There she is, the most beautiful bride I have ever seen. My granddaughter will marry the grandson of my lifelong best friend David. This happy wedding event seemed impossible just over two decades ago because of a seemingly impassable predicament.
David had fallen in love with Rebecca, a girl with long dark hair and the jewel of a highly respected orthodox Jewish family with historical links in our congregation. Then an unexpected problem arose, a result of World War Two. After the Germans had invaded Poland in 1939, David’s mother Esther stood by in horror as her husband, Avrum was beaten, arrested and dragged off to prison in a Nazi lorry. Esther went into hiding and, although nearly starving, she survived. After the war she was told her that Avrum had died in the Treblinka concentration camp. Esther pulled her life together and in 1948 immigrated to the United States, remarried and gave birth to David.
However, Esther’s first husband had survived after all. Some years later, hearing that his wife was in America, Avrum turned up in our community. This was an occasion of great joy and, at the same time, heartrending angst. The second marriage was considered bigamous according to ancient Jewish law and any offspring of this union was the product of adultery. Therefore David was illegitimate — a mamzer, a bastard, a child of an adulterous or incestuous union. The
orthodox prohibit the mamzer from marrying unless he marries another mamzer.
According to Deuteronomy 23:2 “No one born of a forbidden marriage nor any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation.” That means that mamzerim (male or female) are forbidden to marry a religious Jew and that taint could continue for two hundred years. Strict enforcement represented a problem, especially in small close-knit communities. Therefore rabbinical scholars have attempted to identify an escape clause, a legal way to help the mamzer around the consequences of this seemingly inflexible marriage law.
Moses Isserles, a Talmudic scholar of sixteenth century Poland, is quoted in Even Ha-Ezer, 2.15, “If one who is unfit has become mixed in a particular family, then once it has become mixed it has become mixed and whoever knows of the disqualification is not permitted to disclose it and must leave well alone since all families in which there has been an admixture will become pure in the future [i.e. during the Messianic age].” In a sense this is the Talmudic version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” One can elude the biblical taint by avoiding an investigation that might expose the mamzerut (the quality of being illegitimate).
Unfortunately for David and his bride-to-be, the “taint” had been exposed to the community. Distraught, David sought the advice of a local rabbi known for his sagacity, charity, understanding, and discretion. When told of the problem, the rabbi pondered for some moments, then told my friend the following story:
There was once a small dreary village, a shtetl where life — like in countless others — revolved around faith, ritual, tradition, and their rabbi’s teachings. It was a community of ramshackle houses, each on a small plot of land with a garden in the back where families toiled to produce food to sustain them through the punishing winters.
A poor but pious woman named Sarah lived in the shtetl. She had lost her husband during one of the Czar’s fruitless wars almost two decades ago. Sarah’s home was a modest wooden cottage whose peeling blue paint showed patches of its previous green under-color. The widow always wore a multicolored flowered babushka, one that completely covered her gray thinning hair. The headscarf had faded from years of washing and rewashing, but it sharply contrasted with her shapeless drab threadbare dress. Sarah’s deep-set brown eyes always seemed sad. She survived by doing various odd jobs and through her neighbors' charity.
One Friday noon a stranger appeared in the shtetl. He had been a comrade of Sarah’s husband while serving as conscripts in the Czar’s army. Her husband had mentioned his friend in his letters, but the widow had never met him. Samuel was tall, thin and had a jet-black beard. He was dressed in a short-brimmed cloth workman’s hat, a dark tattered vest and collarless white shirt buttoned at the neck. His patched trousers had been salvaged from his army days. The stranger was very religious and believed that a gift given anonymously is one of the highest forms of charity.
