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Peninei Halakha > Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato > 04 – Safeguarding the Covenant of Circumcision

04 – Safeguarding the Covenant of Circumcision

01. Male Masturbation and the Prohibition of “Wasting Seed”

God created human beings with a powerful drive for love and a mutual attraction between men and women. This drive, when guided by sanctity, serves as the foundation of the marital covenant and for the closeness of husband and wife, about which the Torah says, “And he shall cling to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Bereishit 2:24). This “clinging” begins with the mitzva of ona and culminates in the mitzva of procreation. By having children together, they unite literally in one flesh.

Since the attraction between men and women is the foundation of life and the strongest human drive, we have been commanded to enter into the covenant with God by removing the foreskin of the penis, the organ that joins man and woman. This is brit mila, the covenant of circumcision. With the removal of the foreskin, which symbolizes misdirected desire, the sacred covenant between God and Israel extends to the marriage covenant between husband and wife. When they engage in joyful lovemaking, the Shekhina dwells with them (Sota 17a), and their union leads to an abundance of love and blessing, benevolence and delight, life and peace, spreading throughout the world (see Berakhot 6b and Yevamot 62b).

In contrast, when this powerful impulse is corrupted, it damages the covenant. Instead of sanctifying it through the couple’s loving fulfillment of the mitzvot of ona and procreation, it is corrupted by adultery or self-gratification. This was the sin of the generation of the flood, of which the Torah says, “God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its way on earth” (Bereishit 6:12). People continued to be drawn after their desires, committing the sins of adultery, idol worship, and theft, until the entire world was destroyed by the flood. The Sages explain that the punishment was quid pro quo: they sinned by corrupting the fiery passion that should have aroused their love in the context of marriage, using it for masturbation and adultery instead, so they were consumed by the boiling floodwaters (Sanhedrin 108a-b).

The sin of wasting seed – male masturbation – has an aspect of the sin of adultery, which is so grave that it is one of the Ten Commandments. On the verse, “You shall not commit adultery” (Shemot 20:13), the Sages comment: “There should be no adultery in you – not even your hand or foot”; in other words, a man must not masturbate with his hands or feet (Nidda 13b). Likewise, on the verse, “He shall cling to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Bereishit 2:24), the Sages comment: “He shall cling to his wife and not someone else’s wife. He shall cling to his wife and not another man or an animal” (y. Kiddushin 1:1). R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen explains further that a man should not ejaculate anywhere other than with his wife (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §121). This drive for life is meant to increase the love and devotion of a married couple. One who corrupts it in order to indulge his urges harms his ability to love his wife devotedly.

Masturbation is also antithetical to the mitzva of procreation. We know that it displeases God from the story in which Er and Onan wasted their seed to ensure that Tamar would not get pregnant. The Torah states, “But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was displeasing to the Lord, and the Lord took his life” (Bereishit 38:7), and shortly afterwards states about Onan, “What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and He took his life also” (ibid. v. 10). Therefore, coitus interruptus is forbidden. Even if a man does so when his wife cannot conceive in any case, such as when she is pregnant, nursing, or menopausal, he transgresses this prohibition (Yevamot 34b).[1]

[1]. Poskim disagree as to whether a couple may have relations in which the husband ejaculates somewhere other than the vagina, if they find it pleasurable (as discussed by Rema, EH 25:2; see above, ch. 2 n. 19). However, if the motive for doing so is contraceptive, even those who are normally permissive prohibit it (Derisha, EH 23:1). Yet even according to those who forbid, when a man ejaculates during non-vaginal intercourse or during foreplay, the prohibition is less severe than if he were to masturbate, since he is still being intimate with his wife and giving her some pleasure (Sefer Ḥaredim ch. 63; Avnei Nezer, EH 83).

According to Tosafot (Sanhedrin 59b s.v “ve-ha”), the prohibition of wasting seed is an extension of the mitzva of procreation. Some say that the prohibition is derived from the biblical story of Er and Onan (Pri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 3:14; Ben Yehoyada, Nidda 13a). Others explain that the act is forbidden because of the prohibition of bal tashḥit (wasteful destruction) (R. Yaakov Ettlinger in Arukh La-ner, Nidda 13b and in Binyan Tziyon §137). Or Zaru’a 1:124 and Smak §292 include it in the prohibition of “Do not commit adultery,” based on the extrapolation of the Sages in Nidda 13b. Finally, Baḥ (3:6) sees the source of the prohibition in the verse, “Stay away from every evil thing” (Devarim 23:10), which the Sages explain to mean that “a man mustn’t entertain thoughts during the day that will cause him to become impure at night” (AZ 20b).

Aḥaronim are divided regarding the severity of the prohibition. Many say that it is biblical (R. Shneur Zalman Fradkin of Lublin, Torat Ḥesed, EH 43:1-2; Pri Megadim; R. Ḥayim Palachi, Ḥayim Ve-shalom, 2:18; Ezrat Kohen §32; Igrot Moshe, EH 3:14). Others maintain that it is rabbinic (Responsa Pnei Yehoshua 2:44; Meshivat Nefesh §18; Ezer Mi-kodesh 23:2; R. Shlomo Kluger, Mei Nidda, Kuntres Aḥaron 195:7; Torot Emet, EH 23). It seems that even according to those poskim who believe that the transgression is only rabbinic, its basis is from the Torah, because it is contrary to the Torah’s goals in the mitzvot of ona and procreation. For a more extensive discussion of this topic, see R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin, Takanat Ha-shavin §15.

02. The Severity of the Sin

On one hand, the Sages greatly emphasize the gravity of this sin. They go so far as to say, “Whoever wastefully ejaculates seed is liable to be put to death” (Nidda 13a). They also state that someone who wastes his seed is like a spiller of blood and an idol-worshiper (ibid). He is like a murderer because he is wasting seed that is meant to add life to the world. He is like an idol-worshiper because instead of increasing love, he is misdirecting the drive for life to self-centered lust, just as idol-worshipers misdirect the power of faith to the worship of wood and stone (see Maharal, Ḥidushei Aggadot, Nidda 13b.)

Zohar goes even further, saying that one who violates this prohibition will not experience the Divine Presence or get eternal reward, since he is like a person who murdered his children. He has spilled a great deal of blood, since this sin becomes habitual. One can repent for all other sins in the Torah, except this one. Nevertheless, if one makes great efforts to repent, motivated by love of God, he will succeed in atoning even for this sin (Zohar I 219b, 62a). Based on Zohar, Shulḥan Arukh states, “This sin is worse than all the other sins in the Torah” (EH 23:1).[2]

On the other hand, there is no explicit Torah prohibition against wasting seed. The verse simply mentions that Er and Onan were punished by death for committing this sin. As a result, the poskim debate whether it is a rabbinic or Torah prohibition. Even according to those who maintain that the prohibition is from the Torah, it is clearly not considered one of the most severe ones, since it is punished neither by death nor by lashes (n. 1 above).

Practical halakhic rulings reflect this as well. If a man sees that his sexual desire is overpowering him to the extent that he will give in to the temptation of adultery or have sexual relations with his wife when she is nidda, it is preferable that he masturbate and then fast to atone for the sin, rather than succumb to these graver sins (Sefer Ḥasidim §176; SA ḤM 23:1; Beit Shmuel ad loc. 1). It is also preferable to masturbate than give in to the temptation of having relations with an unmarried woman, even if she is ritually pure (Responsa Maharshag §243).[3]

[2]. It is known that Zohar uses metaphors and hyperbole, as is typical in explanations of esoteric matters, in order to emphasize the inner dimensions. It states:

Whoever wastes seed is considered wicked and will not experience the Shekhina, as its says, “For You are not a God Who desires wickedness; evil cannot abide with You” (Tehilim 5:5)…. Woe unto that wicked person, for he is evil and he made himself evil. As his hands have dealt, so shall it be done to him (see Yeshayahu 3:11) – This includes someone who commits adultery with his hands (i.e., masturbates), ejaculating and destroying his seed for no reason. He will be punished more harshly in the supernal world than all the other wicked people…. All other wicked souls ascend from hell after they are purged, but he will not…because he literally killed his children and spilled much blood (as one who commits this sin usually does so innumerable times)…. R. Yehuda said, “There is no sin in the world without the possibility of repentance, except for this one, and there are no wicked people who will not experience the Shekhina, except this one, for ‘evil cannot abide with You’ is applied to him.” (Zohar on Parshat Vayeḥi, I, 219b)

