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What is it with Jewish boys?

Rabbis at Breakfast
As I was munching my fruit & fibre this morning, the Chief Rabbi was on the radio talking about relations between the Vatican and the rest of the world.
Apparently, the Pope wants to meet rabbis and other faith leaders this Friday, which is Kol Nidre: the start of the Yom Kippur fast and the holiest night of the Jewish calendar.
Within Jewish communities, this is considered to be highly insensitive as it is the one night of the year when any rabbi worth their salt will be in shul leading their congregation in prayer and reflection.

One Big Happy Family?
We are all aware of the problems that exist in the Abrahamic family. In Christianity and Islam, Judaism has spawned powerful and temperamental offspring. There is an uneasy truce between family members,  but patricide is never far away.

This is somehow fitting, as tensions between parent and offspring are at the heart of our traditions and literature. They mirror dominant themes of family and inheritance which run very deep within us all.

Listening to the aforementioned programme, I was reminded of the following:
Q: How do you know that Jesus was Jewish?
A: Well, he lived with his mother until he was 33. He thought she was a virgin and she thought he was the Son of God.

This is not solely a Jewish thing. All the Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – have a shared problem with parents, sons and sibling rivalry.

But the news at the moment follows those nice Jewish boys, Ed and David Milliband in the Labour Leadership contest, and there is some discussion as to whether they will be able to work together in a new regime. Shades of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau…

So what is it with Jewish boys, more particularly firstborn sons? I’ve always wondered. When you think of the Torah / Old Testament – there does seem to be an awful lot of smiting, slaying and redeeming of them going on.

– The Murder of the First Born (Sons): the 10th and ultimate plague in Egypt released the Jews from slavery. Hence…
– The Fast of the First Born: when firstborn men fast for a day before Passover in commemoration of the miracle which spared the Jewish firstborn in Egypt.
– In Exodus, firstborn males are said to ‘belong’ to God. This can be seen as an extension of the ancient harvest offering of the first fruit of the field – itself a substitute for human sacrifice.
– Redeeming the First Born: the father of a firstborn son pays a symbolic number of silver coins to redeem him from temple service. This is based on the commandment “the first born of man you shall redeem… to the valuation of five shekels of silver.” (Numbers 18:15)
So why should the firstborn son be so important?

Jewish Mothers
Practically the only thing that most non-Jews know about Judaism is matrilineal religious succession. This tradition – not observed by Liberal and other progressive Jews – says that you are a Jew if your mum was a Jew. You might be a fully paid-up member of the Hitler Youth, but if dayn mutti zayn a yid, so are you…

Although Jews have not always followed this expedient, for the last couple of thousand years religious inheritance has been passed down from the mother who, in traditional families, was well placed to ensure that the kids were brought-up properly.

Not so financial and property rights, however. These followed the ancient Jewish tradition and Roman law of agnatic primogeniture – whereby males always inherited before females.

This system had clear benefits for the protection of landed estates. If they were passed down in equal shares to all the children, they would be broken-up over the generations into ever-smaller parcels of land. By so doing, the protection that came from having a stronger centre, with a castle and even defensive forces, would have been lost.

This favouring of eldest sons led to the English wifely duty “to produce and heir and a spare” because it allowed dynastic consolidation. It is seen by some as sowing the seeds for the success of capitalism.

But is this more than just a religious and historic anachronism? Does it still have a place in the 21st century? These are interesting questions in the light of a number of pieces of recent research.

Genetic and ethnic integrity.

Behar et al (2010), in a comprehensive international study looked at whether Jews comprised an ethnic group with a genetically unified ancestry and common ancestors, distinctly different from those peoples in whose midst they have lived and continue to live.

They found that Jews not only share a common cultural and religious inheritance but are also a genetically uniform nation whose genetic continuity has survived millennia.

Key to this, it could be argued, has been the institution of matrilineal succession. In spite of thousands of years of persecution, Jews have not died-out because it is mothers who gave birth and were tied to their children. Fathers could be far away by the time of birth or their faith unknown. Maternal inheritance tied faith to the family in a way that primogeniture did not.

Social advantage.

