“You shall not take a wife for my son,” Abraham says to his servant Eliezer, “from the daughters of the Canaanites… but you shall go to my country, to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac” (Gen. 24:3-4).
This seems to have been the Jewish principle throughout history.
The Mishnah puts into the mouth of the daughters of Jerusalem the advice, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you would choose for yourself. Set not your eyes on beauty, but set your eyes on family, for ‘Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised’ (Prov. 31:30)” (Ta’anit 4:8).
Not that beauty is irrelevant, but family is a very significant consideration. Hence the rabbinic saying, “A person should sell all he has in order to marry the daughter of a scholar”.
Yichus is still very important in some circles. Rabbis often get telephone calls from across the world asking what they know of a particular family whose son or daughter overseas is someone’s prospective shidduch.
Other views are held in society generally, and family background is viewed as a quaint notion that has little relevance when a couple are in love.
But it would be an immense pity if yichus fell entirely by the wayside. If you know a person is from a good family it is likely that they will have been brought up with standards and values and their character has been formed in the right sort of atmosphere.
This is one of the reasons why there is a Jewish doctrine of z’chut avot – the merit of the ancestors. We do not worship our ancestors, but if we are wise we will recognise that good ancestry lays up spiritual, cultural and moral capital that many generations can draw upon.
Hence each of us should ensure that we create such a milieu at home and bring up our children with such a firm basis of faith and values that the future will benefit.
And if it happens that someone is unfortunate enough to lack this type of yichus?
Remember what is said to have happened in the House of Lords when a snooty old-timer asked a new peer, “And whose descendant are you?”, only to receive the answer, “I am nobody’s descendant. I am an ancestor!”