My question is predicated on the assumption that Jews were created by God as fundamentally different from non-Jews. (I am referring, for example, to the idea that Jews have a special type of soul. And even if this idea is rejected, there remains the axiomatic fact that Jews must be assigned some sort of unique status by God insofar as He made the Commandments apply only to them.)

When the rabbis decided that Am Yisroel would be defined according to matrilineal descent, how did they know who actually was and was not (or would be) given "Jewish" status by G-d?

(My understanding is that the Torah given to Moses did not specify such a definition of Am Yisroel, and that the rabbis, following Ezra's example, merely settled on matrilineality as the clearest way to establish a blood relationship between Jewish parent and child. But isn't it possible that God could have given Jewish souls to the children of Jewish fathers, too? And how would the rabbis know if He had??)

  • 1
    I read this on the Wikipedia page linked in my question: "The Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) derives [the law of matrilineal descent] from the Torah, specifically from Deuteronomy 7:3–4, which reads: 'Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give to his son, nor shalt thou take his daughter to thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods.'" But this Deuteronomy passage would seem to apply equally to children of any mixed union, no? I don't see how it implies the law of matrilineal descent.
    – SAH
    Mar 19, 2013 at 9:49
  • 1
    couldn't you then say that anyone who should have otherwise been a Jew by virtue of that "soul through the father" would then be driven to convert because his actual "Jewish soul" was at Sinai? Conversion is the release valve to solve your question. That there aren't substantial numbers of converts seems to point in favor of the rabbis' ruling about matrilineality...
    – rosends
    Mar 19, 2013 at 13:10
  • @Dan Very good point! Although someone could conceivably have a Jewish soul and be a tinok shenishba/remain ignorant of the option of Judaism his entire life. I suppose it is not for us to speculate on whether G-d would let this happen.
    – SAH
    Mar 20, 2013 at 22:35

2 Answers 2


By the way, generally a "Talmudist" means someone who studies the Talmud; the rabbis who wrote the Talmud are known as The Sages, Hazal (an acronym for "our sages of blessed memory"), or the Tannaim (those before the year 200) and Amoraim (from 200 to 500).

Okay, let's back up here.

The reading of Deuteronomy is a very nuanced one, which your translation is lacking. (In fact your question only arises because you're using a faulty translation.)

... do not give your daughter to [the non-Jew's] son, and his daughter do not take for your son. For he will make your son veer away from Me.

Wait -- why would "he" affect your son? Shouldn't it be she?

The Talmud observes that elsewhere in the Torah, "son" can also mean grandson; therefore it reads:

... do not give your daughter to a non-Jewish man, or your son to a non-Jewish woman. The non-Jewish father will make your maternal grandson veer away from G-d.

Okay then we're missing symmetry. What about "the non-Jewish mother will make your paternal grandson veer away from G-d"? That's it -- a child of a non-Jewish mother isn't called "your grandson."

That happens to be the reading the Talmud uses. But to answer your question more broadly, you're trying to ask a question of metaphysics, which honestly is none of our business. (The "different souls" thing is debatable, put mildly.)

The Written Torah puts down a system of laws, but it's often unclear at first reading what they mean. Literally? Would be vague, bizarre, and occasionally contradictory. However I feel like it? Doesn't seem right. According to whatever's morally in fad when I read it? That quickly becomes "however I feel like it." We don't know? If G-d cared so much about getting a message across, it would be strange that it could get lost like that.

Which leaves ... according to the oral traditions and interpretations of the People of the Book, as recorded in the Talmud.

So the following questions are all answered in the same way:

  • who is a Jew?
  • what does "an eye for an eye" mean?
  • Exodus says to wear tefilin but what are they?
  • Moses says "slaughter like I commanded you" but no more details are given in the Bible, how do I do it?
  • Exodus lists a few of the ingredients for the incense, but then says "and other spices" - what are those?

We believe that the will of G-d is expressed as a legal system (itself a fascinating concept, Lord Sacks writes about this a lot) and that the interpretation recorded in the Talmud is binding.

  • Thanks, this is a very helpful answer. (I changed the title of the question, btw--had a feeling "Talmudists" was wrong.) One reason I asked the question is that it seems from a purely historical perspective that the matrilineal rule was established to simplify an otherwise-too-complicated situation. The Book of Ezra suggests this. If that were indeed the reason for the rule (and I still think it may have been, whatever Torah justification they came up with later), my question would be valid. I disagree that I'm "trying to ask a question of metaphysics which is none of our business"+
    – SAH
    Mar 19, 2013 at 11:53
  • ...This question was extremely difficult to write, but I do have something very concrete and answerable in mind.
    – SAH
    Mar 19, 2013 at 11:55
  • The grandchildren read is supported by the plural ועבדו
    – Double AA
    Mar 19, 2013 at 15:57
  • @Shalom you should edit the wikipedia page to put in a more accurate translation.
    – Ariel
    Mar 20, 2013 at 1:27

To echo what Shalom said:

Let's say, hypothetically, that Hashem "planned on" giving Jewish souls to children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

However, Torah lo bashamayim hi - The [power to determine] Torah is not in the Heavens.

In the times of the Mishanah and Gemarah, Chazal had the power to change reality by virtue of their declarations. A classic case of this is that the new month started when the Sanhedrin declared so. Hashem "waited" for the Sanhedrin to declare that a new month had started, and only then did He do so. In theory, if the Sanhedrin was "off" by a day, it wouldn't matter - because what they declared would become true.

Therefore, Chazal's declaration that Judaism passes exclusively through the matrilineal line created that reality.

Here are the disclaimers:

  1. Do not try this at home. This power was limited to Chazal and is long gone.

  2. Chazal did not "make up" Torah/Judaism. They could only operate within narrow constraints. They only had the power to interpret Torah in certain ways, with certain tools. This power was granted to them by Hashem Himself.

I hope that this helps.

-Rebbetzin HaQoton

P.S. Sorry - I know that I didn't include any sources. Maybe somebody else can fill those in...

  • I think Rosh Chodesh is a bad example, because that is a power we could still use today. It doesn't require any special level of Talmid Chacham or historical place in the Mesorah. It just requires the current calendar to end. Interpreting Halacha out of Pesukim is a whole different story.
    – Double AA
    Jan 13, 2014 at 17:58
  • Don't you need a Sanhedrin to be mekadesh the chodesh? Jan 14, 2014 at 11:42
  • Definitely not. he.wikisource.org/wiki/…
    – Double AA
    Jan 14, 2014 at 15:49
  • I guess that I was wrong then. This is the Rebbetzin, btw. Jan 14, 2014 at 20:04
  • 1
    There's nothing wrong with Rebbetzins...
    – Double AA
    Jan 14, 2014 at 20:31

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .