Jewish Views on Sex

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Creation of Eve
The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) followed by Jews has its share of sensual and erotic passages but in the New Testament, followed by Christians, sex becomes a terrible sin and something that should be avoided. But the Old Testament also has some rather arcane and arbitrary laws regarding sex. According to Deuteronomy a man who violates a virgin has to pay a fine of 50 silver sheckles and marry the woman in question and an unmarred woman who willfully has sex with a man older than her fiancé can be put to death.

Sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who is Jewish, once told the New York Times, "For years I wondered why I could talk about the things I talk about so openly. Now I know. For us Jews, sex was never a sin.” The great rabbi Simeon ben-Malafat reportedly said that the penis is the great peacemaker of the home. Another rabbi advocated the use of a variety of sex positions. There is a reportedly a law in the Talmud that an unemployed man must make love to his wife every day.

The Seventh Commandment forbids adultery (extramarital sexual relations) not fornication (premarital sexual relations) . This is because Jews traditionally married very young so fornication was not regarded as a problem while adultery was a community problem because it called into question the legitimacy of children. The Book of Ruth encourages single women to have sex as long as they intend to marry the man they plan to have sex with. Both rabbis and Muslim clerics have endorsed Viagra.

There was never much of tradition of monks and celibacy in Judaism. The Jewish community of the Essenes chose 2,000 years ago to live a celibate life but that movement didn’t last long. In Christianity — and Buddhism and Hinduism too — there is a strong tradition of monastic cenobites expressed in the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages, and the celibate priests of today. According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Christians may have adopted celibacy only because they felt that they did not have the time to give to conjugal and family relations. But it is also possible that they rejected family life on principle as something in some way physically or spiritually debilitating or demeaning. In any case, monasticism and celibacy — an experiment that was by and large rejected — never became prominent in mainstream Jewish life.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; ; Jewish Museum London

Sex in Hebrew Bible

The 39-book Hebrew Bible is the main religious book of Judaism. It contains the five-book Torah regarded as the word of God.According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: At the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, the first recorded divine commandment to humankind was "Be fruitful and multiply." Judaism has generally understood this to indicate that sex, both for procreation and for pleasure, is a blessing and a gift. It is to be used wisely, to be sure, and not for control, debasement, or promiscuity. There are restrictions on it and on its use, but there is little embarrassment traditionally attached to sexual matters. [Source:“Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Erwin J. Haeberle, Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, eds.,]

The book of Leviticus, for example, is filled with references to prohibited sexual relations and activities, and yet it is precisely the section of the Bible traditionally chosen to begin the instruction of little children in biblical Hebrew: "Let the pure little ones begin with the study of the laws of purity."

Adam and Eve and the serpent
This was a wise pedagogical decision, because such legal material is repetitive, uses a small vocabulary over and over, and offers the sort of text that is excellent for rapid achievement. But the decision also suggests that those who made it had little hesitancy in discussing with children intimate aspects of normal and abnormal sexuality.

In Old testament, Solomon told his future bride:
“You are stately as a palm tree.
and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say it will climb the palm tree
and lay hold of its branches.
Oh, may your breasts be like
clusters of the vine.
and the scent of your breath like apples.
And your kisses like the best wine
that goes down smoothly.
gliding over lips and teeth”

Prohibited Sex in the Hebrew Bible

According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Prohibited sex falls mainly into three categories, based on the prohibitions found in the Hebrew Bible as expanded in the Talmud (i.e., the legal, philosophical, and moral deliberations of the Rabbis from about 150 B.C. to 500 A.D.), the legal codes, and the Responsa literature (i.e., published legal opinions and ethical and philosophical guidance of outstanding rabbis up to the present day). First, those relations are prohibited that could never be legally recognized under any circumstances as valid unions (e.g., relations between a mother and her son). This prohibition is based on propinquity of relationship between the principals and cannot be made right after the fact. [Source: “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Erwin J. Haeberle, Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, eds.]

An exception to the rule is the biblical law of levirate marriage, under which a childless widow has a claim on the surviving brother to marry her and to try to provide her with a child. That child, the financial and moral responsibility of the surviving brother, is not to carry on the surviving brother's name and house, but the name and house of his dead brother. This law was rendered moot by the Rabbis at a later time.

Prohibited also are sexual relations considered unnatural, or contrary to physical nature, as between a human being and sheep or cattle. Forbidden also, but in a different class, are relations contrary to law, such as adultery. A union might have been possible between the principals involved had there been no marriage to someone else, but once the woman is married to another, sex with her is banned, unless she gets a divorce.

In the Pentateuch as recorded in Leviticus, plural marriage is sanctioned for men but not for women, who can have only one husband at a time. Thus, for a man to have sex with his neighbor's wife is a capital crime both for him and for her, provided she consented and there is no question of force. But for an unmarried woman to have sex with her neighbor's husband may not fall into the same category.

Prohibited also are relations that are psychologically impossible, such as a man marrying two sisters as rivals or a woman together with her daughter. This legislation became moot as well when the Rabbis required that all wives be guaranteed equal rights and privileges, including sexual rights. The woman's sexual rights are spelled out in detail in the legal literature, and a husband's failure to satisfy them is grounds for legal action against him under Jewish law. Among other provisions, Talmudic jurisprudence allows that the wife of a sailor is entitled to demand her sexual rights a minimum of once in six months, while for a scholar the obligation is once a week.

Sex is prohibitedduring menstruation because Jewish law recognizes a powerful taboo against shedding or using blood. Blood even of a properly slaughtered animal, for instance, can never be eaten or allowed to remain in the meat. The contact with catamenial blood is therefore considered a source of temporary ritual impurity, but this is not a judgment on the role of sex or the value of sexual intercourse.

Jewish Laws Related to Sex

Mitzvot (Jewish Laws) related to sex according to Maimonides, the 11th Century Jewish Thinker
N330 — Not have relations with one's mother
N331 — Not have relations with one's father's wife
N332 — Not have relations with one's sister
N333 — Not have relations with daughter of father's wife if sister
N334 — Not have relations with one's son's daughter
N335 — Not have relations with one's daughter's daughter
N336 — Not have relations with one's daughter
N337 — Not have relations with a woman and her daughter
N338 — Not have relations with a woman and her son's daughter

N339 — Not have relations with a woman and her daughter's daughter
N340 — Not have relations with one's father's sister
N341 — Not have relations with one's mother's sister
N342 — Not have relations with wife of father's brother
N343 — Not have relations with one's son's wife
N344 — Not have relations with brother's wife
N345 — Not have relations with sister of wife (during her lifetime)
N346 — Not to have relations with a menstruant
N347 — Not to have relations with another man's wife

N348 — Men may not lie with beasts
N349 — Women may not lie with beasts
N353 — Not to be intimate with a kinswoman
N354 — A mamzer may not have relations with a Jewess
N355 — Not having relations with a woman without marriage
N356 — Not remarrying one's divorced wife after she has remarried
N357 — Not having relations with woman subject to Levirate marriage
N358 — Not divorcing woman he has raped and been compelled to marry
N359 — Not divorcing a woman after falsely bringing evil name on her
N360 — Man incapable of procreation not to marry a Jewess
N361 — Not to castrate a man or beast

Encouragement of Sex in the Hebrew Bible

According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Encouragement to marry and to raise a family is part of the Jewish sex ethic. From Abraham and Moses onwards, religious leaders, both male and female, have commonly been married. When the temple was still standing in Jerusalem, the High Priest was married. Later, when the synagogue/rabbi/Sacrifice-of-prayer system replaced the temple/priest/sacrifice-of-animals system, the rabbis were generally married.

One school holds that a rabbi should necessarily be married, and it is commonly taught that a man without a wife is radically incomplete and is failing to fulfill God's will. There are opinions from time to time suggesting abstention from sex, but these are aberrant to the majority opinion.

Jewish law considers that divine commandments, called mitzvot, are precious evidence of God's love and care for God's children. In other words, to fulfill a mitzvah is to fulfill the will of God, and it is seen as a joyous privilege, never as a burden. Not only explicit commands but any truly good deed done with good intentions can qualify as a mitzvah. In that light, it is considered a special mitzvah to have sex on the Sabbath. This is because the Sabbath is called the most precious of days, sanctified by God, and therefore to glorify it and make it something to look forward to is in itself a pious action. Having sex on the Sabbath would make the Sabbath even more delightful, so that it would be a special mitzvah.

