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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

What in the World is a Virgin?- Joy of Text 1:4

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on November 10, 2017)
Topics: Source Sheets, Halakha & Modernity, Sex & Niddah

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Our hosts talk about the meaning of “virginity” in medicine and Jewish law. Then they talk with Dr. Joel Hecker about sexuality and Jewish mysticism. In the Q&A: What happens when the rules about physical intimacy clash with a mother’s postpartum depression? The Joy of Text is produced by Jewish Public Media and co-sponsored by YCT’s Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies and JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

These sources accompany the fourth episode of the Joy of Text podcast.

In this episode:

What Defines a Virgin

Touching After Post-Partum Depression

Different Levels of Desire


What Defines a Virgin


Competing Definitions: Hymen or Sex?


The Torah word for virgin is betulah, which is from the same root as the hymen (betulim). The presence of the hymen is seen as evidence that the woman has not had sex.  The parents of a young woman who is suspected of not being a virgin (and of having committed adultery) before the wedding, can prove that the husband is lying by producing the sheet from the bridal bed with the betulim, the blood of the hymen, on it.

  1. Devarim 22:15-17   |    דברים פרק כ”ב:ט”ו-י”ז
(טו) וְלָקַח אֲבִי הַנַּעֲרָ וְאִמָּהּ וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֶת בְּתוּלֵי הַנַּעֲרָ אֶל זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַשָּׁעְרָה:

(טז) וְאָמַר אֲבִי הַנַּעֲרָ אֶל הַזְּקֵנִים אֶת בִּתִּי נָתַתִּי לָאִישׁ הַזֶּה לְאִשָּׁה וַיִּשְׂנָאֶהָ:

(יז) וְהִנֵּה הוּא שָׂם עֲלִילֹת דְּבָרִים לֵאמֹר לֹא מָצָאתִי לְבִתְּךָ בְּתוּלִים וְאֵלֶּה בְּתוּלֵי בִתִּי וּפָרְשׂוּ הַשִּׂמְלָה לִפְנֵי זִקְנֵי הָעִיר:

[15] Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the (evidence of the) damsel’s virginity (betulei) unto the elders of the city in the gate:

[16] And the damsel’s father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hated her;

[17] And, lo, he has given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not your daughter a virgin (betulim) (or more literally, “I did not find the hymen of your daughter”); and yet these are (the tokens of) my daughter’s virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city.


This leaves open the question of whether a woman who has had sex, but has her hymen intact, or has not had sex but does not have her hymen, would be considered a betulah/virgin.  Notice how the verse regarding Rivkah seems to identify the two, but the commentators explain that the seeming redundancy teaches that she had also not engaged in forms of sexual activity other than vaginal intercourse, such that would not have ruptured her hymen.

2. Breishit 24:16   |    בראשית כ”ד:ט”ז

(טז) וְהַנַּעֲרָה טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד בְּתוּלָה וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ וַתֵּרֶד הָעַיְנָה וַתְּמַלֵּא כַדָּהּ וַתָּעַל:And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her: and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up.

3. Rashi, Breishit 24:16   |    רש”י בראשית, כ”ד:ט”ז

בתולה – ממקום בתולים:

ואיש לא ידעה – שלא כדרכה, לפי שבנות הגוים היו משמרות מקום בתוליהן ומפקירות עצמן ממקום אחר, העיד על זו שנקיה מכל:

A virgin – in the place of the hymen (the betulim – from the same root as betulah – virgin).

And no man knew her – even in an “unnatural way” [through anal sex].  For the daughters of the Gentiles would protect themselves in the place of the hymen (refrain from vaginal intercourse), and make themselves available to have sex in the other place (anally).  The verse testifies on this one (Rivkah) that she was clean from all this.

4. Rashbam, Breishit 24:16   |   רשב”ם בראשית, כ”ד:ט”ז

ואיש לא ידעה – אפי’ מעשה חידודין, כי צנועה היתה:And no man knew her – Even in regards to sexual fondling, for she was a modest woman.


Breishit Rabbah ties two ways of reading this verse into a debate of R. Meir and the Sages whether a betulah for ketuvah purposes is defined as a woman who did not have sex or a woman with her hymen intact.  The question is whether the words “betulah” and “a man did not know her” are seen as synonymous or not.

