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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Purity of Race

The question whether the Jews of to-day are in the main descended from the Jews of Bible times, and from them alone, is still undecided. No one denies that the Jews of Bible times were to a certain extent of mixed parentage, and the attempts made by Ezra to prevent the intermixture shows its wide extent. Intermarriage seems to have been mainly with Ammonites, Moabites, and Idumeans, all recognized to have been of the same origin. In Babylon, during the later exile, certain districts were regarded as prohibitory with regard to intermarriage (Ḳid. 71b). For a discussion on "'issah" (= "paste"), as intermixture was called by the Talmudists, see "Monatsschrift," 1879, pp. 481-508; 1881, pp. 38-48, 113-123, 207-217, but such discussions refer mainly to the purity of marriages of Kohanim, or descendants of the priests, upon which marriages there are special restrictions, including some with regard to the descendants of proselytes (see see COHEN (2)).


The number of these latter appears to have been great in Biblical times. Wherever Paul lectured he found them—in the congregations at Antioch, Thessalonica, Athens (Acts 17:4,16-17,26). They are referred to even in the post-exilic Isaiah (56:6) and in Esther (8:17, 9:27); and three of the later psalms (, , ) divided the Jews into three classes—"the House of Israel," "the House of Aaron," and "those who fear the Lord" (that is, proselytes). Josephus frequently refers to proselytes ("B. J." 7:3, § 3; 6:9, § 3). On the other hand, Tacitus says that Jews and aliens never inter-married (Historiæ," 5:5). The proselytes, however, were not allowed to share the Passover meal (Josephus, c.), and Christianity particularly addressed itself to them. As soon as the Church became predominant, intermarriage between Christians and Jews was declared to be on the same footing with adultery (Codex Theodosianus, 55:2), and punishable with death. Thus, while of the two hundred tannaim seven are of Gentile extraction (comp. Brüll, "Mishnalchrer von Heidnischer Abkunft," in his "Jahrb." ), only three of the fifteen hundred amoraim belong to that class—Mari bar Rahel, Judah of India, and Samuel bar Shilat—showing a marked decrease in the number of mixed marriages. In the classical inscriptions only two proselytes are mentioned, and in the twenty thousand or so inscriptions of medieval and modern times the number mentioned is likewise only two proselytes, these being of Amsterdam.

Wolf gives a list of proselytes in the Middle Ages numbering only forty-four names, to which perhaps five could be added from the memor-books. During the years from 1830 to 1877, in an average population of twenty-five thousand Jews there wereonly thirty mixed marriages in Algeria (Ricoux, "La Démographie de l'Algérie," 1880, p. 71). Altogether, there is very little historic evidence for any intermixture. The chief instances are afforded by the Chazars (from whom in all probability most of the Karaites of the Crimea are descended), the Falashas, and the Daggatuns (the case of the Beni-Israel is doubtful): none of these intermarry with Jews. In the majority of cases where intermarriage can be traced, as in Spain before the expulsion, almost all the descendants disappear from Judaism. It has, besides, been shown that the fertility of intermarriages is much below that of pure Jewish marriages, and consequently the proportion of persons of mixed descent would decrease in geometrical proportion (BIRTHS).

Anthropological Evidence.

Against this general historical evidence of the purity of race, anthropologists bring forward the varieties of type shown by measurements of modern Jews and Jewesses. They are predominantly brachycephalic, or broad-headed, while the Semites of Arabic origin are invariably dolichocephalic, or long-headed. Against this it may be urged that modern Semites have largely recruited the race from slaves brought mainly from Africa, while some anthropologists are inclined to associate the racial origin of the Jews, not with the Semites, whose language they adopted, but with the Armenians and Hittites of Mesopotamia, whose broad skulls and curved noses they appear to have inherited. The small variability of the crania of the Jews (see CRANIOMETRY) might be adduced as further proof of purity of race. The more recent investigations of Fishberg, however, have shown that eastern Europe as a whole shows the same narrow range of variability of the skull-index, so that even if intermixture had occurred, the frequency-curve would not betray it.

The comparatively large number of blonds among Jews (see EYE; HAIR) would, however, seem to indicate admixture to the extent indicated by the proportion, which reaches on an average 25 per cent. But Virchow has pointed out that Jews are blondest where the general population is least blond, and vice versa, so that it would be difficult to explain the blondness by any modern intermixture. This argument, however, could be met by reference to the wandering nature of the Jewish population, which was driven about in mid-Europe for nearly three centuries. Almost equal variation is found in the shape and appearance of the nose, which is far from uniform among Jews.

On the other hand the remarkable unity of resemblance among Jews, even in different climes, seems to imply a common descent. Photographs of Jews taken in Bokhara resemble almost to identity those of Jews in Berlin or New York. Such similarity may be due to the existence of a type which has caused social, and thus sexual, selection, but the fact that it remains constant would seem to prove the existence of a separate variety. Countenance and expression can be selected from one generation to another, but do not necessarily imply similarity in head-form or other anthropological marks. Wherever such a type had been socially or racially selected, the law of inheritance discovered by G. Mendel would imply that any hybrids tend to revert to it, and a certain amount of evidence has been given for the prepotency of the Jewish side in mixed marriages. One branch of Jews, the Kohanim, are prevented by Jewish law from marrying even proselytes, and yet the Cohens do not appear to differ anthropologically from the rest of Jews. This might be used to prove either the purity of the race or the general impurity of the Cohens. Altogether, the question is a very complex one, on which no decisive answer can at present be returned. All history points to the purity of the race; some anthropological facts are against it.

  • E. Renan, Le Judaïsme Comme Race et Comme Religion, Paris, 1883;
  • A. Neubauer, in Jour. Anthropological Institute, 1885;
  • Andree, Zur Volkskunde der Juden, 1881;
  • W. Z. Ripley, The Races of Europe, New York, 1899;
  • Judt, Die Juden als Rasse, Berlin, 1903;
  • A. Ruppin, Die Juden der Gegenwart, pp. 271-273, Berlin, 1904;
  • J. Jacobs, Studies in Jewish Statistics, pp. -

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Purity of Race'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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