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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Pornography Episode- Joy of Text 1:6

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

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In this episode: Can pornography have a place in an observant Jewish life? Plus, a principal talks about his school’s approach to sex ed, and a question about revealing one’s past sexual history.

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




Is Seminal Emission the Problem?

Pornography is most commonly used as a means for masturbation.  As such, and when done by men, it is first and foremost – from a halakhic perspective – an issue of zera li’vatalah, the wasteful emission of seed, a topic we have explored elsewhere.  But it can also be used by women for such a purpose, or by a married couple to help them in their sexual life.  What  problems might be involved with looking at pornography per se, putting zera li’vatalah aside?

The Gemara in Avodah Zara speaks against (a man) looking at things that will cause him to be sexually aroused, even when not looking at nudity or images of nudity.  Note, however, that at the end, the Gemara seems to contextualize this as all about a concern of seminal emission.

  1. Bavli, Avoda Zara (20a-b)   |    (:בבלי, עבודה זרה (כ.-כ
ולאסתכולי מי שרי? מיתיבי ונשמרת מכל דבר רע – שלא יסתכל אדם באשה נאה ואפילו פנויה, באשת איש ואפי’ מכוערת, ולא בבגדי צבע [של] אשה, ולא בחמור ולא בחמורה ולא בחזיר ולא בחזירה ולא בעופות בזמן שנזקקין זה לזה…

ולא בבגדי צבע [של] אשה. א”ר יהודה אמר שמואל: אפילו שטוחין על גבי כותל. א”ר פפא: ובמכיר בעליהן…

ת”ר: ונשמרת מכל דבר רע – שלא יהרהר אדם ביום ויבוא לידי טומאה בלילה

But is even gazing permitted? The following can surely be raised as an objection: ‘You shalt guard yourself from every evil thing” [this teaches] that one should not look intently at a beautiful woman, even if she be unmarried, or at a married woman even if she be ugly, nor at a woman’s colorful garments, nor at male and female donkeys, or a pig and a sow, or at fowls when they are mating;…

‘Nor at a woman’s colorful garments!’ Said R. Yehudah ben Shmuel: Even when these are spread on a wall. Whereon R. Papa remarked: That is if he knows their owner…

Our Rabbis taught: “You shall protect yourself against any evil thing” (Dev. 23:10) – that a person should not have sexual thoughts in the day lest he come to impurity in the night.


The Gemara in Shabbat speaks about sexual thoughts – not looking at sexual stimuli per se – but does not mention the problem of seminal emission.  It seems that sexual thoughts are inherently problematic according to this Gemara.  Why do you think that would be?  What is suggested by the phrase זנו עיניהם, which could be interpreted either as “their eyes feasted” or “their eyes fornicated”?  How would this apply to pornography?

Notice Rav Sheshet’s statement at the end that equates looking sexually at any part of a woman’s body with looking directly at her nudity.  Why do you think the latter is a problem, and why is the former like the latter?  Is this relevant to looking at pornography?

2. Bavli, Shabbat (64a)   |     (.בבלי, שבת דף (סד

ונקרב את קרבן ה’ איש אשר מצא כלי זהב אצעדה וצמיד טבעת עגיל וכומז. אמר רבי אלעזר: עגיל – זה דפוס של דדין, כומז – זה דפוס של בית הרחם…

ויקצף משה על פקודי החיל… אמר להן: אם כן, כפרה למה? – אמרו לו: אם מידי עבירה יצאנו – מידי הרהור לא יצאנו. מיד – ונקרב את קרבן ה’.

תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל, מפני מה הוצרכו ישראל שבאותו הדור כפרה – מפני [ע”ב] שזנו עיניהם מן הערוה.

אמר רב ששת: מפני מה מנה הכתוב תכשיטין שבחוץ עם תכשיטין שבפנים – לומר לך: כל המסתכל באצבע קטנה של אשה – כאילו מסתכל במקום התורפה.