However, powerful repentance out of love is effective even for this sin, as it is further stated:

Come and see: For all of a person’s sins and all the damage he caused above, fixing it is dependent upon repentance. But when one commits the sin of spilling seed on the ground and corrupting his ways, he corrupts himself and corrupts the land. About him it is said, “The stain of your sin is before Me” (Yirmiyahu 2:22). It also says, “For You are not a God Who desires wickedness; evil cannot abide with You” (Tehilim 5:5) – unless he repents powerfully. (Zohar on Parshat No’aḥ, I, 62a)

Earlier, Zohar on Parshat Bereishit (I, 56b) states: “They said of the generation of the flood that they committed every sin, but their fate was not sealed until they spilled their seed on the ground for no reason.” On Parshat Vayeshev, Zohar (I, 188a) states:

Come and see: Of all the sins which make a person impure in this world, the sin that defiles man the most, in this world and the next, is spilling seed into the open, ejaculating his seed for no reason using his hands or feet. This makes him impure, as it says, “For You are not a God Who desires wickedness.” For this reason, he cannot enter past the partition and cannot see the face of the Ancient One…. Fortunate is the lot of the man who fears God and avoids the evil path. He purifies himself, doing his best to revere God…and makes an effort to have children with a worthy wife…so he can teach them to walk in the ways of God.

To put this in perspective, it is important to add that just as a waster of seed is said to be like a spiller of blood, so is one who does not fulfill the mitzva of procreation (Yevamot 63b); one who does not visit the sick (Nedarim 40a); who does not accompany a guest upon his departure (Sota 46b); or who embarrasses another person in public (Bava Metzi’a 58b). A community that delays giving charity on account of a fast day is also in this category (Sanhedrin 35a). Additionally, just as someone who wastes seed is compared to an idolater, so is someone who turns a blind eye to the poor and needy (Ketubot 68a and Bava Batra 10a); someone who lives outside Eretz Yisrael (Ketubot 110b); and someone who is arrogant (Sota 4b). All these sins betray the same profound character flaw that can lead to the commission of these grave acts – murder and idol worship – even though in practice the other sins are not as grave, and one need not give up his life to avoid committing these sins, unlike bloodshed and idolatry.

[3].According to Eliya Rabba 3:15, wasting seed is the most serious of sins when a person causes it by stimulating himself. However, if he feels desire for a married woman or a nidda, it is better for him to masturbate rather than commit the graver sin. Rav Kook explains that wasting seed is more serious than all other sins only when the seed is actually wasted. However, if it serves a purpose, such as preventing the person from having relations with a married woman, the sin is less grave (Ezrat Kohen §35). Still, this seems difficult: how can it be that, on one hand, this sin is described as the gravest of all sins, yet, on the other hand, this prohibition is, at worst, a negative commandment for which the Torah prescribed no punishment? Rather, it must be that the severity of this sin is in the fact that it distances a person from God and prevents him from advancing spiritually. Nevertheless, concerning the punishment in this world and the next, it is less severe than the punishments for which the Torah prescribes death or lashes. R. Tzadok discusses this at length in Takanat Ha-shavin (15:11-12; 15:38). One of the things he explains is Zohar’s statement that someone who commits this sin does not ascend to heaven. I will explain this in the next section.

03. Two Aspects of the Sin

There are two dimensions of the sin of masturbation. On the surface, it is less severe than adultery and the other sins for which the Torah prescribes punishment, because, in practice, the damage caused thereby is not as grave. However, from the interior perspective, this sin reflects the root of all evil, the ultimate self-centeredness, which most profoundly impairs a person’s faith in God and his love for other people. As we have seen, detachment is at the root of all ruin in this world (1:5-6). It begins with the distancing between the Creator and His creations, and continues with detachment among His creatures. This is why the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18) is a “major principle of the Torah” (Sifra ad loc.), for it repairs the whole world. It is only in the spousal relationship that love and unity reach their complete fulfillment, and its essence is when they unite in the mitzva of ona (above, 1:1). This is the meaning of the life-giving impulse that exists between husband and wife, through which the couple breaks the walls of egotism and connects with one another with true love. The Shekhina dwells with them, and through them, life and blessing extend forth from Source of life to all future generations.

In contrast, when a man uses this life-giving impulse for his personal gratification, he corrupts the foundation of his life. Instead of drawing upon it to increase the love between him and his wife, he destroys it and wastes it on egotistical desires. This is why, from the interior perspective, this sin is so grave. It expresses man’s selfishness, arrogance, and lust. It detaches him from his great mission, which is to connect to God with faith, and to increase love, blessing, and life in the world.

Therefore, one who commits this sin harms himself in this world and the next. In this world, he impairs his ability to love his wife and be truly and completely happy with her, since he spent some of his strength for something empty, strength that will be lessened when he couples with his wife. Even if he makes great efforts, a thin membrane of selfishness will separate them and impair their union. He also harms himself in the next world, because his soul cannot ascend and enjoy the radiance of the Shekhina as it should. Although in terms of punishment, his sin is mild relative to other sins, in terms of the loss of his potential to come close to God, his punishment is severe, because the damaged part of his soul detaches itself from life and cannot receive its eternal reward. It cannot be fixed until the Resurrection of the Dead.

Moreover, standard repentance, normally effective in atoning for all sins, is not effective in bringing his soul to its proper level, because selfish lust distances a person from true life. Just as he cannot unite fully with his wife, so too he cannot properly enjoy the radiance of the Shekhina. This is meant not to cause despair, but to emphasize the need to repair this transgression through greater repentance than usual – so that he will make every effort to love God, cling to His Torah and mitzvot, increase his true love for his wife, and reclaim the life-giving impulse that he destroyed. Since God’s hand is extended to accept penitents, whoever makes a great effort to repent fully will merit much satisfaction and joy (see Orot Ha-teshuva 7:1:6 and 15:8).

However, it is notoriously difficult to overcome this drive. According to the Sages, this is what led to Adam’s sin, as a result of which humans became mortal and the evil inclination was internalized, to the extent that there is no righteous man on earth who always does good and never commits the sin of masturbation, or at least experiences nocturnal emissions. This drive is particularly strong among teenagers. If there ever was a man who successfully saved all his desire for his wife, he would merit revealing a spark of divine unity in his life. He will have completely repaired Adam’s sin and would therefore never die. However, God made it extremely difficult for us to repair this flaw, to the extent that even righteous people fail at it. They too must become penitents, which gives them the opportunity to be involved in repairing the whole world, with all its lusts and inclinations. In our current pre-messianic times, this sin becomes rampant, because the life-giving impulse increases in anticipation of the redemption, as does the difficulty of preserving its sanctity. The righteous must overcome all obstacles, pick themselves up when they fall, and keep going, as it says: “Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up” (Mishlei 24:16). Through this, we will become worthy of redemption from the evil inclination and from the death it entails. Life will be revealed in full force until the world is repaired with the Resurrection of the Dead (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §§109, 111).[4]

[4]. Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §102 explains that there are two types of people: the tzadik (righteous person) and the ḥasid (pious person). The tzadik does not deviate from the letter of the law and almost never sins. In contrast, the ḥasid goes beyond the letter of the law, but also falls victim to sins, particularly sexual ones. However, he is also more successful at repenting and correcting himself. See further §§103-106 as well as §108. In §101, R. Tzadok explains why almost no man can avoid this sin entirely. He adds in §43 that sometimes a man is faced with such great temptation that it is impossible for him to avoid sinning. He is considered compelled. Now, a person can never confidently assert this about himself, as perhaps he was capable of overcoming the temptation. Nevertheless, if a person is subject to strong physical desires, R. Tzadok (§44) advises him not to be depressed or conclude that there is something wrong with him. Rather, he should see it as a sign that he is capable of loving God and seeking truth.

