Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Emor 5770/ May 1, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



From the “son of an Israelite woman” to “Jewish stock”

On the Jewish Status of Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union


Dr. Yoel Shiloh


Ashkelon College


“There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian.  And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite” (Lev. 24:10).

According to the plain sense of the text, two people came to blows, one of them designated as the son of an Israelite woman, and the other, an Israelite.   In the course of the fight, the son of the Israelite woman cursed G-d and was punished by the death sentence.   Scripture explicitly mentions that the half-Israelite was the son of Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan but does not give the name of his Egyptian father. On this, Rashi cites the midrash that the father was the Egyptian whom Moses had killed: [1]

The Egyptians were the taskmasters, and the Israelites, the foremen.   Each taskmaster was in charge of ten foremen, and each foreman was in charge of ten men…  A taskmaster came early one morning to the house of a foreman and said to him, “Go and gather your ten workers.”  When the taskmaster entered the foreman’s house the latter’s wife smiled at him…  As soon as her husband left, he came in and misconducted himself with her.   The foreman turned around and saw the taskmaster coming out of his house.  The taskmaster, realizing that the foreman had seen him leaving, kept beating him all day, saying to him, “Work hard, work hard,” meaning to kill him.

At that moment the Holy Spirit began to stir in Moses, and he saw what the taskmaster had done to the foreman in his house and what he was planning to do to him out in the field,… so forthwith “he struck down the Egyptian” (Ex. 2:12).

According to this legend, the half-Israelite was born of this incident after his Egyptian father had died.  Presumably he grew up in his mother’s home, an Israelite in every respect, and left Egypt with the Israelites.  Nevertheless, Scripture implies that his blaspheming was a result of his bad lineage, indicating to us that this defect is innate and should not be ignored, even though the person grew up in Israelite society and was educated as an Israelite.   The Sages add that the issue of his lineage is what brought on the fight, relying on the use of the words “there came out” (va-yetze), with which the narrative begins:

There came out … one whose mother was Israelite – from whence did he come out?   Rabbi Hiyya says: He came out as a result of the section regarding pedigrees.   For he sought to pitch his tent in the camp of the Dannites, but they said to him, “What right have you to pitch your tent among the Dannites?”   “I am the son of a Dannite woman,” he responded.  They said, “Scripture says, ‘Each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral [lit. fathers’] house’ (Num. 2:2), not their mothers’ house.”   He appealed to Moses’ court, and lost his case, so he rose and reviled G-d.

According to this midrash, the pedigree of the half-Israelite is determined by his Egyptian father, not his Jewish mother, [2] but in view of the prohibition against mixed marriages – “You shall not intermarry with them:  do not give your daughters to their sons of take their daughters for your sons.   For they will turn our children away from Me to worship other gods, and the Lord’s anger will blaze forth against you and He will promptly wipe you out” (Deut. 7:3-4) – the Sages established matrilineal descent. [3]

This halakhah also emerges from the narrative about the gentile wives taken by the returnees from Babylonia.   Ezra the scribe attests, “They have taken their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy seed has become intermingled with the peoples of the land” (Ezra 9:2).   In the wake of the rise in intermarriage in those days, it was decided “to expel all these women and those who have been born to them” (Ezra 10:3).  In other words, they not only removed the gentile wives from their midst, but also all the children born to them, for they too were not Jewish.

Throughout the ages there have been many posekim who were inclined not to entirely deny the Jewish status of children born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, but called them “of Jewish stock” even though they were not Jewish by the Halakhah. [4]   The amora Rav Assi held that a marriage to a gentile might possibly be kosher, since he might be a descendant of the Ten Tribes, who married gentile women. [5]   Therefore, the gentile might be “like a Jew,” or “have a Jewish stock in him.” [6]

Over sixty years ago Rabbi Uzziel published his view that one should be lenient in converting the son of a Jewish father and a gentile mother: [7]

A gentile, son of a Jewish father and gentile mother, was brought by his father to be converted, for the court had to convert him since, even though he is the son of a gentile woman, he is not altogether outside of the Jewish people…   the actions of a Jew who circumcises his son born of a gentile women prove that he wishes not to have his son cut off from the Jewish people; except that he fell in love with a gentile woman and could not bring himself to leave her, therefore he circumcised his sons with the intention and desire of including them in the covenant of the Jewish faith.

In the state of Israel, in the wake of the famous Shalit case, the question arose as to who is a Jew.  Benjamin Shalit was married to a non-Jewish woman, and therefore the Minister of Interior Shapiro refused to register their children as Jews.   Shalit appealed to the Supreme Court in 1968, [8] petitioning the court to instruct the Minister of Interior to register them as Jews.  The Supreme Court accepted Shalit’s position.  Although the Shalit case dealt with the population registry, nevertheless in the wake of this affair an amendment [9] was made to the Law of Return, as follows:  “For the purposes of this Law, ‘Jew’ means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.” [10]

The question of defining who is a Jew came to the fore again in the 1990’s, following the great wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union.   Soviet Jewry had been spiritually oppressed for decades, and as a result there were many mixed marriages among Soviet Jews.  When they immigrated to Israel, it turned out that many of them had been born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.  Although the Halakhah does not recognize these immigrants as Jewish, they view themselves as Jews and were viewed as such by the gentiles among whom they lived prior to immigrating to Israel.   Therefore, they are interested in going through a conversion process in order to become full Jews.   The issue is difficult and complex, since rumor has it that the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union includes many who are totally non-Jewish but declared themselves Jewish and immigrated to Israel to escape the economic hardship of the Soviet Union. [11]

In 1998 Rabbi Menashe Klein, admor of Ungvar, called for doing all one could to save the remains of Soviet Jewry.  He considered this a task of saving lives, plain and simple, for if one is supposed to try to save a person’s body, all the more so should one try to save a person’s soul.   However, he thought we should give preference to those whom we know are surely Jewish or of Jewish descent, and not seek out those who are far from Judaism: [12]

Most of our brethren who remained behind the Iron Curtain, from the day they were born never saw the light, but were pursued by the evil regime which sought to eradicate every trace of religion, especially our holy Torah…  Therefore most of them became assimilated among non-Jews, marrying gentile women, so that their offspring were cut off from the faith, or the women married gentile men and bore children for whom Judaism passed into oblivion, even though in fact they were Jews…  Be that as it may, we should do all we can for those people who were born proper Jews but, due to the circumstances and the times fell victim to Communism and Nazism.  But as for seeking out the children or grandchildren of those who have long since been lost, in my humble opinion I see no point in doing so…  Surely every Jew shares responsibility for other Jews, but still one must make a reckoning and first take in those who are close to us, and tend to those who are far away later.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef went even further, recommending that immigrants be recognized as Jews even solely on the basis of their own declaration: [13]

I have seen fit to discuss the matter of the new wave of immigration from the Soviet Union, with which we are now graced, proclaiming liberation for the captive, freeing prisoners from their bonds, from behind the Iron Curtain, where they have been for over seventy years, under a cruel and hostile Communist regime, and now are coming to Zion in masses, thousands and myriads.

However many questions arise concerning this wave of immigration, for by what we hear there is reason to worry that many non-Jews are taking advantage of this wave of immigration due to the economic shortages in the Soviet Union, and are joining the Jews immigrating to Israel.  We must know when a person comes to register as a Jew if he is acting in good faith, even if he has no documents attesting that he is a Jew, and it suffices for us to have his declaration that he is a Jew, or whether he must prove it with reliable witnesses…  Most of the immigrants coming from Russia who declare that they are Jews are acting in good faith, but if there is reason to doubt that their declaration is not correct, then one must investigate thoroughly.

We must do everything possible to bring closer to Judaism those immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are of Jewish origin, so that the words of the prophet Isaiah be fulfilled:

Raise your eyes and look about:  they have all gathered and come to you.  Your sons shall be brought from afar, your daughters like babes on shoulders” (Isa. 60:4).   Who are these that float like a cloud, like doves to their cotes? (Isa. 60:8).  And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come with shouting to Zion, crowned with joy everlasting.  They shall attain joy and gladness, while sorrow and sighing flee” (Isa. 35:10).



[1] Leviticus Rabbah, ch. 32.

[2] See Nahmanides’ commentary on this, where he cites  Tosafist (French) sources which say that prior to the giving of the Torah pedigree followed the father, as was the practice among other nations.  Nahmanides, however, does not agree with this view.  See other interpretations of his and those of other commentators on this passage.

[3] Kiddushin 68b.

[4] There were also posekim who took the opposite approach, requiring conversion of anyone born of a Jewish mother and a gentile father and raised by the father.  Cf. Hiddushei Yom-Tov Algazi, Bekhorot 47a.  In practice, the Rabbinical High Court of Appeals ruled explicitly that the law does not follow Yom- Tov Algazi (Appeal no. 730/79).  Cf. M. Corinaldi, Hiddat ha-Zehut ha-Yehudit, Hok ha- Shevut Halakhah le- Ma`aseh, Serigim-Leon 2001, p. 197.

[5] Yevamot 16b, Rashi, s.v. ma`aserot.

[6] Haggahot Mordechai, Yevamot par. 98, Or Zarua part I, par. 607, Piskei Ri ”d, Yevamot loc. sit.

[7] Responsa Piskei Uzziel bi-She’elot ha- Zeman, par. 64.  Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uzziel was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi from 1939 to 1953.

[8] HCJ 58/68, Shalit v. the Minister of Interior, 23(2) PD 472.

[9] Amendment no. 2, 1970, art. 4b.

[10] In this regard one should note the support given by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at the time the first version of the Law of Return was enacted, despite his personal views:  “Any person who comes to me and says, ‘I am a Jew,’ and I have no reason to think he is a criminal and wished to tell me that he is a Jew in order to commit a crime – I would accept as a Jew.”  Cf. M. Leibowitz et. al., Mi-hu Yehudi be-Yameinu, Tel Aviv 2006, p. 64.

[11] Even the first version of the Law of Return, from 1950, stipulated (article 4A [a]) that the rights of an oleh   are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew,” i.e., utter non-Jews. see]

[12] Resp. Mishneh Halakhot, part 15, par. 99.

[13] Resp. Yabia Omer, part 7, Even ha-Ezer, par. 1.  This halakhic ruling was also accepted by the special court for clarifying questions of Jewish identity set up by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem.   Cf. Piskei Din Yerushalayim, Berur Yahadut 1, pp. 17-31.