Today’s Jewish Treat starts off with a term that is sometimes considered a swear word: “bastard.” The term is often used in Western society to label a child who was born out of wedlock. For much of history, bastards were often denied the rights of inheritance and, even, in many cases, any acknowledgement of their pedigree. Because bastard is a term that connotes a child born of an “unwholesome” relationship, it is often used incorrectly as the translation of the Hebrew word mamzer.

According to halacha (Jewish law), a child born to an unwed mother is simply that – a child born out of wedlock. There is no halachic ramification for the child.

What then is an “illegitimate child” according to Jewish law? A mamzer is a child born of either an incestuous or adulterous relationship. The definitions of an incestuous relationship follow specific rules set out in the Torah that go beyond the immediate family. By halachic definition, adultery occurs when a married woman has relations with a man other than her husband. (Adultery defined by a man’s married status is a later, community specific, decree since, according to the Torah, a husband may have multiple wives.) This is one reason that great importance is placed on making certain that any divorce is properly handled both civilly and religiously.

As unfortunate as it may be, the child of one of these illicit relationships does not come away unscathed. “No mamzer shall be admitted into God’s congregation, none of the descendants of a mamzer, even to the tenth generation, shall be admitted into God’s congregation” (Deuteronomy 23:3).

A mamzer is counted in a minyan, and may even become a chief rabbi. However, a mamzer may not marry another Jew, unless that Jew is also a mamzer, or a convert.* Additionally, the status of mamzerut is passed down to a mamzer’s children.

*As with all aspects of Jewish life, the halachot (Jewish laws) surrounding a mamzer are complicated. For more information, please contact a local expert in Jewish law.

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