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Virgin Brides, Premarital Sex, and Jewish Patriarchal Ownership of Female Bodies

The ‘Daf Yomi’ cycle heads into thorny gender issues around marriage, gynecology, and Sabbath sex

Adam Kirsch
February 10, 2015
“Waiting,” cut canvas by Lucio Fontana, 1960, Tate Modern(Wikimedia Commons)
“Waiting,” cut canvas by Lucio Fontana, 1960, Tate Modern(Wikimedia Commons)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

In most Jewish weddings today, the ketubah or wedding contract is treated as a piece of artwork to display rather than a legal document to live by. In fact, I’d guess that most Jewish couples who sign a ketubah under their rabbi’s supervision don’t have any idea what the Hebrew text actually says—it’s simply part of the tradition. But under Talmudic law, the ketubah is not just a flourish; it is just what its name implies, a “written” contract that lays out the precise monetary and practical obligations that the bride and groom incur by getting married. Those obligations are the subject matter of Tractate Ketubot, which Daf Yomi readers began this week.

Before getting into the financial and legal details of marriage, however, the tractate starts with a more basic question. On what day of the week should a wedding take place? The answer has to do with the schedule of Jewish courts in Talmudic times. Because the courts were in session on Mondays and Thursdays, weddings should be held on a Wednesday, in case an issue comes up on the wedding night that has to be brought before a judge the next day. The issue the rabbis were concerned about, of course, was the bride’s virginity. If, after consummating the marriage, the groom believed that the bride was not in fact a virgin, he could complain to the court and try to have the marriage annulled. (This applies only in the case of a first-time bride, however; a widow who is marrying for the second time should get married on Thursday, since in her case the virginity question won’t arise.)

This matter-of-fact statement in the mishna on Ketubot 2a speaks volumes about Talmudic attitudes toward premarital sex and female sexuality. A man acquiring a bride expects her to be a virgin—indeed, he pays a premium for virginity in the marriage contract, since a virgin receives 200 dinars in alimony in case of divorce, where a widow receives only 100 dinars. (There is, of course, no comparable guarantee that the groom is a virgin.) Later, in Ketubot 7a, we learn in passing how virginity was tested. On the wedding night, groomsmen were stationed outside the marital bedroom, and when the couple emerged they inspected the sheets for signs of blood, which would ostensibly prove that the bride’s hymen had been broken during intercourse. This measure was not just designed to test the bride’s chastity however; it was also meant to keep the groom honest. If for some reason he wanted to revoke the marriage and tried to hide the bloody sheets, in order to falsely claim that his wife was not a virgin, the groomsmen would prevent him from doing so.

This is patriarchy in its purest sense—the ownership and surveillance of women’s bodies by men—and it characterized Talmudic Jewish society just as it did all premodern and many contemporary societies. At the same time, Talmudic law usually strives to create a benevolent patriarchy, in which the (perceived) needs of women are accommodated. We have seen earlier how the law is lenient with regard to women wearing fine clothes, jewelry, and cosmetics on Shabbat, and how the sages lowered the evidentiary requirement for declaring a missing husband dead, in order to free his abandoned wife. A similar impulse is apparent in this case. Thus the Gemara explains that the reason why weddings take place on a Wednesday was not only to ensure access to a court. After all, if that were the goal, weddings could just as easily take place on Sunday, since Monday was also a court day. Rather, the sages chose Wednesday instead of Sunday because it allowed for a longer time to prepare the wedding feast. This way, the groom was obligated to spend Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday of the wedding week preparing a lavish celebration for the bride, whereas if the wedding were held on Sunday, the day before would be Shabbat and there could be no preparation. In this way, the Gemara says, “the sages were assiduous in seeing to the well-being of Jewish women.”

Another problem arises with regard to a wedding that has to be postponed for some reason. What if a wedding is scheduled for a certain Wednesday, but the groom falls ill? In that case, the rabbis rule that he must begin supporting the bride on that day, even if the wedding doesn’t take place. And what if it is the woman who gets sick? Here it might seem that the groom is freed from his responsibility: “Can he say to her: I am standing here?” In other words, he is standing ready to get married, and it is her fault that the wedding doesn’t take place, so he shouldn’t be compelled to support her. Or should the bride’s illness be considered a case of what American law calls force majeure? “Perhaps she can say to him that his field was inundated,” the Gemara proposes—that is, he has suffered something akin to a natural disaster, which is not the bride’s fault.

But sickness isn’t the only reason why a wedding might have to be postponed. If a woman is menstruating, she can’t get married, since then she would be forbidden to her husband on the wedding night. Because her menstrual cycle should be predictable, if the wedding is canceled for this reason the fault lies with the bride, and the groom is exempt from having to support her. But what if her period arrives at an unexpected time? Then, too, “she can say to him that his field was inundated,” because the circumstances were beyond her control. And in such cases, Rav Achai rules, the bride is entitled to support—as he puts it, she may “eat from his food,” and if the husband is a priest entitled to eat teruma or tithed produce, then she may eat that as well.

Later in the chapter, the Talmud returns to what we might consider gynecological questions, in the unexpected context of Shabbat law. Ordinarily, a married couple is supposed to consummate their marriage on the wedding night. Indeed, we learn that even if one of their parents dies on the wedding day, the funeral should be postponed until the wedding takes place and the bride and groom have sexual intercourse; only then do they enter mourning and separate for the requisite seven days. Ordinarily, too, it is considered acceptable—according to the Kabbalah, it is even meritorious—for a husband and wife to have sex on Shabbat.

But is it all right for a man to have sex with his virgin bride for the first time on Shabbat? For in that case, the rabbis reason, he will tear her hymen; and it is forbidden to cause a wound of any kind on Shabbat. This raises a series of questions, which the Gemara goes on to expound. First, is puncturing the hymen a true wound? This depends on whether the blood that emerges during sex is from broken blood vessels or whether it is “pooled,” that is, just waiting to emerge as soon as the hymen breaks. In the first case, sex would indeed constitute a wound; in the second, it wouldn’t.

Even if sex does cause a wound, however, should this be considered an intentional act or an unintentional one? For as we learned earlier in Tractate Shabbat, it is only the intended results of an action that are forbidden on Shabbat; unintended results are not legally significant. So, the question becomes, “does the husband require the blood”—that is, does he actually want his bride to bleed, so that he can prove her virginity—“or perhaps he requires the opening,” in which case the blood is simply an accidental side effect of intercourse. Finally, there is a third question. Only “constructive” labor, work that builds or creates, is forbidden on Shabbat. Is tearing the hymen considered creating an opening, in which case it is prohibited, or should it be seen as removing an obstacle, in which case it is permitted?

In the end, after drawing a number of unintentionally comic analogies with plugging a barrel and draining an abscess, the Gemara decides that “the halakha is that it is permitted to engage in intercourse for the first time on Shabbat.” This may be one of those cases where the rabbis decided that discretion was the better part of valor—that it was pointless to issue prohibition no one would obey.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.