Judaism and masturbation

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The prohibition of extracting semen in vain (in Hebrew: איסור הוצאת זרע לבטלה) is a rabbinic prohibition found in the midrash and Talmud. The prohibition forbids a male from intentional wasteful spilling of his semen.

Orthodox Judaism[edit]

The Talmud forbids male masturbation, as it leads to unnecessary spilling of semen, or the impure thoughts of women other than the man's lawful wife. This prohibition is derived from the Biblical narrative of Onan (Talmud Niddah 13a). The Talmud (ibid) likens the act to murder and idolatry. The wrath displayed by God toward Onan was invoked not through the act of spilling semen, but through disobedience to God's command for Onan to impregnate his brother's widow (see the story in Genesis 38:8-10). Others consider the death sentence excessive for failure to properly follow the laws of Levirate marriage — the Biblical option offered to those refusing a Levirate marriage was that the woman who was refused, would spit over the males shoe, after removing it from his foot. Because Onan's punishment was so much more severe, they argue that the spilling of semen was the relevant offense. Onan was not masturbating, but practising birth control by withdrawal.

According to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, "It is forbidden to discharge semen in vain. This is a graver sin than any other in the Torah".[1] However, Beis Shmuel expounds that this is not literal, but rather serves to frighten man into avoiding the sin.[2]

There is disagreement among the poskim, decisors of Jewish law, whether masturbation is an acceptable way of procuring semen for artificial insemination or in vitro fertilisation.[3]

Judaism in general neither prohibits nor discourages female masturbation, although some authorities consider female masturbation as necessarily involving "impure thoughts".[4]

Other movements[edit]

Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis have decided on more liberal conclusions. Reconstructionist Rabbi Alexis Roberts maintains that masturbation is "harmless, natural and healthy. It may provide release and pleasure, as well as self-knowledge that is useful for pleasurable sex with a partner. It may make it easier for young people to have sexual release in the years when they are too young for a mature, committed, loving relationship."[5] Reform Rabbi Jonathan Stein, in a proposed schema for normative Reform evaluation of different sexual activities, proposed that masturbation be considered "mutar", a term generally translated as "permissible", but which he renders as "tolerable".[6] Rabbi Walter Jacob, writing on behalf of the Reform responsa committee, asserts, "Although the statements of tradition are very clear, we would take a different view of masturbation, in the light of current psychological thought. Masturbation should be discouraged, but we would not consider it harmful or sinful."[7]

Spilling semen in vain[edit]

Sperm in vain (or Semen in vain or Seed 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",[8] whether because she is pregnant, infertile, or elderly. This is proper 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,
'And the thing which he did was evil in the sight of the LORD; and He slew him also.' (Genesis 38:10)

— Babylon Talmud, Tractate Niddah, p. 13a

Prior to the 20th century, it was a Jewish term usually (but not only) referring to masturbation. In Shulchan Aruch, on "Yoreh Deah", it is stated that wasting sperm is considered to be a sin greater than any sin in the Torah.

Homosexual intercourse is also considered an act of spilling semen in vain; as for masturbation, despite not having been explicitly prohibited in the Torah, the Halkha and the Oral Torah views masturbation as an Halakhaic prohibition and a great sin. Even marital sexual acts in which the semen is not deposited in the vagina, is considered an act of seed in vain.[citation needed]

The Halakhic attitude towards a female masturbation is found in the opinions of the Ben Ish Chai,[9] who says that it is wrong because it creates evil forces (Kelipos), and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,[10] 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.

In modern days, the Halakhic question on whether taking a male sperm for the purpose of medical examinations or insemination is debated among the authorities.

Torah basis[edit]

The Tanakh does not explicitly prohibit masturbation.[11][12] Leviticus chapter 15 in the Law of Moses states that any male having a "flow" is ceremonially defiled, he must cleanse himself with water, this "flow" refers to ejaculation of semen (verse 32), whether through masturbation[13] or nocturnal emission.[13] This temporary ceremonial defilement isn't masturbation-specific, it also applies to intercourse among married heterosexual partners[13]

Other than this ceremonial defilement, there are no consequences or punishments specified for masturbation or mere ejaculation to be found in Mosaic Law. However, the Temple Scroll, used by the sect responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, states that a man may not enter the holy grounds of the Future Temple in the New Jerusalem for a period of seven days after ejaculating.

