Judaism and sexuality

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Jewish traditions across different eras and regions devote considerable attention to sexuality.[1][2] Sexuality is the subject of many narratives and laws in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and rabbinic literature.

Attitudes 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 medieval Rabbinical enumerations of the 613 commandments, the commandment to procreate is the first mitzvah in the Torah:[3] "And God blessed them; and God said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply [peru urevu (פרו ורבו)], 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 was understood by the early rabbis to be 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]

There are many passages in the Babylonian Talmud that relate to the Jewish attitude toward sexuality. In one passage (BT Berakhot 62a), a rabbi named Kahana hides underneath the bed of his teacher Rav as Rav was having sex. Rav scolded Kahana for his behavior, but Kahana countered that sex is part of the Torah, and therefore he must learn about it from his teacher.

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.[4] 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.[5]

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, the classical rabbis' 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

Kabbalistic texts, such as The Holy Letter, writes that a man should arouse his wife during sex and even that he should ensure that she achieves orgasm before he does. Some medieval rabbis even allowed forms of contraception so that couples could engage in sex for pleasure.[6]

On the other hand, sexual activity is also viewed as a grave sin within Judaism if it is 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 one's 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 female converts with Kohanim (priests)
  • Mamzerim (offspring of adulterous unions) with regular Jews

Homosexuality and bisexuality[edit]

The traditional view is that the Torah forbids a man anal intercourse between two males of age, and this is the view of Orthodoxy; there are other modern views that disagree and there is evidence of homoerotic behavior among male Jews across differing times and places.[8][9][10] 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", which is a separate prohibition that is not limited to intercourse and which could include solitary sex (i.e. masturbation).[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: the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited two single males from sleeping under the same blanket.[citation needed]

In Liberal Judaism (United Kingdom) homosexual relationships are considered acceptable,[11] and weddings are conducted for same-sex couples.[12]

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).[13] The Sifra, however, interprets verses from Leviticus to mean that female homoeroticism is allowed, just marriage between two women is prohibited.[14]

Extramarital sex[edit]

In Judaism, extramarital sex is universally frowned upon; according to some authorities, it even falls under a biblical prohibition. The written Torah never forbids sex outside the context of marriage, with the exception of adultery[15][16] and incest.[16] According to Exodus 22:16, the man who entices[17] a woman who isn't betrothed must marry her afterwards, unless her father refuses to allow him Exodus 22:17. Still, extramarital sex is forbidden in rabbinical Judaism.[18]



Despite not having been explicitly prohibited in the Torah,[19][20][21][22] 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".[23] 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 Sefer Hasidim, however, states that if a man's sexual desire is so great that he afraid of committing a worse sin, then he is allowed to masturbate in order to avoid a worse sin.[9]


Yosef Hayyim in Ben Ish Chai[24] said that the Halakha is that female masturbation is wrong because it creates evil forces (Qliphoth) and brings the woman to connect spiritually with the evil angel Samael. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein[25] said it is forbidden 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.

Sexual practices and culture[edit]

Premarital sex[edit]

In medieval Europe, the practice of bundling was common for young engaged couples.[9]


