June 10, 2024
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The Etymology of the Word ‘Mamzer’

The word ממזר appears only two times in Tanach: at Deut. 23:3 and Zech. 9:6. According to our Sages it refers to a child who is the result of certain forbidden relations. (There are different views about precisely which such forbidden relations. See, e.g., Sifrei 248 and Yevamot 49a.) The question for this column is what is the root of the word ממזר and whether we can see evidence of the Sages’ interpretation in the root.

As further background, the verse that follows 23:3 is one that prohibits marriage with males of Ammon and Moab. There is a view that ממזר is the name of a nation or ethnic group. (One can support this from the use of the word at Zech. 9:6, see below.) But there is no known nation or ethnic group by the name ממזר. Moreover, the prohibition at Deut. 23:4 refers to עמוני and מואבי. If ממזר was the name of a nation or ethnic group, we would expect ממזרי at 23:3.

On the simplest level, we would expect the root of ממזר to be מזר, with the initial מ serving to turn the verb into a noun. There are only two times that a root מזר perhaps appears in Tanach: Job 38:32 and 37:9. In the first, the context supports a meaning related to the constellations (similar to מזל, see 2 Kings 23:5). As to the second, it may have a constellation-related meaning here. Or perhaps the root at 37:9 is a different root such as זרה, with its meaning “scatter.” So we do not have a biblical root מזר that is helpful to the understanding of our word.

There is a root מזר in Arabic and in some dialects of Aramaic. It has meanings like “rotten, foul.” It is used in Arabic in the context of eggs. It has been suggested that our word ממזר can be explained if there was once such a root in ancient Hebrew. See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs and Koehler-Baumgartner.

Perhaps this meaning is also found in the Hebrew of the Mishnah. At Chulin 12:3, we have a reference to eggs that are מוזרות. In such cases, one does not have to send away the mother bird. From the context, the meaning seems to be “destroyed and unable to produce a young bird.” One could read the “rotten, foul” meaning into this word. But there are many other ways to understand this ambiguous word. See the discussion of Tiferet Yisrael.

R. Judah Ibn Balaam, 11th cent., understands the word in this Mishnah as meaning מקולקל (damaged, defective) and suggests that a mamzer is one whose yichus is מקולקל. (I have also seen the suggestion that מוזרות in this Mishnah has a meaning derived from “mix.” But this seems unlikely from its context.)

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Many see the word ממזר as being based on the word זר, with its meanings “strange, foreign.”

At Yoel 1:17, there is a word ממגרות that means some type of storehouse. Almost everyone agrees that the root of this word is גור, with its “dwell” meaning. This would be an example of a verb that had two mems added to its root to generate the noun. Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorashim) and Ibn Ezra are among those who explain ממזר in this way: זר plus the addition of two initial mems. But the addition of two initial mems (as opposed to one) is rare. I doubt there are other examples of this in Tanach. (Everyone cites this one and no one cites any other!)

Could ממזר be an abbreviation of זר מעם or זר מאום? (Both would mean “from a foreign nation.”) These have been suggested by some scholars.

Nachmanides connects ממזר to the word מוזר and writes that this individual, the product of forbidden relations, will be “muzar me-achiv,” i.e., a stranger to his neighbors. They won’t know where he came from. The male who sired him will distance himself from him, and even his mother will abandon him as a baby. Therefore, even in the city of his birth, his origin will be unknown.

Bechor Shor interprets ממזר to mean born “mi-mi she-zar” to his mother.” By זר, he presumably means “foreign, not permitted to.” ממי seems to be his attempt to explain the double mem.

Malbim suggests that the meaning is that this מום is זר to Bnei Yisrael. It is uncommon for us to produce children through prohibited relations.

Both Talmuds (Yev. 76b and J. Talmud Kidd. 3:14) include a statement deriving mamzer from “mum zar.” This derivation is earlier found at Sifrei 248.

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Now I will mention some other approaches that are not based on the word זר with its “strange, foreign” meaning.

Malbim suggests that a mamzer is called this because the מום is from “zera ha-nizra” (a seed that was planted).

Another suggestion is that there may be a Biblical root זור with a meaning like “loathsome, abhorrent.” See Num. 11:20 (זרא) and Job 19:17 (זרה). There is a similar root in Arabic with this meaning. See Soncino on the latter. Many of the forbidden relations that produce a mamzer are considered a תועבה, similar to this “loathsome, abhorrent” meaning. See Ha-Ketav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah.

(Perhaps there is no independent root זור with this meaning. This meaning may just be an expanded meaning of the “strange” meaning.)

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With regard to the meaning at Zech. 9:6, the context is God describing the future defeat of certain Philistine cities: “A ממזר will dwell in Ashdod and I will cut off the pride of the Philistines.” There are those who give mamzer a nation/ethnic group meaning here. This can be justified from the context. But our presumption should be that the word has the same general meaning here as it does in Deuteronomy. A reasonable approach to this verse is that the word mamzer is used loosely here and means something like “half-breeds.” See, e.g., Soncino. But there are also those who give it the standard meaning here, i.e., a community of mamzerim.

But there is a different way to look at this verse in Zechariah. Perhaps it is the clue for the original meaning of the word. We can speculate from the context that the meaning here is something like “half-breed.” This would suggest that there was once a root מזר in Hebrew that meant “mixed.” There was a word in Akkadian, “mazu,” that meant “mix.” A scholar who suggests this approach is E. Neufeld. He thinks that originally a mamzer meant an offspring of persons of two different nations. See his Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws, pp. 224-227.

Also, one of the many views mentioned at Daat Mikra to Zech. 9:6 postulates a Hebrew root מזר that has a meaning related to מצר and suggests that the latter would have meant “mixed, bound together” like צרר.

My own opinion is that a Hebrew root מזר is most likely. It is just a question of figuring out what that original Hebrew root meant. Perhaps the Mishnah in Chulin is our strongest clue and the view of R. Judah Ibn Balaam, מקולקל, comes closest to the truth.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He had been meaning to write about this topic for years. He does not recall what recent negative interaction with a specific individual may have motivated him!

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