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Realizing Your Potential through Geneology

© by Jay B. "Yaakov" Abrams

This article is a popularization of a mathematical treatise I wrote on Jewish genealogy. In the first part of this article, we will concentrate on laying out some historical and mathematical facts, and in the second part we will attempt to understand what this means to us personally in our lives—individually and nationally.

Around 1998, a dear friend of mine asked me, "Yaakov, what is the probability that all Jews are descended from King David (King David)?" I asked, "Do you mean father-to-son descent, or do you want me to consider descent through the mothers as well?" He said to include the mothers as well.

A Recital of Historical and Statistical Facts

King David was of the tribe of Yehudah (Judah). But his wives could come from any tribe, or for that matter, could be a convert. I believe that one of his wives was a yafeh to'ar, a captive of war, who later converted to Judaism. Thus, a Levi or a Cohen today could be a descendent of King David, although not a father-to-son descendent.

The mathematical computations are complicated and tedious, but the result of the analysis is fascinating. Every Jew today is a descendent of every Jew who lived in Biblical times - as long as that person had children and their descendents were not completely destroyed early on, i.e., within two or three generations. After that, it would be virtually impossible to destroy every descendent.

In fact, even under the assumption that there is relatively "random mating", (this is a statistical statement only and not meant to demean Jewish morals, G-d forbid) meaning that there are no closed sub-groups in the Jewish population that only marry within themselves, and assuming that Jews live in a fairly contiguous geographic area with no barriers to intra-marriage, it takes only 680 years for us to be 99.99999% certain that every Jew was descended from King David. That percentage can never be exactly 100%, but after 3,000 years, it is at least 99.999% certain that all Jews are his descendents, with there being at least 16 million 9's in the decimals. (I grew tired of dragging a formula any further than 16,000 rows in a spreadsheet.) So, for practical purposes, it is 100% certain that all Jews are descended from King David.

Not only that, but it takes only about 800 years for the entire world to have the ability to claim descendance from him, as long as there are no physical barriers to intermarriage. Here, however, that assumption is more likely to have violations. It is known that King David had non-Jewish offspring through his son King Solomon with the Queen of Sheba, and all the European royalty is considered a product of that union. However, it is likely that there are Eskimo tribes and other aboriginal tribes that never intermarried and received his genes. The entire Jewish people lived in Israel and then a limited Diaspora in Babylon and Persia for 1,500 before scattering to Europe and then eventually America. That was long enough for his genes to proliferate through the entire Jewish people.

You might object that the random mating assumption is false. The king's children certainly wouldn't be marrying Chaimie the water-carrier, which is true. However, only the crown prince, the one who became the next king, would retain the highest royal status over time. Eventually, the younger siblings' children would become commoners after several generations. King David lived approximately 105 generations ago. Over time, the assumption of random mating becomes increasingly realistic.

How Many Great-Grandparents Do You Have?

We all have 2 parents and 4 grandparents, whether or not they are still alive. We have 8 great-grandparents and 16 great-great grandparents. If relatives never married relatives, we would have 2n nth generation grandparents. Since King David lived approximately 105 generations ago, you should have had 2105 grandparents then. The problem with this analysis is that 2105 = 4 × 1031, and there have never been much more than 108 Jews on the planet and certainly not more than 109. What happens is that the further back we go in time, the more we have relatives marrying relatives.

If you married your first cousin, your children would have 4 grandparents, but 2 out of the usual 8 great-grandparents would be duplicates, i.e., your children would have only 6 great-grandparents. If you married your second cousin instead, the duplication of relatives would occur one generation further back, but, the principle is the same.

So, you don't have 1031 great-great-…grandparents. (From now on, for simplicity, we will just use the term great-grandparents and great-grandchildren.) 3,000 years ago, because in those 105 generations, the majority of people marrying each other were relatives—2nd cousins, 3rd cousins, or 10th cousins once removed. However, every one of the 6 to 10 million Jews 3,000 years ago are yours and my great-grandparents.

Statistical Conclusion

My statistical analysis included a steady infusion of converts into the Jewish people. The conclusion stands firm. We are all great-grandchildren of King David, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Isaiah, and all the kings, prophets, and sages. However, we are also great grandchildren of Achitophel, Doeg, and assorted evildoers.

If so, then is this analysis of our past meaningless? Not at all! In parshat Yitro (Exodus 20:5 – 6), G-d states that he punishes those who continue to sin like their parents to the fourth generation, but rewards those who love Him for thousands of generations. This concept is repeated in a similar fashion in the 13 Attributes of Mercy in parshat Ki Tissa (Exodus 34:7).

So, the z'chut Avot (merit of our righteous ancestors) stands forever and is there to aid us today, if we follow in their footsteps, while the evil stops after four generations at the most. This seems to be a "violation" of free will. G-d has stacked the deck in our favor.

What Does This Mean?

The implications of this realization are profound—so much so that I could easily write dozens of pages. But this is meant to be a short article, so let's stick to a few important implications.

