05. The Sanctity of Avoiding Sexual Transgression

As we have learned, the basic level of sanctity in marriage is when a husband and wife form a halakhic relationship and avoid sexual transgressions (gilui arayot). Rambam lists 37 Torah prohibitions in his Laws of Sexual Prohibitions, which can be divided into five categories:

  1. Incest, including sexual relations between a man and his mother, daughter, sister, aunt, sister-in-law, stepdaughter, or step-granddaughter. This category includes most of the sexual prohibitions.
  2. Sexual relations between those who are forbidden from marrying each other: a Jew and a non-Jew; a mamzer with a non-mamzer; or a marriage involving a eunuch.
  3. Bestiality and male homosexuality.
  4. Adultery, i.e., sexual relations between a man and a married woman.
  5. Sexual relations between a man and a nidda.[2]

There is one other severe sexual transgression: the rape of a woman or man, and certainly of a minor. This crime usually involves an additional transgression as well, such as relations with a nidda, incest, or male homosexual relations. However, even when there are no accompanying prohibitions, the damage done to the rape victim is extremely serious, so much so that in a sense it is the same as murder. Thus, when speaking of rape, the Torah tells us, “For the case is like that of a man attacking another and murdering him” (Devarim 22:26).

Another seventeen mitzvot in the Torah relate to the framework of marriage. These include laws pertaining to divorce, yibum (levirate marriage), ḥalitza (levirate divorce), the laws pertaining to the seduction or rape of a young virgin, and laws pertaining to a sota (a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery).[3]

We should not downplay the degree of sanctity achieved by one who successfully abides by all these rules and mitzvot, for we see that most people who are not committed to Torah and mitzvot do not manage to preserve their marital covenant. Even among the religiously observant, not everyone manages to resist temptation.

The Sages said:

One who sits passively and does not sin is rewarded as if he did a mitzva. R. Shimon bar Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-Nasi] said: It says, “But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life” (Devarim 12:23). If a person is rewarded for avoiding [drinking] blood, which most people find disgusting, how great must the reward be for avoiding theft and sexual immorality, which most people crave and lust after. One who avoids these earns reward for himself, his children, and his descendants until the end of time.” (m. Makkot 3:16)

The Torah teaches, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Vayikra 19:2). Rashi explains, “Avoid forbidden sexual relations and sins. For wherever you find clear sexual boundaries, you also find holiness.” Accordingly, anyone who is faithful to his marriage is considered holy.


[2]. The following is Rambam’s list of Torah commandments, as it appears at the beginning of Laws of Sexual Prohibitions, in Sefer Kedusha:

  1. Not to have sexual relations with one’s mother; 2. not to have sexual relations with one’s father’s wife; 3. not to have sexual relations with one’s sister; 4. not to have sexual relations with one’s stepsister; 5. not to have sexual relations with one’s son’s daughter; 6. not to have sexual relations with one’s daughter; 7. not to have sexual relations with one’s daughter’s daughter; 8. not to marry a woman and her daughter; 9. not to marry a woman and her son’s daughter; 10. not to marry a woman and her daughter’s daughter; 11. not to have sexual relations with one’s father’s sister; 12. not to have sexual relations with one’s mother’s sister; 13. not to have sexual relations with one’s father’s brother’s wife; 14. not to have sexual relations with one’s son’s wife; 15. not to have sexual relations with one’s brother’s wife; 16. not to have sexual relations with one’s wife’s sister; 17. for a man not to have sexual relations with an animal; 18. for a woman not to have sexual relations with an animal; 19. for a man not to have sexual relations with another man; 20. not to uncover the nakedness of one’s father; 21. not to uncover the nakedness of one’s father’s brother; 22. not to have sexual relations with a married woman; 23. not to have sexual relations with a woman while she is a nidda; 24. not to marry a non-Jew; 25. not to allow an Ammonite or Moabite to marry into the congregation of Israel; 26. not to prevent the third-generation offspring of an Egyptian convert to Judaism from marrying into the congregation of Israel; 27. not to prevent the third-generation offspring of an Edomite convert to Judaism from marrying into the congregation of Israel; 28. not to allow amamzerto marry into the congregation of Israel; 29. not to allow a eunuch to marry into the congregation of Israel; 30. not to castrate any male, even an animal or bird; 31. for a kohen gadol not to marry a widow; 32. for a kohen gadol not to have sexual relations with a widow, even outside the context of marriage; 33. for a kohen gadol to marry a virgin who had just reached adulthood; 34. for a kohen not to marry a divorcee; 35. for a kohen not to marry a zona; 36. for a kohen not to marry a ḥalala; 37. for a person not to touch affectionately someone they may not marry, even if they refrain from intercourse.

[3]. Rambam’s Sefer Nashim is dedicated entirely to these laws. This is his list of Torah commandments in the order he discusses them in that book. The Laws of Marriage contain four mitzvot: 1. To marry a woman by means of a ketuba and kiddushin; 2. not to have sexual relations with a woman without a ketuba and kiddushin; 3. not to withhold food, clothing, and conjugal rights; 4. to procreate from one’s wife. The Laws of Divorce contain two mitzvot: 1. That divorce is by means of a bill of divorce (get); 2. not to remarry one’s divorced wife if she had since married and divorced another. The Laws of Levirate Marriage and Levirate Divorce contain three mitzvot: 1. To perform yibum; 2. to perform ḥalitza; 3. for the levirate widow not to marry anyone else until she is no longer under her brother-in-law’s authority. The Laws of [Seduction and Rape of] a Young Virgin contain five mitzvot: 1. For a seducer to be fined; 2. a rapist must marry his victim; 3. for a rapist never to initiate divorce of his wife/victim; 4. for a husband who slanders his wife (motzi shem ra) to remain married to her forever; 5. for a husband who is motzi shem ra not to divorce his wife. The Laws of Sota contain three mitzvot: 1. To perform the sota ritual as delineated by the Torah; 2. not to place oil on her offering; 3. not to place frankincense on her offering.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman