Main image: MCA Records
Main image: MCA Records
Navigate to Belief section

Sex: Sin, Obligation, or Pursuit of Pleasure?

Discussing vows, Talmudic rabbis detour into the temptations of Jewish love-making—where almost anything goes

Adam Kirsch
June 16, 2015
Main image: MCA Records
Main image: MCA Records

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

Last week, the Jewish blogosphere was full of stories about Natan Alexander, a young Israeli rabbi who has started a business selling sex toys to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox. Most of the articles about Alexander made this a man-bites-dog story—the Orthodox! having sex like regular people! But as Daf Yomi readers have learned over the last several years, the ethics of sexual pleasure has always been an important question in Judaism. And in last week’s reading, in Tractate Nedarim, the rabbis offered one of their most comprehensive and enlightening discussions of the subject, which ended up with a ringing endorsement of Rabbi Alexander’s view that when it comes to married sex, almost anything goes.

The swerve from the main subject of the tractate, the laws of vowing, to the subject of sex took place in Nedarim 20a. The rabbis have been discussing what to do when people take vows and then try to wriggle out of them with far-fetched excuses. For instance, say someone takes a vow declaring a certain item to be cherem, “dedicated,” the way sacred items were dedicated to God in the Temple. Ordinarily, this would be a binding vow. But what if the person has second thoughts and starts to claim that what they meant to say wasn’t cherem but chermo, “a net”? Obviously, making a vow by a net is meaningless, and so wouldn’t be enforceable. But would anyone think of swearing by a net in the first place? Isn’t this an obvious lie, which demonstrates contempt for the institution of vowing?

The mishna offers several other examples of such verbal tricks. Someone might claim that instead of saying “I am an offering myself [atzmi],” they meant “I am swearing by a bone [etzem].” Or a man might take refuge in technicalities, swearing not to have anything to do with “my wife,” then claiming he really meant his ex-wife. It might be impossible to prove that the swearers of such vows are lying, but they are clearly acting in bad faith. And the fact that the mishna has to address such conduct, and has so many examples to choose from, suggests that this kind of evasion was commonplace. Here is another explanation for why Jewish law is so opposed to vows: Vowing encourages people to use dishonest methods to get out of their vows.

Naturally, the rabbis don’t like this kind of behavior. If anyone comes before a court making such a tricky excuse, “the court punishes them and treats them stringently,” says Rabbi Meir. But the majority of the rabbis are more lenient. The court should not punish people for trying to get out of their vows with bad excuses; rather, the court should try to give them a better excuse, a more plausible one, while at the same time teaching them not to “take vows lightly.” The next mishna, on Nedarim 20b, explains that the sages “dissolved four types of vows: vows of exhortation, vows of exaggeration, vows that are unintentional, and vows depending on circumstances beyond one’s control.” If you could convince the court that your vow fell into one of these categories, it could be annulled in good conscience, without resorting to verbal tricks.

The mishna goes on to give an example of this kind of forgivable vow. In the heat of a business negotiation, a person might vow never to accept less than a certain price: “One was selling an item and said: I will not lower the price for you to less than a sela, as that is konam.” Konam, we learned last week, is one of the substitute words that can be used in making a valid vow. But in this case, the context makes clear that this is just hyperbole, not a sincere intention to bind oneself by a vow. The Gemara gives another example, about a man who refuses an invitation to dinner by saying that “a drop of cold water is konam for me.” This doesn’t mean that he is actually forbidden to drink water, the rabbis explain; it is only an exaggerated way of saying that he can’t eat a large meal. “A person speaks this way,” the Gemara says, but it is only a manner of speaking.

Vowing encourages people to use dishonest methods to get out of their vows.

These categories are broad enough to leave a pretty big escape hatch from unwanted vows. If you can plausibly argue that you were exaggerating, or just trying to make a point in an argument, then you can be released from your vow. But surely the most common reason why a person would want to have a vow annulled is simple regret: You made a promise that you now realize is too difficult to keep, and you wish you hadn’t. Can a halakhic authority, a court or a sage, release people from vows simply on the grounds of regret?

Here there is a disagreement among tannaim. Rav Asi says that a court should not “broach dissolution based on regret”: That is, it should not suggest to a petitioner that regret is valid grounds for annulling a vow. But Rav Huna apparently did accept mere regret as a reason for undoing a vow. He would ask a petitioner, “Is your heart upon you?”—that is, do you still feel the same way you did when you took the vow? And if the answer was no, then Huna would dissolve the vow.

