I recently had a conversation with a close friend of mine who just lost his father, and his siblings were working on dividing the inheritance. He mentioned that according to Torah law the firstborn gets a double portion of inheritance. Why is that? Also, does the firstborn always inherit double, or are there some limits to this clause?


You’ve touched on quite a sensitive topic, so I would advise you to tread lightly with your friend when discussing inheritance.

The directive to give the firstborn a double portion is found in the Book of Deuteronomy: “He [the father] must acknowledge the firstborn . . . and give him a double share in all that he possesses, for he [the firstborn son] is the first fruits of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.”1

Practically speaking, this means that if there are five sons, you first split the inheritance into six portions, and the firstborn son gets two portions while everyone else gets one.2

What makes the firstborn so special that he receives a double portion? Many commentaries have offered explanations, but ultimately the halachah is derived from the verse itself. (As you’ll see below, some of the reasons would apply equally to firstborn daughters, or to the mother’s firstborn. Yet the halachic firstborn is the father’s oldest son.)

Beloved by G‑d

“All firsts are beloved by G‑d.” Just as there is the mitzvah that the first fruits are brought as an offering to G‑d (bikkurim), as is the first of the flock (bechor beheimah), so does G‑d have a special love for the firstborns, and they are given a double portion.3

In the Father’s Stead

It is the firstborn who stands in the father’s stead, perpetuating his continued memory. It was his birth that made the father into a father, revealing his latent power of parenthood.4

Although further elaboration is beyond the scope of this article, this is one of the reasons given as to why it was generally only the sons who inherited, as in ancient times it was the sons who would carry on the family name. Property ownership was generally passed down through the males, and they in turn were obligated to support their unmarried sisters (that is, unless there were no sons, in which case the daughters inherited, as in the fascinating incident of the five righteous daughters of Tzelafchad). However, as we’ll discuss later, there is a way to include the daughters in the inheritance as well.

In the Levites’ Stead

Originally, the firstborns were supposed to dedicate their lives to the Divine service in the Temple. Due to their part in the sin of the Golden Calf, the Temple service was taken away from them and given to the Levites, who don’t get a portion in the land. In their stead, the firstborns get a double portion, theirs and the Levites.5

Paving the Way

The first child born from the mother’s womb paves the way for all subsequent children. The double portion is an expression of gratitude.6

Basic Guidelines

As noted above, the laws of inheritance are derived from the verse itself. Thus, some of the law’s nuances don’t fully jibe with the above explanations.

Here is an outline of some of the basic laws regarding inheritance:

Writing a Will

One can choose to distribute his assets so that one son receives a greater portion, as long as the firstborn still receives his double share. Trying to word the will so that the firstborn does not receive his double share is halachically prohibited. However, one is permitted to “gift” his assets before his passing, even if there is very little that remains for the firstborn’s double share. (Gifts can be used to give daughters a share as well.)

Nevertheless, one should not gift all his assets, so that the Torah’s rules of inheritance apply to at least a portion of the estate and are not entirely uprooted.7

In light of this, one should keep in mind that writing a will according to Jewish law is somewhat different than according to secular law, and it should be written with the help of a rabbi knowledgeable in these laws.

Father’s First Naturally Born Son

The oldest son must have been born naturally in order to receive a double share. If he was delivered through a cesarean section, neither he nor any subsequent children have firstborn status.8 However, unlike the requirement for pidyon haben, a previous miscarriage does not disqualify the firstborn from getting the double inheritance.9

Additionally, the firstborn need not be the mother’s firstborn son. As long as he is the father’s firstborn son,10 born while the father was still alive,11 he is considered the firstborn with regard to the laws of inheritance.

Father’s Vs. Mother’s Estate

The firstborn inherits double only from his father’s estate, not his mother’s. When it comes to inheriting the mother’s estate, the firstborn is considered the same as all the other brothers.12

On a practical level, this means that if the father and mother were joint owners of an estate, and the father passed away first, the firstborn would get a double portion only from the father’s half of the estate, not the mother’s.

Important Qualification

The firstborn is entitled to a double share only of the assets that were muchzak, meaning actually “in holding” by the deceased at the time of his death. Assets that were only potentially in his possession (ra’uy) but not actually in holding (such as uncollected loans for which no collateral was taken) are distributed evenly among the heirs.13

This last rule has vast implications for assets such as bank accounts and stocks. While the details are beyond the scope of this article, many authorities are of the opinion that due to the technical details of how bank accounts really work, most have the status of only being ra’uy—potentially in the father’s possession, but not “in holding.” Thus, in many instances, any money left in a bank account would be divided equally between all the heirs, without the firstborn getting a double share.14

In Conclusion

As you can see, the laws of inheritance can get complex, so it’s important to consult with a qualified rabbi to ensure that all is done according to Jewish law.

Although this is an emotionally fraught time for the children of the deceased, it can also be an opportunity for the siblings to come closer together as they take care of their parents’ legacy. There is no greater pleasure for the souls of the deceased parents than when they see their children living in peace and harmony together. And G‑d’s blessing rests where there is peace.15