Deuteronomy 23:3: A bastard shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation shall none of his enter into the assembly of the LORD.

I asked a similar question here -

Why can't an illegitimate child enter the temple?

But perhaps I did not clarify myself enough and got answers that explained the verse without addressing the goodness of God issue.

So here I ask again.

How is it just to punish a child (in any way, be that entering congregation or something else) who did not have any participation in the sin?

Looking at it it seems that modern secular humanists are more just & loving than God himself, as very few would discriminate against such

Edit: Some of the comments seem to suggest that this punishing of child is in some way good and that we simply can't understand goodness of God.

But I don't think I'm misunderstanding justice or love. Here is justice in God's own view -

Ezekiel 18:20 The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.

  • 4
    @MonikaMichael, I have read your edits. You still claim that it is a punishment. You also have brought a "translation" that is inconsistent to the original Hebrew of the verse in Ezekiel (not your fault, obviously). In any case, citing Ezekiel (a later prophet) to undermine a law given by G-d is faulty. The law stands, and Ezekiel would not have felt otherwise. Many a treatise has been written on the meaning of Ezekiel's statement. but it does not reverse or find fault in G-d's law.
    – Seth J
    Aug 8, 2012 at 16:27
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    @MonikaMichael The question could just as easily be asked why a non-priest cannot do the Yom Kippur offering in the Temple? This is discrimination as well. He didn't choose to not have a priestly father. The answer is that he simply does not have the status to do so.
    – Daniel
    Aug 8, 2012 at 16:46
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    It's funny that this was migrated here. You asked a question as a Christian (I assume) on a Christian site about Christian (I assume) theology. Just because it focuses on verses in the Hebrew Canon is not a reason to migrate, IMO, although I'm glad to have this discussion here. It just needs to be viewed through a Jewish lens rather than a Christian one.
    – Seth J
    Aug 8, 2012 at 16:49
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    Just as a side point, the definition of "bastard"/*mamzer* has been so constrained by the early rabbis of the Talmud that it almost never happens. For example, if a married woman's husband is overseas and she becomes pregnant, you assume that the husband must have come back in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to anyone including the woman, and impregnated her. This doesn't mean your question is invalid (since it's still a law in the Torah and worthy of debate), just that it doesn't come up. Aug 8, 2012 at 16:50
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    Monika, I want to second SethJ's comment. The discussion here will relate to the issue of God's Justice from a Jewish perspective. I imagine if you ask again on Christianity.SE and make it clear that the question is focused on theology not texts then it will remain open over there as well (@SethJ the question that was migrated was one that appeared to be primarily text based).
    – Double AA
    Aug 13, 2012 at 5:27

7 Answers 7


I agree with @ba, but will approach this slightly differently:

We certainly understand how people with physical ailments are restricted from physical circumstances. You have to be in good health to go on roller-coasters, to go sky diving, etc.

But Judaism is not just a physical religion of doing acts, it is spiritual as well. A person who comes into contact with a corpse, even accidentally, contracts a spiritual impurity wherein his inherent sanctity is defiled and is restricted from entering the temple. To take this a step further, a nazarite is someone who has accepted to maintain a higher level of sanctity and is restricted from coming into contact with a corpse altogether. If he does accidentally, he must go through a process to re-begin his nazarite status because his high level sanctity was defiled- even though a regular Jew has no restriction of contact with a corpse (the exception being a Kohen who does in fact have a higher level of sanctity!)

So, similar to ba, it is comprehensible, on a religious plane, that a "bastard" who has a lower sanctity status as a result of a spiritually forbidden relationship is restricted from forming a religious spiritual bond with someone of a higher status of sanctity.

Of course if you look at everything on a physical plane it just sounds like the parents did a sin and now the child is restricted in who s/he cand spend life with.

