If you’ve already done some research on DNA testing for Jewish ancestry, or DNA ancestry testing in general, it’ll come as no surprise to you to learn that DNA results can vary dramatically depending on a company’s database and the reference populations it has access to.
That’s why if you know - or suspect - you have Jewish ancestry, it’s essential to select a test that offers a strong Jewish lineage and has access to DNA samples from a myriad of different Jewish ethnicities.
Thankfully, we’ve done all of the research for you, and today we’ll be putting together a guide packed full of everything you need to know about testing for Jewish ancestry, in particular, the best DNA tests for doing this.
Why take a DNA test for Jewish Ancestry?
Jewish history can be traced back to biblical times and is rich and diverse, with Jews migrating all over the world.
A DNA test can be used to help confirm family rumors about Jewish Ancestry, or can simply be done out of sheer curiosity and a desire to find out more about what makes you, you.
DNA tests are a great starting point for further genealogical testing and can help you create your family tree, which may even lead you to relatives around the world who you never knew existed.
The Jewish ethnoreligious group has a rich and varied history. Jews originated as an ethnic and religious group in the Middle East during the second millennium BCE, and the Merneptah Stele appears to confirm the existence of a people of Israel somewhere in Canaan as far back as the 13th century BCE (known as the Late Bronze Age).
However, it was in the millennia following where Jewish diaspora communities coalesced into major distinct ethnic groups including Ashkenazim (European Jews), Sephardim (Iberian Jews); and Mizrahim (Oriental Jews), the latter of which are often regarded as separate from Sephardim —particularly in Israel.
Before World War II, the worldwide Jewish population reached a peak of 16.7 million, about 0.7 percent of the world population at that time, although approximately 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
Since this time the population has slowly risen again, and as of 2018, it was estimated that there are between 14.6–17.8 million Jews worldwide, less than 0.2 percent of the total world population.
How is it possible to isolate Jewish DNA?
As you probably already know, the history of the Jewish people is complex, but you may still be wondering how it’s possible to isolate Jewish DNA since being “Jewish” is more often thought of as a religious choice, rather than an ethnic identity.
However, due to the events briefly outlined above, there are several distinct communities of Jews around the world, with the largest group of Jews being the “Ashkenazi Jews” - who originated in Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe after migrating from the Middle East.
Because the Ashkenazi Jews had a different culture, language, and religion to the native people of the countries they settled in, they remained isolated and remained primarily within their own communities.
The fact that European Jews were so often the targets of discrimination, fascism, and violence often encouraged them not to mix with other cultures and meant they seldom married outside of the Jewish community.
As a result, not only did the Jewish people become socially isolated from other religions and races, but they also became genetically isolated by force and by custom, which slowly narrowed the gene pool.
This means that modern Jews of European descent have a set of identifiable genetic variations that differentiate them from other European populations at a microscopic level.
Types of Jewish Ethnicity
The Ashkenazi Jewish can be traced back to Germany and France and later migrated eastward towards Poland and the Slavic countries.
Because of traditions concerning marriage, as well as discrimination towards Ashkenazi Jews, they are genetically quite isolated and close-knit.
The Sephardic Jewish originated in North Africa and are a part of the broader “Mizrahi” Jewish population, who are known collectively as “Maghrebi Jews.”
They originated mainly from regions of North Africa such as Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia.
Ethiopian Jews are usually traced either to biblical times as descendants of the Biblical Tribe of Dan or as the offspring of a union between King Solomon of Israel and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba.
The form of Judaism followed by Ethiopian Jews often includes strict adherence to dietary laws, observance of the Sabbath, and veneration of scripture in the ancient Ge’ez language. The community has practiced these rituals for approximately 2 millennia.
This group of Jews maintains some of the oldest Jewish customs, and, are third in size after the Ashekenzai and Sephardic ethnic groups.
It has traditionally been thought that Jews first arrived in Yemen after being exiled following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
Archaeological evidence has proven that a large Jewish community existed in Yemen over 2300 years ago.
For more than 2,700 years, Jews have lived in the historical Persian Empire after being exiled by both the Babylonians and Assyrians to “the ends of the earth” - known today as Iraq and Iran. Mizrahim has been described by scholars as the broadest definition of Sephardim.
However, while similarities exist in the liturgy, diet, and other cultural rituals, there has been no connection proven with Iberian origin.
The Best DNA Tests for Jewish Ancestry
OUR TOP PICK
- Best Jewish lineage - 42 ethnicities and 5 major Jewish ethnicities
- Family tree tool
- Access millions of Jewish historical records
- Match with
MyHeritage DNA is one of the most extensive tests available on the market for tracing Jewish Ancestry, thanks to their precise ethnic breakdown which allows you to discover your unique ethnic background to find out what percentage you are of 42 possible ethnicities.
