Who is a Mamzer?
My mother has, unfortunately, been through a number of marriages and other living-together arrangements. This has produced a hodge-podge of children from different fathers. I actually was conceived through an affair that my mother had, and she has never revealed the identity of my biological father. To make a long story short, I was speaking with my friend (who wears a kippah) and he said that I should check out that I may be a mamzer. I remember that my grandma would call someone a "mamzer" as a kind of curse. The Internet didn't help much, because I don't know what information is reliable. Can you please help set things straight?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
A child is a mamzer if he is the result of relations with a Jewish man, that a Jewish woman is forbidden to marry – e.g. the result of incest, or an adulterous affair.
A child that was born to an unmarried woman, is simply considered a child born out of wedlock, and is not a mamzer. However, if the woman was married at the time of conception, then that is adultery and the child is a mamzer (provided it can be concluded that the paramour rather than the husband is the child's father).
A woman must be sure to receive a proper Get if she is being divorced, otherwise she is still considered married and subsequent children are considered as mamzers. It should be stressed that a civil divorce does not sever the marriage from the Jewish point of view. Only a Get can create a proper divorce. (see: www.aish.com/jl/l/m/103423494.html)
A Jew who is a mamzer must keep all the commandments just like any other Jew, but he does have severe limitations regarding whom he can marry.
That's the legal aspect. The philosophical aspect raises the question: Why is the mamzer punished for the parents' mistake? The answer is that adultery (or incest, which also produces a mamzer) is one of the most terrible crimes, and the reality is that while people will sometimes hurt themselves, they will think much more carefully about hurting their children. So this is a deterrent factor.
The soul of a mamzer, for reasons unbeknownst to us mortals, must undergo the limitations of being a mamzer for the purpose of fulfilling his mission in the world. The circumstances that each individual finds himself in are directly related to his unique mission. For some it may be a physical handicap; for others, a metaphysical one. The mamzer is not paying for his parents' iniquities, he is being given a specific challenge for his own growth.
I think the key for you at this point is to try to find out what really happened. The question of whether you are a mamzer depends on a number of things:
1) Was your mother born of a Jewish mother?
2) Was she married to a Jew at the time she had relations with your father?
4) If she was married to a Jew, was the original wedding ceremony "kosher" in Jewish law?
5) If yes, was she divorced from her first husband according to Jewish law with a "get," or was it a civil divorce?
6) Was your mother still living with her husband at the same time as her affair? Is it possible the husband is the actual father?
As you can see, there are many, many details of Jewish law pertaining to this, and anything said in this email cannot be used to determine a practical application in any specific case. A potentially wrong answer could have serious long-term consequences for the people involved.
Bottom line: If you have any questions about your status, or about that of any particular young woman, you need to speak with a reliable authority in Jewish law. If you tell me what city you're located in, I'll be happy to recommend someone you could contact.