Table of Contents

Descent From King David - Part II

by David Einsiedler

King David and his harp.

Almost everyone who claims descent from King David traces his or her lineage either through Rashi or through Judah Loew the Elder of Prague (died 1440), great-great grandfather of the Maharal of Prague. In a previous issue of Avotaynu (“Can We Prove Descent From King David?” Vol. VII, No. 3), I explored the writings of those who claim descent through Rashi (and others). This article will focus on sources pertaining to Judah Loew the Elder, examining them in chronological order.

The earliest source is the Bible, specifically Chronicles I,3. In a few sentences it lists all descendants of King David, from his 11 children by 7 wives to descendants of King Solomon, some 30 generations. The tree has been published in the Encyclopedia Judaica (Vol. 5, p. 1341); in Finding Our Fathers, by Dan Rottenberg (New York: Random House, 1977) and; in Hebrew, in Sefer Divre HaYamim, by Yehuda Kiel (Jerusalem, 1989) (Vol. I, pp. 75, 77).

The Talmud has numerous references to sages who were said to be descendants of King David or “from the House of David.” This is particularly noticeable in references to Hillel “the Elder” (circa 100 BCE), who is called a descendant of Shephatiah, son of Abital (tractates Ketubot and Taanit). Sixteen generations of his descendants were called “Nasi” (prince) up to approximately 425 CE. The Talmud names only two or three generations of sages and is helpful in identification, but not in tracing genealogies.

An important source is Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon (The Letter of Rabbi Sherira Gaon), written in 986 CE. This was an early responsum by the head of the Talmudic Academy of Pumbedita in Babylonia. He was one of the dynasty of exilarchs (Resh Galuta, or Prince of the Exiles), who claimed descent from King David. The second part of the Letter discusses the exilarchs and the heads of the academies in Sura and Pumbedita. Rabbi Sherira attempts to distinguish between facts and stories and presents an early post-biblical history written largely in Aramaic. This Letter serves as a major source of the chronology and genealogy of the Geonim. The institutions of the exilarch began with the descendants of Jehoiachin, last King of Judah, who was exiled to Babylonia. It survived until 825 CE with Jews continuing to view the exilarch as their leader for several centuries after its decline.

Sherira's important Letter brings the Davidic genealogy to his time. In our time there are two versions, one Sephardi (in Aramaic) and one Ashkenazi (in French). The Sephardi text appears to have been tampered with less; it has seven different manuscripts.

Seder Olam Rabba (The “Large” Order of the World) is a chronicle ascribed to Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta, a tannah (scholar) of the Mishna and a pupil of Rabbi Akiba. Its first manuscript appeared in 1315 and was published in 1517. It was written after the destruction of the Second Temple in 68 CE. The third volume lists the kings of Judah and Israel and ends with the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE.

Seder Olam Zuta (The “Small” Order of the World) is a brief chronicle in Hebrew and Aramaic. It is attributed to the French Rabbi Joseph Tov Elem (circa 1070) and covers the time from Adam to Mar Zutra IV (circa 570 CE). It was composed in the eighth century and published in Mantua, Italy, in 1514. The third part has a long list of Davidic descendants to the second half of the eighth century, with seven generations added later, bringing it to the ninth century. It connects fathers and sons and, in some places, the succession lists brothers and even uncles. In a number of cases, it does not say whether the indicated lineage shows a son succeeding a father or some other relationship. In a few places there is a break between one exilarch and the next one. It ends with Mar Zutra IV, the posthumous son of Mar Zutra III. Mar Zutra III was executed by Persian forces. His son, Mar Zutra IV, was taken to Palestine from Mechuza, Babylonia, then part of Persia, by his mother, about 570, to save his life. Seder Olam Zuta borrows much from Seder Olam Rabba and leaves unanswered many questions about the accuracy of the sequence of generations and the validity of some cases of descent. Seder Olam Zuta was used by later chroniclers as a basis for their genealogies of the House of David.

Sefer Ha-Kabbalah (The Book of Tradition), by Rabbi Abraham ben David (RABD) Halevi, of Toledo, Spain, was written in 1161, but not published until 1514 in Mantua, Italy. It begins with Creation and traces generations until the author's time. RABD drew from the chronicles above and continued the Davidic line of Exilarch David ben Zakkai to his descendants in Spain, the Ibn Dauds. The chain of descent of the exilarchs continued to Chiya el-Daudi, who died in Castile in 1154. In the last paragraph he says, “After him there did not remain in Spain a single person known to be of the House of David.” RABD does not clarify the contradictions in the various versions of the letter of Sherira Gaon, which was his major source.

