? about Jewish lineage

I remember hearing that a Jew’s tribe is traced through the father. I believe the only possible tribes for a modern Jew would be of Judah and Benjamin, since the 10 lost tribes are well, lost (although I think some people claim to be descended from them). Do modern Jews know (or have a good guess) what tribe they belong to? If so, are converts “tribeless”? And are records of lineage exhaustive enough that you would know if a prospective messiah was “of the house of David”?

The Assyrians conquered Israel (the northern Jewish kingdom) in 722 BC, whereas Judah, the southern kingdom remained unconquered. Some 27,000 Jews were taken into exile in Mesopotamia from Israel. Most of those taken were of the ten “lost” kingdoms but some members of all those tribes probably remained in Israel, many of them intermarrying with the conquerors. Also, I would guess some members of the 10 tribes were already living in Judah, or fled there to safety. Those taken into exile either lost their Jewish heritage through intermarriage or formed Jewish enclaves in various places around the Middle East. Despite that, "The southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin constitute the historical forbears of most of the Jewish People as it is known today " according to this.
There was a fascinating Nova special about an African tribe, the Lemba, that might be of Jewish origin. See this for more information. Genetic testing confirmed that some of the men had a gene on their Y chromosomes, most commonly found in members of one branch of the Levite (priestly) tribe. The people most likely to have the gene are men with the name Kohen, Cohen, or Cohain, who trace their descent from Aaron.

Work is the curse of the drinking classes. (Oscar Wilde)

For another viewpoint on the ten tribes see: http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mtentribes.html

“I’m tired of being an object of ridicule. I wanna be a figure of fear, respect, and SEX!”
-Radar O’Reilly

There are a few…very few, but indeed a few…families which have kept extensive geneological records and can trace their lineage back that far, and a number of those do indeed claim descent from the house of David.

Also, bear in mind that the Messiah’s emergence is supposed to be (according to Jewish tradition) preceded by some interesting occurrences. If indeed such occurrences, well, occurred, then no doubt all the resources of the Jewish world would be put to serious geneological research, which could come up with better answers than people’s casual record-keeping as it happens.

Converts are, indeed, tribeless.

Chaim Mattis Keller

“Sherlock Holmes once said that once you have eliminated the
impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be
the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.
The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it that the merely improbable lacks.”
– Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective

So, Jews trace tribes through the father, but you are only considered Jewish if your mother is Jewish? (As I learned in the “Am I a Jew?” thread)

I have to admit I find that odd.

Another kind of odd thing: if someone’s mother is Sephardi, and their father is Ashkenazi, they are considered Ashkenazi, even though they are considered Jewish thanks to their mother.

Thanks for the info, all. :slight_smile:

Does anyone know the story of those Ethiopian Jews?

I came across two references for them. One was that they had been in Ethiopia for a long time and then they all immigrated to Israel.

The 2nd was a few years ago, there was a big outcry when they found out that all the blood they donated to Israeli hospitals were dumped.

The logic behind the ruling on lineage:

  • In ancient times, when a woman married, she went to live with her husband in their tribal area. It was therefore natural that the tribe of the children should be determined by the tribe of the father.

  • The rabbinic ruling on whether a child is Jewish or not arose fairly late; the rationale was that one could never be sure who the father was, but there was no doubt who the mother was. Hence, the quality of being born Jewish was determined based on the mother.

Of course, from this lofty vantage point, we can sit back and argue that the woman living with the husband was sexist, but :::shrug::: that’s the way things were. And that’s where the tradition began. Some modernists do attempt to change such traditions, but meet with limited success. Rulings of ancient rabbis are considered binding.


The sources are right there in the Torah. The “Mother Jewish” law is based on the story of the blasphemer (Leviticus, but don’t recall the exact chapter), in which the blasphemer is the child of an Egyptian father and Jewish mother, and he is constantly referred to in that chapter as the “child of the Jewish mother,” hence, it is derived that Jewishness is determined by the mother.

The tribal designation is based on the father based on the instructions for counting in Numbers, Chapter 1.

Bear in mind that the main focuses of the tribal designations were inheritance of land, which was mostly a male concern, since they were the ones who conducted commerce, and service in the Temple, which was completely a male concern.


Well, in general, a family will folow the traditions of the father. However, this is not imperative, and a family is allowed to select maternal traditions (or traditions of a completely different source) if they wish. Other than certain localized traditions, there are no differences in Jewish law between an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi.

Chaim Mattis Keller

<< Other than certain localized traditions, there are no differences in Jewish law between an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi. >>

Except this week, Chaim, when the Sephardic can eat corn and the Ashkenazic can’t.

…and that’s a localized tradition.

What I meant to exclude by that category was that it’s not a matter of personal or social status or something. A Sephardi Cohen will still get called first to the Torah over an Ashkenazic Levi in an Ashkenazic synagogue. The child of a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi will not be automatically considered ineligible for a rabbinic ordination or marriage or anything like that.

Sorry if I was unclear with that phrase.

Chaim Mattis Keller