The Talmud says that a man cannot force his wife into having sex.[26] In Nedarim, the Talmud also claims that rebellious children will come from people who conceive a child in certain ways, including if a women has sex out of fear of her husband, if either one is drunk, and if a woman is raped, along with other examples.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Baskin, Judith R. (2010). "Jewish Private Life: Gender, Marriage, and the Lives of Women". The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture. The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture. pp. 357–380. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511780899.016. ISBN 9780511780899. Retrieved 2019-02-14.
  2. ^ Seidman, Naomi. "Carnal Knowledge: Sex and the Body in Jewish Studies." Jewish Social Studies. New Series, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 115-146.
  3. ^ See Sefer haHinnuch (Jerusalem: Rav Kook Institute, 1990), p. 55.
  4. ^ Sefer haChinnuch ibid.
  5. ^ "Ba'alei Ha-Nefesh | Jewish Women's Archive". jwa.org. Retrieved 2019-02-28.
  6. ^ Assis, Yom Tov (1988). "Sexual behaviour in mediaeval Hispano-Jewish society". Jewish history: essays in honour of Chimen Abramsky. Halban. pp. 25–59. ISBN 9781870015196.
  7. ^ Leviticus 18
  8. ^ Daniel., Boyarin (1995) [1993]. Carnal Israel : reading sex in Talmudic culture. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520917125. OCLC 44962512.
  9. ^ a b c 1949-, Biale, David (1997). Eros and the Jews : from biblical Israel to contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520211346. OCLC 36681737.
  10. ^ Decter, Jonathan (September 2011). "A Hebrew "sodomite" tale from thirteenth-century Toledo: Jacob Ben El'azar's story of Sapir, Shapir, and Birsha". Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies. 3 (2): 187–202. doi:10.1080/17546559.2011.610176. ISSN 1754-6559.
  11. ^ BBC Religions, "Liberal Judaism"
  12. ^ Benjamin Cohen, "Liberal Judaism launches gay marriage ceremonies in Britain", Pink News 25 Nov 2005
  13. ^ "Issurey Bi'ah - Perek 21 - איסורי ביאה - פרק כא". www.chabad.org.
  14. ^ Brooten, Bernadette (1998). Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 61–71. ISBN 978-0226075938.
  15. ^ 5 Questions with Professor Michael D. Coogan Archived 2011-09-19 at the Wayback Machine The Summit, October 19, 2010. New URL: http://admin2.collegepublisher.com/se/the-summit/opinion/5-questions-with-professor-michael-d-coogan-1.1716380 Archived September 19, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. Quote: "In ancient Israel, premarital sex by a woman was discouraged because in the patriarchal society of that time, a daughter was her father's property. If she was not a virgin, her value--the bride price her father would get from a prospective husband--was diminished. Also, any child born to an unmarried woman would be fatherless--the Biblical term is "orphan"-- and so, without either a male protector or any possibility of an inheritance, which was passed from father to son. There is no explicit prohibition in the Old Testament of premarital or extramarital sex by men, except for adultery, which meant having sex with another man's wife."
  16. ^ a b "Traditional Sources on Sex Outside Marriage - My Jewish Learning".
  17. ^ "Strong's Number 6601 Hebrew Dictionary of the Old Testament Online Bible with Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon, Etymology, Translations Definitions Meanings & Key Word Studies - Lexiconcordance.com". lexiconcordance.com.
  18. ^ Broyde, Michael J. (22 August 2005). Marriage, Sex and Family in Judaism. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 96. ISBN 978-1-4616-3996-1.
  19. ^ 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 978-0827607682. OCLC 80557192. Jews historically shared the abhorrence of male masturbation that characterized other societies.2 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
  20. ^ Patton, Michael S. (June 1985). "Masturbation from Judaism to Victorianism". Journal of Religion and Health. 24 (2): 133–146. doi:10.1007/BF01532257. ISSN 0022-4197. PMID 24306073. Nevertheless, there is no legislation in the Bible pertaining to masturbation.
  21. ^ Kwee, Alex W.; David C. Hoover (2008). "Theologically-Informed Education about Masturbation: A Male Sexual Health Perspective" (PDF). Journal of Psychology and Theology. 36 (4): 258–269. doi:10.1177/009164710803600402. 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.
  22. ^ Williams, Daniel K. (2013). "5. Sex and the Evangelicals: Gender Issues, the Sexual Revolution, and Abortion in the 1960s". In Schäfer, Axel R. (ed.). American Evangelicals and the 1960s. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-299-29363-5. OCLC 811239040. The leading evangelical sex advice books of the late 1940s had contained strong warnings against masturbation, placing it in the same category of such sexual sins as homosexuality and prostitution. Even in the early 1960s, some evangelical sexual advice books for teens still contained warnings about masturbation, but by the end of the decade, those warnings had disappeared, because evangelicals who noticed that the Bible said nothing directly about masturbation believed that they had made a mistake to proscribe it.19
  23. ^ Bris Kodesh Archived 2010-12-13 at the Wayback Machine 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
  24. ^ Od Yosef Chai p. 37, quoting the Arizal in Shaar HaKavanos, Inyan Drushei Layla, sec. 7
  25. ^ Igros Moshe, Even Ha'ezer 1, sec. 69.
  26. ^ "Eruvin 100b:14". www.sefaria.org. Retrieved 2019-03-17.
  27. ^ "Nedarim 20b". www.sefaria.org. Retrieved 2019-03-17.

Further reading[edit]

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

External links[edit]