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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 (117)
October 2, 2013
ref. Anonymous in Salem - just read what you wrote. it really affected me. being far from learned, definitely not ultra religious, i am of Jewish descent. no matter what i did, or do, or will do, that won't change. my sister is a born again fanatic - and with that - she was born Jewish even though she plans to be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery, the whole nine yards. it's sad to me, but true. it's more than a kinship, it's something so deep, the heart and soul, i guess. but remember Ruth and others in the Bible....G-d knows what's really in a person's heart!
September 30, 2013
if a person loses his or her id card are they still the same person?
If a person of Jewish descent is separated from their parents and they are raised Catholic are they still Jewish? Likewise if a person converts to Judaism because he or she feels a kinship with the Jewish community are they any less Jewish than a person of Jewish lineage?
September 30, 2013
There is debate on this subject
There seems to be a consensus among many jews today that judaism is matrilineal. These people often refer to the biblical quote at the top of this posting as proof. However, I would point out several issues with this. First, the quote itself is confusing and open to interpretation. Asking various people what this means will give multiple interpretations -- it's really not obvious. Second, there are other biblical quotes that would contradict this. For instance, in genesis there is a quote that G-d will scatter the jews across the face of the earth and that they should then come back to him. It implies that all offspring of jews are jewish, not just matrilineal. Finally, there is evidence that the concept of jewishness was patrilineal before it was matrilineal -- this changed somewhere in the year zero or 200 AD. The idea that somehow matrilineal descent was easier to identify the baby is a modern interpretation without any historical backing. I know this is contrary to most, but fyi.
April 3, 2013
What is a True Jew?
What determines a true Jew? What are the requirements to enter Israel as a Jew?
February 1, 2013
I think this all boils down to pregnancy being the proof that the child is being carried by a jewish woman, but it was harder in the early days to prove that a man fathered a child.
January 14, 2013
When one lives miles a way, hundreds or thousands of miles from the Jewish community to convert would be very very hard to accomplish as it takes hours of not only Torah study;which can be done but to be around Wise Jewish Men who are very religous and knowledgable is also absolutely needful if one were to become Hassidic or Orthodox in the Torah observant way. Isn't that so? Close family relations is also helpful and when one has no Jewish family as a base for growth then how does conversion truley become conversion as the world is Christian and is not at all Torah believing, but antiTorah instead; Man god observant, blood must be shed for forgiveness of sin, which is against Torah and Hashems spoken word,killing in place of murder is one of ten instructions, when G-D meant murder. and on and on....
To me christian teaching is contrary to Torah and confusing to most all who can read the Tanach as a result errors are rampant and christians serve man rather than Hashem the exist....
Levi McPete
September 25, 2012
adoption vs biological child
If a Jewish couple adopts a child, he or she is raised as Jewish, though biological parents were not Jewish. Is that right?

If so, let's imagine an observant Jewish man fathers a child with a non-Jewish woman and raises his child as Jewish, where is the problem? Why doesn't Orthodox Judaism accept his child as Jewish?

The mother may be out of the picture altogether, what if she has died and the father is the only parent left?
Hong Kong, Hong Kong
September 13, 2012
How many generations is matrilineal descent valid?
And does conversion to another faith by an ancestor along the way have an impact on one's Jewish status?
July 2, 2012
To All Matraliniel DNA
I am not of Jewish descent, to my knowledge and know only what is in the Bible. I am going to throw a twist into this that disregards religion. Please forgive me if I step on toes and don' t give justice to your long held understanding of matrilenial descent.

Mtdna passes from mother to daughter and son. Patrilneal dna only passes to sons. Neither mtdna nor patrilenal passes from the father to the daughter. Might this be the original reason for the command for Issac to go to his mother's family for a wife as well as Jacob being required to go to Rebecca's family for a wife? Female lineage seems to get lost after this, as only males are listed.

I will add, since we don't know when unnamed female jews married outsiders, there may be many males and females of jewish lineage that are unknown without testing. This, of course, disregards religious upbringing.

No disrespect intended, it has just been an interest for a long time, thus the reason I am here.
Burleson, Tx
June 20, 2012
I was thinking about this topic this morning. We all have ways of keeping away from each other. I don't think that's always a bad thing. Outsiders just don't feel comfortable in a situation they're not familiar with - unless some kind of integration takes place, the division will always be felt. An outsider can certainly imagine negative things about the insiders, as the insiders can do about the outsider. The problem seems always to have been the ability of cultures to live productively, and happily, with their differences. Or even allowing other cultures to exist. I appreciate the effort of the Jewish people to open their doors for my learning. I feel fully enabled to learn as much as I want, and in doing that the outsider feeling, and the taboo that comes with it dimishes. I know nothing will stop me from converting if I decide firmly in that direction. Oddly, a couple of Orthodox Jews have prosylitized to me. I was very flattered.
ottawa, canada
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