Mamzer is Hebrew (and Yiddish) for “bastard.” In common parlance, mamzer is a very derogatory reference to a difficult or unpleasant individual. But in Torah, mamzer refers to a Jewish person who was born into a certain situation and is therefore disallowed to marry most fellow Jews.

Who Is a Mamzer?

Unlike the English word, “bastard,” the Hebrew term mamzer does not refer to the child of two unmarried individuals who could theoretically marry (i.e. born out of wedlock). Rather, it refers only to the offspring of people whose relationship would be a capital offense or punishable with karet (excision). This includes many close-blood relatives or a woman who was concurrently married to someone other than the child’s father.

A Jewish marriage is more easily facilitated than a bona fide Jewish divorce. (After all, the couples were presumably wed under better circumstances than during a divorce.) As a result, nowadays the most common reason a person would be a mamzer is if a Jewish woman remarries without first obtaining a get, a divorce by Jewish law (halachah), from a reputable rabbinic organization. This means she is technically still married to her first husband, so her life with a new consort is a sin and future offspring may be mamzerim (the plural of mamzer).

It is therefore crucial to receive a legitimate get before remarriage.

If you suspect that this may have happened to you or your family, please contact an expert Orthodox rabbi because there may be other factors to consider whether a person is truly a mamzer.

Read more about who is a mamzer

Life of a Mamzer

A mamzer is barred from entry into the “assembly of the L‑rd”; his/her descendants may only marry converts to Judaism and fellow mamzerim, and their descendants are also mamzerim.

Despite the social challenges that a mamzer faces, he is recognized as a full member of the Jewish nation and able to achieve spiritual greatness. “A mamzer who is a Torah scholar,” say the sages, “precedes an ignorant High Priest.”

Above all, in Judaism a person is judged not by the circumstances into which she or he is born but by what that person accomplishes in life.

The mamzer did nothing wrong. Although confined and even isolated, there must be a concentrated kernel of positivity, goodness so strong that it is couched in suffering. (We’ll get to that later.)

What Does Mamzer Mean?

The Hebrew word mamzer (ממזר) appears once in the Torah: “A mamzer shall not enter the assembly of the L‑rd; even the tenth generation shall not enter the assembly of the L‑rd.”1

The final two letters of this word, זר, mean “stranger” or “outsider.” The same word appears again in the Book of Zechariah: “And the mamzer shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of the Philistines.”2

In this case, the commentator Rashi explains that the mamzer refers to the Jewish people who were strangers (and archenemies) of the Philistines, who had traditionally called Ashdod home.

The Holy Mamzer

But there may be a deeper connection.

Scripture tells us how the Philistines had captured the Holy Ark, taken it to Ashdod and placed it in the temple of their idol. Soon enough the idol lay broken on the floor and the Philistines began to suffer terrible ailments.3

What does this have to do with the mamzer?

In heaven, says the (Kabbalah) Book of Zohar,4 there stands a great scale full of souls. When things are good in the world, the scale tips to the side of goodness. But what happens when things are less than optimal, and evil dominates? Then the souls in the scale are cast to the side of evil.

But these are holy souls, and their powerful radiance is harmful to the evil side, just like the Holy Ark was harmful to the Philistines and their idols.

So what happens to these special, captured souls? They become righteous gentiles and Jewish Torah scholars who are mamzerim, and these individuals rise even above the High Priest.

The Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch5 points out that the word mamzer has the numerical value of 288,6 the number of mystical sparks of holiness that have been scattered in our world. When all these sparks will be elevated to their holy source, the world will be perfect and G‑d’s original purpose for creation will have been achieved. Every human being has some sparks (or sub-sparks) to lift up. Apparently, the hardiest souls are expected to do the heavy lifting, affecting those sparks beyond the reach of all others.

Thus, the mamzer who rises above his circumstances and studies Torah is chosen from the holiest of souls and placed in the most difficult of circumstances—in order to accomplish the greatest mission of all—to rise above (and uplift) some of the most daunting spiritual and circumstantial limitations imaginable.