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In antiquity, it seems that the nations of the world would determine a person’s lineage through their mother. Perhaps because promiscuity was so pervasive, one could never be sure of the father’s identity. Likewise, there are echoes of the female connection to one’s ancestry in the term “motherland” (though one can make a converse argument based on the word “fatherland”).
The Berdichever explores this theme, when in the beginning of the Book of Numbers, in the Torah reading of Bamidbar, God instructs Moses to count the army-age men of Israel. A phrase that keeps getting used in the request for the count, is to do so “according to their families, to their father’s house.”
The Berdichever explains that the word “nation” in Hebrew (Umah) has the same root as the word for “mother” (Imah) and that it was well known at the time that all the nations gave their lineage through their mother’s side.
However, the nation of Israel, after God’s revelation to them, after receiving the Torah, merited a new level of lineage determination. They were asked and commanded to henceforth present their ancestry based on who their fathers were.
In requesting the count, the literal translation of the command is “raise the head of all the children of Israel, according to their families, to their father’s house.”
The term “raise the head” comes to highlight how this new way (three millennia ago), this different criteria of showing and determining one’s ancestry through their father was a new higher level. Perhaps because it showed the strength and commitment of the bonds of marriage, where the children of Israel could feel with confidence that the child was indeed the father’s child and not of any other man. The Egyptian and Canaanite cultures at the time were highly promiscuous and the Torah strongly condemned such behavior and legislated for the Jewish people matrimonial fidelity.
It is curious how millennia later, presenting one’s lineage, or at least the last name, based usually on the father’s last name, has become so predominant throughout the world.
It is interesting that in Judaism, while one’s tribal status, and nowadays whether one is considered a Kohen or a Levi, is still determined by the father, the underlying Jewishness is determined by the mother.
May we be worthy of our lineage from all sides, and may our ancestors be proud of us.
Shabbat Shalom,
To the dozens of families who lost their homes and all their belongings in the recent blazes in Israel. May God restore your homes and possessions quickly

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Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay. He is the author of over a dozen books on Torah themes, including a Biblical Fiction series. He is the publisher of a website dedicated to the exploration of classic Jewish texts, as well as TweetYomi, which publishes daily Torah tweets. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.