The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition


Nov. 15, 2004

DNA & Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews
By Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman
Devora Publishers
ISBN: 1930143893
204pp., $21.95

Whether or not genetics is your forte, DNA & Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews has an element of interest for everyone. Professor Karl Skorecki says as much in the book's preface, when he quotes Albert Einstein: "If you can't explain something to your grandmother, then you probably don't really understand it."

With DNA and Tradition, Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman has written a book, if not for his grandmother, then for the scientifically challenged, like myself.

The premise is simple enough. If all kohanim descended from Aaron, the first high priest of Israel, then they should share certain genetic traits.

From there it becomes more technical. A sampling of Jewish males from Israel, England, and North America were asked to contribute cheek cells in order to extract their DNA. From that study, 98.5 percent of the kohanim tested were found to have the YAP (Y-chromosome Alu Polymorphism) marker.

In a second study, scientists collected more DNA samples and expanded their selection of Y-chromosome markers. Confirming their hypothesis, they discovered that a particular array of six chromosome markers was found in 97 of 106 kohanim tested. The odds against this happening by chance are less than 1 in 10,000.

This set of markers is now known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH). In Skorecki's words, "the simplest, most straightforward explanation is that these men have the Y-chromosome of Aaron. The study suggests that a 3,000-year-old tradition is correct and has a biological counterpart."

Motivated by the findings, more scientists got on board. By analyzing the Y-chromosome, which is passed virtually unchanged from father to son, they sought to ascertain whether "the scattered groups of modern Jews are actually the modified descendants of the ancient Hebrews of the Bible."

The samplings were expanded to include 29 different population groups (seven of which were Jewish). These populations were divided into five groups: Jews, Middle-Eastern non-Jews, Europeans, North Africans, and sub-Saharan Africans. The findings proved that Sephardi (from the Near East) and Ashkenazi (from Europe) Jews have nearly identical genetic profiles.

This profile, they subsequently discovered, is of Middle Eastern origin. Among other factors, this discovery is attributable to a low rate of intermarriage between Diaspora Jews and local gentiles.

"Since the Jews first settled in Europe more than 50 generations ago, the intermarriage rate was estimated to be only about 0.5%... Ashkenazi Jews are still closer genetically to Sephardic and Kurdish Jews than to any other population."

Interestingly, among the Jewish communities sampled, North Africans are thought to be the closest genetically to the Jewish/Hebrew population of the First Temple period around 2,500 years ago.

WHILE THESE discoveries may not impinge on Halacha, the implications are no less salient. Dr. Harry Ostrer, chairman of the Human Genetics Program at New York University, sums it up: "Recent work from genetics labs has validated the biblical record of a Semitic people who chose a Jewish way of life several thousand years ago. These observations are the biological equivalent to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Kleiman furthers the significance when he quotes the famous sage, the Hafetz Haim: "We will immediately need kohanim [when the Temple is rebuilt] who are knowledgeable in the Service. Without kohanim there is no purpose to the building of the Temple."

Peppered throughout the book are biblical references to various prophecies and promises. One example is the ingathering of the exiles - something Israel is witnessing now as it receives a huge influx of immigrants from Peru to Ethiopia. Some of these people are considered to be members of the Lost Tribes, and these genetic breakthroughs have helped legitimize their status.

One example is the community of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia, which has a tradition of having arrived there before the destruction of the Temple. They also have a group of people who consider themselves kohanim. In the past, such claims have been hard to prove and uncomfortable to question. Now, however, scientists can genetically test a sample of these kohanim, and have discovered that they all have the CMH.

Kleiman also dedicates parts of the book to the history of kohanim, the history of the Jewish Exile, and various accounts of Lost Tribes. He provides many interesting tidbits about the origins of some Jewish names.

For instance, the common Sephardi last name Mazeh is an acronym of the Hebrew words mizera aharon hakohen - from the seed of Aaron the Priest. Similarly, the popular Ashkenazi last name Katz is often an abbreviation of kohen-tzedek, or righteous priest. Another common name, Rappaport, is said to have come with the family of 16th century Rabbi Avraham Menahem Hakohen Rapa, of Porto, Italy.

One of the more compelling quotes I came across was from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: "The kabbalists actually maintained that everything that exists is the result of tzerufim - various permutations of the letters of an alphabet. It now turns out that this is not a metaphor at all. It is actually, literally true... the DNA string of those characters is all a series of letters - A, C, G, and T - which, as it were, extend to perform this huge language that is the DNA."

The reviewer is a teacher of Jewish mysticism

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