Editor’s Note: This page addresses issues of Jewish law that may not be appropriate for younger readers. In places, it discusses sexual behavior in plain and frank terms. Please exercise appropriate discretion. This article is written from an Orthodox perspective on the topic.
– Attitudes Toward Sexuality
– Niddah: Laws of Separation
– Birth Control
– Abortion in Judaism
– Promiscuity & Pre-Marital Sex
Attitudes Toward Sexuality
In Jewish law, sex is not considered shameful, sinful or obscene. Sex is not a necessary evil for the sole purpose of procreation. Although sexual desire comes from the yetzer ra (the evil impulse), it is no more evil than hunger or thirst, which also come from the yetzer ra. Like hunger, thirst or other basic instincts, sexual desire must be controlled and channeled, satisfied at the proper time, place and manner. But when sexual desire is satisfied between a husband and wife at the proper time, out of mutual love and desire, sex is a mitzvah.
Sex is permissible only within the context of a marriage. In Judaism, sex is not merely a way of experiencing physical pleasure. It is an act of immense significance, which requires commitment and responsibility. The requirement of marriage before sex ensures that sense commitment and responsibility. Jewish law also forbids sexual contact short of intercourse outside of the context of marriage, recognizing that such contact will inevitably lead to intercourse.
The primary purpose of sex is to reinforce the loving marital bond between husband and wife. The first and foremost purpose of marriage is companionship, and sexual relations play an important role. Procreation is also a reason for sex, but it is not the only reason. Sex between husband and wife is permitted (even recommended) at times when conception is impossible, such as when the woman is pregnant, after menopause, or when the woman is using a permissible form of contraception.
In the Torah, the word used for sex between husband and wife comes from the root Dalet-Ayin-Tav, meaning “to know,” which vividly illustrates that proper Jewish sexuality involves both the heart and mind, not merely the body.
Nevertheless, Judaism does not ignore the physical component of sexuality. The need for physical compatibility between husband and wife is recognized in Jewish law. A Jewish couple must meet at least once before the marriage, and if either prospective spouse finds the other physically repulsive, the marriage is forbidden.
Sex should only be experienced in a time of joy. Sex for selfish personal satisfaction, without regard for the partner’s pleasure, is wrong and evil. A man may never force his wife to have sex. A couple may not have sexual relations while drunk or quarreling. Sex may never be used as a weapon against a spouse, either by depriving the spouse of sex or by compelling it. It is a serious offense to use sex (or lack thereof) to punish or manipulate a spouse.
Sex is the woman’s right, not the man’s. A man has a duty to give his wife sex regularly and to ensure that sex is pleasurable for her. He is also obligated to watch for signs that his wife wants sex, and to offer it to her without her asking for it. The woman’s right to sexual intercourse is referred to as onah, and is one of a wife’s three basic rights (the others are food and clothing), which a husband may not reduce. The Talmud specifies both the quantity and quality of sex that a man must give his wife. It specifies the frequency of sexual obligation based on the husband’s occupation, although this obligation can be modified in the ketubah (marriage contract). A man may not take a vow to abstain from sex for an extended period of time, and may not take a journey for an extended period of time, because that would deprive his wife of sexual relations. In addition, a husband’s consistent refusal to engage in sexual relations is grounds for compelling a man to divorce his wife, even if the couple has already fulfilled the halakhic obligation to procreate.
Although sex is the woman’s right, she does not have absolute discretion to withhold it from her husband. A woman may not withhold sex from her husband as a form of punishment, and if she does, the husband may divorce her without paying the substantial divorce settlement provided for in the ketubah.
Although some sources take a more narrow view, the general view of halakhah is that any sexual act that does not involve sh’chatat zerah (destruction of seed, that is, ejaculation outside the vagina) is permissible. As one passage in the Talmud states, “a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife.” In fact, there are passages in the Talmud that encourage foreplay to arouse the woman.
Niddah: The Laws of Separation
One of the most mysterious areas of Jewish sexual practices is the law of niddah, separation of husband and wife during the woman’s menstrual period. These laws are also known as taharat ha-mishpachah, family purity. Few people outside of the Orthodox community are even aware that these laws exist, which is unfortunate, because these laws provide many undeniable benefits. The laws of niddah are not deliberately kept secret; they are simply unknown because most non-Orthodox Jews do not continue their religious education beyond bar mitzvah, and these laws address subjects that are not really suitable for discussion with children under the age of 13.
According to the Torah, a man is forbidden from having sexual intercourse with a niddah, that is, a menstruating woman. The law of niddah is the only law of ritual purity that continues to be observed to day. At one time, a large portion of Jewish law revolved around questions of ritual purity and impurity. All of the other laws had significance in the time of the Temple, but are not applicable today.
