Does anyone know when the switch the matrilineal descent took place? I've seen other information about the potential impetus, but when did it become so? Was there even a switch?

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    I won't provide a full answer, because I don't believe that we should be following matrilineal descent (see my post on it here: wp.me/p2MerI-4C) and I don't know exactly when the shift occurred. But some people argue that it happened (or at least started to happen) in biblical times. See Ezra 10:3. I would respond that that is a misunderstanding of the verse. Feb 6, 2013 at 2:16
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    Is this a duplicate of the question linked to in this question? It certainly will have the answers the older question currently has, and the questions are awfully similar though not identical. To the asker here: Did you read the answers there, especially judaism.stackexchange.com/a/7986? It seems to amply answer your question.
    – msh210
    Feb 6, 2013 at 2:23
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    Your question assumes that it is accepted fact there was such a switch. It is not. Perhaps you should quote those who do assume that, and specify your question is according to those opinions.
    – HodofHod
    Feb 6, 2013 at 4:37
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    @ABlueThread Please note that this site discusses normative Orthodox Halacha. It may not be appropriate for you to express your Karaite beliefs here.
    – Shraga
    Feb 6, 2013 at 5:34
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    @SethJ I don't think any participants should be excluded. What I think should be excluded is content (whether questions, answers or comments) which doesn't adhere to the "Jewish law and tradition" as mentioned in the FAQ. "One of our diamond mods is Reform" and I think said mod deserves tremendous respect for being willing to moderate a site which deals overwhelmingly with a non-reform POV of judaism. Kudos.
    – Shraga
    Feb 6, 2013 at 18:49

2 Answers 2


While Jewish law applies patrilineal descent to other nations (Yevamos 78b), Nachmanides writes that matrilineal descent applied to the Jewish people from the time of Avraham and onwards (Commentary to Vayikra 24:10). This is justified by the existence of some degree of Israelite nationhood from the time of the Patriarchs, which is suggested by the Talmud's reference to Esav as legally an Israelite (Kiddushin 18a).

However, Nachmanides also cites the French rabbis as being of the opinion that the switch from patrilineal to matrilineal descent occurred at the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This opinion interprets the Midrash (Sifra on Emor, 14:1), which writes that the "son of the Israelite woman" converted, as implying that anyone born before the giving of the Torah who was not a member of the Children of Israel via patrilineal descent needed to convert. This is different from the conversion-type rituals that the other Israelites performed at Mount Sinai (Kerisus 9a), which formalized their de facto status.

  • Pre-Sinai, it was a matter of tribal identity, thus patrilineal. (Just as the laws pertaining to "Edomites" or "Moabite"s are patrilineal.) Thus the Jews had to keep Jewish names. Sinai -- i.e. the Torah as we know it -- changed all of that. A Jew is a different category of person, thus matrilineal; and what keeps us connected is the commandments, not the culture per se (hence no requirement on the names).
    – Shalom
    Feb 6, 2013 at 13:14

The only three good examples I can think of are Abraham, who's mother could not have been Jewish because technically Judaism did not exist before the covenant. Even if Abraham's mother converted, would it have counted, since she was not Jewish at the time of birth? Second, Zipporah, Moses' wife, was a Midianite, not a Hebrew. While the children of Moses were not chosen as his successor, it wasn't because of their mother, but because they idled instead of studying Torah. Joseph also married out of the tribe, to an Egyptian woman, who was certainly not Jewish. However, Ephraim and Menassah became to lead two of the tribes of Israel, so they must have certainly been considered Jewish? I know the Mishna is the beginning of matrilineality, but where does it originate from or gather justification from? I'm not trying to deny matrilineality (although by that standard I am not a Jew), but play the devil's advocate and seek some answers to these examples. I don't have enough rep to comment yet :(

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