5. Breishit Rabbah, Chayei Sarah, 60   |     בראשית רבה, חיי שרה, פ’ ס’

[והנערה טובת מראה מאד בתולה ואיש לא ידעה] תנינן מוכת עץ כתובתה מאתים דברי ר’ מאיר וחכמים אומרים מוכת עץ כתובתה מנה

ר’ אבהו מש’ ר’ אלעזר טעמ’ דר’ מאיר ואיש לא ידעה הא אם נבעלה מעץ בתולה, טע’ דרבנן בתולה הא אם נבעלה מעץ אינה בתולה.

… אמר ריש לקיש לפי שבנות גוים משמרות עצמן ממקום עידותן ומפקירות עצמן ממקום אחר אבל זו בתולה ממקום בתולים ואיש לא ידעה ממקום אחר

אמר ר’ יוחנן ממשמע שנ’ בתולה אין אנו יודעין ואיש לא ידעה, אלא אפילו אדם לא תבע בה על שם כי לא ינוח שבט הרשע על גורל הצדיקים (תהלים קכה ג).

 And the lass was very fair to look upon, a virgin, and no man had known her – We taught “A mukat eitz (lit,, “wounded by a stick,” a woman whose hymen has been torn not through intercourse)– Rabbi Meir states her ketuvah is 200 zuz (the amount for a virgin), and the Sages say that a mukat eitz has a ketuvah of 100 zuz (the amount for a non-virgin). “ (Mishna Ketuvot 1:3).

Rabbi Avahu in the name of R. Eliezer said – the reason of Rabbi Meir is from the words“and a man did not know her” – which implies that [being a virgin means not having had sex, thus] if she is a mukat eitz she is a virgin.  The reason of the Rabbis is from the words “a virgin, betulah” – which indicates that if she had been penetrated by a piece of wood, she is not a betulah (since the word betulah is from the same root as betulim, hymen).

Said Reish Lakish because the daughters of the Gentiles would protect themselves in the place of their “testimony” (the hymen, which would testify to their virginal status), and make themselves available to have sex in the other place (anally). But this one (Rivkah) was a betulah, virgin, from the place of the betulim, the hymen, and “a man did not know her,” from the other place.  

Said R. Yochanan – we can infer from the fact that it says “a virgin” that “a man did not know her,” [so what does this last phrase teach]? It is to say that a man did not even proposition her, to fulfill the verse, “Therefore the rod of the wicked will not rest upon the lot of the righteous.”


There are chiefly two areas in halakha where it matters if a woman is a virgin – whether her ketuvah, marriage contract, is the full amount, 200 zuz, or only half that, 100 zuz, and whether she can marry a Kohen Gadol.  The ketuvah amount is derived from a verse about mohar, which may be referring either to ketuvah money paid upfront or, as scholars believe, a bride-price.  It is clear that in the society the Torah is describing, men only wanted to marry virgins, and non-virgins would have received no mohar.  Hence the fine for the person who makes a young woman lose her virginity before marriage.

6. Shemot 22:15-16  |   שמות כב:ט”ו-ט”ז

(טו) וְכִי יְפַתֶּה אִישׁ בְּתוּלָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא אֹרָשָׂה וְשָׁכַב עִמָּהּ מָהֹר יִמְהָרֶנָּה לּוֹ לְאִשָּׁה:

(טז) אִם מָאֵן יְמָאֵן אָבִיהָ לְתִתָּהּ לוֹ כֶּסֶף יִשְׁקֹל כְּמֹהַר הַבְּתוּלֹת:

[15] And if a man entices a virgin that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her (or “give her the bride price”) to be his wife.

[16] If her father utterly refuses to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the bride-price of virgins.


The woman who was not a virgin, while not forbidden to a normal Kohen, is forbidden to the Kohen Gadol.  Clearly, there is a sense of her as pure and untainted.

7. VaYikra 21:10, 13-14    |    ויקרא פרק כא

(י) וְהַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל מֵאֶחָיו אֲשֶׁר יוּצַק עַל רֹאשׁוֹ שֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה וּמִלֵּא אֶת יָדוֹ לִלְבֹּשׁ אֶת הַבְּגָדִים אֶת רֹאשׁוֹ לֹא יִפְרָע וּבְגָדָיו לֹא יִפְרֹם…

(יג) וְהוּא אִשָּׁה בִבְתוּלֶיהָ יִקָּח:

(יד) אַלְמָנָה וּגְרוּשָׁה וַחֲלָלָה זֹנָה אֶת אֵלֶּה לֹא יִקָּח כִּי אִם בְּתוּלָה מֵעַמָּיו יִקַּח אִשָּׁה:

[10] And he that is the high priest among his brethren, upon whose head the anointing oil was poured, and that is consecrated to put on the garments, shall not uncover his head, nor rend his clothes…

[13] And he shall take a wife in her virginity.

