Biological parents transmit all kinds of heritable features to their children: eye color, an increased risk of heart disease, the family nose. Geneticists can trace and track these heritable features, and assess the likelihood of any of them being transmitted and expressed in the next generation.
But today’s daf asks about a different set of heritable features, ones which are not genetically but legally encoded: Jewishness, freedom and fitness for the priesthood or levitical service. We learned in the mishnah yesterday that:
Any case where there is betrothal and no transgression, the offspring follows the male.
And any case where there is a betrothal and there is a transgression, the offspring follows the flawed.
If a priest were to marry a (non-priestly) Jewish divorcee, the betrothal is legally effective, but still not permitted. Therefore, any offspring of this marriage would not inherit the priestly status.
It’s helpful here to distinguish between two kinds of identity: religious identity and ritual status. The Talmud is not discussing one’s Jewish identity, only one’s ritual status within the Jewish community. The Talmud is not suggesting that Jewishness is patrilineal, but that one’s status within the Jewish community is.
Now we have a different question: What if both parents are not Jewish? Which identity is conveyed?
As when Ravin came he said that Rabbi Yohanan says: With regard to the nations, follow the male.
Why would it matter what kind of non-Jew a particular non-Jew is? After all, if their religious identity is “non-Jewish,” then wouldn’t that also be their ritual status within Judaism? The Talmud explains:
As it is taught in a beraita: From where (do we learn) that one of the nations who engaged in intercourse with a Canaanite woman and fathered a son, that you are permitted to purchase the son as a slave? The verse states: “And also of the children of the residents who sojourn with you, of them you may buy.” (Leviticus 25:45)
One might have thought that even a slave who engaged in intercourse with a maidservant from the other nations and fathered a son, that you are permitted to buy the son as a slave. Therefore, the verse states: “Which they have begotten in your land” (Leviticus 25:45), from those begotten in your land, but not from those who reside in your land.
The Torah prohibits the Israelites from allowing the original nations of Canaan to continue to live there. The rabbis understand this prohibition to include even allowing them to live in the land as enslaved people. But who counts as Canaanite? On today’s daf, we learn that non-Jewish descent is calculated patrilineally — so only the offspring of Canaanite men are prohibited for purchase in the land of Israel.
This was probably not a practical teaching. I have found no evidence that, in the time of the Talmud, there were actual Canaanites floating about the land of Israel. By that point in time, through conquest, assimilation and cultural development, people living in this land had different identities: Roman, Galilean, Idumean, Samaritan, etc.
But though this particular teaching was largely irrelevant even in the time of the Talmud, and though the attitude of the Hebrew Bible toward the Canaanites might trouble us to this day, we can still learn something from it: Different kinds of non-Jewish people have different kinds of ritual statuses within rabbinic law. The rabbis’ world was not simply bifurcated into an “us vs. them” — but had nuances based on biblical texts, rabbinic interpretations of them, and the reality in which the rabbis lived. Things have always been more complicated than that.