04. The Corrective for the Sin

Various correctives have been proposed for the sin of wasting seed, but the first and primary corrective is, of course, the corrective of the covenant (tikkun ha-brit), meaning that a man connects with his wife in complete love. The Sages said that when someone has sinned with part of his body, he should use that body part to perform mitzvot (Vayikra Rabba 21:5). In this case, he should make great efforts to bring his wife pleasure during all the obligatory onot. When there is a conflict between what gives her pleasure and what gives him pleasure, he should set aside his desires and try to please his wife to the best of his ability.

Additionally, he should improve his fulfillment of the mitzva to procreate, having as many children as he and his wife have the strength for. This is on condition that he not quarrel with his wife over this, for we have already learned that the first corrective is for him to please his wife as best he can. However, if through the joy of ona he can enhance his fulfillment of the mitzva of procreation, he will have merited a powerful correction of his sin. Making up for destroying and killing life, he increases life. Making up for sinning selfishly, he devotes himself selflessly to raising his children and educating them to keep the Torah and mitzvot.[5]

Another great corrective for this sin is Torah study. By studying Torah, one connects to the Source of life, contributes new life to the world, and improves it. The Talmud tells us that God created the evil inclination, but created the Torah as its antidote (Kiddushin 30b). In other words, the Torah rectifies the wickedness of the evil inclination and transforms it to goodness. Furthermore, we learn that the fire of hell has no power over Torah scholars (Ḥagiga 27a) and that the Torah protects people and saves them (Sota 21a). Learning the Torah diligently and toiling over its words are a special corrective for this sin, for by obliterating his superficial desires through diligent Torah study, he restores his inner vitality to its rightful place (Berakhot 63b; Tamid 32a; Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §§97, 106, 123).

Teaching Torah and reaching out to bring one’s students closer to Torah can also correct this sin. After all, students are referred to as children. To counter his sin in destroying life-giving power, he infuses his students with life. Doing outreach especially rectifies this sin, for by bringing those who have lapsed back toward Torah and mitzvot, he restores his own lapsed life-giving power (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §§116, 126).

Giving charity to the poor is another great corrective for this sin. After all, “Charity saves from death” (Mishlei 10:2). By giving charity, he contributes new life, thus replacing the life-giving power he destroyed. This assumes that he is giving charity to honest poor people, who are unable to support themselves and who will use the money well – not for drugs, alcohol, and the like. Giving charity to people who are not honestly poor would be sinning in a way that is similar to wasting his seed, since he would be wasting his money. If a person is not properly contrite for this sin, then when he wants to give charity to the poor, heaven may place an obstacle before him by sending him the undeserving poor (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §125).[6]

[5]. According to R. Tzadok, “Everyone knows that the area in which he struggles the hardest against his evil inclination is the area in which he has the most potential to be clean and pure. Whatever he frequently sinned with has the most potential for…cleanliness and purity. This is why the Sages say (Vayikra Rabba 21:5) that the very same body part that he used for a sin, he should use for mitzvot” (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §49). Specifically, “The prohibition of wasting seed is an outgrowth of the mitzva of procreation…. Therefore, by fulfilling the mitzva of procreation with the proper intention – for the sake of heaven – he can also correct transgressions in this area, and use the semen for sanctity…” (ibid. §124). Rav Kook writes, “Having achieved true and pure repentance, we must return to the world and to life. By doing so we restore sanctity to its rightful place, and crown the Divine Presence in the world” (Orot Ha-teshuva 14:30).

[6]. We mentioned that teaching students can be a corrective. Zohar identifies “those who have harmed the sacred covenant” as those who did not engage in the mitzva of procreation. It goes on to relate that R. Yoḥanan was upset. Since all his children had died, he had not fulfilled the mitzva of procreation. Later, he found solace in an old man’s assertion that when someone has the privilege of teaching Torah, he is truly building the world and keeping it going. Regarding such a person it says (Yeshayahu 56:5), “I will give them, in My house and within My walls, a monument and a name, better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish” (Zohar Ḥadash, Ruth, 108b).

Learning Torah and doing kindness can be correctives as well. If a person is tried by the heavenly court and the court adds an oath to the verdict, he cannot achieve forgiveness by bringing any offering. Nevertheless, if he immerses himself in intense Torah study, he can achieve forgiveness. Some say that one can also achieve it by performing many acts of kindness for others (Rosh Hashana 18a).

05. The Prohibition on Things That Lead to This Sin

A man may not touch his penis, lest it lead to an erection and masturbation. When urinating, if he is concerned about splattering in the area or on his legs, he may aim by touching the corona of the penis, which is less easily stimulated. If he is married and his wife is ritually pure, he may touch his penis to aim. However, for any other reason, even a married man may not touch himself, lest he stimulate himself, for stimulation should be reserved for increasing the love between the spouses.[7]

When necessary to prevent itchiness or discomfort, a man may touch himself through a thick cloth. This way, there is no concern of his becoming stimulated as long as he is not intending to do so (MB 3:15). Similarly, when he is wearing pants, he may adjust himself through the pants.

A man may touch his penis in order to alleviate pain, such as to apply ointment or remove a splinter, as long as he does not cause arousal.

The prohibition is to touch the penis; there is no prohibition to touch the testicles, as long as he does not stimulate himself thereby. Even when a man takes a shower, he should not touch his penis with his hands, lest he stimulate himself. Rather, he should wash and clean around the genital area, and the soap and water will clean the penis as well (MA 3:14; Ru’aḥ Ḥayim, EH 23:3). Some permit a man to touch his penis directly when necessary, as long as he does not cause arousal (Seder Ha-yom). A married man be lenient when necessary (see Otzar Ha-poskim 23:16:4).[8]

[7]. Most Rishonim allow a married man to be lenient and touch his penis, if necessary, when urinating (Rif, Rambam, Rosh, and many others). Shulḥan Arukh records this in EH (23:4) without mentioning the stringent opinion. In OḤ as well (3:14), it presents the lenient opinion as the halakha, adding, “It is a pious attribute for even a married man to be careful not to do so,” which is the position of Rabbeinu Yona, Or Zaru’a, and Tur. Within the lenient opinion, there is still some disagreement. Some say that this leniency applies only when the man’s wife is with him (Smak, Aguda, and Ohel Mo’ed), while others maintain that it is always permitted, even if his wife is away or is a nidda (Tosafot, Me’iri, and implicit in most Rishonim). According to MA 3:14, the leniency applies only when the man’s wife is with him and is not a nidda. Many Aḥaronim agree with this, including Birkei Yosef, Ḥayei Adam, SAH, and MB ad loc. 27. This is the position that I record above, since it is the intermediate position, taking both sides into account. It also neutralizes the major concern of those who are stringent (even though some are stringent under all circumstances). Nevertheless, many Aḥaronim adopt the most lenient position, applying the permission to a married man in all conditions (Beit Shmuel and Bekhor Shor). A married man who wishes to be lenient can rely on these Aḥaronim and touch his penis when urinating, as long as he does not stimulate himself thereby.

[8]. The Talmud records the following dialogue:

  1. Tarfon says, “Any man who extends his hand below his navel should have it cut off.” They asked R. Tarfon, “If a person has a thorn lodged in his gut, should he not remove it?” He replied to them, “He should not.” They asked, “But his stomach will split open because of it!” He answered them, “Better for his stomach to split open than for him to descend into the pit of destruction.” (Nidda 13b)
  2. Tarfon’s intent is to prohibit touching the penis, not the testicles or the surrounding area (SA 3:15). If he is in pain, the halakha follows the Sages, who disagree with R. Tarfon (see Igrot Moshe, EH 1:56; Otzar Ha-poskim 23:13:3).

Shulḥan Arukh states that a man may not ride an animal bareback, lest it cause him ejaculation (EH 23:6). However, riding with a saddle is permitted. If he uses a soft riding cloth, which, on one hand, is not as hard as a saddle, but creates a barrier between the rider and the warmth of the animal, Rambam permits, while Rashi still prohibits. SA seems to follow Rambam’s lenient view. See Otzar Ha-poskim 23:19:1. Some poskim extend this concern to shoulder rides and prohibit them (R. Ḥayim Palachi, Ru’aḥ Ḥayim 669). We are not concerned about this, for two reasons. First, shoulders are hard enough to be comparable to a saddle. Second, a person sitting on someone’s shoulders is afraid of falling, and thus not occupying himself with sexual thoughts (compare Nidda 13a). However, if someone knows that doing this is likely to stimulate him, he must avoid it.

