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.
Trigger Warning: This page explains some traditional Jewish points of view about sex and sexuality that you may find offensive. Indeed, even some Jewish movements have rejected some of these viewpoints in modern times. Other points of view are more liberal than you would expect, and may offend those with more conservative sensibilities. If you might be disturbed to read about traditional Judaism's point of view on these matters, you may want to avoid this page.
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 yetzer ha-ra (the evil impulse), it is no more evil than hunger or thirst, which also come from the yetzer ha-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 contraception.
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 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." (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 urban legend.
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 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 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 ritual purity.
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 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. 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 authority.
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. Mishnah Oholot 7:6.
Rambam, the highly-regarded medieval authority on Jewish law, describes a fetus that puts the mother's life at risk as a "rodef" (literally, a pursuer) under the traditional Jewish law of self-defense, which allow you to kill a person who endangers your life, and even requires others to help you where they can do so safely. (Mishneh Torah, Murderer and the Preservation of Life 1:9) The concept of rodef would apply even if the fetus were considered a human life, though the Mishnah passage above makes it clear that the fetus is not considered a human life until it is more than halfway born. Rambam's discussion of the concept of rodef in general indicates that lesser means should be used if a rodef can be stopped without killing, but when a fetus endangers the life of the mother, there are rarely lesser means that can prevent the harm. See the Rambam's laws of the pursuer at A List of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments), 265 and 266.
Where does Judaism get the idea that a fetus is not equivalent to a human life? Jewish sources usually reference Exodus 21:22, which says that if men are fighting and they strike a woman and "yatz'u y'ladeha" (literally, her child goes out) but no harm happens, the men pay an appropriate fine, but if harm happens the men pay life for life, eye for eye tooth for tooth, etc. Now, Christianity typically understands this passage as involving merely a harmless early birth, but Judaism has always understood "yatz'u y'ladeha" as a euphemism for a miscarriage. If this incident merely caused an early birth with no harm, why would there be a fine? And if the death of the unborn were equivalent to the death of the living, why is the penalty merely a fine rather than life-for-life as the very next verse requires?
Talmud Bava Kamma 48b-49a discusses how to assess the value of damages when "yatz'u y'ladeha", and the entire discussion clearly understands that the child is not living. Ancient Jewish sources take this understanding much farther. In considering whether the execution of a theoretical pregnant woman should be delayed until after she gives birth, the Mishnah concludes that execution should only be delayed if she is already in labor. The Gemara elaborates that the plain reading is that before labor, "gufa hee" (it is her body!), citing Ex. 21:22. The Gemara goes on to reject any notion that the fetus is the property of the husband, thus executing the pregnant woman does not take away his property. Why should her execution be delayed if she is in labor? The Gemara explains, once the fetus is "uprooted," it is a different body from her! (see Talmud Arakhin 7a:11-15)
Adultery is a very serious sin in Judaism. It's right there in the Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17, You shall not commit adultery. It is considered to be such a serious sin that a person should be killed rather than transgress it, one of only three laws that are considered so serious. (Sanhedrin 74a: you may transgress any prohibition to avoid being killed except idol worship, adultery and murder)
But what is adultery exactly? In the context of the Ten Commandments and Sanhedrin 74a, it's generally understood to be a shorthand for any kind of sexual immorality that Jewish law prohibits. But the specific sin of adultery in Jewish law refers to sex between a man and a married woman. Note that sex between a married man and an unmarried woman is not considered to be adultery in Jewish law, probably because according to the Torah and the Talmud, a man was permitted to have more than one wife. A woman, however, was only allowed one husband, thus sex with a man other than her husband would be a violation of that loving marital bond between husband and wife that is thought to be so very important.
Of course, polygamy was banned by Ashkenazic Jewry a long time ago, and a married man having sexual relations outside of his marriage would certainly be disapproved of as licentiousness, but it is not the Biblical sin of adultery per se.
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 taste.
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 ketubah. Rambam 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 thoughts."
Rachel Biale's Women and Jewish Law (Paperback) (Kindle) 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 (Paperback) (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.