Cultural Questions Regarding Ancient Jewish Genealogies #general

Deanna Levinsky

I was told/taught  that a child is Jewish if the mother was Jewish because “you always know who the mother is but you don’t always know about the father”
Just sharing.....
Deanna Mandel Levinsky

Deanna M. Levinsky, Long Island, NY


In the ancient world, "genealogies" were usually offered to establish the legitimacy of a ruler.  When such a genealogy states that X was the son of Y who was the son of Z, the purpose was to show that since Z was a legitimate ruler (endorsed by the gods, for example), X is entitled to be recognized as legitimate as well.  This doesn't mean that the genealogical connection, as we understand it today, was false, but whether it actually was genetically correct wasn't a concern.
Yale Zussman

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

I have several questions dealing with how ancient Jewish genealogies worked. Due to the soc.culture.jewish.moderated Google Group being inactive for years (where such questions were originally directed), and since there also aren’t really any other active Jewish specific related forums on the web, Support@JewishGen gave me permission to ask my questions here on the main forum. Any information, especially with cited sources, would be very helpful for my personal study.

1) How did ancient Jews (prior to the first century) view pregnancy? The ins-and-outs of genetics weren’t known at that point in time, so did they view it as the man’s seed alone being planted in the woman, meaning that the mother was not a bloodline contributor for the child but was just the carrier for the male’s blood offspring? Is this why genealogies were always traced through the male’s line?

It’s understandable that not every single descendant of every person is listed in scriptural genealogies since there’s just not space for it, but did ancient Jews ever condense lineages of a continuous line (intentionally leaving out individuals when tracing from one person to one of their ancestors) for convenience, an individual ancestor being dishonored, or for any other reason? For example, 1 Chronicles 6:4-8 lists the following lineage: Eleazar > Phinehas > Abishua > Bukki > Uzzi > Zerahia > Meriaoth > Amariah > Ahitub > Zadok > Ahimaaz > Azariah > Johanan > Azariah. To trace from Azariah all the way back to his distant ancestor Eleazar, would it have ever been acceptable to simply write “Azariah son of Ahitub son of Bukki son of Eleazar,” or something similar? If not, and if a scribe did ever want to easily reference one person being the descendant of a distant ancestor, what would have been the appropriate way to do that?

How would genealogies work for an adopted child in ancient times? Would they have full legitimacy in being an heir of their adoptive parents and therefore be listed in genealogies just like any of the parents’ other children, would the adopted child still be listed under their original parents, or might the child be excluded from the written record after being adopted due to them not being a legitimate heir in the family?


Thanks in advance!