What is a “mamzer”?

A: The JPS Tanakh defines a mamzer as: Q: What is the Biblical meaning of “mamzer” ? Will the laws governing the mamzer not being able to marry ever change? “No one misbegotten shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of his descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord.” It is interesting that both the Septuagint and the Vulgate translate mamzer “as a son of a prostitute.”

“ ‫ ד‬Over a century ago Abraham Geiger suggested that the meaning of mamzer comes from ma’am zar
belonging to a foreign people.” Although the etymology given is incorrect, Geiger is essentially correct in assuming that the term mamzer originally designated a foreign people who lived alongside ancient Israel. :Evidence for this theory may be cited from Zechariah 9:6

“A foreign people shall settle in Ashdod, and I will make an end of the pride of Philistia.”
The Philistines would be replaced by another group known as mamzer; a mixed people. Just as Israel and the Amonites would be kicked out of their homes, the Philistines would be kicked out of their home. Among modern Hebraic scholars, it has been argued that the Deut. reference also refers to a child of mixed parentage of Hebrew and pagan as in Nehemiah 13:23-25:”At that time too, I saw Jews who had married wives from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab; as regards their children, half of them spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, but could no longer speak the language of Judah. . . ” I think that it is more logical to say that the term “mamzer” may have originally referred to a mixture of different ethnic peoples. Mamzer may also refer to the name of an ethic group or a term for an ethnic group which lived among the Philistines. (Cf. Tigay’s excellent commentary on Deu. 23:3). And a strange people shall dwell ‫” ד‬Rashi notes on this verse to mean “And the strangers shall dwell in Ashdod in Ashdod. Those are the Israelites, who were strange in it. However, Ibn Ezra cites a Rabbi Yehudah ben Bilam who wrote that mamzer simply refers to a “name of a nation” but he differs. The term mamzer refers here to one born of incest or anyone who would be guilty of the sin of excision. These people of unfit lineage will be separated from the rest of the “fit” Israelites, who would inhabit the Philistine cities. Radak in his notes, also cites the view that the term “mamzer” according to some refers to the name of a non-Israelite tribe but like Ibn Ezra, argues in defense of the traditional rabbinical and further suggests that the people of Israel isolated all those who were Halachically deemed “illegitimate.” This interpretation is forced and there is no evidence from .the text that this was ever the case In defense of Yehudah ben Bilam’s reading, the text in Zechariah 9:6 may mean that all the cities of Israel and the city of Ashdod, the principle city where the Philistines dwelled, would be deserted except that there would be there a few scattered and wandering inhabitants, like those who sojourn in a strange land. Another ethnic people would come to dwell there just as other ethnic peoples later came to dwell in Israel after the destruction of her capital. In the new Da’at Mikra commentary produced by Bar Ilan University, we find a similar interpretation to the one proposed by Rabbi Yehuda ben Bilam makes a good case that the mamzerim were originally a group of Canaanite peoples much like the Netinim were; the mamzerim were originally a mixture of different foreign nations. Several scholars R. Yehuda Keil, Professors Aharon Mirski, Eliezer Alinar, and Feivel Meltzer each subscribed to this interpretation. When we examine this passage in conjunction with the passage found in Deut. 23:3-6, an interesting pattern emerges:

