Jewish genealogy has become something of an art. There are many internet sites that can help you chart your family history and discover long-lost relatives you never knew about. Perhaps this penchant for family history begins with the list of Jewish family names that appears in Parashat Pinchas.
After a fatal epidemic struck the people in retribution for their iniquities, God commanded Moses to take a census of each tribe, enumerating them by families.
The three divisions defining Jewish pedigree are the three Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the twelve tribes (Jacob’s sons), and families, named after Jacob’s grandsons and great-grandsons.
Although it might seem that Jewish pedigree depends solely on a male-paternal association, a little contemplation proves that the women play a very significant role as well, starting with the fact that being Jewish depends entirely on having a Jewish mother.
At the level of the Patriarchs, the Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, are mentioned in the Torah together with their husbands, and each took an active role in the birth of the Jewish people. Indeed, one synonym for a “people” (אוּמָה) is conjugate to “mother” (אִמָא).
At the level of the twelve Tribes, the men come more obviously to the fore, and we indeed know very little about their wives.
At the level of families, although each family name is derived from one of Jacob’s grandsons or great-grandsons names, each name receives a prefix and a suffix, which as we shall see, show that it is the feminine touch in the home that sets the spirit.
There is a well-known Torah teaching that, “When a man and a woman so merit, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) dwells between them, but if they do not, fire consumes them.” This idea is illustrated by the fact that “man” (אִישׁ) and “woman” (אִשָּׁה) both contain the letters of “fire” (אֵשׁ), however “man” contains an additional letter yud (י) and “woman” contains an additional letter hei (ה). Together, these two letters form God’s Name pronounced “Kah” (יָ-ה).
These same two letters are the letters that appear as the prefix and suffix to the family names mentioned in Parashat Pinchas. For example, Chanoch’s (חֲנוֹךְ) family is called “Hachanochi” (הַחֲנֹכִי). Here we see that the letter hei (ה), the additional letter in “wife” comes first, and the yud (י) from “man” appears as the suffix letter. This indicates that the woman is indeed, the mainstay of the Jewish family.
The spiritual effects of intermarriage
The plague that struck the Jewish people was caused by forbidden relationships that began in the wilderness between Jewish men and non-Jewish women.
Regarding this sin, Maimonides writes:
Although this sin does not incur the death penalty, it should not be taken lightly. In fact, it has a disadvantage that no other illicit relationship carries like it. Because a child from an illicit relationship [with a Jewish woman] is his [the man's] child under all circumstances and is considered to be Jewish even though the child is a mamzer. But a child from a non-Jewish woman is not considered his child, as the verse states, “[You shall not intermarry with them…] For he will turn away your son from following Me,” this turns him away from following God.”
This is why the advice to someone born of such a relationship is that he/she convert to Judaism, thus redeeming their father’s lost spark.
Pinchas’ zealousness atoned for the Jewish people, ending the plague and revealing the true spark of spirituality in the Jewish family; a Jewish mother, a Jewish father and a Jewish family name.