The first one is that we are all children of royalty. We all know that we are children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. It was a novelty to discover that King David, the sweet singer of Israel, the warrior king, the tzaddik/prototype ba'al tshuvah, and progenitor of the Messiah is my (and your) great-grandfather. Not just figuratively, but literally! We have the blood of the entire panorama of Jewish history coursing through our veins.

Also, just as every Jew 1,000 or more years ago was your great-grandfather (or great-grandmother), every Jew 1,000 years from now will be your great-grandson or granddaughter. We are all the progenitors of the entire Jewish people to come. What kind of nation do you want to father or mother—great, mediocre, or gone through intermarriage? Every one of us has the opportunity to be an Avraham or a Sarah.

The Rambam says to consider that your next mitzvah or sin (G-d forbid) will tilt the entire world to merit or guilt. That sounds good, but I had difficulties taking that personally to heart enough to make a real difference in my behavior—at least consistently.

One of the greatest of my enemies is my familiarity with myself. I am simply plain old Yaakov, with his strengths, weaknesses, and most of the same old character defects at 53 that I had when I was 20 years old. Who am I to dream of greatness? Haven't I had unlimited doses of humble pie in life?

But I am the great-grandchild of every king and prophet of Israel, and who am I to continue to suffer from delusions of mediocrity? And who are you? We are Bnei Melachim, the children of royalty, and we are fathers and mothers of the entire Jewish people to come in 1,000 years. With this yichus and responsibility, it is our job to accept and internalize this in our battle with our evil inclination. May you find this realization of your royalty a powerful tool with which to grow and to do the right thing when it is difficult.

A friend told me he once had a very difficult decision to make that could have cost him his job. He spoke to a friend, who asked him a powerful question, "What would you do if you had 5% more courage?" That question caused him to access the additional courage that was within him before, but difficult to access because it was blocked by fear. He resigned his job before he knew what other kind of work he could find, and he found something much better very quickly.

Asking the right question can change our point of view at a critical moment of decision. Which Biblical great-grandfather or grandmother do you relate to the most? If it is Rachel, for example, then when faced with a difficult test, what questions could you ask to access more wisdom, courage, serenity, confidence, or whatever trait you need to prevail? "Rachel, I'm your great-granddaughter. I am in great stress! I need your help. Please cry for me ("a voice is heard on high. Rachel is weeping for her children…"—Jeremiah 31:14), plead to G-d! Help me access your courage, your emunah!"

That is just one example of a possible path to solution. Each father, mother, prophet, and great leader had one or two traits in which he or she excelled. If that is the trait you need, then that is the one to whom to turn for help and inspiration.

Exponential Growth

I heard someone quote Arthur C. Clarke once, who is supposed to have said (paraphrased), "Most men overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years. The reason is that we think in linear terms (straight lines), whereas progress is exponential."

I have found this principle absolutely and powerfully true in my life. Consistent, hard effort over a long time has yielded tremendous intellectual growth and accomplishment. Overcoming some very difficult personal circumstances, I have written two books and published over 20 mathematical articles in my profession. My technical skills have grown exponentially over time, and research that I had done in my earlier years in what appeared to be diverse, unrelated areas yielded wonderful results when my knowledge grew and I began seeing the relationships until my research became a unified whole.

One percent exponential growth—which is a very small growth rate—over 1,000 years will cause $1 to grow to $22,000, while a minus one percent exponential growth turns $1.00 into almost nothing. Ten percent exponential growth over 1,000 years turns $1 into $1043, which would be enough to buy the entire world! We all like the prospect of big bucks, but it is more important to understand the power of small improvements and consistency.

So, a large effort to make a small improvement in your character now can change the world entirely in 1,000 years. Your working to be a better you (and my working to be a better Yaakov) will set the example for our children to be better people when they grow up (even if they are already adults!). The entire Jewish nation 1,000 years from now, who will all be your great-grandchildren, will be so much greater in character and physical wealth, because you struggled to develop tools to overcome your evil inclination and modeled this to your children, who in turn model it to theirs. I bless you and me that we can overcome our delusions of mediocrity, upon which the evil inclination preys, and step into our true roles as Jewish royalty. Of course, the evil inclination also preys on arrogance, and we must guard against that, too. The moment we feel arrogance is the time to remind ourselves that we also came from evil doers.

Why focus on King David, when we can focus on dozens of Biblical tzadikim? Of course, we should access the strength and kedushah of all of our righteous grandparents. But King David had it all. The great warrior king, sage, and tzaddik, who wrote in Psalms that he was both tzaddik, pauper, and even a worm. He had royalty and humility in perfect balance.

May G-d bless us that this become a practice that we can each use to build our character and hasten the complete redemption with the righteous Messiah!

Jay B. "Yaakov" Abrams is a business appraiser, who lives in North Hollywood, California with his wife and five children. He can be reached at


from the September 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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