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What we will deal with in this article is the issue of adultery and the offspring that results from such a relationship.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Acharei Mot-Kedoshim” (Leviticus 16:1-20-27), which is actually two different Torah portions combined into one.

The first, Acharei Mot, or Acharei for short, deals primarily with the Yom Kippur service. The second reading, Kedoshim, deals extensively with all kinds of individual mitzvot (commandments), making up about 10% of all the mitzvot in the Torah. What we will deal with in this article is the issue of adultery and the offspring such a relationship may produce. Indeed, the word “kedoshim” means “holy,” and we are told that maintaining purity in sexual relationships is what makes us holy.

The sin of adultery is well known. It’s one of the Ten Commandments. (Yes, they are 10 “commandments” not 10 “suggestions”). What many people may not realize, however, is that adultery is the sin of having relations with a married woman. Or, in other words, adultery is when a married woman has relations with a man other than her husband.

Although it is certainly unbecoming and immoral for a married man to have relations with an unmarried woman, it is not defined as “adultery.” Adultery, and most other forms of sexual sin, are considered one of the “three sins”— the other two being idolatry and bloodshed— for which one should theoretically give up one’s life rather than transgress.

Although the definiton of adultery may sound “unfair,” it is quickly understood bearing in mind that according to Torah law, a man can have more than one wife. A woman, however, cannot have more than one husband. Hence, we see clearly that a man having relations with multiple women is permitted under the right circumstances. There is no way, however, for a woman to have relations with more than one man.

Nowadays, however, Judaism essentially forbids polygamy. Even when polygamy was practiced, it never ended well.

In addition to being a sin against one’s spouse, adultery is as much a sin against God, who forbade such behavior in the Torah. As mentioned, it is one of the most severe transgressions in the entire Torah, tied with murder and idolatry, all of which are punishable by death.

A man who discovers his wife committed adultery is generally required to divorce her. Such a woman is forbidden to ever marry either her original husband or her adulterous partner. As the Talmud puts it, “What she wanted is not given to her, and what she had in her hand is taken from her.”

It goes without saying that adultery is defined as a consensual relationship. A woman who is raped is not considered an adulteress and would not be required to divorce her husband unless he is a Kohen, a topic beyond the scope of this article.

A child born from an adulterous affair is known as a” mamzer” in Judaism, often translated as “bastard,” and is very limited to who he or she can marry. The Hebrew word mamzer is said to be made up of two words – “mum,” meaning “blemish” and “zar,” meaning “outsider.” Despite the stigma and social challenges that a mamzer faces, he or she is recognized as a full member of the Jewish people and is treated as an equal. As the sages teach, “a mamzer who is a Torah scholar takes precedence over the High Priest who in unlearned.” A mazer is not to be mistreated for his parents’ sin.

Unfortunately, a mamzer can easily be produced when a woman who was married according to Jewish law does not divorce according to Jewish law. If such a woman remarries only according to secular law and gives birth, the child is considered a mamzer because in the eyes of Jewish law, the woman is still married to her first husband. This is one of many reasons why it is absolutely essential that every Jewish couple, regardless of their level of observance, obtain a Jewish divorce should they decide to end their marriage.