לא-יבוא ממזר בקהל ה
A bastard shall not come into the Congregation of the L-rd
I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling
Let’s discuss the shunned bastard. That mongrel who, through no apparent fault of his own, is forever doomed to carry the burden his parent’s sins, bearing all forms of social scorn and rejection. Destined for a life of victimhood, he will live out his (or her) painful existence as a second class citizen, in short, a Mamzer.
The Zohar in Parshas Mishpatim 113b says:
“והנה דמעת העשקים”
, כלא אושדין דמעין עם טענה קמי קודשא בריך הוא, הני אושדין דמעין … אית עשוק אחר, ההוא עשוק דאקרי ממזר, כד נפק מעלמא מיד מפרישין ליה מקהלתא דעמא קדישא, ההוא ממזר עניא מסכנא אושיד דמעין קמי קודשא בריך הוא ואטעין קמיה, מאריה דעלמא, אי אבהתי חאבו, אנא מה חובא עבידנא, הא עובדאי מתתקנן לקמך הוו, והנה דמעת העשוקים ואין להם מנחם, וכן לכל אינון עשוקים אית לון טענה קמי קודשא בריך הוא, ואין להם מנחם, ומההיא טענה לית לון מנחם, ולית דיתיב מלה על לבהון…
“And behold the tears of the oppressed” (Koheles 4)
All of them shed tears before the Holy One Blessed Be He (HOBB”H), these (oppressed) shed tears… There is another oppressed one, that oppressed who is called “Mamzer”, when he leaves the world he is immediately separated from the congregation of the holy nation. This poor mamzer sheds tears before the HOBB”H and petitions before Him – “Master of the world! If my father has sinned what sin have I committed? My deeds were righteous before you!” – “and behold the tears of the oppressed and they have no consoler”, from this claim they have no consoler and there is no word that (can console) their heart…
I’m not going to focus on how the Mamzer is fair, because that’s always the first question we have when discussing the Mamzer, and since the answer is rather elusive given our general sense of what is fair and just, we tend not to get much further. The mamzer’s lot is profoundly unfair! So without regard to the fairness of his lot, let’s further examine his unique predicament – the sources, the backdrop etc. Perhaps maybe we can end with a message of hope for our downtrodden friend, the bastard!
The laws that pertain to a Mamzer are clear – he may not intermarry into the “Congregation of the L-rd” (the Jewish people) even after 10 generations (basically, never), but the identity of the Mamzer is not all that apparent from the Bible. In fact, the Karaites believe that the Mamzer refers to an ancient nation – and not at all to a “bastard”. They say this based on the verse in Zecharia 9:
וישב ממזר באשדוד והכרתי גאון פלשתים
And a mongrel people shall settle in Ashdod. I will uproot the grandeur of Philistia.
Based on the association of the ממזר with a geographical location, and the context of listing them next to the Philistines, the Karaites interpret this to mean that the Mongrels were probably some ancient nation that we were forbidden to marry into. Besides my general tendency to subscribe to the Rabbinic interpretation of verse, this notion seems rather unlikely to me for several reasons, which I shall list now:
- This phrase would be the only evidence, both Biblically and historically of the existence of such a people.
- Generally, when the Torah forbids us to marry into a nation, it gives a reason and often some historical context as to the wickedness of the said nation. It seems odd that the Torah would forbid marriage with an unknown nation and give no reason – a reason is given for every other forbidden nation.
- The verse in Zecharia is an eschatological prophesy where it is foretold that the Philistia will be broken and the Mamzer shall settle in Ashdod, this would prove the Prophesy to be patently false, since there is no longer such a people ( I am aware that the Philistines no longer exist either, but they have people who have adopted the moniker – supposedly the same could happen with the Mamzer, but given the fact that, again, they are totally forgotten and there is no historical record of them, this seems rather unlikely.
- It seems odd that the Prophet would prophesize about another gentile nation dwelling in Ashdod when the gist of the prophesy is about G-d expelling the Gentiles and settling the land with the Jews. (To be fair, it is not as if the “exciting” message of bastards living in Ashdod is so obviously inspiring either, but of course, we’ll return to that later and give it some context.)