“And we have brought the Lord’s oblation, what every man hath gotten, of jewels of gold, ankle chains, and bracelets, signet-rings, agil, and cumaz.” (Bamidbar 31:50). R. Eleazar said: agil is a cast of female breasts; kumaz is a cast of the womb (or “vagina”)…

“And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host.” (31:14) – “If so [that you haven’t sinned],” he asked, “Why do you need an atonement?” They said: “Although we escaped from sin, yet we did not escape from sinful thoughts.” Straightway, “And we have brought the Lord’s offering.” (31:50).

The School of R.  Yishmael taught: Why were the Israelites of that generation in need of atonement? Because their eyes feasted (or “fornicated”) upon forbidden sexual pleasure (ervah).

R. Shesheth said: Why does the Writ enumerate the ornaments worn on the outside with those worn hidden against the body? To teach you: Whoever looks upon a woman’s little finger is as though he gazed upon the genital area.


In Gemara Niddah, amidst a discussion of masturbation and zera li’vatalah, the Gemara discusses the problem of a man giving himself an erection.  Interestingly, it seems that the concern around doing this is unrelated to that of wasting of seed, and can focus purely on the problem of sexual thoughts themselves, particularly in that they may lead a person to act on them, or to in general give in to his more base desires.

3. Bavli, Niddah 13b    |     (:בבלי, נדה (יג

אמר רב: המקשה עצמו לדעת יהא בנדוי, ולימא אסורִ דקמגרי יצה”ר אנפשיה.

ורבי אמי אמר: נקרא עבריין, שכך אומנתו של יצר הרע, היום אומר לו עשה כך, ולמחר אומר לו עשה כך, ולמחר אומר לו לך עבוד עבודת כוכבים ־ והולך ועובד.

איכא דאמרי, אמר רבי אמי: כל המביא עצמו לידי הרהור אין מכניסין אותו במחיצתו של הקב”ה, כתיב הכא (בראשית ל”ח) וירע בעיני ה’ וכתיב התם (תהלים ה’) כי לא אל חפץ רשע אתה לא יגורך רע.

Rav stated: ‘A man who wilfully causes an erection should be placed under the ban’. But why did he not say, ‘This is forbidden’? Because the man merely incites his evil inclination against himself.

R. Ammi, however, stated: He is called a transgressor, because such is the art of the evil inclination: To-day it incites man to do one wrong thing, and to-morrow it incites him to worship idols and he proceeds to worship them.

There are others who read: R. Ammi stated, He who excites himself by lustful thoughts will not be allowed to enter the division of the Holy One, blessed be He. For here it is written, Was evil in the sight of the Lord, and elsewhere it is written, For Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness; evil shall not sojourn with Thee. (Ps. 5:5).


Rambam’s rulings reflect both a concern for how looking at sexual stimuli might provoke sexual desire and lead to acting on it {source 4}, and also a concern for wasting of seed {source 5}.  What do you think determines which category something falls into?  What is the common denominator of all the cases that Rambam frames as a concern for leading to acting on one’s desires?  Which category do you think pornography would fall into?

4. Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations, 21:2-4   |    ‘רמב”ם איסורי ביאה, פרק כ”א:ב’-ד

[ג] אסור לאדם לקרוץ בידיו וברגליו או לרמוז בעיניו לאחת מן העריות או לשחוק עמה או להקל ראש ואפילו להריח בשמים שעליה או להביט ביפיה אסור, ומכין למתכוין לדבר זה מכת מרדות

והמסתכל אפילו באצבע קטנה של אשה ונתכוון להנות כמי שנסתכל במקום התורף ואפילו לשמוע קול הערוה או לראות שערה אסור.

[ג] … ומותר להסתכל בפני הפנויה ולבדקה… כדי שיראה אם היא נאה בעיניו ישאנה ואין בזה צד איסור ולא עוד אלא שראוי לעשות כן, אבל לא יסתכל דרך זנות הרי הוא אומר ברית כרתי לעיני ומה אתבונן על בתולה.