  • 5
    To be a bit clearer: A mamzer is not being punished any more than a kohen is being punished by not being allowed to enter a cemetery or a firstborn is being rewarded by receiving double inheritance. It is merely a social status. They are a sub-community to marry among themselves; they are the products of relationships that should never have happened. They are not in any way being punished for anything, they bear no guilt whatsoever. [cont]
    – jake
    Aug 8, 2012 at 21:38
  • [cont] The fact that they cannot marry a "mainstream" Jew is no different from the fact that a Jew cannot marry a non-Jew; they belong to different communities which we wish to remain distinct. In terms of personal merit and in terms of Jewish scholarship (the highest value in the Jewish community), they are the same as everyone else. If they are deserving of respect, then they receive that respect from the community regardless of their parentage and regardless of whether or not they can marry into the mainstream society.
    – jake
    Aug 8, 2012 at 21:38
  • @jake, either I am misreading you or you have a different answer. Your answer sounds like a religious caste system,- if you are born from a forbidden relationship, we place you in a lower caste. What I am saying is that a person born from such a relationship has a spiritual defect which precludes him from a spiritual bond with someone who is spiritually whole.
    – YDK
    Aug 8, 2012 at 22:11
  • Yes, I don't disagree with your answer, but I just wanted to add another point rather than write a separate answer. I should have written that at the beginning instead of implying that I was clarifying your point.
    – jake
    Aug 9, 2012 at 15:49
  • @YDK, how do you fit into this conception of mamzerut the fact that a convert can marry a mamzer or marry "regular" jews? Jan 4, 2013 at 7:44

I do not know any classic authorities which discuss this but here is a take I believe to be consistent with Jewish thought.

As noted in the linked discussion, the term bastard is a misleading translation. A mamzer is someone whose parents sexual relationship is inconceivable. The example I would use is that between a brother and a sister. We also apply this to adulterous relationships (though not to premarital relationships) but I think that a "modern secular humanist" can better relate to this concept as it pertains to the former case.

First it is simply a reality that in a number of different ways parents decisions have long term consequences for their offspring. This isn't a matter of forgiveness or not. Jewish tradition is clear that a mamzer can be a great person despite their deficient lineage.

Secondly, it seems to me, that in order for an individual to do teshuvah (repent) they must regret their transgression. Yet when that very severe transgression led to the birth of a beloved offspring how can one regret such behavior. Such regret becomes considerably easier to achieve when the inappropriateness of the child's conception is reflected in a deficient status.

Another way of looking at it is, with or without such a prohibition, many people would have serious reservations about marrying someone whose parents were siblings. This isn't an issue of punishment but a natural discomfort with the situation, and the ruling mirrors this natural discomfort.

  • 2
    Your second-to-last paragraph is using the same idea as Tanya ch. 7. You might want to look at it.
    – b a
    Aug 8, 2012 at 15:53
  • @Yirmeyahu "Jewish tradition is clear that a mamzer can be a great person despite their deficient lineage" Could you give me a reference or example for that? Aug 8, 2012 at 17:03
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    @MonikaMichael The mishnah on the bottom of Horayos 13a (English) says that a mamzer who is a talmid chacham is superior to an ignorant kohen gadol. We see that it's possible for a mamzer to be a talmid chacham
    – b a
    Aug 8, 2012 at 18:07
  • It is the last mishnah (if you look it up in a mishnayos.)
    – shachna
    Aug 24, 2012 at 16:00
  • @shachna I chose to use the daf so that I could also link to the English (there's no online translation of mishnah as far as I know; emishnah is more of a commentary)
    – b a
    Aug 24, 2012 at 18:20

These are my thoughts on the subject:

We are all obviously familiar with the concept of reward and punishment: When you do what G-d wants, He will reward you; when you do what He doesn't want, He will punish you (Lev. 26:3). But why should He ever punish someone: "Do I desire the death of an evil person?" (Eze. 18:23). Sin is not inherently bad — the only reason why G-d tells us not to do it is because the sin naturally hurts us, and so G-d makes the sin bad because a man naturally hates what is bad for him, and this now becomes bad for him (Rabbi Saadyah Gaon, Emunos VeDeos ch. 4).

The bad effect of sin is not a punishment; it is a natural consequence. You could really ask the same question about the punishment for an accidental sin — why do you need to bring a sacrifice for doing something accidentally (Lev. 4:2)? It must be that the punishment for sin is just a natural consequence. And if someone sins, and through that sin a bastard is born, the things that happen to him are just a natural effect of things. Of course, they are not a punishment, since the son didn't do anything.

I am not very knowledgeable in the subject of Jewish philosophy, though, so I am not sure if what I wrote is consistent with people other than Rabbi Saadyah.

