Sex in the Talmud - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Sex in the Talmud

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Monday, March 14, 2016

bee & flowersSpring is in the air, so naturally our thoughts turn to ...  Talmud! Just kidding. Our thoughts turn to sex. In the Talmud. It is my pleasure to interview author and Talmudist, Maggie Anton.

SFS: Maggie, it seems to me that in American society we tend to think of great sex as the domain of the wild/bad characters, while good people don't indulge in such messy activities. Since the rabbis are our best examples of all that is good and holy, they must have disdained sex right?

MA: Wrong. The Rabbis believed, rightly or wrongly, that the quality of a child reflected the quality of the sex act that conceived that child. That is, the better the sex, for both the man and the woman, the better the offspring. Therefore it was incumbent on Jews not only to have sex, but to have good sex.

SFS: Are you saying that bad sex brings about bad children? What constitutes bad sex? (or children?)

 MA: Yes, bad sex brings bad children. There are actually a couple of Talmud debates on the definition of bad sex, but not so much on bad children [I guess everyone knew what bad children were]. I include those two debates in my book.

SFS: What makes sexual relations important enough to merit so much discussion in the Talmud?

MA: Good question. Actually there are two answers.

  1. Procreation is not only a mitzvah, it is the first mitzvah mentioned in the Torah. God commanded Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply," which for most of human history means you must have sex. The Talmudic rabbis discussed how to perform nearly all the mitzvot, and this one is no exception.
  2. The Torah also forbid certain kinds of sex [i.e. adultery, sex with a niddah, etc] so the Sages also had to ascertain exactly what act or acts were actually forbidden.

SFS: Is sexual satisfaction yet another area in the Talmud where the woman's experience is ignored or downplayed?

MA: Amazingly, only the woman is entitled to sexual satisfaction. The Torah says that a husband may not diminish his wife's food, clothing, and "onah" [which the Rabbis define as her conjugal rights to sexual satisfaction]. A man is permitted to have sex with other women, but a wife may not have sex with another man. Therefore a husband is obligated to provide all the sex she needs/wants.

SFS: so is all this great sex just for purpose of having children?

MA: Great sex serves two purposes for the rabbis, each of which fulfills a commandment .

  1. For conceiving the best children - "be fruitful and multiply".
  2. For giving the wife sexual satisfaction - "not diminishing her onah"


SFS: Is there such a thing as too much sex?


MA: Yes. When a man dies in a brothel from overindulging in women, the Rabbis determine that the brothel owner and harlots are not responsible. 


SFS: Are all these discussions located in the same section of the Talmud? Or are they scattered about?

MA: They are scattered around, but a few Tractates [Yevamot, Ketubot, Niddah come to mind] have more than others. Check the references at the end of my book and you'll get an idea. 

SFS: Thank you so much for chatting with me about such an important and delicious topic!

If you are now totally intrigued by the topic of sex in the Talmud, you can learn more by checking out the Talmud text itself, Maggie’s new book Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What, or any of the libraries’ other books on the topic. You can search the catalog for the subject “Sex in Rabbinic Literature”