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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Degrees of Sexual Touch- Joy of Text 2:11

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on August 24, 2017)
Topics: Halakha & Modernity, Sex & Niddah

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This is a supplementary source sheet to accompany the eleventh episode of the second season of the Joy of Text podcast.

You may also want to check out our source sheet on thinking about mikveh before marriage here.

Different Forms of Sexual Activity

Halakha recognizes a spectrum of sexual acts.  The act of intercourse, when it comes to adultery and other forbidden acts of sex, is defined as either vaginal or anal intercourse.  Other acts bordering on that include genital touching and “sex the way of limbs” – oral sex, or the woman performing manual masturbation on the man, or similar acts.  The Gemara Yevamot 55b {source 1}, discusses what type of behavior could make a woman a sotah (a woman suspected of adulterous behavior), and states clearly that only intercourse – vaginal or anal – would make a woman forbidden to her husband.  Rashi {source 2} clarifies the behaviors under consideration.

1. Bavli, Yevamot 55b

לכדתניא: שכבת זרע – פרט לדבר אחר. מאי דבר אחר?
אמר רב ששת: פרט לשקינא לה שלא כדרכה. א”ל רבא: משכבי אשה כתיב! אלא אמר רבא: פרט לשקינא לה דרך אברים. א”ל אביי: פריצותא אסר רחמנא? אלא אמר אביי: פרט לשקינא לה בנשיקה.
As we taught: [The verse regarding a sotah, a woman suspected of adultery states]: “[And a man shall lie with seed of copulation” (Bamidbar 5:13) – this excludes something else. What is meant by “something else”?

R. Shesheth replied: The exclusion is the case where he (the husband) warned her against unnatural (anal) intercourse [with another man, that she would not become a sotah]. Said Rava to him: The verse states, “As with the lyings with a woman” (the use of the plural teaches that the halakhic definition of the act of sex, lying with a woman, includes two forms of intercourse, vaginal and anal, and hence it was already assumed and the verse did not need to include it).—

Rather, said Rava, the exclusion is the case where the husband’s warning was against [having sex] by way of the limbs, and she does not become a sotah in such a case].

Said Abaye to him: Has God forbidden [a wife to her husband] because of licentious behavior? (It is obvious that this would not make her forbidden to her husband, and the Torah did not have to explicitly exclude it). Rather, said Abaye, the exclusion is the case where the husband’s warning was against “kissing” (superficial contact of the genitals).

2. Rashi, Bavli, Yevamot 55b

משכבי אשה כתיב – הוקשו שניהן. דרך אברים – מיעוך דדים ודש מבחוץ בשאר אברים. [רש”י סוטה (כו:) – שוכב עמה בקירוב בשר.] פריצותא קאסר רחמנא – בתמיה כלומר פשיטא דלאו קינוי הוא דמשום פריצותא לא מיתסרא עליה. בנשיקה – אבר נושק במקום תשמיש.“The text reads, ‘Lyings with a woman,” – the two forms of intercourse (vaginal and anal) are linked (are equally considered the Biblical act of intercourse).
“By way of limbs” – a squeezing of the breasts and “threshing” (stimulating the penis to the point of ejaculation) with the other limbs. [Rashi in Sotah (26b) – “lies together with her naked”].
“Has God then forbidden [a wife to her husband] because of mere licentious behavior?” – in other words, it is obvious that to warn her against such behaviors not a type of warning (that were she to violate would make her forbidden to her husband), for the Torah would not make her forbidden to him just because of licentious behavior.
“Kissing” – the member (penis) “kisses” the place of sex (the vagina).

Is Sexual Contact other than Intercourse Biblically Forbidden?  What Constitutes Sexual Contact?

The Biblical verse prohibits “drawing close to a woman in her flow to uncover her nakedness”.  The phrase at the end – “to uncover the nakedness” indicates that the verse is referring only to intercourse, but the Sifra emphasizes the “drawing close” and states that even acts prior to intercourse are forbidden {source 3}.  The simple reading of this Sifra is that it understands this to be a Biblical prohibition.

