Navigate to Belief section

Virginity Is a Commodity (and Can Be Divined by Sitting a Bride on a Wine Barrel)

Talmudic rabbis are less interested in mystical speculation than in concrete questions, like the state of women’s hymens

Adam Kirsch
February 17, 2015
(Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock)
(Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock)

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

How many times did God create human beings? As with many seemingly simple matters, the Torah turns out to be maddeningly ambiguous on this question. In Genesis 5:1-2, we read, “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God he made him; male and female he created them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam.” This description echoes the earlier phrase from Genesis 1:27, which says, “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” But does this describe one act of creation or two? “In his own image” seems to imply one creation, since God surely can’t have two images; but “male and female he created them” suggests that he created each gender separately. And this is not to mention the story of Adam and Eve, which has God creating the first woman from the rib of the first man.

When such interpretive problems arise in the Talmud, it is usually not as a matter of abstract speculation, but in connection with a mundane, pragmatic issue; and so it was in this week’s Daf Yomi reading. In Ketubot 8a, the Gemara lists the six blessings that are to be recited over the groom at a wedding. At first I was surprised to see that there were only six, since the marriage service itself is referred to as the sheva berachot, the seven blessings. The notes to the Koren Talmud explain that the seventh blessing is the one for betrothal. In the past, betrothal often took place well in advance of the wedding, but today the two ceremonies are combined, so all seven blessings are recited together. We read in the Gemara, however, that the sage Levi once went to the wedding of the son of Yehuda HaNasi and recited only five of the six blessings over the groom. Which one did he omit, and why?

The answer is related to the question of how human beings were created. The second of the six wedding berachot praises “the creator of mankind,” while the third praises “You who made humanity in his image.” Two blessings implies that God created humanity in two acts, once for men and once for women. Perhaps Levi disagreed with this notion, however, and believed God only created humanity once. In that case he would have omitted either the second or the third blessing (there’s no way of knowing which), since he would have believed only one reference to creation was necessary.

But the Gemara goes on to reject this idea: “No, everyone agrees that it was one act of creation.” It is possible, however, that God intended to create men and women separately, but in fact created them only once. This would mean that the first man and woman were fused, having two faces but only one body. Only subsequently were the two halves severed into independent beings. One later commentator explains that God did this in order to emphasize that the sexes belong together and should live together in harmony—an ideal that has to be insisted on, perhaps, because it is often elusive. This is an appealing notion and oddly reminiscent of the myth that Aristophanes expounds in Plato’s Symposium. He too suggests that the original humans were double-sided and only later split into the halves we know today, which must seek to be reunited through love. (One difference is that Plato believed that some of the two-sided ur-people were double-men or double-women, so that their souls sought reunion with people of the same sex.)

The Talmud does not pursue this line of thought for very long, however. It is much less interested in mystical speculation than in concrete questions—above all, in this week’s reading, the question of what to do if a bride turns out not to be a virgin. As we read this week, the bride’s virginity is not just a moral issue but a financial one. “The sages instituted the marriage contract for Jewish women: For a virgin two hundred dinars and for a widow one hundred dinars,” we read in Ketubot 10a. If a man marries a woman believing she is a virgin and then discovers on the wedding night that she is not, he has been effectively defrauded out of a hundred dinars. Virginity, which the Talmud understands in clinical terms as possession of an intact hymen, is a commodity with a specific price.

The problem, of course, is that no one can be sure whether a woman is a virgin except the woman herself, and she has a strong incentive to lie about it. The rabbis propose several objective tests, but none of them is fool-proof. Say a groom has intercourse with his bride for the first time and claims, “I encountered an unobstructed orifice”: that is, he didn’t feel the presence of the hymen. But this is not conclusive, as the Talmud explains. True, if the bride had intercourse after she was betrothed to the man, she is legally forbidden to him. But what if the intercourse took place before betrothal? Then she would indeed be guilty of what the Talmud calls “licentious sexual intercourse,” but this would not be enough to annul the marriage, though it would change the terms of the marriage settlement. And what if the intercourse was not voluntary but coerced? Coerced intercourse or rape does not annul a marriage.