MyHeritage claims to offer the most diverse ethnicity test and is the only test on the market that can break your Jewish ancestry down into the five major Jewish ethnicities:
- Ashkenazi Jewish
- Sephardic Jewish
- Ethiopian Jewish
- Yemenite Jewish
- Mizrahi Jewish
This means you get specific insight into your Jewish ancestry, rather than simply a broad overview. Premium matching technology allows you to automatically find matches between names on your family tree, other trees, and historical records, even if they’re in another language such as Hebrew.
As well as finding out your ethnic origins, the DNA ancestry kit from MyHeritage also comes with a suite of tools so you can create your family tree and explore your family history. This allows you to visually map your ancestry and discover whether or not you have Jewish ancestors.
It also means you can connect with new relatives you share ancestors with, and uncover information about your family’s past. This test allows you to search millions of historical Jewish records and has a global database of 8.5 billion records.
MyHeritage offers a quick turnaround too, so you should have your results in 3-4 weeks of sending off your sample, it’s also one of the most popular DNA tests worldwide, offering 42 languages, 2100+ geographic regions, and the largest database for European DNA matching - so it’s especially well-suited for anyone hoping to pinpoint their Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.
- Chosen DNA company for The Jewish Voice
- 2 of the company’s twenty-four reference groups are of Jewish ancestry
- Range of interactive tools to trace ancestry and determine family connections
- Provides a breakdown of geographical origins
The reason why this kit is a favorite for tracing Jewish ancestry is because of the company’s reference populations: 2 of its twenty-four databases are of Jewish ethnicity - the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish.
This means that whereas other testing kits may have limited data on Jewish ethnic groups such as these, FamilyTreeDNA’s extensive database means they can more likely predict your Jewish ancestry.
That said, Greenspan has put a special effort into creating an accurate test for Jewish ancestry as he has previously shown his passion for helping people discover their Jewish roots.
FamilyTreeDNA's Family Finder test features a range of interactive tools to help you discover DNA relatives, trace your lineage back through time and determine family connections you might otherwise never have known about.
It will provide you with a percentage breakdown of your geographic origins and reveals the amount of autosomal DNA you still carry of the ancient European groups: the Neolithic Hunter/Gatherers, Early Farmers, and Bronze-age Metal Invaders.
Due to the specific reference groups used by FamilyTreeDNA, it’s especially suited to those hoping to discover their Sephardic and Ashkenazi family history.
- Spans 150 regions worldwide
- Discover 500 years of family ancestry
- Sub-regional breakdowns
- Migration patterns
While LivingDNA focuses more on where in the world people live, rather than their ethnicity, the LivingDNA ancestry test still spans over 150 regions across the globe and may even be able to display sub-regional breakdowns that show that extra level of detail.
The company also uses a DNA constellations method that allows you to explore 500 years of your family ancestry from all over the world.
It also has a specialist focus on African and European ancestry, which can be useful for tracing certain Jewish ethnicities.
The kit is one of the most competitively-priced on the market and provides you with not only your DNA results but sub-regional breakdowns, migration patterns, and recent regional ancestry.
Compared to other leading companies on the market, LivingDNA offers great bang for your buck and is a good starting place for tracing Jewish ancestry and piecing together your family tree.
- Jewish founder
- DNA checked against 700,000 markers
- Identify whether you are of Jewish descent, which line the Jewish descent is from, and even to what percentage you are Jewish
This test is particularly interesting, as it was founded by Joelle Apter, who started the company because she was searching for her own Jewish and Polish lineage.
This makes it one of the most specific DNA testing kits out there for Jewish ancestry, as your DNA is checked against more than 700,000 genetic markers.
This comprehensive test will indicate whether you are of Jewish descent, which line the Jewish descent is from, and even to what percentage you are Jewish.
The iGenea test kit can identify both paternal and maternal lineages but doesn’t offer a family tree integration. However, the company’s database is so extensive that its Premium DNA testing kits can draw up results from as far back as 100 thousand years.
The drawback of this DNA testing kit is that it’s a lot more expensive than others on the market, costing about double what you’d pay for your average DNA home testing kit.
However, iGenea may ultimately end up saving you money in the long run as once you purchase their kit you’ll have lifetime access to their database.
The only other downside of this test is that the waiting time for results is around 6-8 weeks, so slightly longer than average.
How does DNA testing work?
Our DNA is a blueprint of who we are, consisting of 3 billion letters. We inherit half of our DNA from our mother and the other half from our father, and because of this, copies of DNA are passed down through generations.
