A mamzer (ממזר) is a person born from certain relationships forbidden by Jewish law. The common English translation is “bastard”, which has some similarities to a mamzer, but it is not the same as “illegitimacy.” Jewish law does not consider a child illegitimate if the mother happens to have been unmarried. As such, to avoid confusion we do not use “bastard” as a translation. We simply use the Hebrew word.
A mamzer is a person born out of adultery by a married Jewish woman and a Jewish man who is not her husband, or a person born out of incest.
Mamzer status is not synonymous with illegitimacy, since it does not include children whose mothers were unmarried.
A mamzer (ממזר) 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 23:2
Understanding of this term in rabbinical Judaism
A mamzer is the offspring of a biblically forbidden union (Yevamot 4, Mishnah 13: “כל שחיבין עליו כרת בידי שמים”. – Circa 200 CE
According to the Shulchan Aruch, a mamzer can only be produced by two Jews (Shulchan Aruch, “Even haEzer” 4:19). Circa 1560’s CE
A child born of a married woman’s adultery is a mamzer. The child of a single woman and a man she could lawfully have married is not a mamzer (Shulchan Aruch E. H. 4.) It is irrelevant if the man is married or not.
If one of the parents is not Jewish then the child can’t be a mamzer.
In order to make certain that almost no child would have the status of mamzer, the rabbis canonized legal fictions that prevented the term from being used in many cases, for instance:
A child born within 12 months of a woman’s most recent meeting with her husband is presumed to be legitimate (Shulkhan Arukh 4:14)
Any child born to a married woman, even if she is known to have been unfaithful, is nonetheless halakhically presumed to be her husband’s (Shulchan Aruch, “Even haEzer” 4:15)
In the last century, much of the Orthodox Jewish community has made significant, and some would say harmful, changes to Jewish law on this issue. People being educated in Orthodox yeshivas are no longer even taught the wide array of traditional views on the subject, and students graduating even as rabbis are unaware that halakha has a “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy on this subject: It is literally forbidden to ask if someone is a mamzer.
The concept of mamzerim was discussed in the Rabin Mishna Study Group: Daily Mishnah Study in the climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism. Rabin Mishnah Study Group, by Rabbi Simchah Roth.
Mamzer: A person who was born of parents who were prohibited from marrying each other by Torah law. For this reason translations such as “bastard” and “illegitimate” are misleading. In western law a bastard is a person whose parents did not happen to be married at the time of his birth. A Mamzer [or Mamzeret] is a person whose parents were prohibited by Torah law from marrying at the time of her conception; the parents could not have married even if they had wanted to. The main cause of mamzerut is adultery by the woman.
The non-adulterous union of a Kohen with a woman otherwise prohibited to him, does not cause mamzerut. (Many Conservative rabbis today consider the restrictions on the marriageability of a Kohen to be obsolete, and they have substantial halakhic reasons to support their opinion. In any case, this has nothing to do with mamzerut.)
Halakhically speaking, the ‘mamzer’ suffers no disabilities except one: a ‘mamzer’ can only marry a ‘mamzeret’ (and vice-versa) and their descendents will be ‘mamzerim’ in perpetuum! This is such a terrible situation for a human being to find himself in that not only Conservative rabbis, but all decent-minded rabbis, make every effort to obviate the situation. This cannot be done, halakhically, by erasing the status as if it did not exist; the best approach has always been to find some valid reason why the person is not, in fact, a ‘mamzer’ as at first thought.
Halakhic solutions which get rid of the problem:
Rabbi Tarfon says that Mamzerim can become rehabilitated. How? If a Mamzer marries a Canaanite servant-woman [shifchah kena’anit] the offspring will be a Canaanite servant [Eved kena’ani]. If he grants the servant manumission his son has become a free man. Rabbi Eliezer says that he is but a Canaanite servant who is also a mamzer! (His suggestion was feasible only in his time.
Rabbi Tarfon says that a mamzer can become rehabilitated. The Hebrew word that I have translated thus is “litaher”, which really means “can become purified” or “purged” – of
the taint of mamzerut. We learned at the end of the previous mishnah that the offspring of both the Canaanite servant and the mamzer take their status from the mother.
[Unlike Jewish servants, under Torah law non-Jews held in service to Jews are partially “Jewish” and can regain their freedom only by manumission. The status of the Eved Kena’ani and the Shifchah Kena’anit was amply discussed on RMSG between 16th November and 5th December.]
