Why Are People Considered to Be Born Jewish Only If Their Mother Is Jewish?

Dear Jew in the City-

I’ve been wondering why matrilineal descent is how people are considered to be born Jewish. Do you have an explanation for it?


Dear Cameron-

Thanks for your question. Overly simplified, matrilineal descent means that “religion follows the mother.” A lot of people mistakenly think that, Biblically speaking, we used to follow the father and that matrilineal descent is a Talmudic invention. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Tanach is replete with matrilineal descent.

First, let’s address how “religion follows the mother” is an oversimplification. The Mishna in Kiddushin (3:12) teaches:

Whenever a marriage is effective and violates no law, the offspring of the union takes the father’s status. An example of this is a woman from a kohein, Levi or Yisroel family who marries a kohein, a Levi or a Yisroel (the offspring follow the father). If a marriage is effective but it violates some law, the offspring takes the lesser status of the two parents. Examples include a widow who marries a Kohein Gadol, a divorcee or a woman who performed chalitzah who marries a regular kohein, a mamzeres or a Gibeonite woman who marries a regular Jew, or a regular Jewess who marries a mamzer or a Gibeonite man. If one cannot effectively marry a particular person but that person could effectively marry others, the offspring is a mamzer. This refers to all the forbidden (i.e., incestuous and adulterous) relationships in the Torah. If the other person cannot effect marriage with any Jew, then the offspring follow the mother. Examples include the children of a maidservant or a non-Jewish woman.

Under Jewish law, marriage cannot be effected with a non-Jewish person. When marriage is not effective, a child’s status follows the mother. Therefore, a Jewish man + a non-Jewish woman = a non-Jewish child. Conversely, a Jewish woman + a non-Jewish man = a Jewish child. When marriage is both effective and permissible, however, the child’s status follows the father, which is why, when both parents are Jewish, being a kohein, a Levi or a Yisroel depends on one’s father.

The Torah source of matrilineal descent is found in parshas Nitzavim. There, the Torah prohibits intermarriage and it tells us (Deuteronomy 7:3-4):

Do not intermarry with them; do not give your daughter to his son and you shall not take his daughter for your son. This is because he will turn away your son from following Me, and they will worship foreign gods. God’s wrath will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.

Rashi there cites the gemara in Kiddushin (68b):

If the non-Jew’s son marries your daughter, he will turn the son that your daughter will bear away from following Me. From this we see that your daughter’s son from a non-Jewish man is still considered “your son” (i.e., Jewish) but your son’s son with a non-Jewish woman is not called “your son….” This is why it doesn’t say that she (a non-Jewish daughter-in-law) will turn your son away… (because he’s considered her son – i.e., non-Jewish).

Now, this may be a little too esoteric for some but, as I noted, we see this in action throughout Tanach. You may recall the mekalel (the unnamed blasphemer) in parshas Emor (Leviticus chapter 24) was the son of a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man. Nevertheless, he left Egypt with the Jews (rather than staying behind) and was subject to Jewish law. 

Exodus chapter 21 discusses the laws of a Jewish indentured servant. One of the scenarios discussed is if the servant’s master gives him a non-Jewish servant woman as a mate. Verse 4 tells us, “…the woman and her children will belong to her master, and he will go free alone.” We see that the children share the status of their mother, which in this case is non-Jewish.

This law is the focus of Ezra chapter 10. There, it was brought to Ezra’s attention that large numbers of men married foreign women and had children with them. Painful though it was, they agreed to separate from these wives and from their offspring with them. We see once again that the children were of the same status as their mothers. (I assume that there must also have been women who intermarried and had children but, if there were, they didn’t pose nearly as large a halachic quandary.)

I must confess that this halacha is unpopular among non-observant Jews since the Reform movement decided to accept patrilineal descent in 1983. Previously considering themselves to be non-Jewish or “half-Jewish,” there are now plenty of people who may consider themselves Jewish despite the fact that halacha does not. This move – predicated on inclusion – only served to set up a big wall between the movements that accept patrilineal descent and those that don’t. It can be a major sore point but what can we do? Orthodoxy believes that the Torah defines who is Jewish, not man.

When this question was forwarded to me by the Jew in the City powers that be, they asked if I could mention the concept of “zera Yisroel.” I can, but there’s not really that much to say about it. Zera Yisroel is a fairly modern concept, referring to non-Jews of Jewish descent. (The phrase appears in Tanach and Talmud referring to Jews; the earliest reference I can find to it in this context is from Rav Tzaddok HaKohein Rabinowitz of Lublin in the 19th-century.) The practical ramification of zera Yisroel is that if a person is Jewish on his father’s side, he might be fast-tracked for conversion, already having a “foot inside the door,” as it were.

So, yeah, defining who’s Jewish can get messy. Some people may not like being told they’re not Jewish as defined by Jewish law when they spent their whole lives thinking otherwise. But the parameters were laid out for us in the Torah, which we believe is the Word of God. (And why would we want to limit membership? We could use all the Jews we can get!) So just as we can’t redefine bacon as kosher or move Shabbos to Tuesday, we can’t change the definition of who’s born Jewish. If someone isn’t, conversion is always an option. Yes, those who already consider themselves Jewish don’t like having to go through the process but if we all want to get on the same page, it’s ultimately our only alternative.


Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
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