Over the years I’ve known, and known of, several people who claimed to be descended from King David. Not that they could trace their ancestry back to him directly. Rather, they claimed to be descended from one or another famous rabbinical personality who, in turn, was reputed to have been descended from an earlier one who was claimed to be of the Davidic line.
One such individual, according to his followers, was the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Though I cannot claim to have known him, I did meet him a few times and saw him speak on many occasions (in Yiddish, which I did not understand). By claiming their rebbe was descended from King David, his followers bolstered their claim that he was to be the messiah. I also knew others, humble Jews of lowly stations in life, who claimed descent from King David. No matter how lowly they were, their alleged royal ancestry would give them a sense of importance.
If I had to venture a guess, I would say that many more people are descended from King David than actually believe this to be the case. After all, his son, King Solomon, sired many children. By now, they are probably spread throughout the globe. Perhaps, given the prolific love lives of royalty, being descended from a king is not so special after all; it might be that an individual who is not descended from a king is the exception.
One of the longest lasting institutions, within Jewry, was based upon direct descent from King David: the “exilarch“, called “Resh Galutha” in Aramaic or “Rosh Galuth” in Hebrew. According to tradition, the first exilarch was Yehoyachin, the last monarch of Judah. From him, the title passed, father to son, through the rest of the Biblical era and more, having survived the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman and the Sassanid empires. It lasted through the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods on through the age of those who immediately followed: the Savuraim. The line was almost extinguished at the end of the Sassanid empire and this is the tale of Bustenai.
The above manuscript is from my collection and tells the story of Bustenai. Following is an excerpt:
In the days of the kingdom of Persia, arose one stupid king. He took it upon himself to extinguish the royal seed. So he sought every Davidic household within his kingdom and killed them. He imprisoned the members of their households, their in-laws and their friends and he tortured them… and he had the pregnant women split open. But, in God’s mercy on the seed of the House of David, one bride remained after all the young men were killed – and she was pregnant…
And that king had a dream and they showed him standing in the garden of Betan and within it were trees beautiful to behold and for their fruit. And he knew that this garden was not his own so he threw its fruits to the ground in anger and jealousy and he went back to check if there were any roots so that he could dig them up so that it could never sprout again. After a while he found one root and from it was sprouting something like a branch from the Earth. So he raised his axe in order to destroy it and behold an old man stood before him and he was of ruddy complexion with beautiful eyes and a fine appearance. And (the old man) rebuked him a great rebuking and he cried a great and bitter cry and he snatched the axe from his hand and stuck it in (the king’s) forehead so that his blood flowed onto his face and onto his beard and his soul was close to death and he fell on his face to the ground and wept and pleaded with him. He said, “please, my master, let my pleadings fall before you so that you do not destroy me for what have I done to you and what is my sin and transgression that you tried to kill me?” So the old man answered and said, “this is very little considering the evil you have done for you have come to my garden…
To make a long story short, the old man was King David and he convinced the king to allow his line to continue through the pregnant woman who had been spared.
The office of the Exilarch flourished during Arab rule and began to wane by the 12th century. I remember reading, a while back, that the institution of the Exilarch was finally destroyed by Tamarlane in 1401 but now I’m having trouble finding a source for this.
One prominent family, that claims descent from King David, is the Meyuhas family. In fact, the very name “Meyuhas” means “pedigreed” in Hebrew. More certain is that they were among the Spanish Jews exiled by the inquisition. Below is one of several signatures from Moshe Mordechai Yosef Bechor Meyuhas (from the margins of one of my books):
The large symbol on the bottom is “S.T.” which stands for either “sofo tov (his end is good)” or “Sefaradi tahor” (pure Spanish).
As uncertain as their claims may be, I envy those whose family tradition includes descent from the kings of Israel. As satisfying as it is to be of Jewish heritage – not half Jewish and not a quarter Jewish – it would still be nice to know more specifics. To know which tribe I belong to. Looking at the story told by the Torah, I wonder if this sense of tribal identity is an underlying reason why the People of Israel was divided into twelve tribes, each with its own territory. That way, when a member of the tribe of Menashe traveled to the territory of Naftali, he would be conscious of his own distinctiveness and he would be recognizable as such through his cloths, his speech and his mannerisms. With this in mind, he would take care to be on his best behavior so as not to reflect badly upon his brethren back home. If all Israel were just one big mishmash, an individual would be accountable only to himself and his immediate family (who would usually remain anonymous). So, in a nutshell, with affiliation comes accountability. With accountability comes good behavior. We live in a world where the most potent type of affiliation, blood affiliation, is being eroded at alarming levels. Therefore, it should be no wonder that accountability is also eroding.