When Sarah returned home after earning a few kopeks that afternoon, she found a fat golden hen in her front yard. Under her door was an unsigned note. It said the chicken was a gift for her Sabbath. Sarah rarely had chicken to eat for any day. Having this it on the Sabbath would certainly make this a very special holiday. Excited and delighted, the widow wrapped the clucking chicken in a fold of her oversized skirt and carried it through the shtetl’s rutted streets to Moshe, the village butcher. The jovial Moshe was everyone’s friend and strictly followed the kosher laws to the letter. However, just as Moshe slaughtered the bird, he sneezed violently. His sharp knife slipped in his hand and multiple cuts appeared on the chicken’s neck. Moshe had sacrificed the hen swiftly and humanely, but it had to be done with a single stroked cut. Now the chicken was considered “trafe”— not kosher. The distraught butcher in his blood-stained apron turned to the frail widow and apologetically said, “Sarah, I am sorry about the accident. I would gladly replace your chicken with one from the shop, but because it is erev Shabbat (the Sabbath’s eve), all my chickens have been sold. I have no way of helping you.”
The poor widow became desperate. Surely the shtetl’s rabbi would know what to do. A dejected Sarah took the dead bird to the wood-framed house of Rabbi Hakam whose surname meant wise in Hebrew. On her way, she passed a tall black-bearded stranger who gave her a look of concern, but he remained silent. Sarah, intent on her mission, ignored him. Reaching the rabbi’s cottage she knocked on his door, as was the custom she reverently kissed her fingers and reached up to touch the wooden mezuzah on the right doorpost of the rabbi’s home. The stooped white-whiskered rabbi came to the door and greeted her warmly. Sarah told him about the kindness of a stranger and how she longed to have chicken for her Sabbath dinner. Through no fault of her own her Sabbath appeared ruined.
Rabbi Hakam adjusted the black yarmulke on his balding head. Looking over wire-rimmed glasses perched upon his nose, he quietly asked Sarah to place the chicken on the end of his sturdy reading table. Perplexed, the scholarly rabbi first stared at the dead bird, then off into his book-lined room. Rabbi Hakam put a hand to his forehead and noted the lengthening shadows of the approaching Sabbath. Suddenly the rabbi seemed to remember an obscure text. He called to his assistant, Yitzhak, to fetch a heavy book. Once it was placed on his table, the rabbi began to leaf through the dog-eared volume. Finally Rabbi Hakam stroked the chin of his beard then beamed as he peered at a passage under his thin finger. Triumphantly he cried out, “There it is! Your chicken is kosher after all, hurry home and prepare it before sundown. Shabbat Shalom (a peaceful Sabbath).”
A joyful Sarah thanked Rabbi Hakam, swept the chicken from the rabbi’s table. Clutching it under her arm, she stumbled through the door and hastily kissed the rabbi’s mezuzah once again. On her way home, the widow again passed the tall black-bearded stranger who appeared to be heading away from the shtetl. Tipping his cloth hat, he smiled timidly at her — but did not utter a word.
Meanwhile Yitzhak looked puzzled. He cocked his head to one side, pulled on a curled forelock and raised an eyebrow in curiosity. “Rabbi,” he said, “ the paragraph that you pointed to said nothing about the Kosher Laws. Shouldn’t you have told Sarah that the bird was trafe?” Rabbi Hakam paused, sat back in his creaking wooden chair and lifted his eyes heavenward. He said, “Perhaps yes, but now the sin is upon me!”
The Biblical law against adultery implies a willful unfaithfulness of a married person with another partner, a sense of lust and an irresponsible expression of erotic passion. Therefore the charge of adultery is questionable in this case. The second union likely would never have happened if Esther had known her husband was alive. In context, it was an unintentional product of the confusion of the times.
Using similar logic, should David suffer for the sin of his mother, an unintended result of the Second Word War’s Holocaust? The rabbis met and debated the issues of religious dogma and concerns about human justice. Somewhat like the mythical Rabbi Hakim, they decided that it was a sin, but a sin that could be born on the community’s broad shoulders.
David and Rebecca were married in an orthodox wedding. As their best man, I led those in attendance in shouting a hearty mazel tov after the traditional breaking of the glass under the wedding canopy. I have been asked to do the same for my granddaughter and David’s grandson, my new grandson-in-law.
Louis Arthur Norton is
University of Connecticut.