“Milk, Meat, and the Mamzer Parashat Ki Tetze 5774

Parashat Ki Tetze is an amalgam of halachot. It is a long list of positive commandments and prohibitions, three of which concern us this week. These are prohibitions that determine not “Who is a Jew” but, rather, “Who may marry a Jew”. Out of all the nations of the world who have done Am Yisrael wrong over the years only the nations of Amon and Moav are forever forbidden from marrying a Jewish woman. The same goes for a person who has an injury in his sexual organs, no matter which nation he comes from. And the same goes for a mamzer. The Torah commands us [Devarim 23:3] “A mamzer shall not enter the congregation of Hashem. Even [one who is descended] ten generations [from a mamzer] shall not be allowed to join”. Fair enough, but what is a mamzer, anyway? The word “mamzer” does not appear anywhere else in the entire Torah. Is it an animal, vegetable, or mineral? It’s up to the Sages to determine who is and who isn’t a mamzer. The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot [75a] proposes numerous definitions. Ultimately, according to the normative Halacha as written in the Shulchan Aruch [EH 4:13], a mamzer is defined as a person who is born from one of the arayot, a forbidden union for which the punishment of karet (being cut off) is warranted[1]. These unions include different kinds of incest and adultery.

The mamzer has definitely gotten a raw deal. Through no fault of his own he is barred from marrying the vast majority of Jewish woman[2]. It just doesn’t seem fair. In the very same Parashat Ki Tetze we are taught [24:16] “Fathers shall not be put to death because of sons, nor shall sons be put to death because of fathers; each man shall be put to death for his own transgression”. Why must the mamzer suffer for the sins of his parents? I remember hearing an interesting answer in the Rabbi’s sermon at Aish HaTorah in Toronto one Shabbat in 2002. The explanation given by the Rabbi was that the concept of mamzer shows that there are real physical ramifications to our spiritual misdeeds. The Rabbi continued by saying that a person’s spiritual condition is affected by his parent’s spiritual condition in the very same way that his physical condition is affected by his parent’s physical condition. For instance, if a brother and a sister have a child, that child has a much greater than average probability to suffer from physical deformities. It isn’t the child’s fault that his parents were close relatives, and yet he carries the burden of suffering from some terrible ailment that resulted from their union[3]. Indeed, according to the Midrash the word “mamzer” comes from the two words “mum zar” – “an alien blemish”. On one hand, his blemish means he must remain separate from the rest of Am Yisrael. He is an alien. On the other hand, his blemish is external – alien. It comes not from himself but from his parents.

I’d like to try to look at the mamzer from a different angle to try to gain some insight. There is a prohibition in the Torah that shares much with the mamzer. I am referring to the prohibition of eating meat and milk together. Both of these prohibitions are examples of harmful combinations of two benign elements. Consider this: Milk is inherently kosher. Jews can drink milk and eat cheese. Meat is also Halachically permitted. Assuming the animal is from a kosher species, assuming it is slaughtered correctly, and assuming that the meat is salted, then we are encouraged to eat it. But mix the meat together with milk and the end result is prohibited, not only to eat, but to cook, or even to receive any financial benefit. In fact, Halacha is more stringent with meat and milk that have been cooked together than with “ordinary” non-Kosher food. One example is the principle of “Chaticha Na’aseit Neveila” – “The entire piece becomes a carcass” – or just plain “CNN[4]”. For example: say a cup of milk falls onto a big piece of hot roast beef. CNN means that the entire piece of meat is considered “meat and milk”, and not only the absorbed milk.If this piece of meat then falls into a pot of kosher food, sixty times the entire piece of meat is required to “negate” the piece, and not only sixty times the cup of milk that made the meat non-kosher. If, however, a piece of meat was cooked together with a strip of bacon and then it falls into a pot of kosher food, CNN is not applicable, and only sixty times the strip of bacon is required to negate the prohibition[5]. The reason that we are more stringent with meat and milk is as each ingredient by itself is kosher, we are concerned that people will be less than meticulous in preventing their mixture.

The parallel with the mamzer is clear. The parents of the mamzer are perfectly normal human beings. Neither of them is a pariah. The only problem with these people is their mutual relationship. Had they married nearly any other person in the world, their children would have been completely normal. But because they chose each other, their child, like milk and meat, is “forbidden”. Not all children of forbidden unions have the same Halachic status. The children of some forbidden unions are not considered Jewish[6]. The children of other forbidden unions may not marry a Kohen[7]. Only the child of arayot is a mamzer, essentially barred from ever holding his own child on his lap. The reason that we are more stringent with arayot is as each ingredient by itself is kosher, we are concerned that people will be less than meticulous in preventing their mixture.

A few weeks ago[8] we discussed how the prohibition of milk and meat is connected with Divine mercy, and the ensuing requirement to surrender our morality to Hashem. If, as we have shown above, there is a certain similarity between the prohibition of milk and meat and the mamzer, could it be that the mamzer is also an example of Divine mercy? Strangely enough, the verse in Parashat Kedoshim tells us [Vayikra 20:17] “If a man takes his sister [or his half-sister] and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a chessed, and they shall be cut off from their people”. While the word “chessed” is usually translated as “kindness”, it is clear that in this particular verse it means something else. Indeed Rashi translates the word as “disgrace”. The Ibn Ezra translates it as “exceedingly vulgar”.  But perhaps we can interpret the verse using the common meaning of chessed.

Incest is an example of a Halacha that most people would keep even were it not commanded in the Torah. For some reason, incest taboo is nearly universal. Some anthropologists attribute this to something called the Westermarck effect, or reverse sexual imprinting.  The Westermarck effect is a hypothetical psychological effect through which people who live in close domestic proximity during the first few years of their lives become desensitized to sexual attraction. Whatever the reason, most people find incest repulsive. Perhaps this is the chessed that the Torah promises. Hashem has imprinted in our DNA a natural repulsion for an act that results in the creation of a mamzer.

Incest gives the postmodern cultural elite fits. Why should incest be considered immoral? It is sex between two consenting adults. The chance of having a child with deformities is greater than the norm, but still slim. And yet the same people who are protesting for the legalization of gay marriage would never consider protesting for the legalization of incest. Why not? Is it because the concept turns their stomachs? How Victorian. The conclusion is clear: We cannot trust our own sense of right and wrong. To be merciful, we have no choice but to surrender our morality to Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774


[1] There is a common misconception (pardon the pun) that a child born out of wedlock, i.e. a “bastard”, is a mamzer. This is not the case.

[2]A mamzer may only marry a mamzeret (female mamzer).

[3]A child born from the union of a brother and a sister is a mamzer.

[4]What a fitting acronym.

[5]The concept of CNN in prohibitions (Ch’N’N b’sh’ar isurim) other than meat and milk is an extremely complex topic. Many Ashkenzim are stringent in this matter.

[6]Such as the child of a Jewish man from a non-Jewish woman. This union is not forbidden per se.

[7]This includes the child of a Kohen who has married a divorcee.

[8]Re’eh 5774