This article reviews the biblical and rabbinic teachings on adultery and its consequences. It should be noted that the Reform and Reconstructionist movements no longer apply the concept of mamzer (the offspring of an adulterous union), and that within the Conservative movement and Orthodoxy there is a strong tendency to avoid applying it wherever possible. The following is reprinted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Jewish Sexuality, published by Jason Aronson Publishers.
Adultery (sexual intercourse between a married woman and a man other than her husband [the biblical prohibition does not include sex between a married man and an unmarried woman]) is the only sexual offense recorded in the Ten Commandments. It is again recorded in the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 20. The Book of Genesis (20:9) calls adultery “the great sin” and the Talmud calls adultery ha’averah (the sin par excellence). According to rabbinic tradition, it [along with incest, in the category of gilui arayot] is considered one of the three sins (along with idolatry and murder) that people should avoid even at the pain of death. The gravity of adultery is evident by the fact that the Bible describes the offense as being punishable by the death penalty for both the man and the woman.
One of the strangest of all biblical ordeals was that of a woman suspected of adultery (called a sotah in Hebrew). The procedure is described in graphic detail in the Book of Numbers 5:11‑31. Here the suspicions of a jealous husband may be proved or disproved by giving his wife a mixture of sacred water, earth from the floor of the Tabernacle, and the script of curses, and by observing the results of this ministration. If the woman had defiled herself by entering into an adulterous relationship with another man, the Bible states that her body would distend and she would become a curse among her people. But if the woman was not guilty, then she would remain unharmed and able to retain seed. Ordeals of jealousy were known in the ancient Near East, although not in the precise form described in the Book of Numbers, and there were parallels in many other cultures.
One thing made clear from this biblical ordeal of the suspected adulteress is that the Torah gives the male partner clear prerogatives by laying the burden of proving innocence on the woman. And, while both the wife and her adulterous lover were subject to capital punishment if guilty, no reverse ordeal was instituted: a wife suspecting her husband of infidelity had no recourse. The standards were not the same and men were allowed to be polygamous.
One major problem inherent in the law of the ordeal is the underlying assumption that by invoking the procedure a husband could force God, so to speak, to make the truth known. No other Torah law is dependent on such a divine manifestation.
Laws of adultery continued to be developed in talmudic times. The unfaithful wife was dealt with extensively in a talmudic tractate called Sotah (the faithless wife). Before the penalty of death could be administered, the rabbis stated in the Talmud, a number of strict requirements needed to be met, including such necessities as the crime having to have occurred before two valid witnesses and a warning that must be given to the couple concerning the punishment for the crime in very specific terms. The probability of carrying out the death penalty was, therefore, quite remote
Marrying a person born of an adulterous or incestuous union and having sexual intercourse with him or her was a criminal offense punishable by flogging. The offspring of a forbidden sexual relationship is called a mamzer, usually translated as bastard. In Jewish law, though, the mere fact that a child is born or conceived out of lawful wedlock does not make him a mamzer and he is not an illegitimate child, i.e., one whose status or rights are impaired. The Bible says that a mamzer shall not “enter into the assembly of God; even unto the tenth generation shall none of his progeny enter into the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:3). “Enter into the assembly” is the biblical idiom for marrying into the Jewish community; the “tenth generation” is a large number indicating an infinite time.
It is also for this reason that the rabbis made every effort to solve all cases of the mamzer. The Talmud implies that the biblical verse (Deuteronomy 23:3) that states the mamzer may never marry into the Jewish community refers to “tenth generation” rather than forever, because in the future world mamzers will be purified.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.