The Sages cautioned that a man should not sleep on his back, face up, lest he get an erection (SA EH 23:3). However, it seems to me that this prohibition is based on the historical reality that people used to sleep in the nude. Thus, according to Rashi, the prohibition is out of concern that one would experience an erection and be ashamed, or that he might unintentionally touch himself. However, now that it is common practice to wear underwear even while sleeping, sleeping on one’s back is not much of an issue. Another concern was that any movement of the blanket could be sexually stimulating (Rashbam, cited in Tosafot, Nidda 14a, s.v. “layit”), but this is not an issue for someone wearing underpants. See Peninei Halakha: Laws of Prayer, ch. 26 n. 3.

The Sages also taught, “Do not gaze at animals or birds when they are mating. However, animal breeders may assist mating animals, because they are occupied by their work and will not have improper thoughts” (Bava Metzia 91a; SA EH 23:3). Orḥot Tzadikim (Sha’ar 26, Sha’ar Ha-teshuva) implies that the restriction is limited to people who have already sinned in this regard.

06. Sinful Thoughts: Two Prohibitions

Two kinds of sinful thoughts are prohibited: thoughts about adultery and thoughts likely to lead to nocturnal emission. The reason for both prohibitions is the same: they harm the sacred bond between spouses and divert elsewhere the desire that should be used to increase the couple’s love and devotion, causing the Shekhina to leave them.

The first prohibition is that a man may not think about sinning, that is, he may not imagine himself committing adultery with a woman other than his wife, and certainly he may not plan the sin in his mind. As the Torah says, “Do not follow your heart and your eyes, by which you are led astray” (Bamidbar 15:39). The Sages interpret “your heart” to refer to apostasy (idolatry or heresy) and “your eyes” to refer to sinful thoughts (Berakhot 12b). Therefore, a man may not gaze at women or their clothes in a way that is liable to lead him to sinful thoughts (SA EH 21:1). In addition to the fact that the thoughts themselves are forbidden because they damage the love between husband and wife and contaminate his thoughts with forbidden things, they are liable to lead him to actual adultery. That sin starts with lustful thoughts, whose intensification gives the sinful impulse control over the person, causing him to commit adultery. The Sages say that sinful thoughts are more serious than the sin itself (Yoma 29a). True, the punishment is more severe for committing the sin than for thinking about it. However, it is the sinful thoughts that cause a person to betray his covenant with his wife and commit adultery. These thoughts begin before and persist after the sin, thus further defiling the mind and soul.

One of the reasons that the Sages instituted “Va-yomer” as the third paragraph of the daily recitation of Shema is to remind people to guard themselves against sinful thoughts. This paragraph contains the verse, “Do not follow your heart and your eyes, by which you are led astray,” and also records the mitzva of wearing tzitzit, for by remembering the tzitzit, a person can be saved from sin (Menaḥot 44a; above, 3:6).[9]

The second prohibition is for a man to think about anything that sexually stimulates him and may cause him to have a nocturnal emission or “wet dream,” that is, to ejaculate while sleeping. The Torah says, “Stay away from every evil thing” (Devarim 23:10), which the Sages explain to mean, “A man must not entertain thoughts during the day that will cause him to become impure at night” (Avoda Zara 20b). This prohibition includes thinking about, reading, or looking at anything that arouses his urges and causes an erection, even if the man does not actually imagine himself with a woman who is forbidden to him. Even a married man, when he is away from his wife, or when she is a nidda, may not think about being intimate with her in a sexually stimulating way, as it can lead to a nocturnal emission. All his desire must be safeguarded for his wife alone.[10]

A nocturnal emission is called keri or tuma. The word “keri” is used because it occurs unintentionally, by chance (be-mikreh) at night (layla). Thus, it is also referred to as a “mikreh layla.” The word “tuma” is used because a nocturnal emission makes a person impure; he may neither ascend the Temple Mount nor eat taharot (food that must be eaten while one is ritually pure). To purify himself, he must immerse in a mikveh. Then, after the sun sets, he may eat taharot (see 3:8 above).

A nocturnal emission happens due to a combination of a natural process – such as the body’s production of semen – and the waking thoughts that a man has that cause him to get an erection. Even if he successfully controls himself during the day and does not masturbate, these thoughts return in his dreams and cause a nocturnal emission. Nevertheless, even the righteous who control their thoughts during the day occasionally experience a seminal emission, because this is the way a man’s body works. It constantly produces semen; as time goes by and semen builds up, the body becomes aroused to ejaculate. This happens more frequently with younger men than older men. (The prohibition of sinful thoughts and masturbation for women is explained below, in sections 10-12.)

[9]. The prohibition to think about committing adultery is from the Torah (Rambam, Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh 47; Smag, Lo Ta’aseh 15; Smak §30; Sefer Ha-ḥinukh §387). The sinner does not receive lashes, though, since no action is involved (Atzei Arazim 21a). Rabbeinu Yona adds that this prohibition includes gazing at a woman who is forbidden to him in order to enjoy her beauty, even if he has no intention of committing adultery with her, for even if this is not his present intention, gazing at her may lead him there. This is the admonition, “Do not follow…your eyes, by which you are led astray” (Igeret Ha-teshuva §18). According to Smak (§30), this is a rabbinic prohibition to keep him away from truly sinful thoughts. Nevertheless, if this gaze stimulates him sexually, he violates the Torah prohibition of the second kind of sinful thought (ibid. §24).

[10]. Many poskim say that if a man thinks about whatever is likely to cause him a nocturnal emission, he violates a Torah prohibition. They understand the Sages’ interpretation of Devarim 23:10 to be a bona fide expounding of the verse (Smag, Lo Ta’aseh 126; Smak §24; Ran on Ḥullin 37b; Beit Shmuel 21:2). In contrast, Yere’im §45 understands the prohibition to be rabbinic. Pri Megadim, Ezer Mi-kodesh, and Aḥiezer 3:24:5 maintain that Rambam and SA left out this admonition because, in their opinion, this interpretation is an asmakhta. See Otzar Ha-poskim 23:7-8.

07. Defining and Avoiding Sinful Thoughts

Regarding both types of sinful thoughts, the prohibition is to invest thought in the objects of desire and arouse lust toward them. However, a fleeting thought that inadvertently enters and leaves a man’s mind is not included in the prohibition, since the Torah was not given to the ministering angels (Me’iri, Ḥullin 37b; Ezer Mi-kodesh 23:3). As for an improper thought which lasts a little longer and is a somewhat sinful, as he should have immediately pushed it away, there is hardly any person, even the most righteous, who is free from this. As the Sages say, “Three sins are everyday occurrences that no one successfully avoids: sinful thoughts, distraction in prayer, and traces of malicious speech” (Bava Batra 164b).[11]

The more connected a man is with his wife, and the more scrupulous he is about the laws of modesty, the less susceptible he is to improper thoughts. It would seem that to avoid such thoughts completely, he would need to get married at bar-mitzva age. However, since marriage demands a great deal of responsibility, for which one must prepare by studying Torah and learning a profession, the Sages instructed most people to postpone marriage until they were between the ages of eighteen and twenty (Avot 5:21). On the other hand, they cautioned against delaying marriage beyond that, for if he does so, he “spends his whole life thinking sinful thoughts” (Kiddushin 29b), for once one has become accustomed to these thoughts, it will be difficult for him to free himself from them, even after getting married. Still, the main reason for marrying before the age of twenty is to fulfill the mitzva of procreation (ibid.; 5:7 below). Nowadays, when life is more complex, and as trials and challenges proliferate, marrying before the age of eighteen would be very difficult. Most young people need to postpone marriage beyond the age of twenty. Nevertheless, marriage should not be delayed beyond the age of 24 (5:9 below).