Jewish Views on Premarital Sex and Sex for Pleasure

According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: It is possible to dissolve a marriage that has been without issue on the ground of childlessness, but it is not necessary to do so, and in fact such dissolutions historically have been rare. Since a marriage without issue does not fulfill the mitzvah of the first commandment, all such marriages, past and present, presumably are preserved mainly because of the love and pleasure that the partners invest in and derive from them. No guilt attaches to that love or that pleasure in a childless marriage, only some measure of regret that a mitzvah is left unfulfilled. [Source: “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Erwin J. Haeberle, Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough]

For the most part, Jewish authorities from classical times to the present find no guilt or prudery attaching to sex for pleasure. There are discussions of oral sex in the rabbinic literature that suggest that whatever pleases both partners, even if it does not conduce to procreation, is permitted and in fact desirable as a way of increasing their delight in one another. The body is, after all, a product of its divine Maker, and although it can be misused and used to hurt, it is not a bad product, and no evil inheres in it by nature.

However, one can find cautions about wicked women in the Bible and warnings about temptation and excess in the Talmud. Among the very pious of our own time, avoidance of any casual contact between the sexes suggests considerable discomfort with the body. On the whole, though, it is fair to say that licit sex for pleasure is accepted, and generally encouraged, as conducive to the proper service of God.

On the issue of premarital sex Exodus 22:16-17, reads: “the man who entices a woman who isn't betrothed must marry her afterwards, unless her father refuses to allow him.” The line from Book of Leviticus — "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination." (Leviticus, 18:22) — is often presented as a reason why homosexuality is not allowed.

Contraception and Jews

Jews have no problem with the use of birth control. Jewish law forbids the use of contraception until a couple has had at least one boy and one girl. According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: The view of birth control follows the same pattern of thinking as that regarding abortion, and for the same reasons. The mitzvah is to be "fruitful and multiply." This means reproducing oneself, that is, two parents having two children. There is no obligation to have more children, and if the family cannot provide properly for more children, many authorities would favor contraception. If there is medical opinion that even one child is contraindicated, then most authorities agree that contraception is called for even if there are no children. [Source: “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Erwin J. Haeberle, Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough]

God is not happy
Coitus interruptus — the withdrawal of the penis from the vagina before ejaculation occurs — is known to have been used in ancient times because it was condemned by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic writers alike. They argued that the male seed was too precious to waste.

On the use of contraception, Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: The issue of using artificial means to prevent fertilization and conception is complex. The overarching reason for marriage is to bear children and establish a family. The rabbis also acknowledge, however, that sexual intercourse often is pleasurable. Hence, the question is whether or not it is permissible for a married couple to employ contraceptives and thus separate the pursuit of sexual pleasure from the divine commandment to procreate. (Extramarital sex is frowned upon as utterly sinful.) The rabbis generally approach the question in view of the biblical injunction against "spilling," or "wasting," one's seed (Gen. 38:9). The majority of contemporary Orthodox rabbis reason that, since this injunction applies only to a man, a woman may use a contraceptive device or take birth control pills. Such measures are particularly countenanced when pregnancy would be detrimental to the woman's health. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s,]

Jewish Views on Onanism (Masturbation)

Jews are known for giving a fair amount of attention to masturbation and taking a rather harsh, at least less “rational”, view towards it. Onanism, a term for masturbation, is named after Onan, the second son of Judah, who practiced prudent coitus interruptus with his brother’s widow.

According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Masturbation or onanism is not a major problem in Jewish law and practice in biblical times, in the Talmudic period, or in the Responsa literature up to the present day. The reason for this is that Jewish law and practice is on the whole extremely practical. Generally, a case is conceived of as a conflict of interest between two parties who are seeking guidance and justice from a court. Who, then, is bringing the accused masturbator to court, and on what charge? The nature of onanism is such that the presence of credible, disinterested witnesses is not likely. [Source: “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Erwin J. Haeberle, Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough]

That is not to say that the practice is favored. There is much uplifting homiletic and instructive literature that ranges from looking on onanism as a corrupting practice to seeing it as a wasteful and diverting substitute for authentic human relations. Sometimes it is seen as an acceptable release of tensions in a situation where other releases are not possible. Some modern Jewish thinkers would incline to the latter view. Some past thinkers dealt with it very little or not at all.