[14] A widow, or a divorced woman, or profane, or a harlot, these shall he not take: but he shall take a virgin of his own people to wife.


Rabbi Meir and the Sages debate whether a virgin for a kohen Gadol is described as a woman who has not had sex or a woman with her hymen intact, as they did regarding the Ketuvah, see {source 5}.

8. Bavli, Yevamot  59a   |   (.בבלי, יבמות (נט

מתני’. כהן גדול לא ישא אלמנה… ולא ישא את הבוגרת, ר’ אלעזר ור’ שמעון מכשירין בבוגרת. ולא ישא את מוכת עץ.

גמ’… ולא ישא את הבוגרת. תנו רבנן: והוא אשה בבתוליה יקח – פרט לבוגרת שכלו לה בתוליה, דברי ר’ מאיר, ר’ אלעזר ור’ שמעון מכשירין בבוגרת.

במאי קא מיפלגי? רבי מאיר סבר: בתולה – אפילו מקצת בתולים משמע, בתוליה – עד דאיכא כל הבתולים, בבתוליה – בכדרכה אין, שלא כדרכה לא

ורבי אלעזר ורבי שמעון סברי: בתולה – בתולה שלימה משמע, בתוליה – ואפי’ מקצת בתולים, בבתוליה – עד שיהיו כל בתוליה קיימין, בין בכדרכה, בין שלא כדרכה.

[Mishna] A high priest shall not marry a widow…. He shall not marry one who has passed puberty. R. Elazar and R. Simeon permit him to marry one who has passed puberty, but he may not marry one who is mukat eitz, “wounded by a stick”.
[Gemara]… “He shall not marry one who has passed puberty” -Our Rabbis taught: “And he shall take a wife in her virginity” excludes one who has passed puberty, whose hymen is no longer [fully] present; so said R. Meir. R. Elazar and R. Simeon permit the marriage of one who has passed puberty. On what principle do they differ?  R. Meir is of the opinion that had it said betulah, “virgin” it would have implied even [one who retains] some of her betulim, hymen, but [the phrase] “her betulim” implies that all of hymen must be intact (and it is presumed that this is no longer the case when she has passed puberty).  When the verse than adds the extra phrase “in” her betulim, this is meant to say that if she had non-vaginal sex, she is still considered a betulah. [In other words –it is all about the hymen and not about sex].R. Elazar and R. Simeon, however, are of the opinion that had the Torah written betulah it would have implied only a fully intact hymen, but [the phrase] “her betulim” implies even if part of the hymen is intact (and thus, even after she has passed puberty).  The final phrase “in” her betulim is to say that she has to be a full virgin, [that she could not have had sex] whether in the normal way (vaginally) or the “non-normal” way (anally).  [That is, it is only an issue of whether she has had sex, and not an issue of the state of her hymen.]


The text of the Ketuvah makes direct reference to the woman’s virginal or non-virginal status, with the amount (200 or 100 zuz) being determined accordingly.

9. Text of the Ketuvah (selection)  |    נוסח התכותה

בְּ ___ בְּשַׁבָּת, בְּ___ יָמִים לְחֹדֶש ___ שְׁנַת ___ לִבְרִיאַת עוֹלָם לְמִנְיָן שֶׁאָנוּ מָנִין כָּאן בְּמָתָא _____ בִּמְדִינַת _____, אֲנַן סָהֲדֵי אֵיךְ הַבָּחוּר ______ לְמִשְׁפַּחַת _____ אֲמַר לַהּ לְהדא בתולתא (מתרכתא/ארמלתא) _______ לְמִשְׁפַּחַת ____: הֲוִי לִי לְאִנְתּוּ כְּדַת מֹשֶׁה וְיִשְׂרָאֵל. וַאֲנָא אֶפְלַח וְאוֹקִיר וְאֵיזוּן וַאֲפַרְנֵס יָתִיכִי כְּהִלְכָת גּוּבְרִין יְהוּדָאִין דְּפָלְחִין וּמוֹקְרִין וְזָנִין וּמְפַרְנְסִין לִנְשֵׁיהוֹן בְּקוּשְׁטָא. וְיָהֵבְנָא לִיכִי מוֹהַר

בתוליכִי כְּסַף זוּזֵי מָאתָן דְּחָזֵי לִיכִי מִדְּאוֹרַיְתָא, וּמְזוֹנַיְכִי וכסותיכי וְסִפּוּקַיְכִי וּמֵיעָל לְוָתִיכִי כְּאוֹרַח כֹּל אַרְעָא. וּצְבִיאַת מָרַת _______ בתולתא דא וַהֲוָת לֵיהּ לְאִנְתּוּ…