The Gemara goes on to mention other rabbis who took a similarly lenient approach, allowing even indirect kinds of regret to undo a vow. For instance, a woman once vowed to have nothing to do with her own daughter, only to find that her neighbors began to gossip about them: Surely the daughter must have been doing something highly inappropriate for her mother to get so angry. What the mother regretted was not so much the vow itself as the consequences of the vow—ruining her daughter’s reputation. But this was enough regret for Rabbi Yochanan to dissolve the vow, on the grounds that the woman wouldn’t have taken it in the first place if she had known what the consequences would be.

In certain cases, the rabbis took this reasoning to an extreme. In Nedarim 22b, we hear about the time Rabbi Shimon came before the sages asking for the dissolution of a vow. However, when the sages offered him various ways out, he kept refusing them: “They said to him: Did you vow with the knowledge of this particular fact? He said: Yes.” This happened over and over again, so that the sages had to puzzle over the case all day long—“from sun to shade, and again from shade to sun.” Finally, a rabbi called Botnit came up with an ingenious solution. Would Shimon have made the vow if he had known that dissolving it would cause so much trouble to the rabbis? No, Shimon said, and so the rabbis dissolved the vow. This circular reasoning—the vow is invalid because it is so hard to find a reason why it is invalid—doesn’t seem so far from the kind of punning the rabbis frowned on. But the Talmud makes clear that it will go to great lengths to release a Jew from a vow, rather than force him to break the vow and commit a sin.

And what about sex—is it a sin, an obligation, or a positive pleasure? That question comes to the fore at the end of Chapter 2 of Nedarim, when the rabbis warn against several kinds of temptation. “Never be accustomed to vows, because ultimately you will disregard them,” they say; also, “do not talk extensively with a woman, because ultimately you will come to adultery.” Rabbi Acha makes the threat more concrete, saying, “Anyone who looks at the heel of a woman will have indecent children as a punishment.” Why should the heel be so taboo? It is because he is not actually talking about the heel, explains Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: “The heel that is mentioned is the place of uncleanness, as it is situated opposite the heel.” This is a euphemism, like the common use of “feet” to mean genitals.

This linking of impure thoughts with defective children is taken further by Rabbi Yochanan ben Dehavai, a seldom-mentioned figure, who warns that every kind of birth defect can be explained by a particular sexual sin of the parents. If a child is born lame, it is because his father “overturned his table”—that is, had sex in an unconventional position (which means anything other than missionary). Muteness is punishment for cunnilingus, or what Yochanan calls “kissing that place.” Blindness is punishment for just looking at your partner’s genitals, and deafness is punishment for talking out loud during sex.

Linking a child’s misfortune to a parent’s sin is not uncommon in the Talmud—it is a kind of practical theodicy, a way of exonerating God from responsibility for random misfortune. But Yochanan ben Dehavai’s view of sex does seem un-Talmudically puritanical. From his point of view, sex, even between spouses, is a minefield of temptations; do it the wrong way, or take too much pleasure in it, and you will be punished. It is a relief to hear, then, that “the rabbis said: The halakha is not in accordance with Yochanan ben Dehavai. Rather, whatever a man wishes to do with his wife he may do.” The rabbis compare sex, rather bluntly, to “meat that comes from the butcher”: “If he wants to eat it with salt, he may eat it; roasted, he may eat it; cooked, he may eat it.”

Notably, this freedom is ascribed to the man. What about the woman? Does she also have a say in sexual matters? The Gemara goes on to answer yes, in no uncertain terms. There are certain kinds of sex that result in flawed children, the rabbis admit. But what is dangerous is not a particular sexual position or activity; it is, rather, sex in which a man coerces a woman physically or emotionally. “Children of fear”—when a wife is afraid of her husband—and “children of a hated woman”—when a husband doesn’t love his wife—are likely to become sinners, the Talmud explains. So too are “children of drunkenness,” when a man was too drunk to know who he was having sex with. There seems to be some psychological wisdom at the core of these prohibitions, which work together to ensure that sex is a conscious and consensual activity. A woman is even praised for initiating sex: “Any man whose wife demands [sex] of him … will have children the likes of whom did not exist even in the generation of Moses our teacher.” Still, the Talmud is committed enough to feminine modesty to make clear that a wife should not simply demand sex; rather, she should “entice” her husband. All things considered, Rabbi Alexander can claim a good halakhic basis for his business.


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.