The Matrilineal Riddle


What is the source of the law that says a child is Jewish only if its mother is Jewish?

by Rabbi Yehudah Prepero

Most of us have heard that whether someone is Jewish or not is determined by whether his or her mother is Jewish. But why? Some scholars say it’s a reaction to intermarriage; some say the rule is derived from Roman law. And there are plenty of other theories. Most scholars, however, say this ruling is spelled out in the Talmud, as seen in the answer below. Warning: We on the staff had to read through this answer several times, after which our heads were still spinning.

The statement that Jewish identity is determined by the mother is found in the Mishnah (Kiddushin 3:12), which says that the child of a gentile woman is like her. The Talmud derives this from the passage in Deut. 7:3-4: “Do not intermarry with [him], do not give your daughter to his son or take his daughter for your son, for he will turn your son from Me”: A child born to your daughter (fathered by a non-Jew) is called “your son,” but a child born to your son (by a non-Jewish mother) is not called “your son,” but “her son.”

The Talmud is assuming here that the “he” in Deut.7:4 is your gentile son-in-law, and that “your son” whom “he” will turn away from G-d is your grandson, born to him and to your daughter. The Torah calls that grandson “your son” because he is regarded as Jewish since he had a Jewish mother. In the other case, where a Jewish man marries a gentile woman, the Torah doesn’t speak about the woman’s influence on her children (i.e., it doesn’t say “for she will turn your son from me”), because her children are non-Jewish to begin with since their mother is non-Jewish.

Apparently we are more concerned about the influence of a non-Jewish spouse on the children than about the influence of a non-Jewish spouse’s parents on their children-in-law. The Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) asks how we know that these laws apply to any non-Jews, since the cited verse refers to the Canaanites. The answer given there is that “he will turn your son [away from Me]” implies that all those who might turn [sons] away are included in the prohibition.

This excerpt was taken from The text has been copyrighted by both the author, Rabbi Yehudah Prepero, and Genesis. Project Genesis promotes further Jewish education about our Jewish roots, as represented in Jewish sources.

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