Maimonides stated that the Tanakh does not prohibit masturbation.[14]

In the Mishnah, masturbation is treated under a broader view about frequent examination of the male and female organs. It teaches that while for women it is praiseworthy to frequently examine themselves, for men their hands "ought to be cut off".[15] This prohibition is derived from the Biblical narrative of Onan, who practiced birth control by withdrawal. The Talmud likens the act to murder and idolatry.[15]

According to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, "It is forbidden to discharge semen in vain. This is a graver sin than any other in the Torah".[1] However, Beis Shmuel expounds that this is not literal, but rather serves to frighten man into avoiding the sin.[2]

Leviticus discusses a ritual defilement relating to emission of sperm. The traditional rabbinical interpretation of Leviticus 15 was that it applies to all sperm flows, including sperm flows due to masturbation.

But [in P] the ejaculation of semen results in only a one-day impurity that requires laundering and ablutions (15:16-18), regardless of whether the act takes place during (legitimate) intercourse or by the self, deliberately (masturbation) or accidentally (nocturnal emission).

— Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, pp. 1567-1568, apud, Robert A. J. Gagnon, "A critique of Jacob Milgrom's views on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13"

Milgrom acknowledges that the rabbis condemned masturbation... Nevertheless, "it is their enactment, not that of Scripture."[16]

— Robert A. J. Gagnon, op. cit.

Leniencies for married couples[edit]

Rabbinic authorities have in certain instances permitted intentional extra-vaginal ejaculation in tandem with one's wife. The tannaim Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Meir (Tosefta, Niddah 2:), for safety reasons (prior to the advent of female birth control) permits exterior ejaculation for a duration of 24 months post childbirth (Talmud Yebamoth 34). Tosefot cites the opinion of Rabbi Yitzchak (Isaac ben Samuel) who permitted an occasional exterior ejaculation with one's wife on the condition that one does not accustom himself to always doing so (Tosfoth, Yebamoth 34b, Tosfoth Sanhedrin 58b)). The Bayit Chadash (Yoel Sirkis) commentary to the Rabbeinu Asher (ibid.) explicitly permits this foreign ejaculation with Rabbeinu Asher siding with the tosafist opinion.[17] This opinion is likewise quoted in Tur Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha'ezer ch. 25.

Rabbenu Asher, followed by Rabbi Elijah Spira, commented that an occasional exterior ejaculation in tandem with one's wife is not considered "extracting semen in vain" (and not banned by the Talmud) as long as the intention is not to avoid impregnating one's wife and it is done on rare occasion - as this is not likened to the desire of Onan, who wished to avoid impregnating Tamar entirely.[18] The Aguddah work also sides with the lenient opinion, permitting an occasional extra-vaginal ejaculation with one's wife,[19] whilst Rabbi Samuel Eidels (the Maharsha) likewise takes a lenient view.[20]

A more explicit permissive stance is that of the tosafist rabbi Isaiah di Trani the Elder:

What was the (forbidden) action of Er and Onan that the torah prohibits? that committed with the intent of not diminishing her beauty (due to pregnancy) and he doesn't desire to fulfill the mitzvah of procreation (פרו ורבו) with her. But if his intent.. is for his inclination and to satisfy his desire and his intent is not to avoid impregnating her, it is permitted, ..he whose intent is to fulfill the desire of his inclination does not transgress as "all that a man wants to do with his wife he may do" (tractate nedarim, 20b) - and this isn't called "wasting his seed".