- An individual from the “Nation of Mamzer” would presumably be called a “Mamzerite” or in Hebrew, a “Mamzeri” (like “Amaleki”, “Mitzri”, “Moavi”), the phrase “a mamzer may not come…” implies that there is no nation called Mamzer, it is more in line with references to the Hebrew caste system: “a cohen”, “a levi”, “a ger (convert)” or “a mamzer”.
The Ibn Ezra on Zecharia quotes the Rabbinic commentator Rabbi Yehuda ben Balaam who also interprets ממזר in this context to refer to a nation (the Ibn Ezra disagrees) but it is clear that he believes this to be a future name of a nation and does not interpret the word mamzer in our parsha to refer to a nation – this is clear from ben Balaam’s own commentary on our Parsha.
I’m not going to get into the exegesis of how the Talmud derives the definition of a Mamzer – because I don’t want to get caught in the weeds here, but the accepted approach is that a Mamzer is the product of a union that is either incestuous or adulterous. Nachmanides explains the etymology of the word is a מוזר מאחיו MuZar MeAchiv – “estranged from his brother”. Rebbi Yehuda ben Balaam says it comes from מום זר Mum Zar – a foreign blemish (i.e. a blemish that came from relations between people who are ‘foreign’ to each other). This interpretation is closer to the actual word ממזר than the interpretation of Nachmanides.
But let us return to this odd prophesy about the “mongrels dwelling in Ashdod”.
ת”ר ממזירי ונתיני טהורים לעתיד לבא דברי ר’ יוסי ר’ מאיר אומר אין טהורים אמר לו ר’ יוסי והלא כבר נאמר (יחזקאל לו, כה) וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם אמר לו ר’ מאיר כשהוא אומר מכל טומאותיכם ומכל גלוליכם ולא מן הממזרות אמר לו ר’ יוסי כשהוא אומר אטהר אתכם הוי אומר אף מן הממזרות בשלמא לרבי מאיר היינו דכתיב (זכריה ט, ו) וישב ממזר באשדוד אלא לר’ יוסי מאי וישב ממזר באשדוד כדמתרגם רב יוסף יתבון בית ישראל לרוחצן בארעהון דהוו דמו בה לנוכראין אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל הלכה כרבי יוסי אמר רב יוסף אי לאו דאמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל הלכה כרבי יוסי הוה אתי אליהו מפיק מינן צוורני צוורני קולרין
Our Rabbis have taught: The mamzerim and nesinim will be purified in the future according to Rabbi Yosse. Rabbi Meir says they will not be purified. Rabbi Yosse replied – But it has already been said (Ezekiel 36:25) “and I shall throw upon you pure waters and you shall become pure”! Rabbi Meir replied – as it says “from all your impurities and from all your excrement (idolatry)” and not from mamzerus. Rabbi Yosse replied – when he repeats “I shall purify you” this means even from mamzerus. According to Rabbi Meir it is good that which it says “and the mamzer dwelled in Ashdod” but according to Rabbi Yosse what is the meaning of “and the mamzer dwelled in Ashdod”? As Rabbi Yosef translated it: “And Israel shall dwell in tranquility in the land that previously they were estranged from.” Rav Yehuda says Shmuel said – the halacha is like Rabbi Yosse. Rav Yosef said: if it weren’t that Rav Yehuda said Shmuel said the halacha is like Rabbi Yosse, when Elijah came (to redeem Israel) he would have removed from us group after group.
And so, the bastards learned to swim
ממזר תלמיד חכם קודם לכהן גדול עם הארץ
A scholarly bastard takes precendent over an ignorant high priest
Mishna Horayos 3:8
And so we see, that it the end of days, the lowly bastard, who’s lot is not fair, who’s life is that of scorn and rejection, who suffers from the sins of others, who even G-d Himself cannot justify himself to (see the continuation of the Zohar in Mishpatim cited above), he is the microcosm for the Nation of Israel at the time of redemption!
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once said (Sichos HaRan 52) that even from the regular stories and songs of regular people, “even non-Jews”, if you’re tuned in, you can hear that they’re singing the praises of G-d. I am not so attuned, but to paraphrase Frida Kahlo, they can try to drown the bastards, but the bastards will learn to swim!