What is the halakhic status of a child who is born of a Jewish mother but a non-Jewish father?
This question is the subject of a disagreement among the Sages, with opinions ranging from those who rule that the child is a mamzer to those who view him as mekulkal – problematic – to those who see him as a regular Jewish child. This last view is the opinion of such Sages as Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rav.
The Gemara relates that Rav was approached and asked about the personal status of someone who had a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father. When Rav replied that he believed such a person to be perfectly acceptable, the questioner – who was, apparently, the product of such a union – asked to marry Rav’s daughter. Rav refused.
Upon witnessing the exchange, Rav’s grandson, Shimi bar Hiyya asked: ‘People say that in Medes a camel can dance on a kav (a small measure); here is the kav, here is the camel and here is Medes, but there is no dancing’ – i.e. the truth of a statement becomes apparent when it is put to the test. Here, when your ruling is being put to the test, you are not willing to support your position with an action. Rav replied that even if this man were like Yehoshua bin Nun, he would not be willing to allow his daughter to marry him.
Although Medes was not very far from Babylonia, this expression was in use already in the time of the Mishna – i.e. in Israel – and Medes is often used to express something that is very far away. The amazing story that is told about camels in Medes is understood in a number of different ways by the rishonim. Rashi explains that a large camel is thought to be dancing in a small area. According to the Rivan, camels there were thought to have been trained to stand with all four of their legs in a closed area. The Meiri says that people suggested that the camels there were unusually small.
While some view Rav’s refusal to allow his daughter to marry this suitor as indicating that Rav believed that there was some problem with a person like this, others understand that he was simply saying that he was not interested in this man as a son-in-law for reasons separate than his family background.