Judaism and sexuality

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The Jewish tradition devotes considerable attention to sexuality. Sexuality is the subject of many narratives and laws in the Tanakh and rabbinic literature.

Attitude towards sexuality[edit]

In Judaism, sexuality is viewed as having both positive and negative potential, depending on the context in which it is expressed. According to the Rabbinical enumerations of the 613 commandments, the commandment to procreate is the first mitzvah in the Torah:[1]

"And God blessed them; and God said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply [Peru Urevu], and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth"

— Genesis, 1:28

This commandment, known as pru urvu (פרו ורבו), is only binding on men; women are exempt because childbirth puts them in physical danger, though a dissenting opinion is recorded in the mishnah Yevamot 6:6. This commandment was originally binding on all of humanity, as it was given to Adam, the progenitor of all mankind. However, after the giving of the Torah it became obligatory on Jews only.[citation needed]

According to the Sefer haChinnuch, the central nature of this mitzvah is due to the fact that God desires for the world to be populated.[2] However, there is another Torah commandment known as onah (Heb: עונה) which obligates a man to provide sexual intercourse to his wife on a regular basis, regardless of whether they have already had children.

The Jewish sages recognized that the sexual need of mankind (also known as Yitzra De'arayot) is essential for perpetuating society, despite having its negative sides which may lead to sins. For this reason, Chazal's attitude and statements on the matter are dual, and they recognize two inclinations in mankind, the Yetzer hatov (the "Good inclination") and the Yetzer hara (the "evil inclination"), that can both influence sexuality and sexual behaviours. Maimonides discusses this dichotomy explicitly:

"A man's wife is permitted to him. Therefore a man may do whatever he desires with his wife. He may engage in relations whenever he desires, kiss any organ he desires, engage in vaginal or other intercourse or engage in physical intimacy without relations, provided he does not release seed in vain. Nevertheless, it is pious conduct for a person not to act frivolously concerning such matters and to sanctify himself at the time of relations, as explained in Hilchot Deot. He should not depart from the ordinary pattern of the world. For this act was [given to us] solely for the sake of procreation...

... Our Sages do not derive satisfaction from a person who engages in sexual relations excessively and frequents his wife like a rooster. This reflects a very blemished [character]; it is the way underdeveloped people conduct themselves. Instead, everyone who minimizes his sexual conduct is praiseworthy, provided he does not neglect his conjugal duties, without the consent of his wife"

— Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah, 21:9,11

The basic Jewish positive attitude towards sex and sexuality within marriage is opposed to Christianity, which does not view sex favorably.[3][4][5][6]

On the other hand, sexual activity is also viewed as a grave sin within Judaism if it outside of the bounds of permissible behavior. Certain types of forbidden sexual behaviors, known as gilui arayot, are viewed so negatively that a Jew is obliged to sacrifice his life before committing them.

Forbidden sexual acts in Judaism[edit]

Isurei bi'ah[edit]

The term isurei bi'ah (Hebrew איסורי ביאה) refers to those one may not have intercourse with. The most serious of these form a subset known as arayot (Hebrew: עריות). Intercourse with arayot is one of the few acts in Judaism which one may not perform even to save one's life.

Arayot includes:

Other isurei bi'ah include:

  • Sexual intercourse between Jews and gentiles
  • Divorcees or converts to Kohanim
  • Mamzerim to regular Jews

Homosexuality and bisexuality[edit]

The traditional view is that the Torah forbids all anal intercourse between two males, and this is the view of Orthodoxy; there are other modern views that disagree. The source of this prohibition is a verse from the Book of Leviticus: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination." (Leviticus, 18:22). However, Rashi interpreted the matter as only prohibiting anal sexual acts between two men (and not other sexual acts between them), as he stated: "As one would penetrate a blue-brush into a receiver." But other authoritative commentators of the Torah see all sexual acts between two males to be included within the ban on "sperm in vain".[citation needed] The Jewish sages added additional barriers to this ban, and forbid males to put themselves in any situation that might lead to such an offense. For example: Chazal prohibited two single males from sleeping under the same blanket.[citation needed]

There is no ban on female-female intercourse in the Hebrew Bible, but in later rabbinical halakhic texts such is mentioned as a forbidden act, as Maimonides wrote: "A conduct of women rubbing oneself against the other, lesbians" (Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Book of Kedushah, Issurei Biah, 21:8).[8]

Extramarital sex[edit]

Opinions on extramarital sex differ. It is universally frowned upon; according to some authorities it even falls under a biblical prohibition.


Despite not having been explicitly prohibited in the Torah,[9][10][11] the Halakha and the Oral Torah view masturbation as an Halakhic prohibition and a great sin. The attitude towards a male sperm is one of a potential future living human being, and thus masturbation is referred to as a murder, in which the masturbator is exterminating his potential offspring.

Sperm in vain (Hebrew: זרע לבטלה, pronounced: Zera Levatala) is a Talmudic term for any sexual act in which a male's sperm is consciously "wasted".[12] However, if his wife is pregnant, infertile, or elderly it is not considered wasting seed since this is for the purpose of fulfilling the "Onah" Mitzvah-commandment, the husband's marital obligations.

