Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Were the Avos Jewish?

The Parashas Derachim is famous for the first two essays in the sefer which discuss whether ths Avos had the status of bnei noach or yisraelim before mattan torah. One of the mareh mekomos that seems to address this issue is found in this week’s parsha. A certain person who was “ben yisraelis v’hu ben ish mitzri” committed the cheit of being a “mekallel” and was punished for the offence. The Ramban cites the Chachmei Tzorfas who held that this person was in fact not Jewish – even though we pasken that a child of a Jewish mother is Jewish, this person joined Klal Yisrael before mattan Torah when lineage was based on the father’s identity. The Ramban takes issue with the Chachmei Tzorfas and writes that since the time of Avharam Avinu anyone who joined Klal Yisrael was granted Jewish identity based on his mother’s lineage. According to the analysis of the Parashas Derachim, the Rambam holds that even the Avos had the status of yisraelim, while the Chachmei Tzorfas disagree.
Rav Hershel Schachter in his sefer Eretz haTzvi takes a slightly different approach. R’ Shachter argues that lineage based on the father’s identity is a function of being subsumed in a family group – mishpachas av is called mishpacha, not mishpachas eim. We identify the child of a Jewish mother as a member of Klal Yisrael because of the unique din that the role of mishpacha is secondary and subsumed under the individual’s relationship to the nation of Klal Yisrael, which follows the mother’s identity. The machlokes Ramban and Chachmei Tzorfas is not whether Avraham had the status of a Yisrael, but whether that status of Yisrael which existed at the time of the Avos was based on the din of mishpacha or on the din of nationhood.


  1. it's kind of funny, because at the time of thhe Tanakh, the din of nationhood was not matrilineal as it was for the rabbis (see, for instance)

  2. Anonymous3:07 PM

    Reb Chaim:

    IIRC, the P"D deals with the chiyuvim the Avos had before Matan Torah. Just because the Avos had a status of non-Gentiles doesn't necessarily translate into the chiyuvim to keep all 613 mitzvos. Thus, I'm not sure the Ramban is a raya to the P"D.


    Doesn't the gemara in Kiddushin learn matrilineal descent from a pasuk? And doesn't the Rambam say that all the halachos that were eventually to be extrapolated from the psukim were given at Sinai?

  3. That is exactly the POV that R' Shachter is dismissing. All you find in Tanach is that with respect to what sheivet/mishpacha you are in, it follows the father. What nation you are part of is a seperate halachic category. The article you reference conflates the two and therefore starts with the unproven assumption that patrilinial descent was the norn with respect to everything. I should just note that if you read this blog you will discover that I am completely uninterested in the historicity of halacha. Chazal clearly read Tanach as assuming matrilinial descent, so for the purposes of halacha (and the purposes of this blog) that point is not going to be a subject to debate. Just want to be fair and let you know what to expect.

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  5. Anonymous3:32 PM

    I completely understand and concur with your comments; and, in fact, you and I have actually commiserated on this very issue. I was addressing myself to Drew, who happens to attend a yeshiva, in the hopes of demonstrating that in order for him to accept the view that he had advanced, he would be de facto dismissing the Rambam (the king of all rationalists). That's all. Let's wait and see what Drew has to say.

  6. Bill,
    The P"D cites the Ramban as proof that the Avos had a din Yisrael - that's the only point I was making. You could argue that the chalos shem yisrael did not entail chiyuvei mitzvos yet, but nafka minah for other things,e.g. see Baba Basra 58 for tumas ohel.

    With respect to Drew's comments, the fact that Chazal use a derasha would be viewed by historians as an attempt to superimpose the halachic system on the tanach to the exclusion of other readings which may be truer to historical original intent. A claim that Chazal's reading stems from mattan torah would be seen as an attempt to garner legitimacy by claiming historical roots where non exist. This is not the place for such a debate, because there is no way to win - see other blogs for proof of that, vahamavin yavin. My frame of reference assumes chazal were not creating law and rereading the text of tanach to match after the fact, but were accurately conveying a mesorah which existed since mattan torah, irrespective of any historical challenge. I think limud hatorah can only take place within that framework, and limud hatorah is what I hope most of these posts engender.

  7. As to Bill Selliger's comment for waiting to see what I have to say, I'm going to leave it with Reb Chaim's last comment (and even his prior one).
    I realize that this is not the forum to be discussing the historicity and evolution of the halakhah. And I will end with that for now.