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What is the legal definition of a "mamzer"?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg


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A Mamzer (a.k.a. bastard) is the product of incestuous relations or adultery (a married woman's infidelity). A child born out of wedlock is not a mamzer.

Besides for the fact that a mamzer may only marry a spouse of the same ilk, a mamzer is a full-fledged Jew in all respects. In fact our sages tell us "A mamzer who is a Torah scholar takes precedence (in respect accorded, etc.) over an ignorant high-priest!"

A mamzer is a full-fledged Jew in all respects... Our sages tell us "A mamzer who is a Torah scholar takes precedence (in respect accorded, etc.) over an ignorant high-priest!"
Sources: The prohibition of a mamzer marrying an ordinary Jew is stated in Deuteronomy 23:3. The laws of the mamzer are scattered throughout the Talmud (see, for example, Yevamot 49a-b, 69a, 78b, 87b, Kiddushin 67b and 73a). They are codified in Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Relations ch. 15, and Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer, ch. 4.


TAGS: mamzer, bastard


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Posted by: Bill on Jun 26, 2005

There seem to be 3 possible interpretations of the word.

Offspring born of unmarried parents, or bastard.

Offspring born in incest.

Offspring of an Israelite who marries a non-Israelite, or mongrel.

The earliest reference of the word is in Deu 23:2 and does not really clarify. The root Hebrew word means "alienate". That doesn't help ether. One can make a case for each and all meanings. The only other place in the old testament that it is used is in Zech 9:6 which seems to indicate mixed breed (half Jew).

Take your pick.

Editor's Comment

The halachic definition of a mamzer -- is defined in the Oral Law -- is someone who is born out of an adulerous or inecstous relationship. A child who is born out of wedlock, or a child born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, is NOT a mamzer.


Posted by: Bill Krebs on Jun 27, 2005

I appreciate your posting the alternative definitions and have given serious reflection to your comments. The halachic definition of a mamzer certainly fits the context as well or better than the alternatives. I will accept it as the preferred interpretation and say (I am sure you will understand) "way to go."


Posted by: Derek Rumpler, Salt Lake City, UT on Jul 01, 2005

If a mamzer is a child born from an incestuous or adulterous relationship, would Solomon have been a mamzer because David obtained Bathseba adulterously?

Editor's Comment

Good question. According to the Talmud, every soldier in King David's army gave a bill of divorce to his wife before leaving for battle. This way, if the soldier was killed and his body lost on the battlefield, the wife would be free to remarry. If the soldier returned home, he would "renew his vows" with his (ex) wife. Thus, Bat Sheba was not actually married at the time when David was intimate with her. [It still was a gross impropriety on David's part -- but it wasn't adultery.]


Posted by: David Stone, New York, NY on Feb 07, 2006

Halacha or not, David still called Bathsheba, "the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite" during the time Uriah was still out at battle (II Sam. 11). Uriah still considered her to be his wife and called her such—even before he technically renewed his marriage with her—when he said "The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in booths, and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open field. Shall I then go into my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife?" He hadn't laid with his wife yet after returning from battle and yet he still called her his wife.

David still called her Uriah's wife will Uriah was still out on the battlefield, and Uriah still called her his wife before he ever reunited with his wife upon returning from the battlefield. In fact, he refused to go to his house at all and even be with his wife. Yet he still called her his wife.

No, what David did was despicable and evil indeed. It was nothing less than pure adultery.

Either that or David and Uriah should have really learned halacha.

Too bad they didn't read the Rambam on that.


Editor's Comment

Since this divorce was merely a technical precaution, and not the result of a lack of love or permanent separation, it is obvious that in all other frames of reference she would be called Uriah's wife. For example, if you wanted to indicate who you were talking about it made perfect sense to say "Uriah's wife". After all, she was Uriah's wife (before the war), will be Uriah's wife (after the war), and if you didn't know Uriah was at war, currently Uriah's wife. Thus Uriah referred to her as his wife, and the Torah identifies her as such. However, technically speaking at that moment she was a divorced woman. See "Was King David guilty of adultery and murder?" .


Posted by: Eagle, San Francisco, CA on Nov 15, 2006

Having a child without being married is Adultery! An Adulterous relationship is any unlawful relationship, which includes sex outside of marriage. If a woman is not a virgin when she is married, she is to be taken to the front of her father's house and stoned to death.

Editor's Comment

Not true! Although having a child before marriage is forbidden, it is not considered adultry and the child is not a mamzer. The law you are refering to involves adultry after a binding betrothel (i.e. after the ring giving ceremony) and the punishment was only applicable in biblical times (when the death sentence was still administered). (See "What is Judaism's opinion on capital punishment?" [].)


Life Cycle » Birth » Reproductive Issues

Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
The fifth of the Five Books of Moses. This book is a record of the monologue which Moses spoke to the Israelites in the five weeks prior to his passing.
A child who is the product of incest or adultery (i.e. a married woman with a man other than her husband). A mamzer may only marry another mamzer.