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An Eventual Resolution
‘May The Likes Of You Increase Manifold In Israel’
(Bechoros 45b)

The Gemara on our daf discusses deformities that invalidate a kohen from performing the ritual service. One of them is: extra fingers or toes. R. Yehudah and the Sages (mishnah, 45a) disagree whether they disqualify a kohen. R. Yitzchak explains that they both base their opinion on II Samuel 21:20, which describes a man in battle who had 12 fingers and 12 toes. R. Yehudah understands the pasuk to be praising the man’s prowess while the Sages understand the pasuk to be denigrating him.


The Gemara relates that R. Yehudah said a man with extra fingers and toes once approached R. Tarfon, who said, “May the likes of you increase manifold in Israel.” Evidently, having extra digits is praiseworthy. R. Yose, however, argues that what R. Tarfon really meant was, “Through you may mamzerim and Nesinim decrease in Israel.” In other words, may these people have extra fingers or toes so people will know who they are and not marry them.

This interpretation is based on the fact that II Samuel 21:20 concerns Nesinim. If so, though, why did R. Yose include mamzeirim in his interpretation of R. Tarfon’s statement?


Cursing One’s Father

The Mishnah (Yevamos 22b) states that one gets the death penalty for wounding or cursing one’s father (Shemos 21:15,17). All children are included in this rule, even mamzeirim.

Yet, the Gemara also states that the prohibition to curse a father applies only to a father who is “oseh ma’aseh amcha” – i.e., who observes the laws of the Torah. (The Rambam [Hilchos Mamrim 6:12] rules that a son is always obligated to honor his father whereas the Tur [Yoreh De’ah 240] disagrees.) Consequently, a son born from an illicit union does not get the death penalty for cursing his father unless his father repented for the immoral act that brought this son into the world.


Even So, Repent, My Friend

The Gemara wonders how it is possible to achieve atonement for this sin considering that Shimon b. Menassiah says (Chagiga 9a) that fathering a mamzer falls under the category of “me’uvas lo yuchal liskon – that which is crooked cannot be made straight” (Ecclesiastes 1:15). In other words, it is a misdeed that cannot be remedied.

The Gemara answers that even so, if the father repents, he is halachically considered to be someone who observes the Torah’s laws and cursing him is forbidden.


Constant Humiliation

There are several ways to understanding the Gemara’s conclusion. Rabbenu Chayim (Tosafos, Bava Batra 89b) maintains that he is considered to be someone who observes the Torah’s laws because repentance fully eradicates all sins. It’s true that Shimon b. Menassiah said that giving birth to a mamzer is a misdeed without remedy, but all he meant by that was that the sinner will suffer endless humiliation since the effect of his act (the mamzer) is a constant reminder of his immoral deed (Tosafos, Chagiga 9a. s.v. “zeh”).


Removing Stigma

Rashi (infra Yevamos 21a s.v. “arayos” and Chagiga 9a s.v. “ve’holid”) indicates that even according to the Gemara’s conclusion, the father’s sin cannot be entirely eradicated since the effect of the sin is present in the world. Nonetheless, by doing teshuvah, the father is no longer classified as a sinner, thus making the son subject to the death penalty for cursing him.


‘Trace’ Sin

Kovetz He’aros (end of siman 21) explains that, as a result of teshuvah, Hashem does not merely cleanse one’s sins. He eradicates all traces of the sin retroactively so that the sin is considered to have never been committed. Shimon b. Menassiah teaches that if a sin produced a mamzer, the sin cannot be eradicated retroactively since a visible trace of the sin still exists. The Gemara explains, however, that if the father repents, the son may not curse him because the father is not considered a sinner from that point onward.


Shouting From The Rooftops

Now let us consider R. Tarfon’s statement according to R. Yose. He evidently is suggesting that if the mamzer’s status is known to all as the result of a deformity, no one will marry him, which will guarantee that the effect of the father’s transgression will at some point cease to exist. As a result, he will eventually be considered a full baal teshuvah before Hashem.


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.