Sefer Yuchassin (Book of Genealogies), written by Rabbi Abraham Zacuto (1452-1515), the famous historian and astronomer whose charts Columbus used in his voyage, is more a chronology than a genealogy. It was written in 1505 and published in Constantinople in 1566. It covers the period from Creation to the expulsions from Spain and Portugal. Zacuto drew much from the preceding chronicles, which he quotes extensively, but the order of generations differs from that in Seder Olam Zuta. The Constantinople edition, published by Samuel Shullam, includes “Dorot Olam” (Generations of the World), a genealogy from Adam to Exilarch David ben Zakkai (died circa 940); its authorship is uncertain and may be Shullam himself.

Shalshelet Ha-Kabbalah (The Chain of Tradition), by Gedaliah Ibn Yachya (1515-1587), published in Venice in 1587, is a chronicle of his family. The author used such earlier works as the Letter of Sherira Gaon and Sefer Ha-Kabbalah, bringing the story to his time, the Renaissance in Italy. No source is known for bringing this family to present-day descendants.

Toledot Ve-Niflaot Maharal (The History and Wonders of the Maharal), subtitled “A Genealogy,” by Meir Perles (Bilgoraj, Poland, 1911) begins with the founder of the dynasty, Judah Loew (“Livai”) the Elder, a famous rabbi in Prague (died 1440). It quotes the inscription on his gravestone: “...and he is of the stock of Geonim who are descendants of David, son of Jesse.” Judah Loew the Elder was the great-great-grandfather of Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609). This genealogy does not mention ancestors of Judah Loew the Elder, nor does it indicate any sources for his claim of descent from King David.

Juediches Familien-Buch (Jewish Family Book), by M. Ehrentheil (Budapest, 1880), has a history and biographies of the exilarchs and geonim. In some cases, it mentions descent from King David and provides genealogical details, dates and places. Although it does not present a continuous genealogy, it fills many gaps found in other sources about the period. For example, it describes the rise of Anan ben David, a purported Davidic descendant and ancestor of the Karaite line of Davidic descendants.

Jahrbuecher Fuer Juedische Geschichte und Litteratur (Annals of Jewish History and Literature), published by Dr. N. Brull, Rabbi of Frankfurt am Main, devoted Volume 10 (1890) to the era of the exilarchs. In “Die Haupter der Vertriebenen” (Chiefs of the Exiles), Felix Lazarus discusses in detail the rise, the chronology and the genealogy of the exilarchs. He considers earlier sources and examines critically the genealogical problems in Seder Olam Zuta. In an appendix, he compares six different lists of names that cover 34 generations from the last king of Judah, Jehoiachin (Yechonyah). These were the Persian (formerly Babylonian) exilarchs. Brull then lists the Palestinian descendants of King David, including Nehemiah and Hillel. In another appendix he compares several family trees of “Arab” exilarchs (that is, under Arab rule) after they conquered Persia in 632 and renamed it Iraq. (The eastern part was later named Iran.) A family tree of this period shows the last known descendants of this branch living in the 1380s. Brull compares differing manuscripts and finds many gaps in the lines of succession.

The exilarch period in Babylonia/Persia/Iraq lasted almost 2,000 years from about 500 BCE to approximately 1500 CE. Several partial family trees that date from that time claim Davidic descent, but none continues past the 14th century. There is a reference to “The Register of Karaite Princes,” by Solomon ben David (1250), in Pinsker's Likutey Kadmoniyot, but I have not been able to find it.

A number of 20th-century genealogists have copied lists of names going from King David to their particular subjects (or vice versa), but have not indicated sources. This is true of Arye Y.L. Lipshutz, who wrote Avot Atarah Le-Banim (Warsaw, 1926), Aaron D. Twersky, author of Sefer Ha-Yachas Mi-Chernobyl Ve-Ruzhin (Lublin, 1938), Joseph Lieberman of Shalshelet Ha-Yuchsin (Jerusalem, 1978) and others.

One who did list names and mention sources deserves a closer look. In Tiferet Beit David (The Glory of the House of David) (Jerusalem, 1968), Rabbi Moshe Yair Weinstock includes the appendix “Mekor Niftach Le-Beit David” (The Origin of the House of David Revealed). It is a genealogy of the family of David Biederman, admor of Lelov, purportedly dating back to Adam. It includes a list of 114 generations and notes corresponding to the names, with explanations, some history and some dates. Most interesting for our purposes is the part that begins with Judah Loew the Elder and goes back 77 generations to King David.