Incidentally, the famous sin of Onan in the Bible was not masturbation at all, as is commonly thought. Although the English and American languages use "onanism" to mean masturbation, the actual sin of Onan, for which he was condemned, was that he refused to give his seed to his dead brother's widow.

Sperm in Vain and Frequenting a Wife Like a Rooster

Jewish literature focuses a great deal of attention to sexuality. Sexuality is a topic that returned to again and again in the narratives and laws in the Tanakh and rabbinic literature. Not long after God creates Man he urged his “Be fruitful, and multiply.” Genesis, 1:28 reads: "And God blessed them; and God said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply, 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"

Maimonides wrote: "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." [Source: Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah, 21:9,11]

Sperm in vain is a Talmudic term for any sexual act in which a male's sperm is consciously "wasted". It can be used to justify a prohibition of masturbation and male oral sex. However, if a man’s 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. Babylon Talmud, Tractate Niddah, p. 13a reads: “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.” [Source: Wikipedia]

Jewish Rules on When to Have Sex

Adam and Eve Are Driven out of Eden
Rules about when observant Jews can and can not have sex are defined by the concept of “family purity.” According to Jewish law couples must refrain from having sex and all physical contact, even hand holding, during the period of time a women is defined as “impure.” This stateof impurity exists for 12 days: five days during menstruation and seven days after a women’s period ends. It also occurs after childbirth, a miscarriage or certain gynecological procedures.

After the state of impurity ends a woman is supposed to wear white underwear and sleep on white sheets to detect spotting. She also inserts a white cloth into her vaginal canal. If the cloth is clean, she visit a ritual bath, or “mikvah” , for purification. Only after all these things have been done are sexual relations permitted. When sex resumes it as at a time when a woman is most likely to get pregnant.

If the cloth is not clean there are rules about which stains are significant and which require another seven day period of purity. In some cases the cloth has to be brought to a rabbi for a final judgement. There are special rules about all this and the use of birth control devices, illnesses and treatments.

Song of Songs

Jay Treat of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: “The Hebrew Bible contains a particularly puzzling little book known as the Song of Songs. It is also known as the Song of Solomon or as Canticles. The book appears to be a collection of poetry on the theme of human love. It is often frankly erotic. The poems typically presuppose two primary figures: a male lover and a female lover. Like much poetry, its polysemy makes it both evocative and enigmatic. At some early point before our first explicit citation of it, it was seen as an allegory for God's love. It was "the most frequently interpreted book of medieval Christianity" (Ann Matter) and it inspired a great many medieval Jewish commentaries as well. The Song of Songs has played a fascinating role in Western culture. It has been a test case and a workshop for allegorical method. It has been a mainstay of asceticism and an impetus for mysticism.” [Source:]

Alan Humm at Excelsior College in Albany, New York wrote: “ When I was doing college teaching, I found that, periodically, students would begin to faze out, often because they were getting exams in other classes (at least that was what I told myself). But I was able to quickly regain their interest by doing a lecture that covered issues related to sex or drugs. Since there is plenty of sex in the Bible, this was not a problem. You have to work a little harder to drag in drugs, but it can be done. [Source:]

“So we will be looking at what is incontrovertibly the sexiest book in the Bible (Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant), the Song of Songs (also known as The Song of Solomon and Canticles). Even a cursory glance at the Song will tell you it is about love.” In 1.2-3a we read:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
Your anointing oils are fragrant,
Your name is perfume poured out…

“As it continues, it can get quite explicit (especially in Hebrew). Although it is always poetic, it is also always about romantic love. I remember in high school, having a teacher who thought that having this type of literature “in the Bible” was side-splittingly funny, and it is appropriate to ask why most people who take the Bible seriously aren't laughing with him. It could be because they are taking it a little too seriously. But it may be that they are seeing something in this openly romantic poem that my former teacher could not.”

