Re: Cultural Questions Regarding Ancient Jewish Genealogies #general

Jeremy Lichtman

Hi David,

A rabbi might be able to answer these questions better, simply because the primary sources here are religious - whatever we can extrapolate about actual practice from the Torah (i.e. 5 Books of Moses, Prophets and Writings), as well as later references to earlier traditions in the Mishnah and Gemarah. I'm not aware of anything in archaelogy or unbiased third party writings from the era that would answer your questions. I'm a layman, and the following is just my opinion.

1) The modern rabbinic definition of Jewish inheritance is maternal-only. i.e. if the mother is Jewish, the child is Jewish (note that Reform Judaism accepts paternal inheritance today). There's lots of argument about when exactly that policy was adopted (although it is justified via biblical exegesis). We don't know exactly what the original practice was, but it may have been somewhat informal. Sources include the Book of Ruth (i.e. formal conversion isn't recorded, but her descendants are obviously considered Jewish), and also later discussion on the children of non-Jewish wifes of various Judean kings. There's also a form of paternal inheritance for priesthood - i.e. Cohanim and Levi'im inherit their status paternally.

As far as a direct answer to your question goes, most Jews in the biblical era were farmers, and farmers have always had a pretty good idea regarding how physical traits are inherited from both parents, even if the precise details weren't always known. Biblical genealogies aren't talking about genetics though. Most of them appear to be lineages of various sorts of tribal leaders (both Israelite or otherwise), and at a guess the primary issue at hand was inheritance of land and societal status. In the largely paternal societies of the ancient Near East, that would imply male-line genealogy.

2) Genealogy as we know it today is a recent invention. Ancient genealogies don't have any concept of precision at all. That said, one place where there's a simple lineage given is in the book of Esther: "Mordechai ben Yair ben Shimi ben Kish ish Yemini." i.e. "Mordechai son of Yair son of Shimi son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin" (usual translation of Yemini, although there's other opinions). It isn't intended to tell you precise genealogy, but rather to give a general idea of who he is and what he's about. That lineage tells an informed reader about roughly when his family was carted off to Babylon, where they came from originally etc. Midrashic sources also relate that various symbolism to the overall story from the specific fact that he was from the tribe of Benjamin (it's complicated). i.e. the whole lineage is basically just setting the stage for the story.

3) I don't know of any good sources re ancient adoption and written lineages. The closest I can think of also comes from Esther. Esther (i.e. Hadassah) is a cousin or possibly niece of Mordechai, whom he adopted when her parents died. She isn't considered his genetic child though. Another possible source comes from Talmudic discussion of who can marry whom - adopted siblings are not barred from marrying each other.


Jeremy Lichtman

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