“On . . . [day of the week], the . . . day of the month . . . in the year . . . since the creation of the world, the era according to which we are accustomed to reckon here in the city of . . . in the country…, We testify how the young man . . . son of . . . of family… said to this virgin (or “divorcee” or “widow”) . . . daughter of . . . of family… : ‘Be thou my wife according to the law of Moses and Israel, and I will work for thee, honor, support, and maintain thee in accordance with the custom of Jewish husbands who work for their wives, honor, support, and maintain them with integrity. And I will set aside for thee 200 zuz, the mohar (dowry or bridal-price) of thy virginity (or “divorcee” or “widow”, in which case the amount would change to 100 zuz), which are due to thee according to the law of the Torah, and thy food, clothing, and necessaries, and live with thee in conjugal relations according to universal custom.’ And . . . this virgin (or “divorcee” or “widow”) consented and became his wife.


A man who has never been married or never had sex is not referred to as a “virgin,” but rather a “young man,” bachur.  This is because: (a) he does not have a hymen (betulim), and (b) his status – physical and halakhic – is not seen as changing through him having had sex.

10. Bavli, Ketuvot (7a-b)   |    (:-.בבלי, כתובות דף (ז

אמר רבי חלבו אמר רב הונא א”ר אבא בר זבדא אמר רב: אחת בתולה ואחת אלמנה – טעונה ברכה.

ומי אמר רב הונא הכי? והאמר רב הונא: אלמנה אינה טעונה ברכה! לא קשיא: כאן בבחור שנשא אלמנה, כאן באלמון שנשא אלמנה…

[ע”ב] מיתיבי: מברכין לבתולה שבעה, ולאלמנה יום אחד; מאי לאו אפילו אלמנה שנשאת לבחור! לא, לאלמון

R. Helbo said [that] R. Huna said [that] R. Abba, the son of Zavda, said [that] Rav said: A betulah, virgin, as well as a widow requires a benediction [the sheva brakhot].  

But did R. Huna say so? Did not R. Huna say: A widow does not require a benediction? It is not difficult.  Here [a blessing is required] when a bachur, young man, marries a widow, there [a blessing is not required when] a widower marries a widow. [A blessing is made as long as it is a first marriage for one of them.]…

[side B] An objection was raised [to the opinion that the blessing are recited for the full seven days if it is a first marriage for either the bride or the groom]: [It has been taught:] The benediction is said [at the celebration of the marriage] of a betulah, virgin, for seven [days following the wedding] and for a widow one day.  Is it not implied that this would be true even if the widow was married to a bachur, young man?  No, it is when she is married to a widow.


This text describes the physical change that occurs when a woman loses her virginity – she becomes a “vessel,” – her body was closed before, and now it has an opening – making her a sexual being, able to have intercourse and to bear children.  This is seen as creating a profound connection between her and the man who changed her in this way, doing so in a way that also sees the man has her master/maker.

11. Bavli, Sanhedrin, 22b   |    (:בבלי, סנהדרין דף (כב

אמר רב שמואל בר אוניא משמיה דרב: אשה גולם היא, ואינה כורתת ברית אלא למי שעשאה כלי, שנאמר כי בועליך עושיך ה’ צבאות שמו.   R. Samuel b. Unya said in the name of Rav: A woman [before she has had sex] is an unformed vessel, and she only seals a covenant with the man who makes her into a vessel , as it is written: “For thy husband (lit., “the one who has sex with you”) is thy maker; the Lord of Hosts is his name.” (Isa. 54:5).



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.

12. Bavli, Yevamot 55b   |    (:בבלי, יבמות דף (נה

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]. Said Rava to him: The text reads, “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).

13. Rashi, Bavli, Yevamot 55b     |     (:רש”י, יבמות דף (נה

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).

14. Bavli Sanhedrin (66b)   |    (:בבלי, סנהדרין דף (סו

ומתו גם שניהם מאי דריש ביה? אמר רבא: למעוטי מעשה חידודים. – ואידך: מעשה חידודים לאו כלום היא“And what does he [R. Yonatan]deduce from the phrase “then shall die both of them” (i.e., the man and woman who committed adultery) (Deut. 22:22)?  Rava answered: It excludes the case of mere “sharpening” (which is not an act of adultery).  And the other opinion [who learns something else from that phrase, where does he know to exclude “whetting one’s lust”]?  He regards such excitation as of no consequence (the verse did not have to exclude it; it obviously was not an act of adultery).