Lawson & Mace (2009) in a study of 14,000 British families, examined how much time and resource parents apportioned to various children. It appears that, even today, families in the UK favour their firstborn sons over daughters and younger siblings, who were held back by a relative lack of attention.

Lawson & Mace analysed the effect on offspring of number of siblings and found a clear ‘later-born disadvantage’. This was more pronounced among wealthier families.

Traditionally, greater resource was given to older males to attend school and university and it would appear that such patterns still persist.

Firstborn children are over-represented in high status occupations, such as senior executives and surgeons, and there is some evidence that the extra care and attention they receive leads to greater success in later life.

Psychological debate

Debates around birth order and its relative influence on life chances has been hotly contended1 since Arthur Adler proposed different personality types based on birth order. According to Adler, firstborns are “dethroned” when a second child comes along, and this may have a lasting influence on them. Younger and only children may be pampered and spoiled, which can also affect their later personalities

Two camps formed: one arguing that firstborns are more conscientious, more socially dominant, less agreeable, and less open to new ideas compared to laterborns; the other that the evidence given for any effect could equally be interpreted as evidence for other advantages or deficits.

Perhaps this is typical of debates within psychology. Camps become so divided and evidence so contested that positions are taken which are less evidence-based and rely more on identity and belief. (It would be interesting to know the birth order status of the many authorities who have contributed to the literature in this area!)


Not so in clinical neuroscience. Belkacemi et al (2010) have recently published their study of the impact of maternal depletion of longer-chain fatty acids on visual and brain development in utero.

There is growing evidence that there are risks of substantial impairments to brain development among babies who have been deprived of Type 3 fatty acids in the third trimester.

This can happen among some first-time mums who do not have enough adipose tissue but is much more likely in second or subsequent children, where mothers have not had enough time to rebuild their depleted stocks of these essential acids.

This development deficit gives a physiological ‘later-born disadvantage’ to match the social one noted above by Lawson & Mace.

In conclusion

There are clear advantages in being a firstborn – especially a firstborn son.

Matrilineal religious inheritance may have been advantageous to Jewish continuity in that Jews have stayed a distinct group. However, the survival has been at a price as a relatively restricted gene pool may have contributed to the susceptibility to genetically predicated conditions, such as Crohn’s disease.

Whether you are Jewish or not, primogeniture has benefitted the powerful and the firstborn in society. What is less evident is whether there were any benefits for poorer families or younger siblings.

What is clear is that firstborns – sons in particular – have distinct advantages of parental investment and, in some cases, maternal nutrition in utero, that give them a better start in life than those who come after.

Parents invest disproportionately in their firstborn child. The power of biblical stories which threatened firstborn sons lay in their illustrative value – for the firstborn son is the deputy-Dad and future protector of the family fortunes. With this massive investment in the firstborn’s future, harm to them threatens the wellbeing of the whole family more than would a similar misfortune befalling any other child.

It would appear that younger siblings are justified in saying ‘What about me?’ and challenging the established order in families,  although tricking your brother out of his inheritance is perhaps not to be advised.

(Oh, and in case you are wondering, I am the youngest of four kids!)


Behar, D., Yunusbayev, B., Metspalu, M., Metspalu, E., Rosset, S., Parik, J., Rootsi, S., Chaubey, G., Kutuev, I., Yudkovsky, G., Khusnutdinova, E., Balanovsky, O., Semino, O., Pereira, L., Comas, D., Gurwitz, D., Bonne-Tamir, B., Parfitt, T., Hammer, M., Skorecki, K., & Villems, R. (2010). The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people; Nature, 466 (7303), 238-242

Belkacemi L, Nelson DM, Desai M & Ross MG (2010); Maternal Undernutrition Influences Placental-Fetal Development; Biol Reprod September 2010 83 (3) 325-331; published ahead of print May 5, 2010, doi:10.1095/biolreprod.110.084517

Faurie C, Russell AF & Lummaa V (2009); Middleborns Disadvantaged? Testing Birth-Order Effects on Fitness in Pre-Industrial Finns; PLoS ONE; 4(5): e5680; Published online 2009 May 25.

Lawson DW & Mace R (2009); Trade-offs in modern parenting: a longitudinal study of sibling competition for parental care; Evolution and Human Behaviour (In press).

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