The primary purpose of sex is to reinforce the marital bond
Sexual desire is not evil, but must be satisfied in the proper time, place and manner
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.
Jewish Attitudes Towards Sexuality
In Jewish law, sex is not considered shameful,
sinful or obscene. Sex is not thought of as 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 of 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
In the Torah, the word used for sex between
husband and wife comes from the root
Yod-Dalet-Ayin, 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 it 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
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." (Nedarim 20b) In fact, there are passages in the Talmud that
encourage foreplay to arouse the woman. (Nedarim 20a). Any stories you may have
heard about Jewish sex occurring through a hole in a sheet are purely an
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. This is
part of the extensive laws of ritual purity described in the Torah. At one
time, a large portion of Jewish law revolved around questions of ritual purity
and impurity. The law of niddah is the only law of ritual purity that continues
to be observed today; all of the other laws applied only when the
Temple was in existence, but are not applicable
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 Torah prohibits only sexual intercourse, but 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 primarily for this purpose and as
part of the ritual of conversion, though in
some communities observant men periodically immerse themselves for reasons of
It is important to note that the mikvah provides only 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 traditionally a new community would
build a mikvah before they would build a
The Torah does not specify the reason for the laws
of niddah, but this period of abstention has both physical and psychological
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. When you combine this basic physical benefit with the
psychological benefit of believing that you are fulfilling
G-d's will, it is absolutely shocking that more
couples with fertility problems do not attempt this practice. The rejection of
this practice by the liberal movements of Judaism is not a matter of "informed
choice," but simply a matter of ignorance or blind prejudice.
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, and under what circumstances.
Birth control is rather clearly permitted in circumstances where pregnancy
would pose a medical risk to the mother or her other children. For example, the
Talmud recognizes the use of birth control by
very young women, pregnant women or nursing women. However, there is some
variance of opinion as to what other circumstances might permit birth control.
If this is an issue for you, you should consult a competent rabbinic authority.
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
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.
Sexual relations between men are clearly forbidden by the
Torah. (Lev. 18:22). Such acts are condemned in
the strongest possible terms, as abhorrent. The only other sexual sin that is
described in such strong terms is the sin of remarrying a woman you had
divorced after she had been married to another man. (See Deut. 24:4). The sin
of sexual relations between men is punishable by death (Lev. 20:13), as are the
sins of adultery and incest.
It is important to note, however, that it is homosexual acts that
are forbidden, not homosexual orientation. Judaism focuses on a
person's actions rather than a person's desires. A man's desire to have sex
with another man is not a sin, so long as he does not act upon that desire. In
fact, it could be said that a man who feels such desires but does not act upon
them is worthy of more merit in that regard than a man who does not feel such
desires at all, just as one who refrains from pork because it is forbidden
deserves more merit than one who refrains from pork because he doesn't like the
I have seen some modern Orthodox sources suggest that if homosexuality is truly
something hardwired in the brain, as most gay activists suggest, then a man who
acts upon that desire is not morally responsible for his actions, but I am not
sure how wide-spread that opinion is. In any case, it is not quite as liberal a
position as some would have you believe: essentially, it is equivalent to
saying that a kleptomaniac would not be held morally responsible for stealing.
Interestingly, female same-sex relations are not forbidden by the Torah. There
is very little discussion of female homosexuality in the
Talmud. The few sources that mention lesbian
relations say that they do not disqualify a woman from certain privileges of
the priesthood, because it is "merely
licentiousness." There is a surprising lack of discussion of such issues as
whether lesbianism would be grounds for
divorcing a woman without her consent or without
asserted that lesbian practices are forbidden because it was a "practice of
Egypt" and because it constituted rebelliousness.
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 masturbation as "impure
Suggestions for Further Reading
Rachel Biale's Women and Jewish Law
contains many sections dealing with sexual issues, focusing on the woman's
perspective. It addresses the laws of marital relations, sexuality outside of
marriage, procreation and contraception, abortion and rape.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (known for his Shalom in the Home reality TV series) has
a book coincidentally named Kosher Sex
(and let me just say in my own defense: I was using that page title years
before his book came out!). The book talks about sex in the context of a
committed, loving relationship, trying to find a proper balance between deep
friendship and passionate lovemaking, within the context of Jewish Law.
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1995-2011), Tracey R Rich
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