15. Rashi, Bavli, Sanhedrin 66b    |     (:רש”י, סנהדרין (סו

למעוטי מעשה חדודין – מחדד מקשה אברו בבשרה מבחוץ, דהוא נהנה והיא אינה נהנית, להכי כתיב שניהם שיהיו שניהם שוין נהנין, ומיהו שלא כדרכה אף על גב דהיא אינה נהנית – ממשכבי אשה איתרבאי לחיובא.
לא כלום הוא – ולא איצטריך למעוטי, ואיכא דאמרי מעשה הורדוס (בבא בתרא ג, ב), שהטמינה שבע שנים בדבש
“To exclude the sharpening” – [a case where he] sharpens (excites) and hardens his member (penis) against her flesh, on the outside (without vaginal or anal penetration).  In such a case he derives pleasure but she does not, and therefore the verse states “both of them” – to indicate that it is only referring to an act in which both of them derive pleasure.  Nevertheless, in the “non-natural way” (anal intercourse), although she does not derive pleasure – this act is included for liability (an act of intercourse regarding adultery and other cases of prohibited sex) based on the verse “the lyings of a woman”

“Is of no consequence” – and the verse had no need to exclude it.  There are those who explain (or rather, whose texts read) “acts of Herod” (מעשה הורדוס rather than מעשה חידודים), i.e, necrophilia, as the Gemara relates – that he preserved a dead woman’s body in honey for seven years (so that he could have intercourse with it).


For the Talmud, sex could only take place with a penis.  Thus, two women having sex through genital stimulation is seen by the Talmud as “mere licentiousness.”  Rav Huna, however, treated this more seriously, and thought that such women would be unfit for a Kohen.  According to one Rashi {source 17}, this means unfit for a Kohen Gadol, she would not be a pure virgin.  According to another Gemara and Rashi thereon {sources 18-19}, this means unfit for a regular Kohen, as this would be considered an act of fornication, that is, an act approximating sex.  We rule against this {source 18}, and this is considered not “fornication” but rather “mere licentiousness”.

16. Bavli, Shabbat, 65a-b   |   (:-.בבלי, שבת דף (סה

[אבוה דשמואל] לא שביק להו גניאן גבי הדדי, לימא מסייע ליה לרב הונא, דאמר רב הונא: נשים המסוללות זו בזו [ע”ב] פסולות לכהונה: לא, סבר: כי היכי דלא לילפן גופא נוכראה.[Shmuel’s father] did not permit them (his daughters) to sleep together. Shall we say that this supports R. Huna? For R. Huna said: Women who “intertwine” with one another are unfit for a kohen to marry? [side b] No: it was in order that they should not become accustomed to [sleeping with] a foreign body.

17. Rashi Shabbat 65a-b   |   (:-.רשי, שבת (סה

המסוללות – מתחככות משום תאות תשמיש.

פסולות לכהונה – לכהן גדול, דלא הויא בתולה שלימה, דאף על גב דכהן גדול ביומיה לא הוה – הואיל ודרך זנות חשיב ליה, לאו אורח ארעא.

דלא לילפן גופא נוכראה – ויתאוו לשכב עם איש.

“Who intertwine with one another” – they rub their bodies against one another due to (or “to excite”) sexual lust.

“Are unfit for a kohen to marry” – for a Kohen Gadol, for such a woman is not a full virgin. For although there was no Kohen Gadol in his (Shmuel’s father’s) time, since he considered it to be an act of licentiousness, it was not appropriate that they should engage in it.
“That they should not become accustomed to [sleeping with] a foreign body” – and they will desire to have sex with a man (outside the context of marriage).

18. Bavli, Yevamot 76a   |   (.בבלי, יבמות דף (עו

אמר רבא: לית הלכתא לא כברא ולא כאבא. ברא, הא דאמרן. אבא, דא”ר הונא: נשים המסוללות זו בזו – פסולות לכהונה; ואפילו לרבי אלעזר, דאמר: פנוי הבא על הפנויה שלא לשם אישות עשאה זונה, ה”מ איש, אבל אשה – פריצותא בעלמא.Rava said: The halakha is not like the father (Rav Huna)… for Rav Huna said: “Women who intertwine with one another – are unfit to marry a kohen.”  [But this is not the case,] for even Rabbi Elazar who says: “If an unmarried man has sex with an unmarried woman, he has rendered her a zonah (a fornicator, and thus unfit to marry a kohen) – that is only [if she had sex with a man], but with a woman – this is mere licentiousness (and not actual sex, and thus cannot change her personal status).

