Sex and the Jews: How the Rabbis Made It Up as They Went Along

How often should a camel-driver have sex? What about a sailor? The bible is rife with confusing references and the rabbis set out to regulate intercourse, not that they agreed on the details

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
The Meeting of Tamar and Judah, Jacopo Tintoretto, painted some time between 1555 and 1558
The Meeting of Tamar and Judah, by JacopoCredit: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Babylonian Talmud recounts a story about the third-century sage Rav Kahana sneaking under his master’s bed in order to observe him having sex with his wife. He was discovered, roundly rebuked and ordered to leave at once, but Rav Kahana defended his actions, saying that it – sex – “is Torah, and I must learn” (Berachot 62a).

Sex, like all other aspects of Jewish life, is regulated by Jewish Law. But the laws governing sex in the Bible are not the same as the laws elaborated by the rabbis in the Talmud, the main source of Jewish Law, and those are no identical with the Medieval codices of Jewish law.

Like Jewish Law itself, Jewish rules and attitudes regarding sex have evolved over time and have varied from place to place and from time to time. And like so many other aspects of Jewish life, sex has become regulated – which does not mean that the different rabbinical authorities down the ages agreed on a thing. Thus we cannot speak of “The Jewish Laws of sex” – only rules at different stages of history, which often overlap, but sometimes contradict one another.

Inconsistent on prostitution

Many of the rules regarding sex in the Hebrew Bible are profoundly alien to modern Western sensibilities. The Bible does not seem to have any expectation of monogamy, at least when it comes to men.

Not only are men permitted to take multiple wives: they may have sexual relations with women with whom they are not married. This is clear not only by the fact that biblical law never prohibits sex outside of wedlock but by the very fact that concubinage, that is, a stable sexual relationship with a woman to whom a man is not married, is permitted.

Nor does the Bible proscribe having sex with prostitutes, and when biblical characters have sex with them, the Bible does not criticize them for it: Take the case of Judah, the eponymous father of the Jews, who has sex with a woman he thinks is a prostitute, but turns out to be his dead son’s widow Tamar in Genesis 38.

This apparent acceptance of extramarital sex is confined to men, though. In Deuteronomy 22 we read that if a man has sex with his bride and suspects that she was not a virgin, and her family cannot prove that she was (presumably by presenting blood-stained sheets from the wedding night) she is to be stoned to death at the door of her father’s house. The same chapter also rules that a rapist must compensate the victim’s father with 50 shekels of silver marry her – and may never divorce her.

A similar sexist view extends to prostitution. While having sex with a prostitute is apparently okay according to Biblical Law, prostituting one’s daughter is strictly forbidden (Leviticus 19:29), and a priest’s daughter who becomes a prostitute must be consigned to the flames “for she defiles her father” (Leviticus 21:9).

The Hellenes and Persians confuse the issue

The Bible’s tolerance for the male libido is not limitless, however: the scripture sets very specific limits on whom one may have sex with, mostly laid out in Leviticus 18.

Having sex with your parents, step-parents, siblings, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, daughters-in-law, and sisters-in-law is forbidden. Having sex with a mother and her daughter or with two sisters is also not allowed. Having sex with a married woman is a no-no, as are homosexuality and bestiality (interestingly, when either a man or a woman is caught having sex with an animal, both the human and the beast are to be put to death).

Anyway, all other women are fair game, but not all the time. Menstruating women are ritually impure. Men may not touch them, let alone sleep with them.

By the time of the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud, around 2,000 to 1,500 years ago, the sensibilities start to take on more modern form. Which does not mean the rules became clearer.

The rabbis, probably influenced by views held by the Hellenistic and Zoroastrian cultures within which they lived, had a complicated and somewhat contradictory view of sex. They simultaneously believed that sex was a good thing that should be pursued with passion, and that it stemmed from base urges that needed to be restrained.

So on the one hand, sex is to be engaged in lustfully. That was the lesson Rav Kahana, mentioned above, learned from his master while hiding under his bed: “The mouth of Rav devours like one that has never eaten a cooked dish,” he wrote, euphemism for “enthusiastically, as if it were his first time.”

Also, the rabbis were firm that a man owes sex to his wife: “If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish” (Exodus 21:10)

This, say the rabbis, means that the “duty of marriage” meant regular sex, and was the right of a married woman.

The problem was that the Bible didn’t specify how regular this must be. This led to a wide array of speculation on exactly how much that is.

According to the Mishnah (Ketubot 5:5), Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the two major rabbinical schools in antiquity, disagreed on just how often mandatory sex should be.

Beit Shammai decreed that it should be at least once every two weeks, while Beit Hillel opted for once a week. Then the Mishnah goes and contradicts itself, saying that a man going to study the Torah may forgo sleeping with his wife for up to 30 days, while a manual laborer may only leave his wife unsatisfied for a week when working somewhere distant.

Camel vs. donkey: Camels can carry more than donkeys - just look at them, and they can travel farther. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Rabbi Eliezer, who lived in 2nd century Palestine, decreed that the frequency of sex with the wife depends on the man’s occupation: an idle man – should lay with his wife every day, a laborer – should have intercourse with his wife twice a week, a donkey driver - once a week, a camel driver - once every 30 days, and seamen - every six months.

