How Does a Jewish Inheritance Law favor a Prodigal Son?


Inheritance in Jewish Law

Under Jewish law, the first-born son receives a double share of his parents’ property.

As stated in Deuteronomy 21:17:

But he shall acknowledge the first-born … by giving him a double portion of all that he hath; for he is the first-fruits of his strength, the right of the first-born is his.

For example, let’s say the father, Adam, has three sons — Boaz (the first-born), Caleb, and David – and an estate of 12 sheep.

An equal division of the estate would be 1/3 to each of the sons – four sheep each.

It might seem that a “double-portion” would be 2/3. So that Boaz would get eight sheep, and Caleb and David would split the remaining four, ending up with two each.

But that’s not how it works.

Instead, an extra share is added to the number of sons, so three sons would result in four shares.

Boaz would thus get two of the four shares, so one-half (six) of the 12 sheep.

Caleb and David would each get one of the four shares, so ¼ (three) of the 12 sheep.

The rule favoring the first-born son applies even if a man has two wives. “The one beloved and the other hated,” and his first-born son is the child of the hated wife.

This double-portion rule only applies to the first-BORN son – not to the oldest surviving son.

Rabbinical law adds that a son born by c-section is also excluded from the right to the double portion!


How do daughters inherit?

Only if there are no surviving sons, and no male descendants, do daughters inherit.

If there are no sons or daughters, then the estate passes to the man’s brothers, uncles, or other closest kin.

These laws are stated in Numbers 27:7-11:

If a man dies, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.

And if he has no daughter, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his brethren.

And if he has no brethren, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his father’s brethren.

And if his father has no brethren, then you shall give his inheritance to his kinsman. The one who is next to him of his family, and he shall possess it.

The Biblical Book of Numbers tells the story of the five brother-less daughters. The daughters of Zelophehad of the tribe of Manasseh. They came to Moses to ask for their father’s inheritance.

As Numbers 27:5 reports, “Moses brought their case before the Lord”. The Lord’s response was “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just.”


Keeping it in the Tribe

Later in Numbers, some leaders of the tribe of Manasseh came to Moses to point out a problem. If a daughter who inherited from her father married a man from outside her tribe, her lands would pass into her husband’s tribe.

Specific lands were allocated to each of the 12 tribes. If women could transfer lands to their husbands’ tribes, the boundaries of each tribe could change from year to year. It’s because women married, died or divorced. Each tribe’s territory could soon be riddled with islands of other tribes’ lands.

To avoid this, Moses added a rule. The daughters who inherit can only marry inside their father’s tribe. The five daughters of Zelophehad ended up marrying their first cousins. (sons of their father’s brothers)

The law about inheriting daughters needing to marry within their father’s tribe was later repealed.


The Rabbis of the Talmud

The Talmud is a compilation of Jewish law and tradition. This was collected and edited by rabbis (scholars) between the third and sixth centuries of the Common Era.

The tractate of the Talmud called Bava Batra deals with property laws in general. One section specifically addresses the laws of inheritance. It is based on the laws set down in the Book of Numbers.

The rabbis listed the following order of inheritance:

sons and their descendants

daughters and their descendants

the father

brothers and their descendants

sisters and their descendants

the father’s father

the father’s brothers and their descendants

the father’s sisters and their descendants

the father’s father’s father

The husband also inherits from his wife – but not if she died childless soon after marriage.

The wife does not automatically inherit from her husband. Her rights against her husband’s estate are determined by her ketubah (marriage contract).

The tractate also deals with fact situations as complex as those on any law school exam. What if the dead husband’s heirs, wife, and creditors all have claims? What if the husband and wife are found dead together, and no one knows which one died first?



Disinheritance and favoritism are possible. It is often via revocable trusts or large death-bed gifts to a favored heir. But, this is disfavored under Jewish law.

The Mishna (part of the Talmud) states that if one gives his assets to others and leaves nothing for his sons to inherit, this is valid under Jewish law. But “Ein Ruach Chachamim Nochah Heimenu” (the spirit of the sages is not pleased by him).

As one sage taught,

Do not be among those who shift an inheritance, even from a bad son to a good son. For the sort of child who will emerge therefrom is not known.

Later rabbis allowed wills to shift bequests from one heir to another. As long as a significant amount remained for all the heirs.

In the 20th century, two leading rabbinical authorities approved total or partial disinheritance. It is a case of extreme misconduct by heirs.



Modern Israeli Law

Under modern Israeli law, sons and daughters share equally in inheritances. It is influenced primarily by Biblical law, British law, and Turkish law.


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