19. Rashi Yevamot 76a    |    (.רש”י, יבמות (עו

המסוללות – דרך תשמיש זכר ונקבה משפשפות נקבתן זו לזו…

פסולות לכהונה – משום זנות.

“Who intertwine” – in the way of intercourse between a male and female, they rub their vaginas against each other…

“Are unfit for a kohen” – because of fornication (and thus in the category of zonah).



Touching After Post-Partum Depression


Shulkhan Arukh treats even professional touch between a husband and his wife who is a niddah so weightily that he does not permit it even if she is sick.  (There is some debate if he even would permit it in a life-threatening situation!).  Rema argues, and allows such touch if there is no one else who could provide this type of assistance.  In section 16, he states that this is permissible “if she is in great need,” in section 17 he states that it can be done “if her illness presents a risk,” presumably a life-threatening one.  

20. Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 195   |    שולחן ערוך יורה דעה סימן קצה

[טז] אשה חולה והיא נדה, אסור לבעלה ליגע בה כדי לשמשה, כגון להקימה ולהשכיבה ולסמכה. ( וי”א דאם אין לה מי שישמשנה, מותר בכל (הגהות ש”ד והגהות מרדכי פ”ק דשבת בשם הר”מ), וכן נוהגין אם צריכה הרבה לכך).

[יז] אם בעלה רופא, אסור למשש לה הדפק.

הגה: ולפי מה שכתבתי דנוהגין היתר אם צריכה אליו דמשמש לה, כ”ש דמותר  למשש לה הדפק אם אין רופא אחר וצריכה אליו ויש סכנה בחליה

[16] A woman who is sick and is a niddah – it is  forbidden for her husband to touch her in order to attend to her, for example, to help her get up or to lay her down or to support her.  (Rema – there are those who say that if she has no one else to attend to her, it is permissible for her husband to do everything [needed],  And this is the practice, if she is in great need for such [assistance].)

[17] If her husband is a doctor, it is forbidden for him to take her pulse.

Rema: But according to what I wrote that it is our practice to allow him to attend to her if she needs him [to do so], all the more so that it is permitted for him to take her pulse if there is no other doctor and she needs him [to do this], and her illness presents a risk.


In Darkhei Moshe, Rema quotes an authority that for a husband to exhibit “stringency” and not help his wife who is a niddah when she is sick is a “righteousness of foolishness.”

21. Darkhei Moshe, short version, YD 195, no. 6   |    דרכי משה יורה דעה, ס’ קצ”ה ס”ק ו’

אמנם בשערי דורא בהגהה (סי’ יח ד”ה כתב) כתב דיש מתירין אפילו היא חולה עכ”ל ואני מצאתי הגהה במרדכי פ”ק דשבת (שלטי הגיבורים סט: אות ה) שכתב וזה לשונו כתב הר”ם אותן שנזהרין מליגע בנשותיהן נדות כשהן חולות שזהו חסידות של שטות מפי הר”ר טוביה מבראנה עד כאן לשון ההגהה שם:However, in Sharei Durah (no. 18, s.v. Katav), he writes “there are those who permit (the husband to attend to his wife) even if it is she who is sick (and not just for her to attend to him if he is the one who is sick).”  And I found in gloss of Mordechai, Shabbat chapter 1, who writes: “[Maha]ram [of Rothenberg] writes , ‘those who refrain from touching their wives who are niddot when they are sick – this is a piety of nonsense.’ This is from the testimony of Rav Tuvyah of Branah.”


Arukh HaShulkhan states, quite reasonably, that Rema does not require the wife to be in a life-threatening situation to allow her husband to provide assistance.

22. Arukh HaShulkhan, Yoreh Deah, 195:27    |    ערוך השולחן יו”ד ס’ קצה ס”ק כ”ז

וכל דינים אלו מיירי שלא במקום סכנה ולכן כשהיא חולה אסר רבינו הב”י ורבינו הרמ”א התיר מפני שאין זה בגדר ג”ע כיון שעושה דרך שימוש ולא לתאוה וזהו שכתב וכן נוהגין אם צריכה וכו’ ולא כתב מקום סכנה ובמישוש הדפק שאסר רבינו הב”י מיירי ג”כ שלא במקום סכנה וזהו שכתב רבינו הרמ”א דמותר כשאין אחר ויש סכנה וכו’ כלומר דבזה גם רבינו הב”י מודה שהרי מקורו מהב”י ע”ש אבל לרבינו הרמ”א אפשר דמותר גם באין סכנה כמו שהתיר מקודם אך שכתב דכ”ש במקום סכנה דלכ”ע שרי [כנלע”ד]