To modern types, the distinction between the donkey-driver and camel-driver may seem obscure. It’s like the difference between a small truck and a semitrailer. The thrust is that donkeys were used to haul goods and self for short distances and camels for long ones.

Medieval Jewish authorities (e.g. Maimonides) recommended that men have sex with their wives once a week, on Saturday.

Eating and evil fate

MaimonidesCredit: Manuel Cohen / AFP

Late in the third century, the Babylonian sage Rav Yosef taught that sex must be done in the nude, not clothed. Skin on skin action is required to properly pleasure one’s wife, he elaborates (Ketubah 48b). Persians of his day did not disrobe for sex, he explained.

Of course, the laws of Niddah, that is the Biblical law banning sex with a menstruating women, continued to apply at the time of the rabbis, who further elaborated on them, giving us the regulations practiced by religious Jews to this very day: A woman is ritually unclean once menstrual blood appears and then for another seven “clean days,” and until she purifies herself in a mikveh, a ritual bath.

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Yohanan ben Dehavai claimed “the ministering angels” told him that people are born lame “because their fathers overturn their tables” (eluding to either having sex not in the missionary position or to anal sex), people are born mute “because their fathers kiss that place of nakedness” (i.e. engage in cunnilingus), people are born deaf “because their parents converse while engaging in sexual intercourse,” and people are born blind “because their fathers stare at that place” (Nedarim 20a).

Obviously, Rabbi Yochanan ben Dehavai (or the angels he conversed with) thought these practices should be banned. This did not become the conventional wisdom. In fact the Talmud tells us that “The Rabbis said: The halakha is not in accordance with the opinion of Yochanan ben Dehavai. Rather, whatever a man wishes to do with his wife he may do. He may engage in sexual intercourse with her in any manner that he wishes, and need not concern himself with these restrictions.”

The Talmud goes on to drive the case home with an allegory in which the wife is likened to a piece of meat purchased from a butcher. “If he wants to eat it with salt, he may eat it that way. If he wants to eat it roasted, he may eat it roasted. If he wants to eat it cooked, he may eat it cooked. If he wants to eat it boiled, he may eat it boiled.” Despite this, some later rabbinic authorities including the highly influential 16-century Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 240:4) forbad cunnilingus or even looking at a vagina.

But while the rabbis seemed to see the act of sex as legitimate, natural and even obligatory, they take a very different approach to the sexual urge, which is called the “Yetzer HaRa” in the rabbinic literature.

The Yetzer HaRa is conceived by them as a kind of demon that occupies the male body and causes him to sin. Quite a few passages in the Talmud recount the struggle of rabbis with their sexual urges. It seems that the rabbis felt that the Yetzer HaRa was necessary but hoped it would go away entirely. The Talmud quotes the second-century sage Rav Yehudah of the West expounding that “In the time to come (i.e. the End of Days), the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Yetzer and slaughter it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked” (Sukkah 52a).

While the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud codified many rules that prohibit men and women from being in proximity to one another, and were deeply concerned with impure thoughts - going so far as to banning masturbation (Niddah 13a) or even doing any act that would cause an erection (Niddah 13b), the rabbis never explicitly forbid having sex with an unmarried woman, provided she is not ritually impure or a relative specifically banned by the Bible. It was only the later Medieval rabbis who banned sex with an unmarried Jewess.

Though it seems that the rabbis did not practice polygamy (none are known to have married more than one wife) they did not ban the practice, probably because Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Solomon all engaged in it. Only in the 11th century was multiple marriage banned in Europe, by Rabbeinu Gershom, though some communities only accepted the ban only centuries later (Yemenite Jews for instance only baned polygamy in the 20th century). In any case, the impetus was probably the Christian prohibition of polygamy.

It was apparently the 12th century sage Maimonides who was the first to explicitly ban having sex with an unmarried Jewish woman. In his influential codex of Jewish Law, Mishneh Torah, he writes: “Before the giving of the Torah, a man would meet a woman in the market and if he and her wanted, he would give her her payment and have sex with her on the roadside and leave, and she was called a whore. Since the Torah was given, the whore was forbidden, for it is written 'There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel' (Deuteronomy 23:17) therefore all who have sex with a woman for lustfulness, without marriage, transgresses the Torah” (Hilchot Ishut 1:4).

Rabbi Abraham ben David, a Provençal contemporary of Maimonides who wrote a commentary on the Mishneh Torah disagreed with Maimonides, saying “A whore is one who is available to any man, but [a woman] who makes herself available only to one man does not warrant lashes and does not commit a transgression, she is a concubine referred to in the Torah.”

It seems that at the core of the disagreement was the question of concubinage, which Maimonides said was only permitted to kings. But other authorities such as the 13th century Nachmanides upheld the practice as valid for all.

Eventually Maimonides prevailed, and concubinage and sexual relations with unmarried women are today banned by virtually all Orthodox rabbis, though interestingly an influential German rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Emden, advocated in the 18th century that concubinage be revived to allow cohabitation of unmarried couples. He also suggested the ban on polygamy be lifted. No-one accepted his opinion though.

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