Sex Lives of Hasidic Jews

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

According to “Growing Up Sexually: “ These Jews have been located among the most sexually “repressive” in the world. “Since the sexes have been separated since childhood the anticipated sexual encounter following the marriage ceremony is a matter of great moment and anxiety”. “Ideally, neither men nor women have any sexual experience before marriage; because this area is rarely ever discussed, however, little information on the subject exists. On the Shabbes some Rebbes often obliquely caution parents to guard their children from committing the sin of masturbation. […] The Hasidic girl is carefully shielded from boys from her early years until her marriage. Matters relating to sex are never discussed. There is no preparation for the bodily changes that take place at puberty, nor is there much exchange between mother and daughter concerning marital relations”. Still, young couples “are warned that the performance of the sexual act must be in the line of duty along with other religious observances, but at no time should it serve as an “abominable deed of passion and lust” [Source: “Growing Up Sexually, Volume” I by D. F. Janssen, World Reference Atlas, 2004]

Poll states: “Both bride and groom have received instruction from their respective parent of the same sex regarding sexual experience, in spite of the fact that parents assume their youngsters to have acquired the necessary information from reading and hush-hush conversation with peers. […] Available evidence indicates little if any indulgence in masturbation, though transgression does not seem to meet with severe sanctions beyond strong disapproval or slight slapping of the offender’s hands. Similar behavior was observed with regard to heterosexual play, except that in this case control is accomplished by strict separation of the sexes, both within and outside the home, a separation that begins almost at birth.. […] Boys are gradually introduced to the subject of sex in school, where, accompanied by a degree of embarrassment, they encounter it in the Bible, the Talmud, and the law codes. Girls, on the other hand, are formally kept ignorant until immediately before marriage”.

Against all odds, the author found “traces of autoerotic behavior among boys between puberty and marriage, but it is impossible to even guess at its extent”. Thus, there appear to be few if any data on children’s sexual experiences. “It must be noted that hasidic boys are, for the most part, separated from women (other than their immediate family members) starting at the age of three. Their contact with women, therefore, is limited. After Bar Mitsva (thirteen years of age), their daily routine involves sitting and studying for most of the day. No time is allotted for exercise or any other sort of physical release, which is seen as glorifying the body and therefore forbidden. Even non-Hasidic teenagers have trouble maintaining a healthy, balanced attitude toward their bodies and growing sexuality”.

Jewish Views on Prostitution and Wedlock-Born Children

According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Since the time of the Bible, prostitution has been associated with pagan religions and cults. Most references to the Baals in the Hebrew Bible have to do with fertility gods that were worshiped by Canaanites and Babylonians. The worship of fertility gods and goddesses was seen as a debasing abomination by the Hebrew prophets and teachers, and no doubt the rites attached to that worship were a large part of the reason. [Source: “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Erwin J. Haeberle, Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough]

In Babylonia, no woman was considered fit for marriage until she had offered herself by night to a stranger in the temple of the fertility cult. The money paid by the stranger was a donation to the cult of the goddess. In the springtime, sacred prostitutes lay in the furrows of the newly plowed fields awaiting men to perform fertility rituals. That sort of worship pattern was considered an abomination by the Hebrew leaders and was dealt with harshly.

Ordinary prostitutes with no cultic ties did exist, however, and although the practice was considered degrading to both the men and the women, it did not always carry serious penalties. Rahab, the harlot of Jericho, for example, emerges from the Bible story as a kindly and helpful woman, who alone is spared with her family when the city is taken. Furthermore, she was accepted in the community of Israel from then onwards. That does not signify, however, approval of her way of life.

A bastard in English and American usage is a child born out of wedlock. There is no concept of bastardy under Jewish law or practice, in biblical jurisprudence, in the Talmud, or in the Responsa literature up to the present day. Perhaps this is partly because the issue of whether someone was born in or out of wedlock has been less important in Judaism than in some other religions. Wedlock, the state of being married, has to do with willing entry into a contractual arrangement and is therefore mainly an action of the two principals, not a benefit or sacrament administered to the principals by a priest or clergy member. The rabbi merely sees that the arrangements are carried out properly; he brings no divine power to the union that the principals do not have themselves. Thus, the Jewish marriage is sanctified, but not by the presence or absence of the rabbi. In the case of a union that could never have been legitimately possible, such as that between a mother and her son, the issue would be a mamzer, "issue of an impossible union." In the same class is the issue of a union between brother and sister or of an adulterous relationship.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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