ויש שכתבו שיניח דבר דק על מקום הדופק

All these laws (regarding whether a husband can help his wife who is a niddah when she is sick) are only referring to a case where there is no real risk (otherwise, there would be no question that he could do whatever is necessary).  Therefore, when she is ill [and there is no risk], the Beit Yosef forbids [the husband to help], and Rema allows it, for such [non-sexual touch] is not in the category of sexual transgression (which cannot be violated even if someone’s life is at risk).  This is because this touch is merely to attend to the person, and not for the purpose of sexual pleasure,   This is what Rema means when he writes, “Therefore we have the practice [to allow this] if she needs it [greatly],” and he did not limit this to a circumstance where there is a health risk.  When it came to taking her pulse, which Beit Yosef forbids, the case is also one where there is no health risk.  That which Rema means when he writes that it is permissible if there is no one else to do it “and there is a risk” – the meaning is, that in such a case [of risk], even Beit Yosef would admit that it is permissible, for this entire scenario is taken from the Beit Yosef.  But as far as Rema himself is concerned, it is possible that it is permitted even if there is no risk, just as her permitted the previous scenario; he is merely writing that here it is certainly permissible if there is risk (but he does not mean to limit it to a case of risk), so it seems in my humble opinion.  

And there are those who write that the husband should put a think cloth over the place where he is feeling for a pulse.



Different Levels of Desire

Rema rules that husband and wife can engage in any form of sexual activity they desire, even if it leads to the husband ejaculating outside his wife’s body.  This would include anal sex, oral sex, and manual masturbation done by the wife.  He ends by stating that a person who sanctifies himself during sex will be called holy.  This obviously is meant to refer to q religious ideal not required of the vast majority of people.  It is also not clear what constitutes “sanctifying oneself” during sex.

23. Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer, 25:2   |    שו”ע, אבן העזר כה:ב

הגה: ויכול לעשות עם אשתו מה שירצה, בועל בכל עת שירצה א ומנשק בכל אבר שירצה, ובא עליה בין כדרכה בין שלא כדרכה, או דרך אברים… ואע”פ שמותר בכל אלה, כל המקדש עצמו במותר לו קדוש יאמרו לו (דברי הרב). Rema: And he may do with his wife what he wants – he may have sex at any time that he wants, he may kiss any body part that he wants, and he may have sex with her whether in the natural way or in the non-natural way, or whether by way of limbs… And although all such behavior is permissible, whoever sanctifies himself in permissible realms, “holy” will he be called.


The Steipler compares the mitzvah of onah to the mitzvah of eating matzah.  We should be very stringent on this mitzvah and not accept any compromises to its fulfillment, just as we would accept no compromises on fulfilling the mitzvah of eating matzah.

24. Excerpt from a Letter from the Steipler   |     מכתב מהסטייפלר

העונה היא מצות עשה דאורייתא כאכילת מצה והמבטלה בזמן עיבורה (כשלא מחלה האשה מחילה אמיתית בלב שלם) הוא חוטא גמור דחטא כזה הוא מהעבירות שבין אדם לחבירו שאפ’ יוה”כ ומיתה אינה מכפרת והרי הוא כגזלן ושודד שגוזל מאשתו מה שמחוייב לה והוא שפיכות דמים לאשה אשר כידוע עקר תקוות האשה בעולמה הוא שיהיה לה בעל האוהב אותה וכשהיא רואה שזה אינו כמעט קרוב לפקוח נפש מרב צער ויגון על היותה גלמודה כאלמנות חיות…Onah is a Biblical mitzvah, no less than eating matzah, and one who does not fulfill it when his wife is pregnant (unless she has waived her right, a true remission with a full heart), then he is a complete sinner, for this sin is of those sins that are interpersonal, and thus even Yom Kippur and death do not atone for it.  And he is like a thief and a bandit, because he steals from his wife what he is obligated to her.  And this is (tantamount) to murdering his wife, for it is known that the primary longing of a woman in her world is that she has a husband who loves he, and when she sees that this is not so, then it is close to an endangerment of life, from the great pain and anguish that she has on account of her being bereaved like living widows.


The contemporary posek Kedushat HaOhel states that the key to sanctifying oneself during sex, as mentioned by Rema, is to ensure that the act of sex is being done with mutual consent, and that each person is attending to the needs of his or her partner, and not purely focused on one’s own sexual pleasure to the exclusion of his or her partner.