Then there is the question of whether a man can always tell, simply through physical sensation, whether his sexual partner has a hymen or not. After all, if he is a first-time groom, then theoretically he too should be a virgin, and so he would have no standard for comparison. If he does claim to know the difference between an “obstructed orifice” and an unobstructed one, this can only mean that he has previous sexual experience. Thus when a man once came before Rav Nachman and said, “I encountered an unobstructed orifice,” Nachman replied, “Flog him with palm branches; prostitutes are common around him.” Only with prostitutes could the man have gained the experience that allowed him to tell about the obstruction in the first place.

This is a nice way of turning the tables on the groom, and it is one of several ways in which the rabbis tried to discourage a new husband from publicly accusing his wife of lacking chastity. First, they hold that it is possible for a man to have intercourse with a woman who has an intact hymen but simply never penetrate it, if he does what the Talmud calls “diverting his approach,” that is, inserting his penis at an unusual angle. Or he could have thrust so vigorously that he broke the hymen without knowing it; as Rabban Gamliel told one such groom, “Maybe you displaced the door and the bolt.”

The objective proof of virginity, as we saw last week, was supposed to be the presence of blood on the sheets of the marital bed. But here, too, the rabbis allowed that things weren’t so straightforward. Once a couple came before Rabban Gamliel and the man claimed there was no blood, while the woman insisted that she had been a virgin. Gamliel took the sheet and “soaked it in water and laundered it and found upon it several drops of blood,” which proved that the wife was telling the truth. This example would have discouraged indignant grooms from relying too much on physical evidence.

Then there is the possibility that the bride is, to use modern language, genetically predisposed not to bleed after intercourse. This is the case considered in Ketubot 10b, where a woman claims that she didn’t bleed because “I am from the family of Dorketi, who have neither menstrual blood nor blood from the hymen.” Rabban Gamliel “investigated among her relatives” and found that this was the truth, so he cleared her from suspicion. The rabbis disagreed, however, about whether the failure to menstruate was a good or a bad thing in a woman. On the one hand, a wife who never had a period would never be ritually impure and unavailable for sex. In the other hand, Rabbi Meir believed, “Any woman whose blood is plentiful, her children are plentiful,” so a woman from the family of Dorketi might turn out to be infertile. (Though if there was a family of Dorketi, clearly not all the women were so affected.)

Finally, Rabban Gamliel offers a seemingly unchallengeable and scientific test for female virginity. Confronted by yet another newly married couple, the rabbi ordered a barrel of wine to be brought, then told the woman to sit on top of the barrel’s opening. If the woman were not a virgin, he reasoned, the fumes of the wine would enter her vagina, travel through her body and come out of her mouth; if she were a virgin, the fumes would be blocked and her breath wouldn’t carry the smell of wine. In this case, the woman’s breath was sweet and so she was declared a virgin. The absurdity of this “test,” which makes the episode comical and even sinister to a modern reader, did not appear to the rabbis, whose notions of human biology made it seem eminently sensible.

The whole discussion of virginity, indeed, is rather troubling, since it makes the power imbalance of patriarchy so gynecologically explicit. It is worth emphasizing, then, that within the basic assumptions of patriarchy—that marriage was a kind of sale of a woman from her father to her husband—the Talmud does try to make things easier and fairer for women. It lists a number of ways that a woman accused of unchastity can refute or escape the charge. (Indeed, later in the chapter the rabbis introduce the idea of a hymen “ruptured by wood,” that is, accidentally by an object rather than by sexual intercourse.) It seems clear that the Talmud wants to raise the evidentiary bar so high that accusations of unchastity will be virtually impossible to prove. In this area, harmony and conciliation, rather than strict justice, are the rabbis’ goal.


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.