Inheritance in Judaism

Judaism has been around for a while, and not surprisingly has its own set of laws about inheritance. The Judaic laws of inheritance differ from western culture in a few critical aspects; lets have a closer look.

Torah sources

The laws of inheritance for the children of Israel begin with the Torah verses in B’midbar 27;8:

וְאֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תְּדַבֵּר לֵאמֹר אִישׁ כִּי יָמוּת וּבֵן אֵין לוֹ וְהַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ לְבִתּוֹ. וְאִם אֵין לוֹ בַּת וּנְתַתֶּם אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ לְאֶחָיו. וְאִם אֵין לוֹ אַחִים וּנְתַתֶּם אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ לַאֲחֵי אָבִיו. וְאִם אֵין אַחִים לְאָבִיו וּנְתַתֶּם אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ לִשְׁאֵרוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו מִמִּשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ וְיָרַשׁ אֹתָהּ וְהָיְתָה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְחֻקַּת מִשְׁפָּט כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת מֹשֶׁה

“And to the children of Israel speak, and say ‘If a man dies and does not have a son, you shall pass his lot over to his daughter. If he does not have a daugher, you shall give his estate to his brothers. If he lacks brothers, you shall give his estate to his paternal uncle. If he lacks paternal uncles you shall give his estate to his closest of kin who shall inherit (his estate). This shall be the judicial law (of inheritance) as God commanded Moses”.

In other words, when a man dies, it isn’t his wife who inherits his estate but rather his sons. It is only if a man does not have sons are the courts to seeks out his daughters. Seeing then that the Torah flatly negates the inheritance rights of the females of ones family when there are male children appears as unfair, and completely incompatible with the modern societies we live in.

Maimonides

Prior to analyzing the fair-justice elements of this divine Torah law, lets have a look at the stages of inheritance as defined by Maimonides (Mishna commentary, Bava Bathra 8:2, followed by an English translation);

 שלשה כללים; הראשון אם מת האדם הרי הקודם לירושה בניו, ואם נעדרו הבנים חוזרת הירושה לאב. והכלל השני שכל הראוי לירש אם היה הוא מצוי הרי זה יורש הוא עצמו ואם כבר מת נחפש את יורשיו ונניח כאלו זה הראוי לירש הוא שמת, והכלל השלישי שהזכרים קודמין לנקבות אם היתה קרבתם למת שוה.

ושלשת הכללים האלו הם יסוד הדבר בידיעת מי יורש ומי אינו יורש; ואני אקבע לך משל יתבאר לך ממנו איך ראוי שתהיה לפי הכללים האלו ירושת האחים והאחיות והדודים והדודות ואבות האבות עד שאם ימות אדם למשל – יירשנו זקן זקן זקן זקנו

נניח שעמרם מת, זכאים לירשו משה ואהרן. לא מצאנום חיים, נחפש בניהם הזכרים. לא מצאנו, נחפש אחר כך בנותיהם הנקבות. לא מצאנו, חזרה הירושה למרים כיון שנעדר הזכר וזרעו

Regarding inheritance rights, here are three rules; A) if a man dies the first to inherit is his sons. If he lacks sons then the estate “travels up” to the father. B) Whomever is befitting to inherit – if he himself is alive then he himself inherits, whereas if he is dead, then we seek his inheritors with the consideration as if he (the first inheritor) himself had died (while possessing what he was worthy of inheriting). C) Males precede females when their relation to the deceased is equal.

These three rules are the foundation for determining who inherits and who doesn’t. And I will now present a parable which will explain to you how it ought to be based on these rules; The inheritance rights of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, fathers , grandfathers up until – for example – his great great great grandfather.

In fact though, a surprising opposing argument is available to counterbalance that notion. Let’s begin with the rights of the Jewish woman on inheriting her husband.

The Jewish woman’s inheritance

Regarding one’s wife not entitled to inherit her husband, lets have a deeper look into what this means: say a man dies with loads of debt (credit cards, personal loans, judgments, defaults, mortgages, etc.), who should be liable to settle those obligations? Would it be just to impose these debts on his widow? One could argue that wouldn’t be just since doing so could hamper her ability to remarry – a prospective spouse would be too tempted to move past a woman who is debt-ridden.

With that scenario playing out, the deceased mans wife is not obligated to any of her husbands debt – sweet.

Inheritance of a convert

As part of the laws of inheritance, the Torah instructs that in the even that property or goods are stolen from a convert – a ger tzedek – and that said convert leaves behind no family members of the Jewish faith, the stolen property or goods are given to the kohanim – the priests of Israel. This is considered one of the twenty-four kohanic gifts.

Some entertain the reasonthat since the kohanim carry the title in the Torah as בעל בעמיו (a “husband” in the nation), they thus merit to inherit the Ger, who is (abstractly) considered – in absence of real family – a family member of the kohanim.

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