25. Kedushat HaOhel, p. 37   |    קדושת האוהל, ע’ ל”ז

Rav Shmuel Kedar (Jerusalem, 1953-2006)

סיכום גדר ישראל קדושים: התבאר דהרמב”ם סבירא ליה דמעיקר הדין מותר לאדם לעשות באשתו כל מה שרוצה ובלבד שלא יעשה כן אלא אם מפייסה לכך.  עוד התבאר דהיסוד לדרך הקודש הוא שמשמשין ברצון שניהם ובשמחתם ושלא יעשה מעשים שכל כוונתם לתכלית תענוגו…

המחבר נקט כשיטת הראב”ד ואף הוסיף להחמיר עליו.  ואילו הרמ”א נקט שעיקר הדין כהרמב”ם והוסיף שכל המקדש עצמו במותר לו קדוש יאמרו לו.  ונראה שקדושה זו עניינה היסודי: רצון שניהן ושמחתם…

To summarize the parameters of “Israel is holy”: We have explained that Rambam rules that as a matter of law a man is permitted to do with his wife anything that he wants, provided that he does nothing without her acquiescence.  It has also been explained that the foundation for the path of holiness is that they have sex that is consensual and desired by both of them, and that both of them enjoy, and that he does not perform acts whose sole purpose is his pleasure alone…

The Mechaber adopted the positions of Raavad, and even added on this to be stricter even still [that certain acts of sex should not be done between husband and wife].  Whereas Rema rules that as a matter of law the ruling is in accordance with Rambam, and he adds that ‘whoever sanctifies himself in that which is permitted to him, ‘holy’ shall be said of him.”  Now it appears that the core principle of this sanctity to which he refers is: the desire of the two of them and their pleasure….


Rav Henkin states that there is no need to strive for an unrealistic “holiness,” and that given the temptations of larger society, we must be as permissive as possible regarding sex between husband and wife.

26. Responsa Benei Banim, vol. 4, 16:1    |     שו”ת בני בנים חלק ד’, י”ז:ג

וחושבני שלפי תנאי הדור שרבים לא גדלו בקדושה והם חשופים לפריצות של הרחוב, אם נכביד עליהם שמא ילכו לרעות בשדות אחרים ח”ו לכן מצוה למצוא להם סיפוק בתוך בתיהם…It is my opinion that given the circumstances of this generation, where many have not been raised in holiness, and they are exposed to the immodesty of the street, were we to burden them [with halakhic demands], perhaps they would go to graze in other fields, G-d forbid!  Therefore, it is a mitzvah to find a way for them to find satisfaction in their own homes…


Rav Henkin also adds that laws of marital sex have been ruled on based on what is in the texts and not in conversation with actual practice, and this has led to a loss in the nuancing and development of halakha in this area.

17. Responsa Benei Banim, vol. 4, 16:1   |   שו”ת בני בנים חלק ד’, ט”ז:א

גס מסיבה אחרת לע”ד נתמעט העיסוק בהלכות תשמיש כי ברוב מקצועות ההלכה גדול כוח המנהג, אם להכריע בין דעות שונות בדרך של פוק חזי מאי עמא דבר ואם להציג סתירות לכאורה בין מה שנפסק לבין מה שנהוג, וסתירות אלה גורמות להעשרת הדיון על ידי חידוד מושגים וחילוקים ושאר שערי תירוצים שאינם ננעלים. ואילו בעניני תשמיש ליכא פוק חזי כי הדברים נעשים בחדרי הדרים ומאן ידע ואינו מן הצניעות לחקור אחריהם. אמנם לחקור באופן אלמוני על ידי שאלונים כנהוג היום בעניני העולם נראה דשפיר דמי גם בעניני תשמיש כי אין בזה כיסופא ולא פריצות אך טרם הלכו בדרך זו בשום תחום הלכתי.It seems to me that there is another reason why there has been relatively little study in the halakhot of sex, because in most areas of halakha, the accepted practice plays a major role, whether as a basis of deciding between the different opinions – along the lines of “go see what the practice of the people is” – or whether to present apparent contradictions between what is ruled and what is practiced, and it is these apparent contradictions which bring about an enriching of the discussion through a sharpening of concepts and the making of distinctions and through many other means of resolution (lit., “the other gates of answers, which are not sealed”).  But when it comes to matters of sex, there is no “let’s see [what the people’s practice is],” for these practices take place in the innermost chambers, and who knows [what people do]?  And it is not keeping within modesty to inquire regarding this.  However, to ask in an anonymous way, through questionnaires, as is the practice today in other matters – it would seem that this is appropriate even in matters of sexual behavior, for this does not entail embarrassment or immodesty.  However, no one has yet to have taken such an approach in any halakhic area.