“No one whose testicles have been crushed or whose penis has been cut off may be admitted into the community
of the LORD. No child of an incestuous union may be admitted into the community of the LORD, nor any descendant of his even to the tenth generation. No Ammonite or Moabite may ever be admitted into the community of the LORD, nor any descendants of theirs even to the tenth generation, because they would not succor you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because Moab hired Balaam, son of Beor, from Pethor in Aram Naharaim, to curse you . . . . .Children born to them may in the third generation be admitted into the community of the LORD” (Deu. 2:2-9). The text in Deuteronomy may be speaking about those outsiders who might want to enter through marriage and conversion, into the Israelite people. Those men who allowed themselves to be castrated for idolatry, are barred from entry. A foreign people referred to as “mamzer” was also included, as were the Amonites, Moabites. Even the Egyptians were allowed entrance by the third generation. Moses specifically commands that parents should not be held accountable for their children’s sins nor should children suffer the consequences of their parents’ sin; “each is to die for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16). During the Babylonian captivity, the prophet Ezekiel expanded the ramifications of this latter verse, arguing that it was not the sins of the fathers but the sin of his generation that was being judged. He quoted a proverb: “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezek. 18:2; see also Jer. 31:29). Ezekiel commanded them to quit hiding behind the proverb; they were also accountable. Instead, he had them focus on the truth that “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (v. 4) and “The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him” (v. 20). Contextually speaking, a strong case could be made that the mamzer never referred to a “bastard” as the rabbis understood it to mean. Incidentally, the Karaite position does not recognize the stigma of the mamzer since in their opinion, it violates the Biblical passage which says that the children shall not suffer for the sins of the adults. God punishes children only if they follow in the wicked ways of their parents:

“You shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting
punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation” (Exo. 20:5) In addition, Hosea married a prostitute, and yet his children were never called or even occasionally referred to a “mamzer.” Of course, I am only speaking in terms of the peshat [the contextual meaning of the biblical text], but there are important Halachic implications to consider. In my opinion, any Halachic interpretation ought to be grounded in the text and since there is no compelling evidence from either Deuteronomy or in Zechariah, the classical rabbinic position seems lexically groundless — especially since the Torah teaches us that “children should not suffer for the sins of the fathers.” How can anyone argue that a newborn child is tainted with the sins of the parents? Of course, tradition is followed because it has in effect become canonized as “tradition,” but perhaps if we know that this is a rabbinical decree, it will help modern rabbis be a little more creative and willing to find Halachic loopholes within the Halachic system to prevent the formulation of caste system within Judaism. It is also important to remember that the discussion about the mamzer cannot be found in any pre-first century Judaic texts, it is only with the Halachick Midrashim (which were composed in the 2nd century) such as the Sifre we first find mention that the term mamzer refers to a child born of adultery or incest. I suspect that the rabbis wanted to stop the problem of infidelity, so they redefined the meaning of mamzer to strike fear into the hearts of sinners.

According to Jewish tradition as it has evolved, a Jew must be careful that s/he is not marrying a mamzer. Given the amount of divorces and re-marriages we see today, this has posed many problems for those Jews who take traditional Judaism seriously. For now, all I can say, is that the problem of the mamzer is not as impossible to solve as some rabbis would have us believe. R Moshe Feinstein championed some interesting approaches aimed at solving the problem, as have rabbis in previous generations since the time of the Talmud. Jewish tradition has always been extremely sensitive to the mamzer problem, and it does afford many Halachic ways to help solve it. Perhaps the time has come for us to rethink the definition of a mamzer, but if that is not possible, we should make use of any Halachic leniency that has been used by past generations to make sure that the children do not suffer from the sins of the adults. Unfortunately, many rabbis and their followers say that we cannot change 1700 years of rabbinical history. That isn’t true. If we can understand the history of how this designation came into being, if nothing else, it should force rabbis not to be so ardent and willing to designate somebody as a “mamzer” willy-nilly as I have seen done many times. In summary, there are ample Halachic solutions how we might solve this problem, but I think that a historical understanding of the evolution of this concept may serve as an impetus to make the status of the mamzer as Halachically obsolete as the laws regarding slavery. The latter is a good example, for slavery was once endorsed by the Rabbis as a mitzvah (e.g., the prohibition against freeing a Canaanite slave) and yet the rabbis imposed so many laws that it eventually made the institution of slavery extinct, or how the rabbis rendered the “city of idolatry” and the law governing the “ben sorrer u’morah” (the rebellious son”) virtually non-existent. In each of these cases, the rabbis reduced the severity of a biblical precept. If this can be done with a biblical precept, it can also be done with a rabbinical interpretation of precept., I would argue that we must do the same with the mamzerut issue. The bottom line is simply this: Where there is a Halachic will, there is a Halachic way. Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel,