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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 (121)
July 10, 2014
Thank you for clarity and logic and reason, Anonymous.
Flowers by Name
June 10, 2014
"f YItzac is the father of both Yakov and Esau, who were twins from Rivkah, how can we say that Yakov is Jewish while Esau is not? They had the same mother after all and if she were Jewish, (according to tradition) then both kids would be Jewish and if she were not Jewish, neither would be. Yet, we know one is the father of our people, Yisrael, and one is the father of the Edomites." Ha ha, I was going to say. But you said it.

That story sure is a mystery isn't it? It's the very one that got me to thinking about the bible being a book of blessings and curses, and got me to marveling at how much power the father has to carry these out. Yakov was seen as more civilized, cultured, and intelligent by the mother, and did not want the barbaric Esau inheriting the spoils of a new civilization - a new kingdom - a new land. Could be Esau had a different mother? I need to review the story, but as a child of Esau myself, I am rather fond of lentil soup.
June 9, 2014
to anonymous - i like your comment
valerie j becker
June 9, 2014
If YItzac is the father of both Yakov and Esau, who were twins from Rivkah, how can we say that Yakov is Jewish while Esau is not? They had the same mother after all and if she were Jewish, (according to tradition) then both kids would be Jewish and if she were not Jewish, neither would be. Yet, we know one is the father of our people, Yisrael, and one is the father of the Edomites.

Furthermore, the women of Yisrael are never mentioned in the Torah when lineage is the issue; it is always who fathered who with no mention of wether the mother was Jewish or not. I trust El Shaddai and his premise for the status of his people.

Since the first Jewish family was 12 sons, and none of them married their sisters (and thus did not marry women of Israelite lineage) it is absurd to assume that only matrilineage confrims Jewish identity.
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
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