3. Sifra, Acharei Mot, Parasha 9, ch. 13

ואל אשה בנידת טומאתה לא תקרב לגלות ערותה, אין לי אלא שלא יגלה מנין שלא תקרב תלמוד לומר לא תקרב אין לי אלא נידה בל תקרב בל תגלה, מנין לכל העריות בל תקרבו ובל תגלו, תלמוד לומר לא תקרבו לגלות, אני ה’ אני נאמן לשלם שכר “And unto a woman in the flow of her impurity you shall not draw close to uncover her nakedness” (Vayikra 18:19). I only know that he (the man) may not uncover (have intercourse with her). From where do I know that he should not draw near? The verse teaches “you shall not draw near”. I only know that regarding a niddah [there are the prohibitions that a man] “shall not draw close” and “shall not uncover”, from where do I know that regarding all the arayot, forbidden sexual relations [there exist the prohibitions that a man] “shall not draw close” and “shall not uncover”? The verse teaches, “[Every man, regarding any that is near of kin to him,] shall not draw close to uncover [the nakedness;] I am the Lord” (Vayikra 18:6) – I am trusted to give due reward.

Rambam rules in according to the simple meaning o the Sifra, that other forms of sexual contact are Biblically prohibited {source 4}. (It should be clarified that this prohibition is not the same severity that which prohibits intercourse.  Only as a simple negative prohibition; it is not punishable by karet or the death penalty).  Notice the different ways Rambam, in the following three sources (4, 5, 6) describes the scope of this prohibition.  What type of touch and actions are prohibited according to each of  these three sources? Also note whether the acts are forbidden because they will lead to intercourse, or because they are seen as inherently problematic.

4. Rambam, Book of  Mitzvot, Negative Mitzvah, 353

שהזהירנו מקרוב לאחת מכל אלו העריות ואפילו בלא ביאה. כגון חבוק ונשיקה והדומה להם מפעולות הזנות. (במה’ קאפח, ע”פי הערבי: “התעלסות”) והוא אמרו יתעלה באזהרה מזה איש איש אל כל שאר בשרו לא תקרבו לגלות ערוה. כאילו יאמר לא תקרבו מהן קירוב יביא לגלות ערוה…We are prohibited to draw close to any one of these arayot, even without intercourse, such as by embracing (or “petting”), kissing, and similar types of acts of sexual activity (other texts read: “lovemaking”). The verse states, in its prohibiting of this, “Every man, regarding any that is near of kin to him shall not draw close to uncover the nakedness.” (Vayikra 18:6). It is as if He said, “You shall not draw near to them in a way that will bring about the uncovering of nakedness…” 

5. Rambam, Mishne Torah, List of Mitzvot, Mitzvah 353

שלא לקרב לעריות בדברים המביאים לידי גילוי ערוה כגון חיבוק ונישוק ורמיזה וקפיצה שנ’ אל כל שאר בשרו לא תקרבו לגלות ערוה, מפי השמועה למדו שזו אזהרה לקריבה המביאה לידי גילוי ערוה.To not draw near to any of the arayot with acts that bring about sexual intercourse, for example, embracing/petting, kissing, and suggestive gestures (or “beckoning and hinting”), as the verse states, “[Every man,] regarding any that is near of kin to him shall not draw near to uncover the nakedness,” from tradition were have learned that this is a prohibition against drawing close in a way the brings about sexual intercourse. 

6. Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations, 21:1

כל הבא על ערוה מן העריות דרך איברים או שחבק ונשק דרך תאוה ונהנה בקרוב בשר הרי זה לוקה מן התורה, שנאמר לבלתי עשות מחקות התועבות ונאמר לא תקרבו לגלות ערוה, כלומר לא תקרבו לדברים המביאין לידי גילוי ערוה. Whoever has intercourse with one of the arayot by “way of limbs” (e.g., oral intercourse), or who embraces/pets or kisses in a way of [sexual] desire and derives [sexual] pleasure through the bodily contact, is deserving of lashes according to the Torah, as it states, “[You shall keep My laws,] that you commit not any one of these abominable practices” (Vayikra 18:30), and it states, “You shall not draw near to reveal the nakedness” (Vayikra 18:6), as if to say: Do not draw near with acts that will brings about sexual intercourse.




Ramban rejects Rambam’s ruling and argues from the Talmud that all forms of sexual contact that are not vaginal or anal intercourse are only prohibited as a rabbinic matter {source 7}.  For Ramban, the Sifra only meant to give “support” to the rabbinic prohibition from the verse, not to forbid it as a Biblical prohibition. Note also that Ramban concedes that there might be a Biblical concern regarding such touch  of a “half-measure”.  This usually applies to quantitative half-measures (eating half an olive’s worth of pork, for example); here the half-measure would be qualitative (sexual activity but not sexual intercourse).  What types of activities would be included in the scope of this “half-measure”? 

