Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, 23 April 1971.
“No mamzer (bastard) shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of his descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23: 3).
The Rabbis understood this to mean that the issue of an illegal sexual union is barred from marrying anyone except someone with the same status as himself. The taint of mamzerut is carried on for ever so that the mamzer’s children are mamzerim and their children and so on ad infinitum.
Which illegal unions? The ruling in the Mishna (Kiddushin 3: 12) is only adulterous or incestuous unions. Thus, a child born out of wedlock (if there is neither adultery nor incest) is not a mamzer. The term “bastard” as a translation of mamzer is therefore a misnomer, as is the term “illegitimate child,” since the mamzer is the legal heir of his natural father (Yevamot 2: 5).
Very, significant is the ruling (Horayot 3: 8) that the mamzer who is a scholar takes precedence over the High Priest who is an ignoramus.
The only disability under which the mamzer labours, a wry serious one to be sure, is the ban against his marrying. One of the reasons given for the prohibition (Hinnukh No. 560) is that the mamzer’s conception was in sin and he inherits a sinful disposition which can taint the “holy seed” of Israel.
However, there is no other example in Jewish law of children being penalised for the sins of their parents. The general tendency of rabbinic legislation is to avoid any extension of mamzerut.