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I have been capturing genealogical information (Birth, Marriage, Death, Tombstones) in the Spis Region of Slovakia, which includes Jews who migrated from Galicia, parts of Hungary, or were living in the Austro-Hungarian empire and moved within it, in the 18th and 19th centuries. The records I have were maintained by the rabbis, as required, beginning around 1833 and going roughly up to WW I, when records were not necessarily collected by the rabbis of the communities after that.

I have learned some interesting things, such as in that part of the world, there were secular laws that did not allow a man to marry his dead wife's sister, (considered "incestuous"). This was acceptable by Jewish law, but not in common law. (Even in England there was such a prohibition until about 1910.) According to Jewish law then, a rabbi could perform such a marriage.

The problem I cannot understand has to do with the rare birth records that show that a woman had a baby, with no father's name present, and the baby is listed in German as "unehelich" or "törvénytelen" (in Hungarian) meaning "illegitimate" or born out of wedlock. Perhaps I'm naive, but I find it (1) hard to believe it happening in those times and (2) if listed in that manner, was it illegitimate per the state and their inability to wed, or was the baby truly a "mamzer?" I have only 10 such instances out of more than 5300 birth records.

Does anyone have any explanation of this?

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Odds are they were really a mamzer. However we don't rule that way based on a piece of paper. –  avi Jan 11 '12 at 7:03

3 Answers 3

Although many translate the word mamzer as "bastard", the latter refers to a child born out of wedlock, whereas the definition of mamzer is much narrower.

A mamzer is the child of a couple who engaged in a biblically forbidden relationship. Namely, a married woman sleeping with a man other than her husband, or two people sleeping together who are immediately related (parents, children, siblings, siblings-in-law).

The child of a single Jewish woman and a man is NOT a mamzer.

The child of a Jewish woman who was a niddah at the time of conception is NOT a mamzer.

I don't speak German or Hungarian, but if those terms meaning "illegitimate" mean to label this child as a bastard, that does not mean that the child is a mamzer.

In fact, we must be absolutely certain who both the mother and father are of any given child, for that child to possibly be a mamzer.

Our cyber chassidic friends at askmoses have a list of sources. (I didn't want to copy and paste the sources, because I didn't want to take credit for having looked them all up myself)

http://www.askmoses.com/en/article/236,2496/What-is-the-legal-definition-of-a-mamzer.html

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All good information and thanks for responding. –  Madeleine Jan 11 '12 at 22:43

Several possibilities I can think of here, just to add to Will's answer; you'll have to determine which of these makes the most sense for your situation:

  • A mamzer is the product only of incest or adultery (i.e. a married woman with a Jewish man not her husband). Someone born out-of-wedlock is treated just the same as an ordinary Jew.

  • I'm told it was not at all uncommon among Eastern European Jews for a widower to marry his late wife's sister, "as who else could best love and care for the children but their aunt?" (And sadly so many women died in childbirth back then.) Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff mentions that growing up (in the Bronx) with a class of mostly immigrant children, half of their "Mommy"s were actually their aunts.

  • If the father was non-Jewish, Jewish law would regard the child as having no father. (Such an individual is identified in a ketubah by either their mother's name, or their maternal grandfather's name.)

  • From the memoirs of someone who grew up in Galicia:

[I]n 19th century Poland, as in all areas controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, couples were required to undergo both a civil and a religious wedding ceremony. The civil ceremony carried a hugely onerous tax that only the bourgeoisie and the wealthy were able to afford. Poor couples ... were forced to marry without the benefit of the large tax stamp that was imprinted on an official marriage certificate. Hence, in the eyes of the state, any children from such a marriage were legally considered "out of wedlock." ...

... Like my grandparents, my parents declined to pay the marriage tax and were living in an unwed state according to the government. My brother and I were eventually able to adopt our father's name ... in the mid-1930s when it appeared that ware might break out again. Women, such as my mother, became concerned that if their husbands were called up into military service, they might become widowed [and] ... denied a government pension. So, my parents, like many others at the time, scraped up the money and paid the marriage tax ...

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All good information and thanks for responding. –  Madeleine Jan 11 '12 at 22:43

There is a Teshuva written over 150 years ago in Europe by the Shaalos U'Teshuvos Binyan Tziyon Siman 21 regarding a child that was born to unmarried parents. I guess such problems always existed.

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All good information and thanks for responding. –  Madeleine Jan 11 '12 at 23:04

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