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Thursday, 10 March 2016

Will your great-grandchildren be Jewish?

Daf Yomi Gittin 88

The Prophet Jeremiah foretold that the Babylonian exile would last seventy years, following which we would return to the Land of Israel.  Interestingly, while it was the first seventy-year exile, it was not the last.  Our most recent seventy-year exile was experienced by Jews living in the Soviet Union.   For seventy years of Communism, the practice of Judaism was against the law.  Those caught teaching Torah were sent to Siberia.  Matzah and tefillin had to be smuggled into the country.  And for most of that period, Jews could not leave – they were trapped behind the iron curtain, unable to emigrate to places of religious freedom.

The Rabbis taught: One may use an ancestral family name when signing a gett (bill of divorce) for up to ten generations.  Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Up to three generations is kosher; beyond that, it is invalid.
Rav Huna taught: What is the scriptural source?  “When you beget children and grandchildren, and become aged.”

The Gemara talks about signing a document using the name of one’s forebear.  Many of us have famous ancestors, and we take pride in calling ourselves their children.  In the Megillah, Mordechai is called ‘ben Kish’.   The truth is, Kish wasn’t his father; he was a great-grandfather.  And yet, that was how he signed his name.  Rabbanit Batya’s great-great grandfather was a famous rabbi called the Oneg Yom Tov.  In the manner of our Gemara, she might start signing her name ‘Batya bat Refoel Yom Tov Lipman Halperin.’

But Rabbi Shimon maintains that one may only employ an ancestral name for three generations.  Ten generations, he argues, is unreasonable.  After all, who knows their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents?   The connection is tenuous!  What constitutes a reasonable relationship?  Three generations, says Rabbi Shimon.  Beyond that, there’s little impact and influence to speak of. 

And that’s the significance of seventy years.   Beyond that time, we’re talking not just a different generation, but a completely different era and period of time.  They say that once a family has not been religiously observant for three generations, you rarely find the fourth generation even affiliating with the Jewish people.   In fact, Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that in situations of questionable cohen status, after three generations, we assume that the family are not cohanim.

And so when Hashem saved us from exile in Babylonia or the Soviet Union, He rescued us in the nick of time.  Any longer would have been too late.  We’d have been so far removed from our ancestors, that the likelihood of returning to our Judaism would have been slim to none.  The Almighty, in His abundant kindness, redeemed His people from the precipice of religious oblivion. 

You are the ancestor of your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren!  You have the power to direct your lineage for generations to come.  Will they take pride in using your name when they sign religious documents?  Or will they lack the wherewithal to sign the documents, because our generation made poor decisions? 

You hold the key to your family name for at least the next three generations.  May you merit children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are proud, committed Jews!  

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