7. Ramban, Critique of Sefer HaMitzvot, Negative 353

…נבין מהם כי אצלם זה האיסור מדרבנן, או יהיה מן התורה דכל דמתהני מאיסורא איסורא הוא כענין בחצי שיעור, אבל אין זה עיקר מדרש בלאו הזה אלא קרא אסמכתא בעלמא. והרבה מאד כן בסיפרא ובסיפרי… We can see (from this analysis) that for them [the Rabbis of the Talmud] this prohibition is only Rabbinic in nature, or it would be Biblical in the sense that anyone who derives pleasure from a forbidden thing has transgressed a [Biblical] stricture, as we find regarding “half measures” (eating less than the minimum amount of forbidden food), But this [prohibition of sexual pleasure that is not intercourse] is not the true interpretation of the Biblical prohibition of this verse (“Every man… shall not draw near”). Rather, the verse is an asmakhta (Biblical support for a Rabbinic prohibition), and there are many of this sort in the Sifra and Sifre…

Shulkhan Arukh rules like Rambam that such touch is a Biblical prohibition {source 8}. Chelkat Mechokeik quotes the dissenting position of Ramban, that it is only rabbinic, and seems to side with it {source  9}.  Shakh sides with Rambam, but clarifies that even for Rambam, it is only sexual touch that would be a Biblical violation {source 10}The phrase he uses is חיבת ביאה, “touch with the intimacy of intercourse.” This suggest that not even all sexual touch is included, but only such touch that is closely associated with intercourse itself.

 Shakh also notes that the Biblical prohibition applies only to עריות, and not to women with who intercourse is a simple negative prohibition.  This latter category includes an unmarried woman who has gone to the mikveh.  For Rambam, sex in this case is Biblically prohibited, but it is not one of the עריות.

8. Shulkhan Arukh, Even Ha’Ezer, 20:1

הבא על אחת מן העריות דרך איברים, או שחבק ונשק ונהנה בקירוב בשר, הרי זה לוקה וחשוד על העריותWhoever has intercourse with any one of the arayot by way of limbs, or who embraces/pets or kisses and derives [sexual] pleasure from the physical contact, receives lashes and is suspect regarding sexual transgressions.

9. Chelkat Mechokeik, 20:1

זה הוא דעת הרמב”ם בפ’ כ”א מהא”ב… אבל הרמב”ן נחלק על הרמב”ם בזה ודעתו שאין חיוב מלקות רק בהעראה ממש ושאר קריבות מדרבנן ובספר זוהר הרקיע (שחיבר הרשב”ץ על תרי”ג מצות) במצות ל”ת מצוה י’ הסכים עם הרמב”ן והביא ראיה מה שאמרו בגמ’ בסוטה דרך אברים פריצותא היא ופריצות מי אסר רחמנא:This is the opinion of Rambam, chapter 21 of Issurei Biah… but Ramban disagrees with Rambam regarding this, and it is his opinion that there is no liability for lashes [or Biblical transgression] unless there is at least partial penetration, and all other forms of “drawing near” (sexual touch) are only [prohibited on a] Rabbinic [basis]. In the book Zohar HaRakiya (authored by Rashbatz on the 613 mitzvot), in his Negative Mitzvot, mitzvah 10, he sides with Ramban, and brings a proof to this based on what is stated in Sotah (26b): “[Intercourse] by way of limbs is licentious behavior, and the Torah does not prohibit licentious behavior (that is not actually intercourse).”