In the meantime, young men should try to protect themselves with extra modesty, avoiding sinful thoughts and relationships with young women. The more they strengthen their Torah study, the better they will be able to withstand temptation. As the Sages explain, the Torah is exceedingly effective against this urge: “The school of R. Yishmael taught: My son, if this scoundrel [the evil inclination] attacks you, drag him into the beit midrash. If it is stone, it will dissolve; if it is iron, it will shatter” (Kiddushin 30b). This is codified in halakha:

A man may not intentionally give himself an erection or cause himself to have sinful thoughts. Rather, if an improper thought comes to him, he should divert his mind from worthless and corrupt matters to words of Torah, as Torah is “a loving doe, a graceful mountain goat” (Mishlei 5:19). (MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 21:19; also cited in SA YD 23:3).[12]

[11]. R. Menaḥem Treves writes:

It is difficult to understand how a person can violate a negative prohibition simply by thinking about a prohibition, for there is a principle that bad intentions are not adjoined to actions, and sinful thoughts are only intentions. So how can it be considered a negative prohibition? Because lustful thoughts concerning women, if they cause an erection, are considered action…. Thus, the statement that no one successfully avoids sinful thoughts is referring to thoughts alone, while the statement that it violates a negative prohibition refers to thoughts accompanied by an erection. (Oraḥ Meisharim [published in 1858], s.v. “hirhur”)

The latter is not something which the righteous transgress daily, but sometimes even the righteous fall prey to it, especially when they are young. This is human nature, as it says, “For there is not one righteous person on earth who does good and never sins” (Kohelet 7:20). Therefore, even righteous people need the atonement that comes with the grave (Sanhedrin 46b). According to Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §102, a person with the personality of a tzadik almost never sins this way, but someone with the personality of a ḥasid is more prone to it. At the same time, he corrects himself more and attains the status of a penitent.

Improper thoughts are so prevalent among the young that Maharil was bothered:

Regarding youths who have not yet married women, who don tefilin, and even those who are already married but still young – I am uncomfortable with their donning them, because they are in the thrall of their sexual drive, while tefilin require purity of body; one must not have thoughts while wearing them. (Minhagei Maharil, Hilkhot Tzitzit U-tefilin)

Similarly, R. Shimon bar Tzadok writes that a young man having improper thoughts should not don tefilin (Tashbetz Katan §273). In contrast, R. Shimon b. Tzemaḥ Duran was approached by a community that had decided not to call youths up to the Torah, working on the assumption that they are never free of improper thoughts. He responded that it is permissible to call these youngsters up to the Torah, because someone impure from keri is permitted to read from the Torah (Berakhot 22a): “Even sinners are not prohibited to read from the Torah, and certainly not bachelors who cannot escape improper thoughts. They are also permitted to don tefilin and recite Shema” (Tashbetz 2:261). The only ones who were forbidden by the Sages to don tefilin were married men with their wives, lest they have sexual relations while wearing tefilin (Berakhot 26b).

[12]. Even a youth who frequently masturbates should not rush to get married before he is mature enough, as it is common knowledge that most young men are overcome by their urges, yet the Sages did not recommend marrying before the age of eighteen. Some contend that it is forbidden to delay marriage beyond the age of twenty because of the problem of sinful thoughts. As the Talmud states, “A man who is twenty and is not married spends his whole life thinking improper thoughts” (Kiddushin 29b). However, this argument is easily dismissed. After all, it is common knowledge that young men think sinful thoughts and masturbate before the age of twenty more frequently than they do after the age of twenty, yet the Sages instruct men to postpone marriage until the age of twenty so that they can properly prepare themselves for the responsibility of establishing a family, both by learning Torah and by acquiring a way to earn a living. Consequently, someone who needs a few more years to prepare for marriage, as is the accepted practice today, should not get married before he is ready, even if he is overcome with sinful thoughts and masturbation. Nevertheless, he should not delay marriage beyond the age of 24, as explained in section 5:9 below. The only case in which permission to delay marriage is contingent on being able to control one’s urges is if the delay is to study Torah until significantly older than the proper time. As Rambam puts it, “If his urge overpowers him so that he cannot focus his attention, he should marry first and then study Torah” (MT, Laws of Torah Study 1:5).

The reason the Sages state that a man who postpones marriage beyond the age of twenty spends all his life thinking improper thoughts is because he has delayed marriage beyond the proper time. As long as a person knows that at the proper time he will get married and love his wife as he loves himself, then even if he sins beforehand, he knows that it is only temporary and not ideal. He is still sure that when he marries, he will safeguard all his desire for his wife. But when a person’s bachelorhood lasts longer than it should, and he becomes accustomed to gratifying his urges sinfully, he surrenders to his evil inclination and no longer believes that he can overcome it. Then, even after he marries, he will not escape sinful thoughts, as they will have become a part of him (see 5:7 below). Nevertheless, as we learned above in n. 2, if he repents powerfully and out of love, he can correct himself.

08. The Mitzva to Marry

A man who has already fulfilled the mitzva of procreation, even one who has been privileged to have many children, if his wife dies, there is a mitzva for him to remarry a woman who can still bear children, in order to continue fulfilling the mitzva of procreation (below, 5:6). However, if it would be difficult for him to raise more children – whether because of his age, or because supporting them would be too hard, or because he is worried about acrimony between his children from his first wife and his second wife and her children – he may refrain from marrying a woman who can still bear children (see below, 5:6). However, it is still a mitzva for him to remarry a woman who cannot have children, as a person is in a state of wholeness only when married. As the Sages said, “Any man without a wife is not a man” (Yevamot 63a); and “Any man without a wife lives without joy, without blessing, without goodness, without Torah, without fortification, and without peace” (ibid. 62b). This is the Sages’ instruction: “Even if a man already has a number of children, he may not remain without a wife, as it says (Bereishit 2:18), ‘It is not good for man to be alone’” (ibid. 61b). He will thus have the privilege of continued fulfillment of the mitzva of ona and will also prevent himself from having sinful thoughts.

Rambam likewise rules: “There is a rabbinic mitzva for a man not to remain without a wife, so that he does not come to have sinful thoughts” (MT, Laws of Marriage 15:16). This mitzva is so important that some say that the Sages’ permission to sell a Torah scroll to enable a couple to get married applies even when the bride is too old to conceive. This illustrates the importance of getting married, fulfilling the mitzva of ona, and avoiding improper thoughts (below, 5:21).[13]

If a man has aged to the point that he no longer desires a woman and no longer yearns to fulfill the mitzva of ona, he is not obligated to remarry, if he has already fulfilled the mitzva of procreation. Nevertheless, even someone whose desire has dissipated fulfills a mitzva if he marries and lives happily and lovingly with his wife – both because being married is the proper human condition, through which one fulfills most completely the interpersonal mitzvot, and because he fulfills the mitzva of ona. However, if he is worried that remarriage may be painful for him, because he might not have a loving relationship with his second wife, he is not obligated to marry, as long as there is no concern that he will have sinful thoughts. Indeed, many great rabbis did not remarry after being widowed (Ramban and Me’iri on Yevamot 62b; Ḥokhmat Adam 123:6; AHS 1:7).

[13]. Beit Shmuel 1:13 and AHS ad loc. 7 state, like Rambam, that the prohibition against remaining single is on the rabbinic level. However, Ramban raises the possibility that it is from the Torah (Milḥamot Hashem, Yevamot 20a in the Rif pages). Birkei Yosef 1:15 cites Radakh of Corfu (Responsa Mahardakh, bayit 17:9) as saying that it is a Torah prohibition according to Rif. It must be that even according to Rambam’s view that the prohibition is rabbinic, marriage and ona are nevertheless Torah commandments, as he implies when he writes that a Torah scroll may be sold in order to enable a man to marry, even if the woman is no longer fertile (MT, Laws of Torah Scrolls 10:2).

09. Sexual Thoughts About One’s Wife

When a man’s wife is ritually pure and he intends to be intimate with her that night, he may think about things that stimulate his desire for her, for there is no concern that these thoughts will lead to a nocturnal emission. However, when she is ritually impure or they are apart from each other, he may not think thoughts that will stimulate his desire for her, lest he will have a nocturnal emission. Even while his wife is pure, a man should be careful not to read or watch anything likely to cause sinful thoughts, i.e., lusting for sin or thinking thoughts that impair his love for his wife.