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    This is illustrated by our view of hell. That it is not a punishment but a means of cleansing the soul.
    – shachna
    Aug 8, 2012 at 15:27
  • "The bad effect of sin is not a punishment; it is a natural consequence." The child not receiving appropriate parental care might be a natural consequence but a decree to not let him enter congregation does not seem like a natural consequence. Further more would a great great grand child of eight generation even know what or why his ancestor did? Would the consequence linger till then? Not unless one makes it linger with a decree of discrimination. Aug 8, 2012 at 16:07
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    @MonikaMichael So you're saying that it's obviously not a natural consequence, because G-d said that he can't marry into everyone else, and if G-d didn't say that he would be allowed to do so. I see your point. But as YDK pointed out in his answer, other types of people are restricted as well — is it a decree of discrimination that only priests can enter the temple (Num. 3:10 et. al.)? It is a natural consequence of being born to a non-priest that forbids it. It isn't as restricted, but it's the same concept
    – b a
    Aug 8, 2012 at 16:35
  • In fact, Avos DeRabbi Nasan 12:8 describes his father as striking himself and striking his son. If a person can harm another by hitting him — sometimes even permanently disabling him — how is it that a person can't cause a permanent defect in his son and all his descendants?
    – b a
    Aug 8, 2012 at 16:40
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    @MonikaMichael You're missing all those things that the priests have to give up in order to receive that privilege of working in the temple. Is to say that different people have different jobs discrimination?
    – shachna
    Aug 24, 2012 at 15:50

Our actions have consequences. Someone chooses to shoot someone, the victim gets shot. (As for why G-d allows that to happen, that's a broader question.)

The Bible is making clear that adultery and incest are so bad, that before you ever think of doing either, be aware that any children resulting from it -- as a consequence -- will be prohibited from marrying into the mainstream. Yes, as a parent you're capable of horribly messing up your kid for life.

Note, very importantly, that a child born out of wedlock is not a mamzer; a mamzer is only a product of adultery or incest. And the only restriction on a mamzer is marrying into the mainstream Jewish lineage. So when seeking a marriage partner, the mamzer has to look for another mamzer, or a convert. That is the only point in their life when they are penalized.

Admittedly it still seems harsh, and one comment of the Sages interprets Ecclesiastes' note about "the tears of the oppressed" -- the injustice of which makes the king frustrated with life in general -- as referring to the plight of the mamzer.

  • Just as a side point, the definition of "bastard"/*mamzer* has been so constrained by the early rabbis of the Talmud that it almost never happens. For example, if a married woman's husband is overseas and she becomes pregnant, you assume that the husband must have come back in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to anyone including the woman, and impregnated her. This doesn't mean this discussion is invalid (since it's still a law in the Torah and worthy of debate), just that it doesn't come up much in practice. Aug 8, 2012 at 20:23
  • Where do the Sages interpret that note of Ecclesiastes? (There is something similar at the Midrash Rabah at the end of Emor, but it is not totally the same.)
    – b a
    Aug 8, 2012 at 20:30
  • @ba: Zohar 2:213b.
    – Alex
    May 31, 2013 at 20:48

First I'll address "How is it just to punish a child [sic] who did not have any participation in the sin?". I think this answer comes from Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim, but it may be from Gemara (I'll try to find the source).

Punishing a child for their parent's sin seems like something unjust, but in reality it is the parent who is bringing about spiritual-harm to their children through sinning and teaching their children to sin, not a direct punishment of a child for the sins their parent committed.

Let's use smoking as a physical example. If a parent is a smoker, their children are at risk for a number of physical issues from birth-defects to respiratory problems. The child themselves never smoked a cigarette and had no control over their domestic situation, but their parent's negligent-actions directly affects their health. Spiritually, sins work the same way. When a parent sins, they directly affect their children's spiritual-health via "second-hand-sinning". In most cases, a child can undo the harm of their parents' sins by refraining from doing that sin (teshuva), however this is frequently difficult for children to do when they are raised in a sinful environment.

As for the Mamzer aspect of the question, in the Moreh Nevuchim, Book 3, chapter XLIX, where Rambam is discussing Chukim, he says:

In order to create a horror of illicit marriages, a bastard was not allowed to marry an Israelitish woman (ibid. xxiii. 3): the adulterer and the adulteress were thus taught that by their act they bring upon their seed irreparable injury. In every language and in every nation the issue of licentious conduct has a bad name; the Law therefore raises the name of the Israelites by keeping them free from the admixture of bastards. The priests, who have a higher sanctity, are not allowed to marry a harlot, or a woman that is divorced from her husband, or that is profane (Lev. xxi 7): the high-priest, the noblest of the priests, must not marry even a widow, or a woman that has had sexual intercourse of any kind (ibid. xxi. 14). Of all these laws the reason is obvious. If bastards were prohibited to marry any member of the congregation of the Lord, how much more rigidly had slaves and handmaids to be excluded. The reason of the prohibition of inter-marriage with other nations is stated in the Law: "And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods" (Exod. xxxiv. 16).

