Written by Horav Yosef Yeshaya Braun, member of the Badatz of Crown Heights
Before pursuing a shidduch we should ascertain that the candidate is actually Jewish, is halachically considered single, and is not one of the pesulei chittun (those whom we are forbidden to marry according to Torah). It is common practice for the mesader kiddushin (officiating Rabbi) to research the viability of the marriage through birur yahudus (verifying Jewish matrilineage) and birur yuchasin (verifying suitability based on the family’s marriage history) before allowing a couple to wed with chuppah v’kiddushin (the Jewish marriage ceremony).
In determining Jewishness, most Rishonim state that it is sufficient for the person themselves to testify that they are Jewish. This is because there is a chazakah (halachic assumption) that no one would claim to be Jewish if they’re not, or, alternatively, due to the principle of rov (majority)—most such claims were proven to be accurate. In addition, “Milsah d’avida l’igluyei lo meshakrei bah inshei” (no one would dare lie about a matter that is bound to come to light).
Nonetheless, since kosher marriage is such a major tenet of Jewish existence, we should attempt to follow the more stringent authorities who insist on verifying these claims. Even poskim who are more lenient in this matter say, “Kol heicha d’efshar livrurei mevararinan” (wherever possible, ascertain the facts).
Many poskim argue that the statements by Rishonim concerning rov and chazakah are only valid if the individual claiming to be Jewish associates with the Jewish community, retains Jewish traditions or speaks Yiddish (or Ladino). However, in current times, this is not prevalent. The assumptions of trusting an individual’s claims based on rov or chazakah are also challenged, as there are many benefits to being considered Jewish with regard to Aliyah, marrying a Jew, as well as unprecedented cultural acceptance in Western society. Adherence to true Yiddishkeit (Judaism) has declined to the point that we also cannot claim a rov of “verified” Jews, since many of mixed ancestry (who may have been considered Jewish by the outside world) are not halachically Jewish.
Additionally, we recently suffered the horrific losses of the Holocaust, religious oppression under the Communism and a tragically accelerating rate of intermarriage. For the descendants of survivors—whether they are simply misinformed or attempting subterfuge with regard to matrilineage—we cannot prove that any of them are making false claims nor expect the facts “to come to light.”
Even in the olden days, there were particular kehillos (communities) where, due to circumstance, takanos (ratifications) were enacted that those who wanted to join the community must bring evidence of their ancestry.