Did Judaism Use to Practice Patrilineal Descent?

I just made a bet with a friend for a cup of coffee. He is asserting that Judaism used to be a patrilineal religion in the beginning, and then changed to being matrilineal. I never heard this and find it hard to believe that the law changed. Who is right?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

What your friend claims is a common assertion, which actually has some validity, but not in the way he is thinking.

First of all, it is well-established in Jewish law that Jewishness follows the strictly maternal line. In the Talmud (Yevamot 23a, Kiddushin 68b) this position is accepted without debate. (Hardly typical of the Talmud, to put it mildly. Generally, any topic which has any room for debate is debated. But that wasn’t the case here.) See this past response for more detail on that.

Was this law ever different? Interestingly, there is an opinion that it was before the Torah was given at Sinai. The background of this opinion is interesting.

In Leviticus 24 (vv. 10-23) we read the story of a man whose mother was Jewish and father was Egyptian, and who resided in the desert with the rest of the Jewish people. As the story goes, he gets into a fight with a Jew and afterwards curses God, for which he is executed via stoning.

So was this wicked man, whose mother was Jewish but father not, Jewish himself? The Midrash (Sifra, Emor 14:1, brought in Rashi to Levit. 24:10) states that the verse which describes him as being “within the Children of Israel” alludes to the fact that he converted and joined the nation. If so, we seem to have a Midrashic source that at that early stage of history, matrilineal descent was not sufficient! This person had to convert!

Nachmanides (Leviticus 24:10) cites French scholars (without further identification) who hold this way. (Note that Nachmanides lived most of his life in Girona in Catalonian Spain. He was no doubt referring to the school of the Tosafists in northern France, but we do not appear to have this opinion directly attributed to any of them.)

According to this opinion, before the Torah was given at Sinai, the Jewish people followed the laws of the non-Jews. Just as a non-Jew’s nationality follows his father (to determine if he is a Canaanite, Edomite, Egyptian, Amonite, etc. – see Talmud Yevamot 78b), the same was true of the Jews of those days. Thus, since the half-Israelite of Leviticus 24 was born in Egypt, before the law of matrilineal descent was taught at Sinai, he had to convert to be considered Jewish.

Nachmanides himself disagrees with this opinion, citing proof that the rules of lineage were the same for the Jewish people since the days of the forefathers. If so, why did the Midrash state the half-Israelite converted if he was Jewish already? It just refers to the fact that he converted with the rest of the nation at Sinai – when the entire Jewish people underwent conversion when they formally entered their covenant with God (see Talmud Yevamot 46b). Rather than following his father’s side of the family and staying in Egypt, he embraced his mother’s side, followed the Israelites to the desert, and joined the nation in accepting the Torah at Sinai (promptly getting himself killed).

Regardless, this debate is basically academic, as all opinions agree with the Talmud that after the Torah was given at Sinai, Jewish lineage follows the matrilineal line. For some reason, Reform Judaism claims that this change was done much later, by Ezra the Scribe. But to my knowledge there is no evidence for this. (It’s clear that Ezra did not consider the children of non-Jewish mothers to be Jewish, as he had the intermarried Jews living in the Holy Land send away both their wives and children. See Ezra 10:3. Also, it is true that tribal affiliation follows the father’s side – (again, see here), but that is distinct from Jewishness itself, which follows the mother. That may have been the source of the confusion – why people seem to always assume in Biblical times all that mattered was the father.)

See also this past response about how conversion worked before Sinai – and why such Biblical figures as Moses and Joseph appeared to marry non-Jewish women.

Finally and most importantly, since the issue of your bet with your friend is a debate, you’re going to have to split the coffee!

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