12. Lesbianism

A woman may not sexually arouse herself with another woman, because sexual desire must be reserved for the sacred love between husband and wife and for fulfilling the mitzvot of ona and procreation. The Torah admonishes, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt…nor shall you follow their laws” (Vayikra 18:3). The Sages explained (Sifra ad loc.) that the “practices of the land of Egypt” are “a man marrying a man, a woman marrying a woman, and a woman marrying two men” (MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 21:8; SA EH 20:2).

Some Tanna’im and Amora’im maintain that a woman who is intimate with another woman is considered a zona, who may not marry a kohen. The Torah restricts kohanim from marrying certain women: “They shall not marry a zona or ḥalala, nor shall they marry one divorced from her husband. For they are holy to their God” (Vayikra 21:7). However, in practice the halakha does not follow this opinion. While lesbian sex is considered promiscuous, a woman who engages in it is not considered a zona, and thus may marry a kohen. Certainly, a married woman who engages in it is not forbidden to her husband (as would be a woman who commits adultery), since this activity involves no penetration in the way that a man penetrates a woman (Yevamot 76a; Rambam ad loc.).[17]


[17]. The Talmud in Yevamot 76a informs us that according to Rav Huna, “Women who rub against one another (mesolelot zo ba-zo) are disqualified from marrying kohanim.” Rashi explains “mesolelot” to refer to women who rub their genitals against each other, as a man and a woman do during sexual relations. He adds that they are disqualified from marrying kohanim because they are in the category of zona. (This is the opinion of Ramban and Rashba, as well as the second opinion of Tosafot to Shabbat 65a.) Some Rishonim understand Rav Huna as disqualifying such a woman only from marrying the kohen gadol, who must marry a virgin, and a mesolelet’s virginity is considered to have been compromised. (This is the opinion of Rashi to Shabbat 65a, as well as the first opinion of Tosafot ad loc, s.v. “pesulot.”) However, the Talmud also cites Rava, who maintains that the halakha does not follow Rav Huna, and in practice a lesbian is permitted to marry even a kohen gadol. Likewise, the Yerushalmi presents it as a debate: “Regarding two women who commit lewd acts with one another, according to Beit Shammai they are disqualified, but according to Beit Hillel they are not” (y. Gittin 8:8). Pnei Moshe understands Beit Shammai to be disqualifying them from marrying kohanim. (In practice, we follow the opinion that if an unmarried woman has sexual relations with a Jewish man outside of marriage, she is not considered a zona, and she may marry a kohen. This is because she could have married the man. Only if a woman has relations with a man whom she is forbidden to marry, such as a non-Jew, is she disqualified from marrying a kohen. Similarly, if a woman has relations with a ḥalal, she is disqualified from marrying a kohen; see SA EH 6:8.)

The simple understanding is that women who are sexually intimate with one another transgress a Torah prohibition. This is implied by the possibility that such behavior is enough to disqualify a woman from marrying a kohen. This seems to be the opinion of Rambam as well. However, there is no punishment by lashes for this sin because there is no specific negative commandment against it (MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 21:9). This is also the opinion of Mabit (Kiryat Sefer ad loc.) and Levush, EH 20:2. In contrast, Kiryat Melekh Rav 2:26 states that there is a Torah prohibition on such activity only in the context of a long-term relationship, something resembling marriage. Prisha explains that, according to Tur, the prohibition is always rabbinic (20:11).

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