10. Shakh, Yoreh Deah, 157:10

…והרב ר”י ליאון בספר מגלת אסתר שלו דף קי”ח סתר כל דברי הרמב”ן והעלה כהרמב”ם ע”ש וכן נראה לי מהך עובדא דהעלה לבו טינא ומכל מקום משמע דאף הרמב”ם לא קאמר אלא כשעושה חיבוק ונישוק דרך חיבת ביאה שהרי מצינו בש”ס בכמה דוכתי שהאמוראים היו מחבקים ומנשקים לבנותיהם ואחיותיהם וכן כתב הר’ יצחק ליאון שם בהדיא וכן משמע להדיא ממ”ש הרמב”ם ר”פ כ”א מהל’ א”ב וז”ל “כל הבא על העריות דרך אברים או שחבק ונשק דרך תאוה ונהנה בקירוב בשר ה”ז לוקה מן התורה כו’ ” וכן כתב הסמ”ג והכתר תורה שם אלמא דאינו לוקה אלא בדרך תאוה וחיבת ביאה … וכתבו עוד הרב המגיד שם והר”י ליאון דאף להרמב”ם ליכא מלקות בקריבה אלא בחייבי כריתות ולא בחייבי לאוין…… And Rabbi Leon in his book Megillat Esther, page 118, undoes all of Ramban’s proofs and concludes like Rambam, see there. And this (Rambam’s position) seems to me to be the correct position based on the story of the person who developed a lust [for a woman, and the Rabbis said that it was better to let him die of anguish than to permit him to have any form of sexual contact with her] (Sanhedrin 75a).
Nevertheless, it appears that even Rambam only said his ruling in a case when the person was embracing and kissing in an “intimacy of intercourse,” for we find in the Talmud in a number of places that the Amoraim would hug and kiss their daughters and sisters. And so Rabbi Yitzchak Leon wrote explicitly, and this also seems explicit from what Rambam wrote in chapter 21 of Issurei Biah, where he states:
“Whoever has intercourse with one of the arayot by “way of limbs” (e.g., oral intercourse), or who embraces/pets or kisses in a way of [sexual] desire and derives [sexual] pleasure through the bodily contact, is deserving of lashes according to the Torah…”
Semag and Keter Torah wrote similarly. From this we see that a person only is deserving of lashes if he does this in a way of desire and with the “intimacy of intercourse”…
The Maggid Mishna and Rav Yitzchak Leon also wrote that even according to Rambam there would only be lashes [for such activity] regarding those woman with whom the prohibition to have intercourse is punishable by karet, but not regarding cases where intercourse is forbidden only based on a simple negative prohibition…

Rav Yehudah Herzl Henkin argues that there is no prohibition in mixed circle dancing, either of a Biblical or rabbinic nature {source 11}.  In so doing, he discusses the scope of the Biblical prohibition of sexual touch for Rambam, and concludes that this would include only touch that is a direct lead-in to intercourse. He states that the same would be true for Ramban’s “half-measure” idea, and that regardless, Ramban did not maintain this idea in his conclusion (I don’t know where he sees that this was rejected).

