How the Talmud Maps Behavior by Exploring Definitions, Not Listing Rules
Daf Yomi: The rabbis examined practical dimensions of deep questions, including those raised around saliva, urine, and sex
In the Gemara, Rava pushes Rabbi Yehudah’s reasoning a step further by applying it to the question of urination. Urine, too, is a liquid carried inside the body. Should we consider it as part of the body, then, or as a separate object that we carry around inside the bladder? And if urine resides in the bladder, then what happens, Rava asks, if someone (again, the assumption is that we are talking about a man) is standing in such a way that the bladder is in a public domain but the orifice of the penis is in a private domain? Would the passage of urine through the urinary tract then become a forbidden transfer? The question sounds a little absurd—not unlike something that a bright and disruptive student might come up with—and the Talmud decides not even to engage with it: Teku, the rabbis say, “Let it stand” without resolution.
Later in the chapter, the subject shifts to whether a tree’s branches form a valid partition, like a wall. In the course of this discussion, the rabbis say that it is forbidden to walk on grass on Shabbat, on account of a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “And one who acts impetuously with his feet is a sinner.” The application to walking on grass is clear enough; but for the rabbis, raglayim, feet, is also frequently a euphemism for the genitals. The sentence is also applied, therefore, to acting “impetuously” in sexual matters.
For the rabbis, this does not mean, as it might for us, casual or extramarital sex, which are beyond imagining. Instead, Rabbi bar Chama says, it means that “a man is forbidden to force his wife to engage in marital relations.” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi seconds, “Whoever forces his wife to engage in marital relations will have children who are not of good character.” For the rabbis, a wife is not property, whom a husband can make use of as he sees fit, but an equal sexual partner, who must always give consent.
Consent, however, is passive. Is a woman also allowed to actually propose sex, to initiate it? Here the rabbis disagree. Rabbi Yochanan says it is highly praiseworthy for a wife to initiate sex: “Every woman who petitions her husband to engage in marital relations will have children the like of whom did not exist even in the generation of Moses.” Rav Yitzchak bar Avdimi, on the other hand, holds that only the husband can explicitly ask for sex: “A woman petitions in her heart, whereas a man petitions verbally.”
This imbalance, he says, is a direct result of Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. When she ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God laid a series of curses on her, including the phrase, “your craving shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This “ruling over,” Rav Yitzchak explains, means that the man always has the initiative in sexual matters. Still, the rabbis hold, the woman does have ways of making her desires known: “acting in a pleasing manner,” the Gemara says, is the wife’s way of “petitioning.” The Talmud will never be accused of strict egalitarianism, but its treatment of marital relations and sexual dynamics seems pretty progressive for a work that is more than 1,500 years old.
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