ABSTRACT: The Attitude towards Mamzerim in Jewish Society in Antiquity

Jewish History, 14 (2000), pp. 125-170  Meir Bar-Ilan

 

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the attitude of the Jewish people to a marginal group in that society: mamzerim, from Biblical times to Late Antiquity. The social exclusion of mamzerim is already stated in Deuteronomy 23:3, though a reading of several later rabbinic and non-rabbinic sources suggests how this exclusion really took place.

It is assumed that mamzerim were not accepted into the Qumran sect, just like handicapped persons, and they were not allowed to enter the Temple.

According to rabbinic law a mamzer was excluded from society (as his parents’ punishment), by the prohibition of marrying anyone of distinguished genealogy. However, there are sources that testify that prior to the crystallization of rabbinic law (in the second century c.e.), there were other ways of denying mamzerim access to society: they were prohibited from entering the Temple, they were not taught Torah, a mamzer’s house and grave were painted white to point him out. According to a source in Toldot Yeshu, mamzerim were shaved bald so they were set apart from the community in many aspects of daily life.

Analyzing the sources leads to an historical understanding of social exclusion as practiced in Jewish society in the past. It is argued that the 'normative' rabbinic law testifies to a process of limiting the expulsion of mamzerim from society. It seems that this process reflects the new modes of life (especially after the destruction of the Temple), that the society had to face: a change in the family structure on the one hand, and relatively numerous mamzerim on the other hand.