— Tosfoth Ri"d to tractate Yebamoth, p. 12b (Yad HaRav Herzog, Jerusalem)

Rabbi Isaiah the Elder's view is likewise echoed by his descendant, rabbi Isaiah di Trani the Younger.[21]

Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, in his commentary to the verse "Adam and his wife, and were not embarrassed" (Genesis) permits any activity with one's wife necessary to "quiet (lit. seat)" his desire.[22]


Some poskim (decisors of Jewish law) rule that it is possible to masturbate to avoid arayot (forbidden relationships).[23]

In vitro[edit]

There is disagreement among the poskim whether masturbation is an acceptable way of procuring semen for artificial insemination or in vitro fertilisation.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, סימן קנא: א (Chapter 151: 1); Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried
  2. ^ a b Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha'Ezer 23:1
  3. ^ Jewish Law - Articles ("The Use of Cryopreserved Sperm and Pre-embryos In Contemporary Jewish Law and Ethics")
  4. ^ Kosher Sex
  5. ^ "Masturbation: Is It Kosher?". Beliefnet.
  6. ^ Stein, Jonathan (Fall 2001). "Toward a Taxonomy for Reform Jews to Evaluate Sexual Behavior". CCAR Journal. Central Conference of American Rabbis. Retrieved 2007-08-27.
  7. ^ Jacob, Walter (1979). "Masturbation". American Reform Responsa. Central Conference of American Rabbis. Retrieved 2007-08-28.
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Od Yosef Chai p. 37, quoting the Arizal in Shaar HaKavanos, Inyan Drushei Layla, sec. 7
  10. ^ Igros Moshe, Even Ha'ezer 1, sec. 69.
  11. ^ 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. Nevertheless, there is no legislation in the Bible pertaining to masturbation.
  12. ^ 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. 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.
  13. ^ a b c Jones, Stanton; Jones, Brenna (2014). "CHAPTER 13: Developing Moral Discernment About Masturbation and Petting". How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex: A Lifelong Approach to Shaping Your Child's Sexual Character. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, Tyndale House. p. 253. ISBN 9781612912301. OCLC 104623265. 1. We are aware of only one argument that attempts to draw directly from the Scripture to establish a basis for the acceptance of masturbation, found in J. Johnson, "Toward a Biblical Approach to Masturbation, Journal of Psychology and Theology 10 (1982): 137-146. Johnson suggest that Leviticus 15:1-618 should set the tone for our dealing with masturbation. Verses 16 and 17 say that a man who has an emission of semen should wash and be ceremonially unclean until evening. Verse 18 goes on to say that if a man and woman have intercourse, the same cleanliness rules apply. By bringing up intercourse separately, the passage surely does imply that the emission of semen in verses 16 and 17 occurred for the man individually. The passage may be referring to a nocturnal emission, or wet dream, rather than masturbation, but the passage is not specific. Johnson suggests that this Leviticus passage is significant for treating a solitary sexual experience, whether wet dream or masturbation, as a purely ceremonial cleanliness issue and not as a matter of morality. The passage also puts no more disapproval on the solitary experience than it does on intercourse. Since Christians today commonly view the Old Testament ceremonial law as no longer valid, this author suggests that masturbation is not in itself a moral concern from a biblical perspective and is no longer a ceremonial concern either.
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ a b Talmud Niddah 13a
  16. ^ Gagnon, Robert A.J. (2005-02-07). "A critique of Jacob Milgrom's views on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13" (PDF). www.robgagnon.net. Pittsburgh. p. 6. Retrieved 2015-06-25.
  17. ^ Rabbeinu Asher to Yebamoth ch. 3
  18. ^ "Eliyah rabbah" to ch. 240 of Orach Chayim, 10-11
  19. ^ Agudah, p. 115 col. 2
  20. ^ Maharsha to Talmud Nedarim 20a
  21. ^ "Ria"z", jerusalem 1994
  22. ^ Rokeach to the Torah (J. Kluggman, Bnei Brak), p. 83
  23. ^ Rabbi Chaim Rappoport, Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View, pp. 141-42.
  24. ^ Jewish Law - Articles ("The Use of Cryopreserved Sperm and Pre-embryos In Contemporary Jewish Law and Ethics")