During an ancestry DNA analysis, geneticists will analyze your DNA at certain points where different people are known to have different letters. These might be the difference between having brown or blonde hair, or blue or green eyes, whereas at other spots the difference doesn’t actually have an impact.
Because DNA testing companies have a database full of other DNA samples, or reference populations, they can compare your DNA to these at the particular spots that are known to differ between populations or particular ethnicities.
Many people will have an ancestry report that shows their DNA comes from different populations, so their results will show various percentages from different ethnicities or geographical locations.
Types of DNA Tests
An autosomal DNA test is the most popular kind used in ancestry kits. This will basically determine your family ancestry going back approximately six generations, or occasionally more.
This test can be taken by both males and females and is the easiest way to find other living relatives who share your DNA. This can help you piece together your family tree and get a better idea of your ancestry.
However, it’s worth noting that if your Jewish ancestry goes back more than six generations, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to pinpoint much information on those ancestors.
This type of test is more specific and looks at the genetic sequence passed down directly from father to son, so it can only be taken by males.
However, it allows you to connect with a male line that can go dozens of generations back, providing a more in-depth picture of your ancestral lineage. It can also be useful if you do this test alongside a general ancestral test as this way you’ll be more likely to be able to fill in any gaps.
Some DNA testing companies test more markers than others, but the more you get tested, the more precise your results will be, so even if it comes at a higher cost, it’s usually worth it.
Mitochondrial DNA testing looks specifically at DNA that is passed down from your mother. In Orthodox Judaism, a child is only Jewish if its mother is Jewish.
A study published in 2006 indicated that 40% of all Ashkenazi Jews descended from four Jewish mothers who lived over 1,000 years ago. In this study, scholars suggested that if you bear specific mtDNA markers, there is a 90-99% chance that you descended from any one of these four women.
Things to Bear in Mind
There are several things to bear in mind when taking a DNA test for Jewish ancestry, as these factors can play a role in your results...
This is mainly relevant to those hoping to piece together their family tree or trace their ancestry through historical records, but throughout history, some Jews changed their name to avoid persecution or to better fit into US or British society.
This makes the ancestral research much more challenging, and in this case, your best bet is to take an autosomal DNA test, which is the easiest way to locate your living relatives, regardless of their surname.
Alternatively, a Y-DNA test will trace your family to its original name through the male lineage.
Lack of Jewish Records
Genealogical records are relatively new phenomena, and the recording of births and deaths are somewhat recent, dating back around one hundred years.
This can be made even more complex in the case where a Jewish ancestor migrated to another country. That said, this will have little bearing on an autosomal DNA test, and more impact if you were researching your family tree.
You may recall us discussing the impacts of isolation on Jewish genetics, but this isn’t to say that all Jews resisted mingling with other cultures.
Because Jews were known to have dispersed across various parts of Europe, Africa, Central, and East Asia, and the Middle East, intermarriage was inevitable, and as a result, there are traces of other ethnic groups that run through the genetic heritage of a large proportion of Jews.
While certain haplotypes are exclusive to those of Jewish ancestry, as many as half don’t belong to them. This means that if you have very strong Jewish ancestry it might come up as a result on either an mtDNA or Y-DNA test, though this doesn’t have to be the case at all.
Specific haplogroups can be found exclusively amongst people with Jewish ancestry. For example, DNA haplogroups K1a1b1a, K1a9, K2a2a, and N1b, are common among Ashkenazi Jews but seldom seen in anyone else. Common Y-chromosome haplogroups include J (and its subgroups) and E1b1b.
If you belong to any one of these haplogroups, it is usually a strong indication that you are of Jewish heritage. Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi Jews separated many years ago, and because of this, there has been sufficient time for the groups to drift apart genetically meaning that a DNA test will not only identify that you have Jewish ancestry but will also specify which group, provided the testing company has access to all of the major Jewish ethnic groups.
Regardless of which DNA test you choose, the most important thing to remember is that DNA tests do not change how you’ve identified this far. Where you live, your family, and social customs all have a strong influence on your identity as well as your ancestral history and DNA.
If you’ve always suspected that you have Jewish ancestry, taking a DNA test is the perfect starting point for further research. However, you should certainly bear in mind that test results can differ dramatically between different companies, which is why it’s important to find the right test for you.
In our opinion, MyHeritage offers the most comprehensive and accurate autosomal test on the market currently, due to the fact that it can pinpoint the five major Jewish ethnic groups.
Other DNA tests may be more limited and may connect your DNA to a specific region rather than an ethnic sub-group.
These tests can still be good to use as a starting point for further testing, however, and it’s worth remembering that no DNA test is infallible, so ultimately a combination of DNA testing, family tree research, and historical records are the best way to thoroughly explore your Jewish heritage.