But why all these precautions? — Because otherwise one might emit semen in vain, and R. Johanan stated: Whosoever emits semen in vain deserves death, for it is said in Scripture.

— Babylon Talmud, Tractate Niddah, p. 13a

Prior to the 20th century, it was a Jewish term usually (but not only) referring to male masturbation. In Shulchan Aruch, on Yoreh De'ah, it is stated that wasting sperm is considered a sin greater than any sin in the Torah. In modern days, the Halakhic question on whether taking male semen and sperm for the purpose of medical examinations or insemination remains in dispute among Jewish legal authorities.

Homosexual intercourse is also considered an act of sperm in vain, in addition to having its own prohibition. According to many opinions, even marital sexual acts in which the sperm does not enter the vagina are considered no less an act of sperm in vain.

The Halakhic attitude towards female masturbation is found in the opinions of the Ben Ish Chai,[13] who says that it is wrong because it creates evil forces (Qliphoth) and brings the woman to connect spiritually with the evil angel Samael, and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,[14] who forbids it because it involves indulging in sexual fantasy about men, which falls under the prohibition of forbidden thoughts, which are forbidden for women as well. However, it does not carry the severity of male masturbation, because it does not involve the release of seed.

Sexual fantasy and pornography[edit]

The halakhic literature discusses the prohibitions of hirhur (lit. thought) and histaklut (lit. gazing). Many of the practices of tzniut (modesty) serve to prevent these prohibitions from occurring.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvot mitzvah #125 and Sefer haChinnuch mitzvah #1
  2. ^ Sefer haChinnuch ibid.
  3. ^ Rabbi Michael Gold. "The Purpose and Meaning of Sex in Judaism". Retrieved April 20, 2017. Judaism rejected the negative teachings about sex that later became prevalent in Christianity 
  4. ^ James A. Brundage (1987). Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. University of Chicago Press. p. 74. Hebrew tradition viewed marital sex as a divinely ordained component of human life. Since God wished humans to increase and multiply and since he had endowed their sexual organs with the capacity to produce exquisite pleasure, the rabbis saw no reason to limit the individual's enjoyment of sex... Christian writers began to express much more restrictive view of the role of sex in human life. 
  5. ^ "Judaism and contraception". BBC. July 21, 2009. Retrieved May 2, 2017. Judaism has had a largely positive attitude to sex since God commanded his people to 'be fruitful and multiply' (Genesis I:28; 9:1). Christianity's suspicions of sex as an element of 'the fall' are absent. 
  6. ^ "Jews better at sex than Christians: theologian". The Local Europe AB. Retrieved May 2, 2017. Leif Carlsson, a speaker at the Hönö Conference, wants Christians to come to terms with the faith's negative views on sex and compare them with those found in Judaism, according to a report in Christian newspaper Dagen... Within Judaism, sexuality has always been viewed as something fundamentally good. 
  7. ^ Leviticus 18
  8. ^ Hebrew: "נשים המסוללות זו בזו"
  9. ^ Maimonides stated that the Tanakh does not explicitly prohibit masturbation, see Maimonides, Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7:4, apud Dorff, Elliot N. (2003) [1998]. "Chapter Five. Preventing Pregnancy". Matters of life and death : a Jewish approach to modern medical ethics (First paperback ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society. p. 117. ISBN 0827607687. OCLC 80557192. Jews historically shared the abhorrence of male masturbation that characterized other societies.2 Interestingly, although the prohibition was not debated, legal writers had difficulty locating a biblical base for it, and no less an authority than Maimonides claimed that it could not be punishable by the court because there was not an explicit negative commandment forbidding it.3 
  10. ^ Patton, Michael S. (June 1985). "Masturbation from Judaism to Victorianism". Journal of Religion and Health. Springer Netherlands. 24 (2): 133–146. doi:10.1007/BF01532257. ISSN 0022-4197. PMID 24306073. Retrieved 12 November 2011. Nevertheless, there is no legislation in the Bible pertaining to masturbation. 
  11. ^ Kwee, Alex W.; David C. Hoover (2008). "Theologically-Informed Education about Masturbation: A Male Sexual Health Perspective" (PDF). Journal of Psychology and Theology. La Mirada, CA, USA: Rosemead School of Psychology. Biola University. 36 (4): 258–269. ISSN 0091-6471. Retrieved 12 November 2011. The Bible presents no clear theological ethic on masturbation, leaving many young unmarried Christians with confusion and guilt around their sexuality. 
  12. ^ Bris Kodesh i.e., released as an act not for the purpose of procreation, or in normal intercourse with one's wife, even when she is for whatever reason not able to become pregnant from that seed, Glossary
  13. ^ Od Yosef Chai p. 37, quoting the Arizal in Shaar HaKavanos, Inyan Drushei Layla, sec. 7
  14. ^ Igros Moshe, Even Ha'ezer 1, sec. 69.

Further reading[edit]

  • Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, CCAR Press, 2014, ISBN 9780881232035.

External links[edit]