Starting with Abraham and continuing till modern halacha. how has the halacha regarding who is part of the Jewish people changed? What were the causes of the change, and the reasoning, and the change itself?

I know that today the 'tribe' goes based off the father and the 'Jewishness' is based on the mother. However, that clearly was not the system with tanach, or in the chumash. And the system also changed pre-matan torah and after-matan torah.

I'm looking for 'who' 'when' and 'how' the rules changed over the milenium.

edit: Please don't try to argue that the rule never changed. There are too many stories of non-Jewish women marrying Jewish men with no indication of conversion or statements saying that the children will not be Jewish in tanach. (Like samson and delilah) Clearly the halacha changed, and there is a good reason for it, but I want to know the details of how and when. I am not interested in explanations of 'really, it was always this way'

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    The Rambam (Issurei Biah 13:14-17 - chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/960661/jewish/…) says that Shimshon converted Delilah before marrying her. Apparently the Radak (Shoftim 13:4) says so as well, although I don't have access to it at the moment. [check out the commentaries on the Rambam as well, that discuss this (mainly focusing on Shlomo Hamelech): hebrewbooks.org/rambam.aspx?rid=4325
    – Menachem
    Jul 27, 2011 at 8:15
  • Interestingly, Rambam says they were converted, but it was not a valid conversion, and thus tanach says they were gentiles... He doesn't say anything about their children.
    – avi
    Jul 27, 2011 at 9:26
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    @avi: Rambam doesn't say that "it wasn't a valid conversion." Halachically it was valid - they formally accepted the mitzvos and immersed in the mikvah. It was improper in that they should have checked more carefully into these women's motives for conversion, though. (In the next halachah, too, the Rambam goes on to say that a convert who afterwards reverts to idolatry - like Shlomo's wives - is nevertheless still considered an apostate Jew, not a gentile who never converted.)
    – Alex
    Jul 27, 2011 at 14:16
  • He says the conversions are invalid because they did it to marry those people, and it was a time of good fortune.
    – avi
    Jul 27, 2011 at 15:26
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    @avi: his exact expression is חשבן הכתוב כאילו הן גויות ובאיסורן עומדין - "the Torah speaks of them as though (my emphasis) they were gentiles and remain forbidden." In other words, after their conversion they were as Jewish as you or me; they should not have been converted in the first place (because they did so to marry Jews), but after the fact the conversions are valid.
    – Alex
    Jul 28, 2011 at 1:11

1 Answer 1


As I heard it from a Rabbi Frand tape, and similarly in a shiur from Rabbi Breitowitz:

The question is also raised with regards to Mahlon & Kilyon marrying "Moabite women" in Ruth Chapter 1. If they weren't Jewish, how could they have married them? If they converted, why do we derive the necessary commitment for a convert from what Ruth says after she married Mahlon?

Two answers are given:

  • Post Sinai, conversion was always necessary. The sincerity of various conversions was called into question, and Ruth's commitment after-the-fact proves that she really meant it. Her sister-in-law (-in-law) Orpah walked away when Judaism was no longer convenient, which proves her conversion wasn't real. Similarly, if Nach describes someone marrying a "gentile" woman, that's because she went through the motions of a conversion, but we now know looking back that the sincerity of the conversion was a sham.
  • The Biblical prohibition on intermarriage applied only to the Canaanite nations, or to acts performed "in public" (as Zimri did). Marrying women from other non-Jewish peoples, if done someplace where no Jews were around, was only prohibited later (I believe this is attributed to the Hasmoneans). Yes, this means the children would not be Jewish. So it was not actually prohibited for Mahlon, living deep out in Moabite-land, to marry Ruth.

So there are three time periods:

  • Pre-Sinai: different determination of "who is a Jew?"
  • Sinai to Hasmonean: same "who is a Jew" as today, but intermarriage allowed in some cases
  • Post-Hasmonean: same system as today; Judaism defined by matrilineal descent or sincere conversion; all intermarriage prohibited
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    Another detail - which also bears on "intermarriage allowed in some cases" - is that you can have the case of a yefas toar, where according to the majority opinion (and the accepted halachah) a Jewish soldier is allowed one act of intercourse before seeing whether she wants to convert. One case of that is David with Maacha (the daughter of one of the neighboring non-Jewish kings); their daughter Tamar was in fact conceived from that union, and is not halachically considered David's daughter.
    – Alex
    Jul 27, 2011 at 14:19
  • @Tom, like many things, if I recall correctly it's a disagreement among the rishonim whether the Torah prohibition on intermarriage applies to all non-Jews or only the Canaanite nations.
    – Shalom
    Jul 27, 2011 at 20:03
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    with regard to "Lo sitchaten bam" there is a machlokes tanayim whether it applies to all nations or just the 7 nations. But there is another pasuk:ואחר כן תבוא אליה ובעלתה which means that kiddushin could happen only after the process of Yefes Toar. See Kiddushin 68b, hebrewbooks.org/… Jul 27, 2011 at 22:55

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