So that a man does not sin or think sinful thoughts, the Sages established safeguards for when his wife is a nidda: not to play or be frivolous together, not to smell the perfume on her body or clothes, not to gaze at the parts of her body that are normally covered, not to hand things to one another, not to eat alone at a table without some kind of indicator to remind them that they are prohibited to each other, not to eat from the same plate, and not to drink food that she left in her cup or on her plate. He should not sit or lie down on her bed unless she is out of town, and she should not make her husband’s bed in his presence (SA YD 195).

So that a man does not think sinful thoughts, he may not engage in any activity that will arouse his urges, that is, that will cause him an erection or to have enduring thoughts about a specific woman. Therefore, he should stay away from places and situations where immodesty abounds and which are likely to arouse his urges. However, sometimes this is necessary to make a living, such as by attending college classes in a framework that does not conform to the halakhic parameters of modesty. In such a case, if he has the option of studying the same profession in a modest framework, he must do so. But if there is no possibility of learning the profession that is appropriate for him in a modest framework, he may study in an immodest framework, as long as he estimates that his urges will not overpower him. If he is uncertain, or in pressing circumstances, he should consult a wise rabbi.[14]

[14]. This is based on Bava Batra 57b, which states that if a man walks near the river where women are immodestly dressed, he is called wicked. However, if he has no alternate route, he may walk there, and of him the verse states, “He shuts his eyes against looking at evil” (Yeshayahu 33:15). Furthermore, if the alternate (modest) route is significantly longer, it is not considered a viable option, and he may take the less modest route (see Avoda Zara 48b and Tosafot, s.v “ha ika”; SA YD 142:9). The poskim write that this case serves as a paradigm for all questions of modesty, such as if one wants to study in an immodest academic environment, or choose a profession that would require him to occasionally treat women in ways that are not modest (such as doctors in certain specialties, physical therapists, and psychologists). In all such cases, if there is a great need, for instance, if these studies or this profession will bring him more income or more personal satisfaction and fulfillment, and if he estimates that his urges will not get the better of him, as they do not get the better of many in these fields, then he may engage in them. Obviously, he must be careful not to seclude himself with women in a prohibited manner. But if the man estimates that his sexual urges will overpower him, meaning that his interactions will cause him to become erect or to think a lot about the women he meets in his studies or work (not for the purpose of marriage), he should choose a different field. In cases of doubt or pressing circumstances, he should consult a wise rabbi (see Igrot Moshe, EH 1:56).

It must be mentioned that it is impossible to set parameters for all of these matters, because people are very different. As the Sages tell us, if someone knows that he has subdued his evil inclination and has it under control, he may be lenient in situations where others would be required to be stringent. For example, R. Gidel would instruct women how to immerse properly in the mikveh, saying that at that moment, the women resembled white geese to him (Berakhot 20a). Likewise, R. Yoḥanan knew that women leaving the mikveh wanted to gaze at him so that they would have sons as beautiful as he was. He therefore sat at the entrance of the mikveh without concern about his evil urge (ibid.). Similarly, at weddings, R. Aḥa would put the bride on his shoulders and dance with her in order to make the bride and groom happy, saying that he found this no more stimulating than carrying a wooden beam on his back (Ketubot 17a). In contrast, other Tanna’im and Amora’im were very concerned about their urges. For example, Abaye once watched a man and a woman take a long walk together and not sin; he assessed that had he been in that situation, he might have sinned. Abaye felt very bad about this until an old man reassured him that this did not indicate any inferiority. On the contrary, “The greater a person, the greater his urges” (Sukka 52a). R. Ḥiya bar Ashi, even in his old age, would pray that he not succumb to his evil urges. Once, his wife, seeking intimacy with him, disguised herself as a prostitute. He desired to sin with her, and even after she revealed that she was his wife, he fasted over it for the rest of his life, since he had intended to sin (Kiddushin 81b). Additionally, regarding the prohibition of yiḥud, R. Meir said, “Make sure that I am not secluded with my daughter,” and R. Tarfon said, “Make sure that I am not secluded with my daughter-in-law” (ibid.).

Since a person can deceive himself, Rishonim and Aḥaronim write that one should not trust himself in this area unless he is particularly pious and self-aware (Ritva, Kiddushin 82a; Smak §30; Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin 4:25; Pitḥei Teshuva, EH 21:3). Sefer Ha-ḥinukh is more stringent, explaining that the Amora’im who were lenient for the sake of a mitzva were angelic, “but today, we may not breach even the smallest safeguard in this area” (§188). This is the generally accepted approach. Nevertheless, within reason, in a situation where many people can control themselves, this question is left to the discretion of the individual. The more susceptible he is, the more stringent he should be.

It is also important to be aware that in everything pertaining to sexual arousal, there is a big difference between younger people and older people. By nature (physically and psychologically), younger people are much more easily aroused, so they must safeguard themselves better. Similarly, an unmarried man must be more careful than a married man, since he cannot yet express his desires through the sacred covenant of marriage.

10. The Prohibition of Masturbation for Women

Women likewise may not stimulate themselves to reach orgasm. This is because sexual desire should be safeguarded for the enhancement of love and devotion between husband and wife, not for selfish gratification. However, for two related reasons, the prohibition for women is not as severe as the prohibitions for men. Firstly, with regard to men, ejaculation impedes the mitzva of ona, because a man’s sexual potency is limited, and when he wastes seed, it diminishes his desire to be with his wife. If the couple’s set time of ona is that day, sometimes he will not be able to have sexual relations with her even if he wants to. In contrast, a woman is not limited in this way. Even if she brings herself to orgasm, she will likely be able to have another orgasm with her husband. She will certainly be able to have sexual relations with him.

Secondly, a man’s semen has the potential to impregnate, and masturbation wastes that potential. In contrast, the secretions that issue as a result of a woman’s masturbation cannot lead to conception; even after they have exuded, her ovum can be fertilized as before.

Nevertheless, a woman may not stimulate herself, because that pleasure should be reserved for strengthening a couple’s relationship.

There is another difference between men and women in this regard. A man is very easily stimulated, and any touch of his penis can be arousing. Therefore, the Sages forbade a man to touch his penis, lest it result in the wasting of seed (see section 5 above). However, with respect to women, ordinary contact with the vaginal area is not too stimulating. Therefore, the Sages state that the more frequently a woman performs bedikot (internal examinations to check for menstrual blood), more praiseworthy she is (Nidda 13a).[15]

[15]. It is implied in the view of Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot on Nidda 13a) that it is not prohibited for women to masturbate, which is why the Sages regarded it as praiseworthy for women to perform frequent bedikot. This is also implied by Birkei Yosef, YD 335:5. However, according to the Ramban, Rashba, Ritva, Ran, and Me’iri, women many not stimulate themselves manually, and the reason that vaginal examinations are permitted, even encouraged, is because they are not arousing. The prohibition is based on the verse relating to the flood: “All flesh had corrupted its ways on earth” (Bereishit 6:12); “all flesh” includes women, who also corrupted their ways. Furthermore, one who is drawn to gratify her improper desires is liable to sin in other ways as well. The root issue, according to all of these explanations, is that behaving this way impairs the marital covenant, for all of this desire should be directed toward strengthening the couple’s love and devotion through the mitzvot of ona and procreation. (The connection of women to the mitzva of procreation is explained in 5:3 below.) Arizal said: “Know that just as a man who wastes seed when not with a woman creates demons, so too a woman creates demons if she is not with a man. This is alluded to by the verse… ‘plague will not come near your tent’ (Tehillim 91:10). That is, the ‘plague’ – the demonic masculine (samekh-mem dekhura) – ‘will not come near your tent’, meaning your wife” (Arizal, Sha’ar Ha-kavanot, Derushei Ha-layla 7, cited in Responsa Torah Lishma §504). Nevertheless, it is not as severe a prohibition as masturbation is for men, so Arizal did not establish a series of fasts for women to atone for this sin.

If a woman is finding it difficult to enjoy sexual relations and is advised by a God-fearing therapist to try to stimulate herself, she may do so. The reason for this is twofold. First, the purpose is to facilitate observance of the mitzva of ona. Second, in pressing circumstances the permissive opinions of Rabbeinu Tam and Birkei Yosef may be relied upon. (See also Ḥidushei Ḥatam Sofer on Nidda 13a, which seems to rule leniently regarding a married woman thinking of her husband.)

