When Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on NBC's hit show "Who Do You Think You Are?" she was delighted to discover that her paternal great-great-great grandfather, Tzvi Hirsch, was a prominent rabbi, kabbalist and purported miracle-worker in Novogrod, Poland. Tales of a fabled rabbinic ancestry inspired her to declare in a Guardian interview, "I really am a Jewish princess!" Put another way: She's got yiches.
For centuries, yiches--usually defined as lineage or pedigree--was intimately tied to Torah study. The great chronicler of Yiddish language Max Weinreich writes in his History of the Yiddish Language, "Yiches derives from the principle that Torah is the best of wares and on this the entire social scale was based: an ignoramus; a boor; a workaday Jew; a Jew; a scholar; a renowned scholar; a genius." Many rabbis disapproved of this concept, emphasizing the importance of judging a person on his or her own merit. But the family trees of noted rabbinic families were highly prized, painstakingly kept--usually by the families themselves--and used in arranging marriages. Although this practice dates back to medieval times, it is alive and well today. The family of 20th-century, Polish-born, American rabbinic scholar Jacob Agus maintains documents tracing its lineage back to Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, the 16th-century commentator on the Mishnah; Meir Katzenellenbogen, the 15th-century "Maharam of Padua"; and the 11th-century commentator Rashi. The family genealogy of a prominent Yemenite family, preserved at Westminster College Library in Cambridge, England, traces its yiches all the way back to the biblical Jacob.
"Among Hasidim, it's all about yiches," says Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and author of the forthcoming Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America. Like other rabbinic families originating in Europe and the Middle East, some Hasidic dynasties trace their lineage back to King David. But uniquely, notes Heilman, Hasidim claim that the tzaddik, or righteous leader, has a mystical connection to the biblical prophets, which is transmitted through the "holy seed" at the birth of a male descendant.
So where does the idea of yiches come from? The short answer is the Bible. The first explicit references to yiches in Hebrew (from the root yud-hey-sin, meaning "relation to" or "related to") appear in the Book of Ezra...