thus disqualifying him for service in the Beis HaMikdash. This would be so even if the second husband, too, was of distinguished kohen lineage. The rosh kollel expounded on this genealogical requirement and thoroughly explored all of its applications.
With today’s increasingly important requirement to establish one’s Jewish parentage, a yichus brieve will dispel any doubts and will instantly become a true family treasure for generations. ϖ
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.