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In the Bible this term applied to that which is accursed, put under a ban, and therefore not fit for use. Later, it came to mean excommunication or expulsion from the community. The person upon whom the herem was pronounced was alienated from all social and trade relations with other Jews. In extreme cases the offender was denied such basic Jewish rights as marriage into a Jewish family, circumcision for his children, or even a Jewish burial. However, the religious authorities resorted to such extreme measures only when they felt that the future of Judaism was at stake. Such was the case in the 17th century, for example, when the herem was pronounced on the followers of the false messiah, Sabattai Zevi.

During and after the Middle Ages the herem was used extensively by religious authorities to ensure obedience to their religious decisions. The most celebrated herem was introduced by Rabbenu Gershom and forbade Jews under penalty of excommunication from taking more than one wife in marriage, or divorcing a woman against her will.

In later centuries the powerful weapon of the herem was wielded more capriciously.

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