Rabbi Tarfon’s idea is that if a free Jewish man who is also a mamzer takes a gentile woman as his Canaanite servant and has a child by her, the child is automatically also a Canaanite servant. The father, who is also the master, has the right to grant his slave-son his freedom at any time. The son, upon being manumitted, becomes a fully-fledged Jew and can marry any Jewish woman he chooses! I suppose that in Rabbi Tarfon’s time this was ‘neat’. I wonder whether anyone noticed that it only solved half the problem: a mamzeret could not ‘pull the same stunt’ by marrying an Eved Kena’ani, since her offspring would take her status. Rabbi Tarfon’s elder contemporary, Rabbi Eliezer, denies the feasibility of the halakhic ‘trick’.
The Gemara [Kiddushin 69a] discusses whether Rabbi Tarfon’s proposal is acceptable ‘a priori’ – as a valid halakhic procedure in all cases. The final conclusion is that this is the case and that the halakhah is according to Rabbi Tarfon (and not according to Rabbi Eliezer).
Something to think about: All lines of descent from antiquity are suspect…Given the long tumultuous history of the Jews, there were many periods when records of personal status were not kept accurately, and certainly not universally from community to community. People of mamzer ancestry definitely married within the general Jewish community without the community realizing it.
In fact, in Temple times no Kohen was permitted to officiate in the Bet Mikdash unless he had a certified pedigree lodged in the Temple secretariat. All others who claimed to be kohanim (let’s say because their father told them so) but could not bring authorized proof of their status, were still considered to be priests, but could not officiate as such. This is the status of ALL kohanim today.
Question: Hmm, might this not this mean that we are all mamzerim?
No! In Western jurisprudence there is a basic ‘presumption’ – that all people are innocent of wrongdoing, and even those accused of a crime benefit from this presumption until it has been conclusively proven to be untenable in a duly constituted court of law. This is what we call the ‘presumption of innocence’.
In halakhah there is a similar presumption as regards personal status: “kol Yehudi be-chezkat kasher” – every Jew is presumed to be of unblemished pedigree unless there are solid and factual reasons for denying him or her the benefit of that presumption.
Cf. Rambam Issurei Biah 19:17; Tur Even ha-Ezer 2, Bet Yossef Even ha-Eezer 2:2:a, Shulchan Aruk ibid.
Another “cure” for mamzerut is “assimilation” – and it is the obvious solution for our own times. This matter is deliberated in the Gemara, Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 71a, as part of the discussion on the first mishnah of Chapter Four. The Jews of Babylon were of the opinion that the Jews in Eretz-Israel were not as meticulous as they should have been concerning the ‘kashrut’ of families suspected of not having a pure Jewish pedigree. Rabbi Yochanan, probably the most influential and most prestigious of the Amoraim of Eretz-Israel (he died around the end of the third century C.E.) virtually admits the accusation … “but what can I do about such a family, seeing that some of the most illustrious people of our age have assimilated into it?” The Gemara explains that Rabbi Yochanan is of the opinion that “once a family [of impure pedigree] has become assimilated [into the fabric of Jewish society] – it is assimilated [and accepted]”.
This opinion became accepted halakhah! Rambam [Maimonides] codifies as follows:
“If an impure element mixes in the pedigree of a family, and this fact is not generally known, ‘once it has assimilated, it has assimilated. Anyone who knows of this is *forbidden* to publish the information, but must let the family continue in its presumption of unblemished pedigree.”
We must also recall the famous dictum of Rabbi Yehoshu’a ben Levi [Kiddushin 71a, top] that “money purifies mamzerim” [“kessef metaher mamzerim”].
Rashi interprets this extraordinary statement as follows: when mamzerim become affluent, other people cease to be concerned with the blemish on their pedigree! Another interpretation from the Middle Ages links the Hebrew word “kessef” with the same root in Aramaic which also means “to blanch with shame”: if mamzerim are ashamed of their status and ‘keep it quiet’ they will soon assimilate and the status will disappear.
Most rabbis would keep no records of presumed mamzerut, would do their best to prove that the person was not a mamzer (as did Goren), and the mamzer would do well to move to an area where he/she was not known, so that they could eventually assimilate into the general community, as we have previously discussed. If the matter is not known it will not be a problem.
The possibilities that exist for modern mamzerim who are _aware_ of their halakhic status are:
(1) to refrain from procreation altogether so as to prevent this “curse” falling upon a new generation;
(2) to brazenly ignore the halakhah altogether;
(3) to procreate with a life-partner “without benefit of clergy” (i.e. without Chuppah and Kiddushin);
(4) to reside in an area where their relative anonymity can be maintained and their halakhic status is unknown, to choose a life-partner and to procreate with that life-partner after Chuppah and Kiddushin have been performed.
I do not believe that as Conservative rabbis we have the power to demand option #(1), so I do not see the point in discussing its ethical aspects. We cannot condone option #(2). So we have to choose between options (3) and (4). I know which option I would prefer. [ #4 ]