11. The Prohibition of Improper Thoughts for Women

Just as it is forbidden for men to entertain sinful thoughts – imagining themselves committing adultery, or (even worse) planning it – it is forbidden for women to entertain sinful thoughts, that is, to imagine themselves committing adultery or being intimate with another man, and certainly to plan such an encounter. The verse says, “Do not follow your heart and your eyes, after which you are led astray” (Bamidbar 15:39). “‘After your eyes’ refers to sinful thoughts” (Berakhot 12b). As Sefer Ha-ḥinukh points out (§387), this mitzva applies “at all times and in all places, to both men and women.” It states elsewhere: “Women, too, are forbidden to think about any man other than their husbands. All their desire and longing should be directed toward them. This is how upright Jewish women behave” (ibid. §188).

In addition to causing a woman to have less love for her husband and contaminating her mind, thinking sinful thoughts can lead to actual adultery. This is the method of the evil inclination: first it arouses thoughts, then it draws people closer to sin, and ultimately it traps them in its net, causing them to commit adultery and thus ruin their lives. In this respect, men and women are the same.

As we explained above (section 6), for men there is another category of sinful thoughts, namely, those that cause an erection and can lead to a nocturnal emission. A man may not even think about his wife in an arousing way while she is a nidda. For women, though, there is no such concern. Therefore, a woman may think about sexual matters, as long as these thoughts are not about sinful behavior. Likewise, she may think sexual thoughts about her husband while she is a nidda.[16]

[16]. SA YD 352:3 states: “A man may not enshroud the corpse of a woman, but a woman may enshroud the corpse of a man.” Shakh (ad loc. 2) explains: “Because of [sexual] thoughts; however, a woman is not as subject to [improper] thoughts.” Since this is the case of a corpse, obviously there is no concern for sinful thoughts of adultery. Rather, the concern is for thoughts that stimulate and lead to a nocturnal emission. This is stated explicitly in Igrot Moshe, EH 1:69 and implied in Birkei Yosef, YD 335:5.

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).

13. Male Homosexuality

The Torah commands: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman, it is a to’eva” (Vayikra 18:22). It further states: “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done a to’eva; they shall be put to death – their blood-guilt is upon them” (ibid. 20:13). There are two ways for a man to have sexual relations with a woman: normal intercourse (“ke-darkah”), that is, vaginally; and abnormal intercourse (“she-lo ke-darkah”), i.e., anally, which is the form of intercourse between men that the Torah prohibits. The moment that penetration occurs, that is, the moment the corona of one man’s erect penis enters the other’s anus, they have both transgressed a Torah prohibition, even though the penetration was not full and there was no ejaculation. (Yevamot 55b; MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 1:10; according to Taz, the Torah prohibits even penetration by part of the corona, whereas Noda Bi-Yehuda, EH 2:23 limits the Torah prohibition to penetration of the entire corona).

This prohibition is so grave that those who transgress it are liable to be punished with death by stoning, since anywhere the Torah says “their blood-guilt is upon them,” it refers to stoning (Sanhedrin 54a; Rambam ad loc. 1:6). However, this punishment applied (while the Sanhedrin functioned) only when the sin was done intentionally and in front of two witnesses who warned them of the consequences of committing the sin. In practice, almost nobody would dare to commit capital crimes in front of witnesses warning them that if they continue, they will be put to death. Therefore, an execution by the Sanhedrin rarely took place. In fact, it was so rare that a Sanhedrin which executed one person in seven years was labeled “destructive” (m. Makkot 1:10). Thus, the main purpose of the Torah declaring a death penalty is to teach us the gravity of the sin, and to deter people from brazenly transgressing it in front of witnesses.

The transgression of male homosexual intercourse is so serious that its stated punishment (stoning) is the most severe of all the death penalties. Other sexual transgressions punishable by stoning are: sexual relations between mother or stepmother and son, father and daughter or daughter-in-law, and bestiality by a man or woman (MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 1:4). People who commit these sins deliberately but without witnesses are liable for karet (extirpation).

In addition to the prohibited act itself, we saw above that the Torah also prohibits thinking about committing sexual sins, as the Torah says, “Do not follow your heart and your eyes, by which you are led astray” (Bamidbar 15:39). The Sages interpret “your eyes” to mean sinful thoughts (Berakhot 12b; see section 6 above). Moreover, a man who is sexually attracted to other men must make sure that his interactions with them do not lead him to waste seed, which, according to many poskim, is a Torah prohibition (as explained in n. 1). Therefore, he should not develop a friendship for the purpose of stimulating himself sexually, because by getting himself aroused he is transgressing a rabbinic prohibition (Nidda 13b). Rather, he should behave normally with his friends, acting like everyone else, and trying to avoid arousal.

14. Factors in the Emergence of This Urge

Many people think that same-sex attraction is innate and cannot be changed, and that therefore, a man with this tendency must follow it; certainly, no one should be criticized for doing so. In contrast, according to the Torah, even if a man has a strong tendency toward homosexuality, the prohibition remains in full effect, and he has an obligation to overcome his urges – just as one is required to overcome a powerful urge to commit adultery. However, the heavenly court does take into account the severity of a person’s challenge in overcoming his desires; the stronger his urge, the lighter his punishment.

Even if we accept that this is an innate disposition, it is nevertheless clear that the social and moral climate is no less influential than the inborn tendency. In fact, in the past there were cultures in which homosexuality was extremely prevalent, so much so that the majority of men committed this sin. In contrast, among the Jews, where the social conditions encouraged regular heterosexual relationships and discouraged male homosexual relationships, this inclination was almost never expressed. Thus, according to the Mishna, “R. Yehuda says…Two single men should not sleep under one blanket, but the Sages permit it” (Kiddushin 82a). The Talmud explains that R. Yehuda was stringent out of concern that such behavior might lead to sin. We must remember that in the past, people slept in the nude; thus, the case in which R. Yehuda was stringent was that of two single men sleeping naked under the same blanket. And yet the Sages permitted it, since “Jews are not suspected of male homosexual relations.” In other words, this phenomenon was so rare that the Sages felt it unnecessary make a decree to safeguard against it. We find a similar approach regarding yiḥud (the prohibition against seclusion). The rule is that it is forbidden for a man to be alone with a woman in a secluded or locked room, lest this lead to sin; however, it is permitted for two men to be alone with each other, although some undertook to act stringently out of piety. Shulḥan Arukh rules permissively, but then adds, “Nowadays, when there are many promiscuous people, it is best to avoid being isolated with [another] man” (EH 24:1). This opinion made sense given the prevalence of homosexuality in the Islamic countries of the time. However, the great sages of Ashkenaz responded that in their countries Jews were not suspected of such behavior, and did not need to be stringent (Baḥ). Not only that, but some say that such stringency is forbidden, as it is an exhibition of religious hubris (yuhara) (Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin 4:23). Nevertheless, when it comes to sleeping together under one blanket, prominent Ashkenazic authorities are divided. Some are stringent (Ḥelkat Meḥokek and Beit Shmuel), while others are lenient (Yam Shel Shlomo). In practice, until relatively recently, the custom was to be lenient (AHS 24:6).

It is difficult to presume that basic human nature has changed. We must therefore conclude that in the past, even when people were born with a homosexual inclination, given the social contexts that were common among the Jews for so long, these tendencies were not manifest, to the extent that there was no concern that people would sin, even if they were to sleep next to their friends in the nude under the same blanket in a closed room.

We do not know what has changed recently to convince people that sexual orientation is innate, that they are attracted solely to members of the same sex, and that they have no choice whatsoever in the matter. Is it possible that freedom – which plays a central role in our lives and confers many advantages upon us – has also allowed all sorts of inclinations to be expressed that had previously been suppressed? And once these inclinations have been released, it is more difficult to overcome them. Moreover, recent generations have witnessed the rise of feminism, which, alongside its positive aspects, can cause tension and complications in heterosexual relationships. In its most extreme forms, relationships between men and women are posited as part of a struggle for control and power. Could it be that this environment produces anxiety in men about developing relationships with women? And is it possible that this anxiety affects the dynamics of sexual attraction? There are many theories and explanations to account for the current prevalence of homosexuality. In any case, it is reasonable to assume that it too will pass, and future generations will rediscover the Torah way to deepen the marital relationship with sanctity, love, and joy. As a result, the appeal of this sin will diminish greatly.

