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Earlier today in chat, I saw this:

Jewish identity is matrilinial. Jewish tribal lineage is patrilinial.

If Jesus had no biological father, then he could not be from the tribe of Judah, as the Messiah will be. From a Jewish perspective, the irony is that being born of a virgin would not prove that one was the Messiah. On the contrary it would invalidate one as a messianic candidate.

Source: anursa, comments on Slacktivist, via TRiG.

It was asked by fredsbend:

Is that an accurate depiction of Jewish thought? That is interesting.

and affirmed by HodofHod:


Now, as a Christian, I seem to recall some prophecy about the Messiah necessarily being born of a virgin. Sure enough, I see that Isaiah 7:14 says

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. - Isaiah 7:14 (NIV)

But wait, that's a Christian translation. Enter the JPS...

14 Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. - Isaiah 7:14 (JPS)

...and Judaica Press translations.

14 Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, the young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel. - Isaiah 7:14 (Judaica Press)

(All emphasis mine.)

Okay, so the term can also be translated "young woman". So, now the question is: why is it so significant that a young woman conceive and bear a son? I'd figure that young women would be conceiving and giving birth all the time back in the old days.

Note: HodofHod also pointed out in chat that the "young woman" part isn't the significant thing, but the unaware naming of her child Immanuel. This would be an acceptable answer, as it does answer the question in the title about how the verse should be interpreted.

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That her naming would be prophetic is mentioned by Rashi, but he doesn't specify that that is what the proof is. "and this is the sign, for she is a young girl, and she never prophesied, yet in this instance, Divine inspiration shall rest upon her. ... And some interpret that this is the sign, that she was a young girl and incapable of giving birth." – HodofHod Jul 22 '14 at 3:02
@HodofHod: Ah, I stand corrected. – El'endia Starman Jul 22 '14 at 3:05
'Twas my bad, I misread on my first pass. – HodofHod Jul 22 '14 at 3:06
Hello El'endina. I apologise if this is a redundant reply. I didn't read the entire thread. The Jewish Bible, including Isaiah, was written in Hebrew. Everything loses in translation. The English version (King James) of Scripture was a translation from a translation. The often quoted passage in Isaiah uses the Hebrew word 'almah' which translates 'young woman/girl'. The Bible uses the term 'betulah' (Virgin) elsewhere so the choice of 'almah' is meaningful. Even the KJV translates Isaiah as 'young girl' not referring to 'virgin' until the New Testament. Now I understand your questioning..... – JJLL Jul 22 '14 at 13:03
It is important to note that the verse did not add a qualifying adjective to the verse "young" to emphasize age. Rather the noun used to describe the person being born is itself connotes the age. Like saying "a girl will give birth". – mevaqesh May 23 at 22:42

Yonatan ben Uziel, Radak, Metzudat David, and Ibn Ezra say that the sign is outlined in verse 15.

Yonatan Ben Uziel says on verse 15 and 16 the child is used as a time stamp of sorts. Basically deliverance from the two oppressing monarchy will end and the land will prosper before the child matures, and can distinguish between good and bad. It is possible that the details of the prosperity are also signs.

Radak says that the child from birth will only eat sweet things like curds and honey and will refuse any other foods.

Ibn Ezra says that it is not normal for a newborn to eat such foods, yet he will.

Metzudat David says that he will have a desire for these foods from birth and also adds that the boy will be able to discern between good and evil long before the age when it is normal to do so.

מהר"י קרא says that the sign was the correct identification of the gender of the baby in the currently pregnant woman's womb.

Rashi says that the sign was either that the young woman, who had never prophesied before, would suddenly be beset by divine inspiration, or that she was too young to be able to conceive, yet she became pregnant.

Malbim says that the sign was not miraculous at all, in line with the use of sign by phylacteries. The name of the lad was meant to be a sign for the people to know that God was with them.

Gra says that the sign was not miraculous either and was merely meant to demonstrate omniscience, predicting that when the lad would know good vs. evil, there would be an abundance of curds and honey in the land.

According to those who use verse 15 for the sign, mentioning 'the woman' is identifying her, either as the wife of Isaiah or of Ahaz.

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Since the question presented in the title is a very broad one, I will focus on the more specific one presented in the text while touching upon other issues.

The question asked was why it is so significant that a young woman will bear a child, implying that the issue is too mundane to be a "sign". Such a question, although understandable, incorrectly read the emphasis implied by the Christian understanding into the proper translation. Who is having the child is part of the sign, but not the focal point. The intent is clear when we read the fulfillment of this prophecy in the next chapter where Isaiah clearly identifies his children, including the one born in fulfillment of this prophecy, as "signs":

Behold, I and the children whom Hashem has given me are signs (לְאתוֹת = "for signs" is plural of the word found in 7:14) and symbols for Israel from Hashem. (Isaiah 8:18, Stone Edition)

A careful read of Isaiah 7:14 in its context and followed up with chapter 8 will reveal many conceptual and verbal parallels allowing us to comfortably identify the child predicted in Isaiah 7:14 with the son born to Isaiah's wife in Isaiah 8:3. The sign in Isaiah 7:14 is not supernatural but symbolic, the same way the term is used in chapter 8 regarding Isaiah children. Note how Isaiah's children have symbolic names in 7:3 and 8:3 and how they only other uses in the Hebrew Bible of they symbolic name Immanuel are found in chapter 8.

