Davidic Line Today

I’m wondering what happened to the House of David. After the end of the Kingdom of Judah was there any memory what happened to King David’s descendants? Is there any family today which can trace its lineage to David – and whom the Messiah might descend from?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your good question. There is no question that King David’s descendants are alive today. God promised David through Nathan the Prophet that the monarchy would never depart from his family (II Samuel 7:16). The prophets likewise foretell the ultimate coming of the Messiah, descendant of David, the “branch which will extend from the trunk of Jesse,” who will restore the Davidic dynasty and Israel’s sovereignty (Isaiah 11:1, see also Jeremiah 33:15, Ezekiel 37:25).

King David’s initial dynasty came to an end with the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile. In an earlier expulsion King Jehoiachin was exiled by Nebuchadnezzar, together with his family and several thousand of the Torah scholars and higher classes (II Kings 24:14-16). Eleven years later the Temple was destroyed. The final king of Judah, Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah, was too exiled to Babylonia. He was blinded and his children were executed (II Kings 25:7).

However, Jehoiachin and his descendants did survive in exile. Babylonian cuneiform records actually attest to Jehoiachin and his family receiving food rations from the government. I Chronicles 3:17-24 likewise lists several generations of his descendants (either 9 or 15 generations, depending on the precise interpretation of the verses), which would have extended well into the Second Temple era. (One was the notable Zerubbabel, grandson of Jehoiachin, who was one of the leaders of the return to Zion and the construction the Second Temple.)

In Babylonia, the leader of the Jewish community was known as the Reish Galuta (Aramaic for “head of the exile,” called the Exilarch in English). This was a hereditary position recognized by the Babylonian government. Its bearer was generally quite wealthy and powerful, well-connected to the government and wielding much authority over Babylonian Jewry.

According to Jewish tradition, the Exilarch was a direct descendant of Jehoiachin. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a) understands Genesis 49:10 – Jacob’s blessing to Judah that “the staff would not be removed from Judah” – as a reference to the Exilarchs in Babylonia, “who would chastise Israel with the staff,” i.e., who exercised temporal authority over the Jewish community. It stands to reason that these descendants of Judah were descendants of David’s house, who would have naturally been the leaders of the Babylonian community, in fulfillment of God’s promise to David that authority would always rest in his descendants.

There is also a chronological work, Seder Olam Zutta (an anonymous text from the early Middle Ages), which lists 39 generations of Exilarchs beginning with Jehoiachin. One of the commentators to Chronicles, the Vilna Gaon, states that the first one was Elionai of I Chronicles 3:23.

The position of Exilarch lasted for many centuries. The Reish Galuta is mentioned quite often in the Talmud. As can be expected, some were quite learned themselves, some deferred to the rabbis for religious matters, while some, especially in the later years, fought them and their authority tooth and nail.

Exilarchs existed well into the Middle Ages, throughout the period of the early medieval scholars known as the Gaonim. The last ones known to history was Hezekiah, who was killed in 1040 by the Babylonian authorities, although he was believed to have had sons who escaped to Iberia. There are likewise later historical references to descendants of the Exilarchs, especially in northern Spain (Catelonia) and southern France (Provence).

Beyond that, there is no concrete evidence as to the whereabouts of King David’s descendants. Supposedly, the great French medieval sage Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki) traced his lineage to King David, although on a maternal line. (In addition, Rashi himself had only daughters.) The same is said of Rabbi Yehuda Loewe of Prague (the Maharal). Since Ashkenazi Jews are so interrelated, this is a tradition, however dubious today, shared by many Ashkenazi Jews.

In any event, we do not need be concerned today how the Messiah son of David will be identified. He will be a prophet, second only to Moses. God Himself will select him and appoint him to his task. And he himself, with his Divine inspiration, will resolve all other matters of Jewish lineage (Maimonides Hilchot Melachim 12:3).

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