Is It True That Jewishness Was Patrilineal In Talmudic Times?

Dear Jew in the City,

I read that until Talmudic times, Jewishness used to be passed on through patrilineal descent. Is that true? If true, why did it change? If false, why do people think that?



Dear Harry,

Thanks for your question. We have discussed matrilineal descent before, so let’s recap that first. 

The Mishna in Kiddushin (3:12) teaches that when a marriage is both effective and permitted, the offspring take the father’s status. (For example, if the woman is from a Levite family and the father is an Israelite, the son is a Yisroel, not a Levi). If a marriage is impermissible but effective, the offspring take the lesser status of the two parents, whether it’s the father or the mother. (Example: if a divorcee marries a kohein, the child is not a kohein.) If a marriage is inherently ineffective under Jewish law, the offspring follow the mother’s status. Marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew is not effective in halacha, so the children “follow” the mother, regardless of whether that makes them Jews or non-Jews.

The Torah source for matrilineal descent is in Deuteronomy 7:3-4. After prohibiting intermarriage, the Torah tells us, “Do not intermarry with them; do not give your daughter to his son and do 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 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).”

The idea that this came around in Talmudic times just doesn’t fit the facts since we see matrilineal descent both in the Torah and elsewhere in Tanach.

Consider the man who blasphemed in Leviticus 24: he was the son of a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man. You’ll note that he left Egypt with the Jews rather than staying behind with the Egyptians, and he was subject to Jewish law. 

Also consider the laws of Jewish servants in Exodus 21. We are told that if the servant’s master gives him a non-Jewish servant woman as a mate, “…the woman and her children will belong to her master, and he will go free alone.” The children share the status of their mother, which in this case is non-Jewish.

And then there’s Ezra chapter 10, in which Ezra addressed the large number of men who married and had children with foreign women. 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. (You’ll note that the women who intermarried didn’t pose the same dilemma.)

So why do people think that matrilineal descent is a Talmudic innovation? There are two reasons.

The first is that they’re confused because of the Avos (“Patriarchs”). We see Judaism passed from Avraham to Yitzchak to Yaakov, and from Yaakov to his sons. Aside from the fact that “Judaism” meant something different before the Torah was given, to assume that pre-Sinai descent was patrilineal also assumes that the Imahos (“Matriarchs”) were not as Jewish as their husbands. But is that so? When God changed Avram’s name to Avraham (in Genesis 17), he also changed Sarai’s name to Sarah. She was part of the same covenant, unlike her servant Hagar. It was Avraham’s second son, with Sarah, who inherited Judaism, not his first son, with Hagar. Score one for matrilineal descent.

If you want to argue for patrilineal descent in the case of the Avos, you’d have to suggest that Bilha and Zilpa, who were mothers of two Tribes each, weren’t “Jewish” (whatever that meant before Sinai). That’s a pretty big assumption, but I can’t prove to you that they were “Jewish,” so we’re kind of at a stalemate here. But consider the case of Yitzchak.

Yitzchak, like Avraham, had two sons. His were twins so they obviously had the same mother: Yitzchak’s wife, Rivka. Yitzchak intended his older son Eisav to be his heir, but it ended up being the younger son, Yaakov. Yaakov and Eisav had both the same mother and the same father, but only one of them was going to end up fathering the Jewish people. From this, we can easily see that whatever was going on with the Avos, it had nothing to do with matrilineal or patrilineal descent!

The second reason people think that matrilineal descent was a Talmudic enactment is because of Prof. Shaye J. D. Cohen, who suggested this in a 1985 paper. Cohen wrote that “[t]he preexilic portions of the Hebrew Bible are not familiar with the matrilineal principle,” which is simply incorrect, as we have already demonstrated.

The idea behind this theory is that we know for sure who a child’s mother is but not his father, but there are several flaws with the suggestion. Offhand, the following occur to me:

  • The idea that matrilineal descent reflects a rabbinic enactment just doesn’t make much sense. The Talmud is full of stories explaining the reasons behind various enactments. If this were an enactment, failure to discuss it would constitute what Jerry Seinfeld would call “a pretty big matzah ball”;
  • If Judaism used to follow the father and they “changed the rules,” don’t you think this would have raised an outcry? After all, it would be disqualifying people who previously had been included;
  • The rule about matrilineal descent doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As noted in the mishna in the beginning of this reply, it’s part of a whole series of laws involving permitted marriages and effective marriages. Some cases follow paternity, others follow maternity. It makes no sense to change just some;
  • If we’re really concerned about not knowing a person’s paternity, why should being a kohein follow the father? We’re going to allow people to serve in the Temple not knowing if they’re really kohanim? For that matter, why would a man divide his estate among sons that he has reason to suspect aren’t really his?

In truth, questionable paternity is not that common a concern. It certainly was never a big enough problem to warrant changing the entire definition of who’s Jewish!

I remember someone posing the following question in yeshiva: If one’s maternity is definite while one’s paternity is in doubt, shouldn’t we honor our mothers before we do our fathers? The answer given was, “It’s no honor to your mother to suggest that your paternity’s in doubt!”

Bottom line, the idea that Judaism used to be passed one way, then flipped diametrically to be the exact opposite just doesn’t pass the sniff test. If you go to the Biblical sources looking for support, you’ll find that they actually support the contention that matrilineal descent has always been our practice, at least as far back as Sinai.


Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent

Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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1 comment

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  • Avatar photo David Zalkin says on February 21, 2023

    Regarding “If this were an enactment…” I don’t think that Prof. Cohen meant that it was a rabbinic enactment, rather that the practice evolved for the reasons he gave, and later the Rabbis, assuming that it had always been so, searched for and found a biblical source.


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