Whether something validates or invalidates a "Messianic candidate" has no relevance to Isaiah 7:14 which is not a Messianic prophecy.

While it is correct to say that "the term can also be translated 'young woman'", it is important to be clear that "virgin" is not a correct translation of עלמה. Some will certainly argue this point but briefly it can be noted:

a)When virginity as a status is significant, such as legal contexts, the T'nakh uses the term בתולה. b)In no [other] instance of עלמה in the T'nakh would virgin be a preferable translation. c)The usage in Proverbs 30:18-33 is strongly suggestive that virgin would be an inappropriate translation. d)The Greek text of Matthew cites this verse using the Greek word for Virgin. The Peshita (an early Christian translation into a dialect of Aramaic), uses the Aramaic cognate for בתולה, NOT עלמה, to translate the text of Matthew. (This is an original observation I am unaware of being discussed by others, See here for further discussion).

Much ink has been spilled over this passage and its interpretation but I believe that I have addressed the main point being asked and highlighted important context for understanding the best interpretation of the passage.

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Actually, the statement was that this particular young woman (Isaiah's wife - there with them) is pregnant and is going to give birth naturally (within 6 - 9 months since she is not yet visibly pregnant). Even if she is not yet pregnant, Rashi says that she is about to conceive. Before the child can "tell good from evil", the threat to the kingdom will be over. It has nothing to do with messianic times. The king will see that there is nothing to worry about. He is also being chastised for trying to deny the prophesy and refuse to ask for a sign.

Since the king himself will see this, it will occur immediately.

This has nothing to do with the final redemption. Isaiah 7:14

14 Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, the young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.

Rashi: the young woman: My wife will conceive this year. This was the fourth year of Ahaz.

Before the child eats solid food, the redemption will come.

16 For, when the lad does not yet know to reject bad and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread, shall be abandoned."

Rashi: For, when the lad does not yet know to reject bad and choose good: the land shall be abandoned by its inhabitants, [i. e.,] the land of Rezin and the land of Pekah.

you dread: and fear its two kings, Rezin and Pekah, for in that year the king of Assyria marched on Damascus since Ahaz hired him, as it is stated in the Book of II Kings (16:9): “And seized it and exiled its inhabitants to Kir, and he slew Rezin,” and in that very year (ibid. 15: 30), “Hoshea the son of Elah revolted against Pekah the son of Remaliah, and he struck him and slew him… in the twentieth year of Jotham,” which was the fourth year of Ahaz.

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I do not intend this to be the answer, merely an element that I think helps pave the way for a clearer understanding of the passage concerning your question, to be held in conjunction with some of what has already been brought forward in previous answers.

I think the difficulty in understanding this passage, stems from a misunderstanding on how prophecy unfolds.

God instructed Israel about how to know if a prophet spoke from Him (Deuteronomy 18:15-22):

15A prophet from among you, from your brothers, like me, the Lord, your God will set up for you you shall hearken to him.
טונָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן:
16According to all that you asked of the Lord, your God, in Horeb, on the day of the assembly, saying, "Let me not continue to hear the voice of the Lord, my God, and let me no longer see this great fire, so that I will not die."
טזכְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר שָׁאַלְתָּ מֵעִם יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּחֹרֵב בְּיוֹם הַקָּהָל לֵאמֹר לֹא אֹסֵף לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶת קוֹל יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָי וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת לֹא אֶרְאֶה עוֹד וְלֹא אָמוּת:
17And the Lord said to me, "They have done well in what they have spoken.
יזוַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֵלָי הֵיטִיבוּ אֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּרוּ:
18I will set up a prophet for them from among their brothers like you, and I will put My words into his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command him.
יחנָבִיא אָקִים לָהֶם מִקֶּרֶב אֲחֵיהֶם כָּמוֹךָ וְנָתַתִּי דְבָרַי בְּפִיו וְדִבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶם אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּנּוּ:
19And it will be, that whoever does not hearken to My words that he speaks in My name, I will exact [it] of him.
יטוְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמַע אֶל דְּבָרַי אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמִי אָנֹכִי אֶדְרשׁ מֵעִמּוֹ:
20But the prophet who intentionally speaks a word in My name, which I did not command him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.
כאַךְ הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יָזִיד לְדַבֵּר דָּבָר בִּשְׁמִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוִּיתִיו לְדַבֵּר וַאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר בְּשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וּמֵת הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא:
21Now if you say to yourself, "How will we know the word that the Lord did not speak?"
כאוְכִי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבֶךָ אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ יְהֹוָה:
22If the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, and the thing does not occur and does not come about, that is the thing the Lord did not speak. The prophet has spoken it wantonly; you shall not be afraid of him.
כבאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַנָּבִיא בְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר וְלֹא יָבֹא הוּא הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ יְהֹוָה בְּזָדוֹן דִּבְּרוֹ הַנָּבִיא לֹא תָגוּר מִמֶּנּוּ:

But this begs the question, what of those prophecies that speak into the future beyond what we can see if it will come true. Are we to believe that prophet?

