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Why Is Jewishness Matrilineal?

Why Is Jewishness Matrilineal?



Why does whether you’re Jewish or not depend on if your mother is Jewish? Why doesn’t the father’s Jewishness count?


First, the biblical inference for matrilineal descent:

“You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from Me, and they will worship the gods of others” (Deuteronomy 7:3–4).

The implication is that children from such a union will be torn away from Judaism. Since the verse states “for he (i.e. a non-Jewish father) will cause your child to turn away . . . ,” this implies that a child born to a Jewish mother is Jewish (“your child”), whereas if a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, the child is not Jewish—and as such there is no concern that “she,” the child’s mother, will turn the child away from Judaism.1

Although one’s Jewishness is dependent on the mother, other genealogical factors important in Judaism, such as one’s tribal affiliation, are contingent on the father. Thus, whether one is a Kohen, Levite, or Israelite depends on the father’s lineage.

The reason for this is as follows.

There are two basic components to a human being: (a) his essence, and (b) that which he projects forth, such as his talents and abilities. In Kabbalistic terminology, this second component is referred to as “revelations” of himself, as opposed to his essential self.

The creation of a child requires both a man and woman, but for entirely different functions. The mother provides the essence, while the father adds the potential for what the child will eventually project—the revelations of his self.

This is due to the different natures of male and female souls. The male soul emanates from G‑d’s emotive qualities, such as kindness, discipline and harmony—qualities that do not define G‑d Himself, but rather are the means through which He relates to His creations. The female soul, on the other hand, originates in G‑d’s attribute of malchut, royalty. According to the teachings of Kabbalah, malchut is rooted in the essence of G‑d that transcends all divine “revelations.”

The essence of a Jew is his Jewish soul, his Jewish identity. This is inherited from the mother. His tribe—a revelation or projection, the way his Judaism is practiced and actualized—is begotten from the father.

For more on this topic, see our Knowledge Base articles on Essence & Expression; Etzem & Giluyim.


Excerpted from What Is Wrong with Intermarriage? The original exegesis appears in the Talmud, Yevamot 23a and Kiddushin 68b, and Pesikta Zuta on this verse.

Malkie Janowski is an accomplished educator who lives in Coral Springs, Florida. Mrs. Janowski is also a responder on's Ask the Rabbi team.
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Discussion (132)
January 24, 2016
"Like said before; it is not how the child will act later in life, but at time of birth, Jewishness can only be passed by the mother; it is a spiritual matter. It may be difficult to understand, but it is "not up for discussion". ~Anonymous, NYC

To which I reply: You post this in a forum where many are having the discussion. I do apologize for getting a little curious. Heaven forbid I should try to learn something.
January 24, 2016

Before the giving of the Torah, there was no Jewish nation. Thus, Moses' wife and Joseph's wife and the wives of Jacob's sons or even the matriarchs were not Jewish in the same way the Jews are Jewish today - that is, through being born to a Jewish mother. Rather, they chose to follow G-d and join the family of Abraham.

Since Sinai, however, anyone born to a Jewish mother is irrevocably Jewish, regardless of what they do or don't practice.
Malkie Janowski for
January 24, 2016
The Torah is pretty consistent that being Jewish follows the father's line, but the talmudic interpretation changed. Despite the guidance provided by the original text, I would think it's highly unlikely that talmudic interpretation would ever change, for to do so would be an admission of an error. Are there any examples where talmudic views changed 180 degrees from an earlier position?
New York
January 20, 2016
So the mother of Moses' children was not Jewish, yet Gd was upset that they were not circumcised as they were supposed to. Also the mother of Joseph's children was Egyptian, yet we say "may you be as Ephraim and Manasseh". The torah only lists paternal lineage... im not understanding the maternal thing, especially because I was raised doesn't make me any less or more Jewish. If that were the case, all of the non-practicing Jews are no longer Jewish?
May 20, 2015
The verse you reference, "he will cause your child to turn away from Me," is indeed a proof for matrilineal descent. We're clearly taking about a case in which the father is not Jewish. If his child were also not Jewish, there would be no issue regarding "turning the child away" because he or she wouldn't be Jewish in the first place. It is only because the mother is Jewish, and therefore the child is Jewish, that the Torah expresses concern over his non-Jewish father turning him away from G-d.

Although the Biblical reference is implied rather than explicitly stated, as it often is, the Talmud is very clear about this. In Yevamot 23a, the Talmud says, "Your child from a Jewish woman is called 'your child' but your child from a non-Jewish woman is not called 'your child.'"
Malkie Janowski for
May 6, 2015
for he will cause your child to turn away from Me, and they will worship the gods of others.

It's clearly saying that a non jewish father will cause your child to turn away. This is possibility the worst quote in the Torah to bring as a proof from matrilineal decent.

The Torah mentions patrilineal decent time and time again. Exodus 10:1-2

Can anyone give me one quote either in the torah or the talmud that would suggest matrilineal? Please I am really interested?
Los Angeles
January 29, 2015

The matrilineal argument made in the article is nonsequitur. The inference of non-Jewish status cannot be logically made based on 'concern'.
case1: JMother+JFather =no concern
case2: NJMother+JFather=no concern
case3: JMother+NJFather=concern
inference1: no concern = non jewish children
inference2: concern = jewish children
under these conditions the only state that yields a jewish child is case3. The other two states yield non-Jewish children, therefore the inferences cannot be true.
However, we can achieve a biblical match if we consider the above cases using the following functions/truisms:
F1: The father is the religious head of the family and will teach his religion to his children
F2: The NJMother must convert or be put aside along with her children
This yields jewish children without concern of 'turning away' in cases 1 and 2, while case3 yields a jewish child but carries the concern of turning away.
Therefore Jewishness and inheritance are not matrilineal, but patrilineal.
January 5, 2015
Like said before; it is not how the child will act later in life, but at time of birth, Jewishness can only be passed by the mother; it is a spiritual matter. It may be difficult to understand, but it is "not up for discussion".
January 2, 2015
Safek Jew
My great, great, great grandmother was Jewish (5 generations back), does that make me Jewish or do I have to convert?
January 1, 2015
It is so tribal-- this tracing of a birth to a mother only, and so on. As I have said before: No one has any control whatsoever over the circumstances of his or her birth. My Jewish son-in-law, for example, found someone new and converted to Christianity (supposedly) while my daughter decided to keep the children in the Jewish faith. And my new great grand daughter is being brought up Jewish! That is four people right off-- for those to whom numbers are important. I see that there is a very conservative letter-of-the-law ultra religious wing of Judaism here-- just as in Christianity and Islam.
Elaine Thompson