It is important to be aware that the pain, frustration, and embarrassment experienced by those struggling with this inclination can be so overwhelming that some young people choose to end their own lives. Therefore, it is important to guide the men and women with this inclination to discuss it with their parents, as well as with a rabbi or counselor. This is, first and foremost, so they can unburden themselves from some of their suffering, and second, so they can find the best ways to address this challenge.

15. The Mitzva to Marry

The Torah’s commandments apply to all Jews. Even men and women with same-sex attraction have a mitzva to marry, to fulfill the mitzva of ona with love and happiness, and to procreate.

In previous generations, not getting married because of sexual orientation was almost unheard of. Presumably, this could be the case in our generation as well. Despite societal changes, many people who feel same-sex attraction can overcome it enough to happily and lovingly establish a family. Likewise, it is known that many people who experience same-sex attraction are capable of feeling attracted to the opposite sex as well. Those who find this difficult must use all possible means to divert their tendencies so that they can enter into a marital relationship faithful to the law of Moshe and Israel.

In practice, though, as long as a man deems that he cannot have a relationship with a woman, cannot commit to be faithful to her and give her the love and joy she deserves, then he is unable to get married due to circumstances beyond his control (ones). Only if he is quite certain that he is capable of committing to love his wife and to enter into a joyful physical relationship with her may he fulfill the mitzva to marry. The same is true for a woman. Only if she is quite certain that she can be properly responsive to her husband’s passion may she get married.

A man and a woman who both have same-sex attraction may decide to marry each other, be faithful, be great friends to each other, and try to observe the mitzva of ona to the best of their abilities. They may fulfill the mitzva of marriage in this way and raise a fine family.

The reward of those who succeed in overcoming their urges and who, out of deep moral responsibility, establish a committed, loving marital relationship and raise a family, is very great. As the Sages state, “According to the suffering is the reward” (Avot 5:23). They merit reward not only in the next world but in our world as well. This is because in order to overcome their urge, they must delve deeply into the foundations of love and morality. Doing so allows them to experience a deeper intimacy. It is reminiscent of the Sages’ statement, “Where penitents stand, even completely righteous people cannot stand” (Berakhot 34b).

They improve the world, too. Unfortunately, many people are swept away by their physical desires and end up sinning through adultery and promiscuity. They even base their marriage solely on carnal urges. When their desire for their spouse wanes, they return to satisfying their desires by committing adultery and other abominable acts. Ultimately, they are always disappointed, since any physical relationship which lacks a moral dimension and is not sanctified will end up in deadly dreariness. In order to perfect the world, it is necessary to engage in penitential acts that restore balance. We should emphasize the spiritual value of loyalty, friendship, morality, and the sanctity of the marital covenant. This is accomplished by the very same people who do not feel a natural desire for the opposite sex, and yet enter into a covenant to be faithful to their spouse, out of a desire to accept upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven. Thus, the Sages declare, “People who act out of love and are happy in their suffering are the subject of the verse, ‘Those who love God are like the sun rising in might’ (Shoftim 5:31)” (Shabbat 88b).[18]

[18]. Rav Kook writes, “When he happily accepts [his situation], even though he will experience only a minimum of the pleasure expected from following the right path and serving God, and will suffer anxiety and bitterness as a result of his heroism in choosing the upright path…he succeeds in habituating himself to doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing, namely, God’s will…. Overall, the world does not give enough weight to spirituality, because so many people are submerged in materialism…but when this individual’s spirituality is added to that of the collective, his noble sanctity will water the spiritual desert. This will be the fruit of his labor, and he should be happy about it. When speaking of such people, who act out of love and are happy in their suffering, the Torah says, ‘Those who love God are like the sun rising in might’” (Midot Re’aya, Brit 1).

16. Must One Disclose Before Marriage?

If a man feels a slight, remote attraction to members of the same sex, but in practice successfully controls himself, does he need to tell someone he is dating about his inclination? If he is certain that he desires and wishes to marry a woman, that he will be able to be happy with his wife, that he will be able to give her the pleasure that she deserves, and that he will be able to remain faithful, then he is not obligated to tell her.

However, if his homosexual inclination is strong enough that he is uncertain that he will be able to give his wife pleasure, and even more so if he is uncertain that he will be able to stay faithful, he must disclose this to the woman he is dating. Then she can decide whether or not she trusts him to be able to lovingly and happily build a faithful home with her.

In every case of uncertainty, a rabbi or a God-fearing specialist should be consulted. All of the above applies equally to a woman who experiences same-sex attraction.

If a man who is a practicing homosexual marries without telling his wife about it, and when she finds out, she immediately wants to end the marriage, then in certain cases, if it is difficult to extract a get from the husband, a rabbinical court can annul the marriage without a get. This is because the marriage was entered into under false pretenses (mekaḥ ta’ut), and thus was never valid (Igrot Moshe, EH 4:113).

17. The Torah’s Attitude to Those Who Commit Homosexual Intercourse

The Torah calls male sexual relations “to’eva” (Vayikra 18:22). The Sages explained the connotation of this word: “You are straying with it (to’eh ata bah)” (Nedarim 51a). In other words, the purpose of the sex drive is for husband and wife to unite in holiness and joy, and for this union to create children and sustain the world. In contrast, those who sin in this way direct their desire toward people of their own gender, thereby damaging the sanctity of marriage and the continuity of the world.

Nonetheless, those who commit this sin should not be treated more harshly than those who commit other grave sins, such as desecrating Shabbat. Just as those who desecrate Shabbat are called up to the Torah as long as they do not sin out of spite, so too those who commit this sin should be called up to the Torah, as long as they do not sin out of spite. This is especially true if it is possible that they are careful to avoid the severe sin of homosexual intercourse itself.[19]

Moreover, many people who fall prey to this sin are not defiant in any way. Rather it pains them that their inclination compels them to sin. Only God, Master of heaven and earth – Who created all souls, knows all thoughts, and examines all hearts – understands what drives every person, and can judge them in truth and mercy in accordance with their challenges and suffering.

It is important to stress that even if a man does not succeed in overcoming his urge, and he sins by having homosexual intercourse, he is still obligated in all the mitzvot, and he must strengthen himself as much as he can, any way that he can. Even in relation to this sin, for each and every day and every single time he succeeds in overcoming his desire and refrains from sinning, he will receive great reward.

We must accept the Torah law which declares that homosexual sex is a grave sin. If we are presented with the opportunity to dissuade people from this sin, it is our obligation to try to do so. Nevertheless, we must also love a person who is unsuccessful in overcoming his urge, and realize that there is great value in each and every mitzva he fulfills. As long as he does not externalize his orientation and does not sin defiantly, we should draw him closer to the religious community, so that he can grow stronger in Torah study and mitzva fulfillment as best he can. We know that the value of evil is finite, while the value of good is infinite. Similarly, the gravity of sins is finite, while the value of mitzvot is infinite.

If a man with a strong homosexual inclination has not found a woman to marry, and he still overcomes his evil inclination and refrains from sinning, he is among those whom God declares every day to be pious (Pesaḥim 113a). When he successfully binds his desires for the glory of Heaven, he demonstrates the absolute, hallowed value of Torah and mitzvot. He is improving the world greatly (as we will explain below in 7:6 with regard to infertile men). The light of his unwavering dedication to Torah illuminates the entire world, adding life and blessing to all families.

[19]. If the severity of a sin is expressed by the severity of its punishment, then desecrating Shabbat and committing male homosexual acts are equally severe; both are punishable by stoning (m. Sanhedrin 7:4). Homosexual intercourse is described as “to’eva” because it misdirects the power of life. This is the same reason that the Torah describes idol worship as “to’eva” (Devarim 7:26, 13:15, and 17:4). In fact, classifying a sin as “to’eva” does not necessarily indicate that it is punishable by death. Eating forbidden foods is also called “to’eva” by the Torah (Devarim 13:3), as is remarrying one’s first wife if she has since married and divorced someone else (Devarim 24:4), and yet the penalty for committing these sins is not death, but lashes (MT, Laws of Sanhedrin 19:4).

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