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Forbidden Marriages According to Halacha
An Orthodox Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

 • A Kohen's Concern
 • The Issue of Mamzer
 • Marrying a Non-Jew
 • Will a Rabbi Officiate a Mixed-Marriage?

 • Children of Intermarriage

Leviticus (20:11-21) fends for the health of the gene pool and the psyche by forbidding incestuous unions. Off limits pairs include relationships between mother and son, father and daughter, sister and brother, grandfather and granddaughter, grandmother and grandson, aunt and nephew. Though the verses see nothing out of place with a union between an uncle and his niece, American law does. An uncle may not marry the daughter of his brother or sister, but he may marry the daughter of his wife’s brother or sister. The Torah also forbids marriage between a man and his wife’s sister, if his wife is living. Marrying a son-in-law or daughter-in-law is taboo, as well.

Although ancient Jewish practice permitted a man to marry several wives, a woman could not marry several husbands. Before the age of DNA testing, paternity doubts were a major concern.

At the dawn of the eleventh century, Rabbi Gershom of Mainz, a hugely influential force in Jewish law, banned the practice of marrying more than one wife. His edict was accepted by Ashkenazic Jews, the majority of whom lived in Eastern Europe, but Sephardic Jews in Middle Eastern countries continued marrying multiple wives. They lived in Islamic countries where this was the local custom.

For all these off-limits relationships, even if a marriage canopy is erected and rings are exchanged, the marriage is deemed invalid in the eyes of halacha. Complicated intricacies surround a relationship between relatives by blood or marriage. A rabbi who is well-versed in halacha is an invaluable guide in these areas.

A Kohen’s Concerns
“A kohen has a permanent hereditary status of being holy to God,” wrote Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. The privilege of serving in the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem, came with Torah-ordained restrictions as a means of maintaining the aura of holiness.

The following rules apply only to men as women did not serve in the Temple. A kohen may not marry a divorcee, a convert, a woman who had sexual intercourse with a non-Jew, or a woman who committed adultery. As if to remind a kohen the impact of his decisions, the daughter of a kohen’s forbidden relationship may not marry a kohen. (A male kohen would be wise to gently inquire about his father-in-law’s marriage before getting serious with a daughter of a kohen. )

Before a kohen marries a woman who had premarital or extramarital intercourse, a knowledgeable rabbi should be consulted.

Keeping these laws, especially for a kohen who does not currently serve in the Beit Hamikdash the holy temple in Jerusalem, is not easy when emotions, attractions and desires are involved. Rabbi Kaplan offers an interesting explanation. Each religion has rules to follow, and the laws of marriage are ancient and fundamental to Jewish life. These laws, founded on Torah verse, were interpreted by the sages of the Mishna as early as 188 C.E. They were further defined by the sages of the Gemara in 500 C.E., which, Rabbi Kaplan notes, predates Islam. Since each marriage will affect the future of the Jewish people, keeping to one standard code of who may marry whom is essential.

The "Mamzer" Problem
“Lo yavoh mamzer b’kahal Hashem….” “A mamzer shall not enter into the congregation of God.”

The term mamzer means halachic illegitimacy and is more familiarly known by the unfortunate epithet “bastard”. A mamzer may not marry a person of Jewish heritage.

Who is a mamzer? A child born of certain forbidden relationships between two Jews. That is, one who is born from a married woman as a product of adultery or someone born as a product of incest between certain close relatives.

Adultery is prohibited to men and women alike. However, since men were biblically permitted to marry more than one wife, children born to a single woman as a result of a relationship with a married man are not classified as mamzerim.

Divorce has touched many, if not most, of us causing the specter of mamzer to dance darkly below the surface of hoped-for happiness. A child born to a divorced woman who did not obtain a Jewish divorce, a get, may be a mamzer.

Children born out of wedlock do not fall into the mamzer category.

Since "mamzerut" is equated to social death decree and its impact is far reaching, orthodox halachic authorities have traditionally taken principal approach to follow strict rules of evidence that typically render it impossible to prove either that a prior marriage ever existed or that a child was born of relations outside that marriage.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, the a codification, or written catalogue of halacha, composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the 16th century, if there are rumors that a married woman is having an affair her children are not suspected of being mamzerim since the majority of her relations are still with her husband, unless she is exceptionally adulterous.

According to the opinion of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein -- a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, world-renowned scholar and authoritative adjudicator of questions related to Jewish law, regarded by many as the de facto supreme rabbinic authority for Orthodox Jewry of North America --  a product of artificial insemination from a mamzer is not a mamzer; there are, however, those that disagree with him

A mamzer may marry another mamzer. There are other options for mamzerim that are best discussed with a rabbi who is well-versed in these areas of halacha.

Please note: When dealing with real life issues, with regard to the details of who is a mamzer, , consult a rabbi. The information included on these pages is for educational purposes and should not be regarded as halachic advice.

Marrying a Non-Jew
Judaism celebrates a couple’s decision to marry as it promises new worlds, new explorations of Judaism, and holds the potential for continuing generations of Jews. When a Jew marries a non-Jew these hopes are called into question. Despite best intentions, a marriage between Jew and non-Jew does not usually result in an enthusiastically Jewish home. According to one study, as much as 70% of children of intermarried couples are not being raised as Jews.

Rabbi Officiating at a Mixed Marriage
An Orthodox rabbi will not officiate at a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew.

Good intentions are behind a couple’s desire to have a rabbi’s participate in their marriage ceremony between Jew and non-Jew. They wish to honor their individual traditions, include all and avoid hurt feelings.

However, a Jewish ceremony is not a simple blessing, it creates a new entity – a married couple - in the eyes of Jewish law. Central to the ceremony is the statement Harei at mekudeshet li betaba'at zo kedat Mosheh veyisrael. Literally: "Behold you are consecrated unto me, with this ring, according to the Law of Moses and Israel." This Hebrew nuptial formula, with its mention of Jewish law, is only of any use to those who are subject to these laws, Jews and not non-Jews.

Words of the ceremonial marriage statement can be changed, however they will not solve the problem. Intermarriage is an anathema to orthodox Jews, as many believe it threatens the survival of the Jewish people. Conversions of the non-Jewish spouse to Judaism would solve this problem, but converting is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Only when the conversion to Judaism is embraced out of passion for the Jewish way of life and with a commitment to living the Torah way, does a marriage between two people of such diverse backgrounds has a possibility for success. The vast majority of mixed marriages do not result in a creation of a proud Jewish household. Though often, the Jewish spouse retains feelings for Judaism, statistics bare that the children do not.

Orthodox rabbis do not officiate mixed marriage ceremonies, as sanctioning such a union is contrary to a rabbi’s role and orthodox teachings..

Children of Intermarriage
The traditional halachic definition of a Jew is one who is born to a Jewish mother or one who has chosen Judaism through halachic conversion. Illegitimacy, the Jewish concept of mamzer, does not apply to children born to an intermarried couple.


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Forbidden Marriages and the Issue of Mamzerut
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