Contact Us

Why Is Jewishness Matrilineal?

Why Is Jewishness Matrilineal?

 Email

Question:

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

Answer:

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.

Footnotes
1.

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 Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi team.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
141 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Rahel May 8, 2017

Malkie Janowski's explanation is so clear. Thank you. It's interesting too that Avraham is told to listen to Sarah...and only Sarah's child Yitzak is in the covenant. Despite the fact Ishmael is Avraham's son, his mother is Hagar. Rivka selects the son of the covenant, Yaakov, rejecting Esav. Yitzak doesn't have that say. There are many proofs the Oral Law was given along with the written law but this is not the place to discuss the details now. The Oral Law clearly states the mother's womb is the determining source of a Jewish/Israeli identity. We see matrilineal descent was the rule when the prophet Ezra, a Kohen scribe, ordered his Jewish followers amidst the Babylonian captivity to divorce gentile wives. Ezra resolved the identity threat which arose by the intermarriage. To all who are born of a Jewish father and seek to be recognized as part of Israel, I sincerely hope you find somebody to hear your soul. To all devout bnai noach,we welcome you. There's one Father of us all. Reply

Malkie Janowski for Chabad.org Chabad.org March 15, 2017

King David's ancestress Ruth converted to Judaism, as did Moses's wife Tzipporah. The Midrash teaches that Joseph's wife, Osnat, was actually a granddaughter of Jacob and part of the family of Abraham. A convert is just as much a Jew as one born Jewish, and children born to her after her conversion are like all other Jews born to Jewish mothers.

Regarding the quoted verses in Deuteronomy, the significant point is that the Torah's reasoning of "he will cause your child to turn away from Me and they will worship the gods of others," is specifically referring to the male partner causing a Jewish child - "your child" - to turn away from the Jewish nation. The Torah does not cite the same concern regarding a non-Jewish wife doing this to her children with a Jewish man because those children would not have been Jewish. In either case mentioned (giving your Jewish daughter to a gentile man or taking a gentile woman for your Jewish son) it would be an ill suited marriage, but the problem of Jewish children being turned away by a non-Jewish parent is only an issue when that parent is the father, ie: "He will cause your child to turn away..."

Let me know if this helps, Reply

Seanna March 3, 2017

R. Krohn has a valid point. The Torah does not state that Jewishness stems from only the mother by any stretch of the imagination. Many examples in the Torah seem to disprove this.
The logic for Deut. 7: 3-4 could be that the women usually didn't have a choice in the marriage, so the person choosing her spouse shouldn't give her to someone who was ill-matched? Reply

Anonymous February 18, 2017

There are matriarchal societies in south India example:bunt community of western coast india any relation to Jew's or having common ancestary? Reply

R Krohn Winnipeg MB February 12, 2017

Biblically, this reasoning is not sound. Was not King David himself descended from Gentile women? Moses took a Gentile (Ethiopian) wife, was his line cut off from the children of Israel? What of Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Mannasseh? Their mother was Egyptian... Reply

Sarah October 28, 2016

Other explanation But I read somewhere else that this law came from the Romans, and we adopted their law so there would be less Jews for them to try to convert to their pagan religion? Have you heard that before? Reply

laur bucharest June 13, 2016

understanding Doesn't he from the phrase for ''he will cause your child turn away from Me'',refers to the goy? Reply

Malkie Janowski for Chabad.org Chabad.org June 6, 2016

Anyone born to a Jewish mother, including a mother who became a Jew by conversion, is Jewish. Reply

Meira Slovakia June 5, 2016

Does it make any difference if the mother was a convert or born Jewish? Reply

Nathan 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. Reply

Malkie Janowski for Chabad.org Chabad.org 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. Reply

Anonymous New York January 24, 2016

Agreed... 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? Reply

Anonymous January 20, 2016

Ummm 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? Reply

Malkie Janowski for Chabad.org Chabad.org 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.'" Reply

Jewish? Los Angeles 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? Reply

Greg Moncton 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. Reply

Anonymous NYC January 5, 2015

@ NATHAN 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". Reply

Lisa 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? Reply

Elaine Thompson 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. Reply

Nathan December 19, 2014

So let me get this right... rather than the child being paternally jewish and possibly turning away from the faith, they just say the child is not jewish from the jump? wouldn't you want more people in the faith? How is a 0% chance better than a 50% chance?
There's nothing stopping a maternally jewish child from turning away from the faith, so why not include as many people as you can?
Is this an arcane belief or is it still held up by the modern jewish faith? Reply

This page in other languages