Selective Lineage

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Netziv Leviticus: Emor

Selective Lineage

“From our ancestors come our names from our virtues our honor.” –Proverb

According to Jewish Law, Jewishness is passed on by ones mother. However, ones tribal affiliation (meaning, of the twelve original tribes of Israel) was passed on by ones father. This remains true in the two major groups within Judaism that still retain a tribal (and sub-tribal) identity – the Levites and the Cohanim.

Therefore, what we would consider the overarching national Jewish identity is a function of matrilineal descent. Meanwhile, the more specific tribal identity is a function of patrilineal descent, though currently less relevant to most Jews, as our tribal histories and lineages have been mostly forgotten in the mists of time. Most non-Levites and non-Cohanim are presumed to descend from some amalgamation of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. This is not taking into account rediscovered lost tribes, such as Jewish Ethiopians who are believed to be descendants of the tribe of Dan, or Jewish Indians from the tribe of Menashe, or other groups around the world that are being discovered.

However, the Netziv on Leviticus 22:11, highlights yet another, third type of ancestry. Let’s call it “sanctity lineage”. The case is of a non-Jewish slave woman that was purchased by a Cohen. In a sense the slave is considered the property of the Cohen. A child born to that woman (and not even sired by the Cohen) is likewise considered the property of the Cohen, with the unique and unusual privilege, not available to any other group within Judaism — even though this child is not Jewish — to eat and partake of the “truma”, the special portion that Jews in Temple times were required to give to the Cohen and was considered sacred.

What this sheds light on, is that inherited status depends on the purpose. For determining Jewishness, we follow the mother. For determining tribe, we follow the father. For determining whether one can eat from the sacred “truma”, we follow the “owner”.

May we have clarity on our pedigree, identities and affiliation and know the difference between them.

Shabbat Shalom,




To my friend, Elli Fischer, for his extensive writings in general and his recent article on the difference between identity and affiliation in particular.


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