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. Commented 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
    Commented 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
    Commented 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
    Commented 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
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 18:49

3 Answers 3


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
    Commented 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 :(


I know this is old, but MOST evidence suggests that maternal descent only occurred sometime after diaspora. This is in part due to European/Christian legal paradigms. The evidence for this is abundant. Even the scripture Orthodox claim proves maternal descent from the beginning, I would argue this is pure apologetics. And if we consider that Jewish identity was NOT religious but national, as Israelite identity was, there was no difference. You were a Jew if your father was Jewish. You also had sub-tribal identity. But how could this work otherwise? That means there were non-Jewish Jews somehow? Apostates not only were apostates to the "faith" but to the nation itself.

Let's start with Deut 13-7, imo the clearest proof.

"7If your brother, the son of your mother, tempts you in secret or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your embrace, or your friend, who is as your own soul saying, "Let us go and worship other gods, which neither you, nor your forefathers have known."

So to start, WHY would it only refer to the "son of your mother?" And not the son of your father? The only reason for this would be if your mother was not born Jewish and thus reverting to, following her old god, and tempting family members with that. This infers the problem of temptation to worship other gods came ON the mothers side, meaning, its not that Jewish descent was passed down by the mother, but that the mother was the most common to lead family members astray. And this would ONLY make sense if the practical paradigm was non-Jewish mothers of Jewish children. It would NOT make sense if Judaism was matrilineal, because then WHAT is the mother tempting your brother away from? From Judaism to Judaism? How does that make sense? It ALSO states quite clearly, "you, nor your forefathers have known". It does NOT say "foremothers" and this is pretty important IMO. Because the GOD was connected to foreFATHERS primarily. However I do think its likely there was not as strict of a divide when it came to belief itself. Meaning, under certain circumstances, matrilineal descent was probably acknowledged, just not prioritized.

Even when we look at Ezra, Ezra was talking about leading people astray. Not that they were born of a non Jewish mother so they were non Jewish, but that the men ALLOWED their children TO be led astray by their non Jewish wives/partners. It ONLY makes sense for Ezra to mention this if they were being led astray. NOT that they were being born "non_Jewish".

I would further suggest that identity was probably not so strict. Meaning, if you were born to a Jewish mother of a non Jewish father and the father wasnt around, its likely you would be a Jew. But it's also possible/probable that national identity was separate from belief at this point. Meaning, that Jewish descent prioritized paternal descent, but not necessarily ruling out maternal descent.

It appears this was changed to the opposite, to strict maternal, during the Christian Roman period.

If we look at legal decisions from 4th century Toledo, Christians made legislation that Jewish men and heretics could not marry Catholic WOMEN. But there was no law that Catholic men could not marry Jewish women. WHY? Because they CLEARLY lived with paternal priority. The man would take the woman into his home and the woman for all intents and purposes would become "Jewish" in a broad sense, and so would their children. Just like it is in Islam and in all other ancient semitic cultures. If the problem was marrying a Jewish woman made one Jewish, then they would have outlawed a Catholic man marrying a Jewish woman. But they did not do that. And laws are not made in a vacuum. They made these laws because these things were occurring in practical terms.

Anyway, I think its absolutely clear that Jews were patrilineal first and foremost for the majority of their history until sometime in the post diaspora Roman period. And since Judaism itself was still centralized out of Judea and Persia for the foreseeable future, it became the common paradigm under all Jewish communities before the divergence of the various Jewish "sects" or paths or whatever one would call them.

Anyway, I think it is so clear. And This is why I think many Jews are now changing the paradigm. Of course Orthodox will never accept this but that's ok. We dont need them to lol

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