Hi Rabbi, what does the halacha say about those who claim to be Jewish but cannot necessarily prove this? I imagine there must be Jews around the world in this situation.
Further to this, is the onus on the person who claims they are Jewish to prove this, or is it a case that one in given the benefit of the doubt?
Thanks for your reply.
The Shach (Yoreh De’ah 268:20), based on Tosafos (Yevamos 47b), writes that a person is believed to claim that he is Jewish.
However, Rav Chaim Volozin (Chut Ha-Meshulash 5) explains that this does not apply universally, but only where the majority of people who claim Jewish descent are in fact Jewish.
Therefore, he writes that the principle does not apply to somebody who does not know the Hebrew tongue, for most people who don’t speak the Hebrew tongue (in his time, yiddish, or something of Lashon Ha-Kodesh), cannot be believed to say he is Jewish.
The Chazon Ish (Yoreh De’ah 158:8; Even Ha-Ezer 117:8) writes that this ruling also depends on time and place. In our generation, it is likely somebody who steps up and claims that he is Jewish, without displaying a fair knowledge of Jewish custom and tradition, will not be believed.
Althgouh there are many Jews who know nothing of Hebrew and Judaism, there are also many frauds, and it will be hard to rely on the principle of Tosafos as ruled by the Shach for people who display no prior knowledge of Judaism.
The custom of Rabbinical Courts (in Israel) is certainly not to rely on the personal testimony of individuals, but to thoroughly investigate the Jewish descent of those who claim they are Jewish. This is done after a wealth of experience in dealing with cases of false claims (whether intentional or inadvertent) of Jewish descent.
Naturally, somebody who has an ulterior motive for being Jewish (such as marriage, rights, and so on) will be treated with still greater suspicion.
Note that for people who are actually Jewish, and claim to be Jewish, the truth will certainly emerge in the end.