Or, if the purpose of that prophecy were to bring comfort or hope, how could the people derive comfort or hope from a message they were not sure was from God?

We know that the Assyrians did in fact invade and seize Jerusalem. And, from an historical hind sight view, we conclude that this child, Emmanuel, was born in the era this was prophesied, and that, before he came to discern between good and evil, the Assyrians invaded. Otherwise, Isaiah would have been executed as a false prophet rather than esteemed a true prophet as he is considered to this day.

Thus, it is helpful to see this passage as a sign of the prophet affirming the rest of his prophecy.

Rashi expounds on the unfolding of the events of Isaiah historically, if you would like to study that. and the answer above gives some helpful insights into the history of it all.

One more thing, it is obvious that the child named Emmanuel was not himself "God with us." But that His name exalted "God with us." Hebrew children were often named after the activity or attributes of God. Consider even the names of the prophets. The names were always a testimony and a reminder of God in their lives.

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Several Jewish biblical commentators have generally read the word "son" and "daughter" to include adoptive children. See Ibn Ezra Gen. 46:7 and Ex. 2:10 and Ḥizkuni Gen. 41:45. Joseph was the adoptive father of Jesus. Thus it is clearly analytically possible to regard Jesus as a patrilineal descendant of David if, as stated in Matthew 1:16, Joseph was.

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This doesn't answer the question, which was "why is it so significant that a young woman conceive and bear a son?". – msh210 May 24 at 15:14
This is totally incorrect. The child was the son of Isaiah's wife according to Rashi. Note that even if an adopted child is called "a son" he does not inhertit from his adopted father and only belongs to the tribe of his biological father. Thus even if King David himself adopted a child, that child would not be part of the Davidic lineage. – sabbahillel May 24 at 16:28
@msh210 I understood the question to rest on the assumption that the son of a virgin cannot be the son of David (see the tagline). sabbahillel-You accurately state the predominant view withing Judaism. However, nothing in the texts forces such a view. If the rabbis decided to agree that adoptive children are children for all things, there would be nothing inherently unjewish or unbiblical about their decision. – Dov F May 24 at 21:19

A couple of clarifying points:

Indeed the original Hebrew uses עַלְמָה "almah" not בְּתוּלָה "betulah", where "betulah" means "virgin" in the sense we understand it today, and the word "almah" means "young maiden", which more precisely means "unmarried young woman". To give a parallel, in German, this term would be "Jungfrau" (literally "young woman") which is the same word used to say "virgin". Why is all this relevant? Because, remember what would be the punishment for a young, unmarried woman who became pregnant. This would not be considered an even worthy of praise or admiration. The miracle here is that the young woman became pregnant without it being sinful, hence the logical conclusion can only be that we are talking about "virgin birth". This was the logical deduction of the Jewish translators of the Septuagint (LXX) who chose the word παρθένος (from which we get the term "parthenogenesis", the scientific term for "virgin birth").

This was would have been the held interpretation of this verse until the rise of Christianity, which caused concern among the rest of Judaism, and differing interpretations were favored as a result. This can be observed with other passages (usually Messianic) in the Tanach which had a given understanding before the birth of Jesus, and remain in Christian theology but were subsequently abandoned in Rabbinical Judaism.

Secondly, the notion of Jewish "identity" (whatever that means, cf. "mihu Jehudi") being matrilineal is a novel concept, it does not come from the Tanach. Only inheritance and lineage are discussed in the Tanach, and these are patrilineal at all times... except when they are not. See for example in the book of Numbers, the daughters of Zelophehad (specifically in Chapter 36 for example) with whom the exception was given for the case when no male heirs were available. So, again, a virgin birth does not disqualify a Messianic candidate in any way, the Messiah can still receive lineage through the mother in the case where no male heir is present (ie., if she has no brothers).

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I removed the section of this answer that's most blatantly about Christianity exclusively, but I think that the entire answer appears to be from the point of view of Christianity rather than Judaism and as such is not a good fit for Mi Yodeya. I recommend either editing it to present arguments from the point of view of Judaism or deleting it. – Isaac Moses May 24 at 14:01
Presenting the teachings of the Christian Bible is not providing a Jewish view. – Isaac Moses May 24 at 14:05
"remember what would be the punishment for a young, unmarried woman who became pregnant" Please remind me. I know of none. – Double AA May 24 at 16:17
What is παρθένος and why does it show what the translator thought? – Double AA May 24 at 16:18
"which more precisely means 'unmarried young woman'" How do you know this? – Double AA May 24 at 16:21

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