The time of separation begins at the first sign of blood and ends in the evening of the woman’s seventh “clean day.” This separation lasts a minimum of 12 days. The rabbis broadened this prohibition, maintaining that a man may not even touch his wife or sleep in the same bed as her during this time. Weddings must be scheduled carefully, so that the woman is not in a state of niddah on her wedding night.
At the end of the period of niddah, as soon as possible after nightfall after the seventh clean day, the woman must immerse herself in a kosher mikvah, a ritual pool. The mikvah was traditionally used to cleanse a person of various forms of ritual impurity. Today, it is used almost exclusively for this purpose and as part of the ritual of conversion. It is important to note that the purpose of the mikvah is solely ritual purification, not physical cleanliness; in fact, immersion in the mikvah is not valid unless the woman is thoroughly bathed before immersion. The mikvah is such an important part of traditional Jewish ritual life that a new community will build a mikvah before they build a synagogue.
The Torah does not specify the reason for the laws of niddah, but this period of abstention has both physical and psychological benefits.
The fertility benefits of this practice are obvious and undeniable. In fact, it is remarkable how closely these laws parallel the advice given by medical professionals today. When couples are having trouble conceiving, modern medical professionals routinely advise them to abstain from sex during the two weeks around a woman’s period (to increase the man’s sperm count at a time when conception is not possible), and to have sex on alternate nights during the remaining two weeks.
In addition, women who have sexual intercourse during their menstrual period are more vulnerable to a variety of vaginal infections, as well as increased risk of cervical cancer.
But the benefits that the rabbis have always emphasized are the psychological ones, not the physical ones. The rabbis noted that a two-week period of abstention every month forces a couple to build a non-sexual bond as well as a sexual one. It helps to build the couple’s desire for one another, making intercourse in the remaining two weeks more special. It also gives both partners a chance to rest, without feeling sexually inadequate. They also emphasized the value of self-discipline in a drive as fundamental as the sexual drive.
In principle, birth control is permitted, so long as the couple is committed to eventually fulfilling the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply (which, at a minimum, consists of having two children, one of each gender).
The issue in birth control is not whether it is permitted, but what method is permitted. It is well-established that methods that destroy the seed or block the passage of the seed are not permitted, thus condoms are not permitted for birth control. However, the pill is well-recognized as an acceptable form of birth control under Jewish law. I have also heard some say that a condom would be permitted under Jewish law to prevent the transmission of AIDS or similar diseases, because preserving the life of the uninfected spouse takes priority; however, I am not certain how authoritative this view is. If this is an issue for you, you should consult a competent rabbinic authority.
Abortion in Judaism
Jewish law not only permits, but in some circumstances requires abortion. Where the mother’s life is in jeopardy because of the unborn child, abortion is mandatory.
An unborn child has the status of “potential human life” until the majority of the body has emerged from the mother. Potential human life is valuable, and may not be terminated casually, but it does not have as much value as a life in existence. The Talmud makes no bones about this: it says quite bluntly that if the fetus threatens the life of the mother, you cut it up within her body and remove it limb by limb if necessary, because its life is not as valuable as hers. But once the greater part of the body has emerged, you cannot take its life to save the mother’s, because you cannot choose between one human life and another.
Promiscuity & Pre-Marital Sex
Many people are surprised to learn that the Torah does not prohibit premarital sex. I challenge you to find any passage in the Jewish scriptures that forbits a man from having consensual sexual relations with any woman he could legallymarry. It’s just not there!
Nor is there any passage that requires a man to marry a woman after having consensual sexual relations with her. The passage forcing a man to marry the woman deals with rape (the man seizes her). It says nothing about consensual relations. Some say that consensual sexual relations create a common law marriage, which can only be dissolved through divorce, though the law on this point is not clear.
This is not to suggest that Judaism approves of pre-marital sex or promiscuity. Quite the contrary: traditional Judaism strongly condemns the irresponsibility of sex outside of marriage. It is considered to be improper and immoral, even though it is not technically a sin. In fact, to prevent such relations, Jewish law prohibits an unmarried, unrelated man and woman from being alone long enough to have sexual relations. But these laws come from the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, not from the Torah.
Jewish law clearly prohibits male masturbation. This law is derived from the story of Onan (Gen. 38:8-10), who practiced coitus interruptus as a means of birth control to avoid fathering a child for his deceased brother. G-d killed Onan for this sin. Although Onan’s act was not truly masturbation, Jewish law takes a very broad view of the acts prohibited by this passage, and forbids any act of ha-sh’cha’tat zerah (destruction of the seed), that is, ejaculation outside of the vagina. In fact, the prohibition is so strict that one passage in the Talmud states, “in the case of a man, the hand that reaches below the navel should be chopped off.” (Niddah 13a)
The issue is somewhat less clear for women. Obviously, spilling the seed is not going to happen in female masturbation, and there is no explicit Torah prohibition against female masturbation. Nevertheless, Judaism generally frowns upon female masterbation as “impure thoughts.”