Also, Shabos 55a explains that Ezekiel 18:20 teaches there is no death without sin. A father won't die from his son's sins and a son won't die from his father's, everyone dies because they have sinned on their own, even Moshe and Aaron. It doesn't really have to do with punishing a child for their father's sin.


SethJ wrote:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presentism_%28literary_and_historical_analysis%29 Just because you define something as good, that does not mean it fits G-d's definition. Same for "punishment". Same for any moral discussion. Morality is not set by 21st Century Western standards. It is set by G-d (alternatively, morality is objective and is outlined by G-d).

yoel wrote:

The simplest answer is that the Creator of the universe determines what is just, not man.

Dan wrote:

this question presupposes two factors, both of which are erroneous: 1. that good is "good" to the exclusion of what man thinks of as "bad" and 2. that god's reasoning has to conform to man's conception of justice or right and wrong.

(They wrote these words in comments on the question, making a point that is really suitable for an answer and that has not really been covered in any of the answers-posted-as-answers to date. As I'm culling the much-too-numerous comments from the question, I'm posting it here to serve as an answer; I'm posting it as "community wiki" in order that I get no reputation points for others' words.)

  • Some of the comments are relevant to the question. Could you please leave some as you see fit? Aug 9, 2012 at 16:18
  • @MonikaMichael, I have.
    – msh210
    Aug 9, 2012 at 16:23

To this discussion I would add that it is possible the passage in Deuteronomy is only a restriction on serving in positions of authority, not exclusions from the Temple or community.

The Tanakh translates בִּקְהַ֖ל יְהוָֽה in Deuteronomy 23 as "congregation of the LORD." Bernard M. Levinson's commentary in the JPS Study Bible states:

The congregation of the LORD (v.2) served as the national governing body, akin to to a popular legislature, that was charged with a broad range of judicial, political, and policy matters (Judges 20:2) 1

The verse in Judges which Levinson cites:

And the chiefs of all the people, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, 400,000 men on foot that drew the sword. (20:2 ESV)

Additional support for understanding Deuteronomy in the context of restrictions on serving in positions of authority can be seen in Micah:

Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance. Therefore thus says the LORD: behold, against this family I am devising disaster, from which you cannot remove your necks, and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be a time of disaster. In that day they shall take up a taunt song against you and moan bitterly, and say, “We are utterly ruined; he changes the portion of my people; how he removes it from me! To an apostate he allots our fields.” (2:1-4 ESV)

Therefore you will have none to cast the line by lot in the assembly of the LORD. (2:5 ESV)

The phrase "assembly of the LORD" in Micah is בִּקְהַ֖ל יְהוָֽה as in Deuteronomy 23.

Ehud Ben Zvi states Micah 2:1-5 is on social ethics, divine judgement and hope, noting:

Elite people within society design (or, "work") evil; the LORD plans (Heb) "evil" (misfortune) against them. Moreover, members of this group are able to do so because they have the power; the LORD certainly has the power to carry "evil" (misfortune), and God's might is infinitely superior to these people (cf. Prov 22.23) 2

The JPS Tanakh translation of verse 5 notes the phrase is speaking to legal or judicial matters:

Truly, none of you shall cast a lot cordd in the assembly of the LORD! (2:5 JPS)
Note d - On apiece of land, thus acquiring title to it; cf. Josh 18.6 and Ps 16.6

Ehud Ben Zvi notes verse 5 appears to apply to future generations:

The descendants of the transgressors will not be part of the assembly of the LORD. This verse suggests a transgenerational aspect in the divine punishment. 3

Thus, while lacking a specific number of generations, Micah otherwise appears to be in agreement with Deuteronomy 23.

In addition to "God knows what is best" I think there is good reason to establish a generational "waiting period" before allowing certain groups to be placed in decision making roles which can impact the nation.

1. Bernard M. Levinson, The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 418
2. Ehud Ben Zvi, The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 1208
3. Ibid

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