11. Responsa  Benei Banim, 1:37

(7) עוד כתב כבודו שברקודים יש איסור נגיעה ביד של לא תקרבו ושהאיסור הוא לשיטת הרמב”ם מן התורה ולשיטת הרמב”ן מדרבנן עכ”ל אבל איני יודע מנין לכותבים כן כי הרמב”ם בפרוש המשניות למסכת סנהדרין פרק ז’ ובספר המצוות לא תעשה מצוה שנ”ג ובמנין המצוות שבהתחלת ספר המדע ובהלכות איסורי ביאה פרק כ”א הלכה א’ לא הזכיר נגיעה ביד אלא חיבוק ונישוק ועיין בשו”ת פני יהושע רבו של הש”ך חלק ב’ סימן מ”ד שלדעת הרמב”ם בלא חיבוק ונישוק אלא בנגיעה בלבד אין בה איסור מן התורה ואפילו בכוונת חיבה ולפי זה ברקודי מעגל אין איסור מן התורה של לא תקרבו אפילו אם לוחצים ידים דרך חיבה ואם תאמר שרקודי מעגל דומים לחיבוק ונישוק ולא לנגיעה בעלמא זה בודאי אינו כי ענין חיבוק ונישוק הוא שהנם דברים הקשורים לתשמיש וכן מורה הכתוב לא תקרבו לגלות ערוה כאילו יאמר לא תקרבו שום קירוב שיביא לגלות ערוה כלשון הרמב”ם בספר המצוות שהם חיבוק ונישוק ובדומה להם שאדם עושה בשעת תשמיש ולקראתו אבל אחיזה ביד אין לזו קשר עם תשמיש שאין אדם אוחז כפה של אשתו לקראת תשמיש… ובספר המצוות שתרגם הר”י קאפח מן הערבית האזהרה שהוזהרנו מהתענג באחת מכל העריות ואפילו בלא ביאה כגון החיבוק והנישוק וכיוצא בהן ממעשי ההתעלסות עכ”ל עיי”ש וזו ראיה ברורה וכן במשנה תורה כתב כל הבא על ערוה מן העריות דרך אברים או שחבק ונשק דרך תאוה וכו’ דברים המביאים לידי גילוי ערוה עכ”ל וכן כתב הסמ”ג בלא תעשה מצוה קכ”ו בקריבה המביאה לידי גלוי ערוה הכתוב מדבר עכ”ל ובפרוש המשניות סיים הרמב”ם שהדברים הם מעשה מן הזנות קוראלן אותן חכמים ע”ה מנאפין ביד וברגל עכ”ל אלא בודאי אם הרמב”ם אסר רק חיביק ונישוק ובדומה להם כמשמעות לשונו אין רקודי מעגל בכלל… (8) ואין לאמר שנגיעה בלבד בערוה אסורה מן התורה בחצי שעור כמו שנסתפק הרמב”ן בהשגות לספר המצוות לגבי קריבות לערוה זה אינו שייך אלא בחיבוק ונישוק לשיטת הרמב”ן שאינם אסורים בלאו ומכל מקום כיון שהם פעולות שאדם עושה בשעת תשמיש ולקראתו אפשר שנחשבים כחצי מעשה וגם בזה מסקנת הרמב”ן היא שאין כאן איסור תורה כמו שכתבו האחרונים אבל נגיעה בלבד שאינה קשורה לפעולות תשמיש אין בה קשר עם המעשה ואינו שייך בה הצי שעור וזה פשוט לע”ד שלא כמו שהביא באוצר הפוסקים בשם ספר מעין החכמה(7) Your honor also writes that in regards to [mixed circle] dancing one transgresses the prohibition of “You shall not draw near” due to the touch by hand, which according to Rambam is Biblical and according to Ramban in Rabbinic. These are your words. But I don’t know on what basis your write this, for Rambam in Mishna Commentary on Sanhedrin ch. 7, and in the Book of Mitzvot, Negative Mitzvah 353, and in the list of mitzvot at the beginning of Mada, and in Issurei Biah, 21:1, does not mention touching by hand [as falling under this prohibition], but rather embracing/petting and kissing. See Responsa Penei Yehoshua, the teacher of Shakh, 2:44, who satets that according to Rambam, touching without embracing and kissing is not Biblically prohibited and even if it is done with an intention of intimacy (for sexual pleasure).
Based on this, there does not exist in the case of circle dancing any Biblical prohibition of “You shall not draw near,” even if they are pressing their hands together in a way of intimacy. Now, were you to argue that circle dancing is similar to embracing and kissing, and not to [be considered] mere touch, this is certainly not the case. For the issue with embracing and kissing is that they are acts which are tied to intercourse, and this is what is indicated by the verse, “You shall no draw near to uncover the nakedness,” as if to say, “Do not draw near in any manner of closeness that will lead to sexual intercourse,” as Rambam writes in Sefer HaMitzvot, that it is an embracing and kissing and similar acts that a person does at the time of intercourse and as a lead-in to it. However, holding a hand is not tied to sexual intercourse, for a person does not hold his wife’s hand as a lead-in to intercourse…
In the Sefer HaMitzvot that was translated by Rav Kappach from the Arabic it states: “We are prohibited to deriving (sexual) pleasure from any one of the arayot even without intercourse, such as embracing, kissing, and similar activities of lovemaking.” See there. This is a clear proof [that only intercourse-related acts are forbidden]. Similarly in Mishne Torah, [Rambam] writes: “Whoever has intercourse with one of the arayot by “way of limbs” (e.g., oral intercourse), or who embraces/pets or kisses in a way of [sexual] desire… [as if to say, Do not draw near] with acts that will brings about sexual intercourse.” Semag writes similarly in his Negative Mitzvot, 126, “The verse is referring to a closeness that brings about sexual intercourse,” and in the Mishna Commentary, Rambam concludes “The acts that are acts of fornication, those Sages have referred to as “fornicating (lit., “committing adultery”) with the hand and foot”. It is thus clear that if Rambam is forbids only “embracing and kissing and similar acts” as his language implies, then circle dancing is not in this category.
(8) One cannot say that touching by itself is Biblically forbidden based on the principle of “half-measures,” like Rambam considered (lit., “had a doubt regarding”) in his Critique of Sefer HaMitzvot regarding sexual touch. For this stricture is only relevant in a case of embracing and kissing according to Ramban who holds that they are not prohibited based on a negative prohibition. Nevertheless, since they are acts that a person does at the time of intercourse and as a lead-in to it, it is possible that they are considered a “half-act” [of intercourse]. Even when it comes to this possibility, Ramban’s conclusion is that [such touch] is not a Biblical prohibition, as the Achronim have written [regarding his position]. But touching alone which is not tied to acts relating to intercourse, has no connection to the act itself, and it is not possible to consider it a form of a “half-measure”, and this is obvious in my humble opinion, as is also cited in Otzar HaPoskim in the name of Maayan HaChachma.