The Mamzer Problem

Jewish children born from forbidden sexual relations pose ethical and communal challenges.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

A mamzer is a child that is the issue of an adulterous or incestuous union. The law of the mamzer is stated in the verse: ‘A mamzer shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:3).’ 

Whatever the original meaning of the word mamzer, in the Rabbinic tradition, as finally recorded after much discussion, the mamzer is the offspring of an adulterous or incestuous relationship, for example, of a man and a married woman or of a brother and sister, and ‘entering the congregation of the Lord’ is understood to mean that the mamzer (or mamzeret, for a female) is forbidden to marry a Jew.

Since the verse states ‘even to his tenth generation,’ this is taken to mean that the taint is transmitted over all the mamzer’s generations so that the child of a mamzer, his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren may not marry into the Jewish community.

Apart from the disqualification with regard to marriage, the mamzer suffers no disabilities in Jewish law. He inherits, for instance, the estate of his natural father. The translation of mamzer as ‘bastard’ or ‘illegitimate child’ is consequently incorrect so far as Jewish law is concerned.

Ethical & Practical Issues

The fact that an innocent child is penalized in this way through no fault of its own has always presented a severe theological and ethical problem. On the practical level, any proliferation of mamzerim could result in the Jewish community being split into two groups, the members of one being disallowed from marrying the members of the other.

Because of these problems there is a distinct tendency throughout the history of Jewish marriage law to discover legal remedies to prevent the mamzer being exposed or declared as such.

Isserles in his gloss to the Shulhan Arukh (Even Ha-Ezer, 2.15) states, on the basis of Talmudic rulings: ‘If one who is unfit has become mixed in a particular family, then once it has become mixed it has become mixed and whoever knows of the disqualification is not permitted to disclose it and must leave well alone since all families in which there has been an admixture will become pure in the future.’

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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