The first thing one notices is that the entire 77 generations consist exclusively of fathers and sons. Amazing—if true! Weinstock refers to most of the sources listed above, especially to the Letter of Sherira Gaon and to Seder Olam Zuta. He also refers to Shem Ha-Gedolim (Fame of the Great Sages), by Chaim J. D. Azulai (Jerusalem, 1774); to Sefer Ha-Chassidut (Book of Chassidism), by R. Aaron Marcus; to Mutzal Mi-Eish (Saved from the Fire), by “the admor of Zanz-Brooklyn,” (Rabbi Menachem B. Z. Halberstam-Rotenberg); and to Otzar Chochmat Ha-Kabbalah (Treasury of Wisdom of the Kabbalah), by Rabbi Ephraim Regensburg. All are quoted as saying that Judah Loew the Elder was a descendant of Hai Gaon (939-1038), son of Sherira Gaon (circa 906-1006).

Although Weinstock lists Joseph as the son of Hai Gaon, in his notes he discusses at length whether or not this is, in fact, true or whether Joseph might instead have been the nephew of Hai Gaon, son of Sherira's daughter. Further, he wonders whether Hai actually had a son in the first place and suggests that Joseph might have been the son of Hai's daughter.

On top of all this, Weinstock lists 17 generations from Judah Loew the Elder to Hai Gaon, but does not offer any sources in his notes. This leaves a large gap in the proof of descent, one that cannot be explained away. It spans approximately 400 years, no mention of which can be found in any chronicles, earlier or later. Here, for the record, is the sequence according to Weinstock: “Judah Loew the Elder, son of Bezalel, son of Jacob, son of Leibish, son of Kalman, son of Nachman, son of Joseph, son of Arieh Zev, son of Yerachmiel, son of Eleazar, son of Elijah, son of Azaryah, son of Lemil, son of Ezekiel, son of Azaryah, son of Abraham, son of Yechiel, son of Joseph, son of Hai Gaon.”

Are the sources reliable? Lazarus starts his discussion of Seder Olam Zuta with this sentence: “It is so messy as to render it almost useless to read.” A close look at the sequence of generations shows many instances where the successor is not called “son of;” in some cases the successor is a brother or an uncle. This, of course, makes one wonder whether it was an unbroken chain of fathers and sons. Succeeding chroniclers have borrowed much from this source, repeating inaccuracies.

Sherira Gaon is considered the most reliable chronicler, but his Letter has been copied and amended so much that by now there are two different versions, and the Ashkenazi version has several manuscripts with significant variations. Later chroniclers can be considered reliable only when they write about their own times.

Do the sources give us a complete list of generations? Seder Olam Zuta cannot be considered to do so for the period of the exilarchs. Weinstock's list may appear complete, but it is neither complete nor accurate. Even if all generations of fathers and sons before Hai Gaon were correct, the 17 generations discussed above render completeness doubtful in the absence of supporting evidence. In addition, available sources indicate that the list of descendants, correct or not, does not go past the end of the 15th century.

Careful examination of all available sources leads to the inescapable conclusion that there is no complete, reliable and positive proof of claims of descent from King David, whether via Rashi, Judah Loew the Elder, or any of the other families claimed. There are at present no known sources that could fill the gaps or set the record straight. It is possible that there may be actual descendants somewhere, but at present, no one can produce sufficient and unquestionable proof of this claim.

Conservative genealogists would say that since there is no solid proof, and what is available is incomplete or subject to differing interpretations, such claims cannot be accepted as valid.

Genealogists who value religious tradition could say that our rabbis and sages did not make statements about Davidic descent lightly, that they were trustworthy and insisted on truth. Therefore, these genealogists might agree to a “leap of faith” and accept such assertions as sufficient evidence. We believe in many things without physical proof, and this would be one of these things.

Perhaps there is a middle road that might possibly satisfy both sides. We can cite all the sources, present all the evidence, and state clearly and unequivocally that there are gaps, uncertain links and various versions. While such claims are not ironclad, this descent is possible, maybe even probable, and we are including it in our genealogies subject to the above understanding. This way we are not deluding ourselves, we are not deceiving others, and we can still can take pride from the possibility of such famous ancestors. When our sages tackled a knotty problem and could not solve or agree to resolve it, they used to say that it will be solved “when the Messiah will come.” Perhaps we, too, should take a cue from them and leave the truth about this problem to the Messiah.

David Einsiedler has devoted his retirement years to rabbinic genealogical research and is a member of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. He is a native of pre-war Poland and lives in Reseda, California. This article was originally published in Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy in 1993 (Vol. IX, No. 2, page 34) and is reproduced with kind permission. Visit the Avotaynu web site for information on how to access additional articles on this and other topics.