[ד] ומותר לאדם להביט באשתו כשהיא נדה ואף על פי שהיא ערוה, ואף על פי שיש לו הנאת לב ממנה בראייה הואיל והיא מותרת לו לאחר זמן אינו בא בזה לדבר מכשול, אבל לא ישחוק ולא יקל ראש עמה שמא ירגיל לעבירה.

[2] It is forbidden for a person to beckon with his hands or feet or to signal with his eyes to one of the arayot (i.e., a woman with whom he is forbidden to have sexual relations).  He is similarly forbidden to be jocular with her or to interact with her in a way of levity.  It is even forbidden to smell the perfume that she is wearing or to gaze at her beauty, and a person who intends to do so is given lashes.

One who gazes at even a small finger of a woman and intends to derive sexual pleasure, it is as if he has gazed at her genital area.  And even to hear to voice of an ervah or to see her hair is forbidden.

[3] It is permitted to look at the face of an unmarried woman and examine [her features]… to determine whether she is attractive in his eyes so that he may marry her. There is no prohibition in doing this. On the contrary, it is proper to do so.  One should not, however, look in a licentious manner. Behold the verse states: “I established a covenant with my eyes; I would not gaze at a maiden.” (Job 31:1).

[4] It is permitted for a person to gaze at his wife when she is a niddah, although she is an ervah [at that time]. Although his heart derives satisfaction from seeing her, since she will be permitted to him afterwards, he will not come to stumble. He should not, however, share mirth with her or act frivolously with her lest this lead to sin.

5. Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations, 21:18-21, 24   |    רמב”ם איסורי ביאה, כ”א:י”ח-כ”א, כ”ד

[יח] אסור להוציא שכבת זרע לבטלה…

[יט] וכן אסור לאדם שיקשה עצמו לדעת או יביא עצמו לידי הרהור, אלא אם יבא לו הרהור יסיע לבו מדברי הבאי לדברי תורה, שהיא אילת אהבים ויעלת חן, לפיכך אסור לאדם לישן על ערפו ופניו למעלה עד שיטה מעט כדי שלא יבוא לידי קישוי.

[כ] ולא יסתכל בבהמה ובחיה ועוף בשעה שמזדקקין זכר לנקבה…

[כא] וכן אסור לאדם להסתכל בנשים בשעה שהן עומדות על הכביסה, אפילו להסתכל בבגדי צמר של אשה שהוא מכירה אסור, שלא יבוא לידי הרהור….

[כד] חסידים הראשונים וגדולי החכמים התפאר אחד מהם שמעולם לא נסתכל במילה שלו, ומהן מי שהתפאר שלא התבונן מעולם בצורת אשתו, מפני שלבו פונה מדברי הבאי לדברי האמת שהן אוחזות לבב הקדושים.

[18] It is forbidden for a person to emit semen wastefully…

[19] It is similarly forbidden for a person to intentionally give himself an erection or to bring himself to have sexual thoughts.  Rather, if sexual thoughts come to him, he should distract his mind from matters of nonsense and direct his thoughts to words of Torah, which are a “beloved deer, arousing favor.”  Therefore, it is forbidden for a person to sleep on his back with his face upwards, unless he inclines a bit, so that he should not come to have an erection.

[20] A person should not gaze at domesticated or wild animals or birds when the male and female are copulating…

[21] Similarly, it is forbidden for a man to gaze at women when they are standing by the wash.  Even to look at the woolen clothing of a woman whom he recognizes is forbidden, lest he come to have sexual thoughts…

[21] One of the early pious ones and the great sages would take pride in the fact that he never looked at his circumcision, and another one took pride in the fact that he never look at the visage of his wife, because his heart was turned away from matters of nonsense to words of truth which take hold of the hearts of the holy ones.




The following Midrash focuses on the reward that Moshe received for hiding his eyes and not looking at the Shekhina, and the punishment that Nadav and Avihu received for looking at the Shekhina.  Notice the use of the phrase זנו עיניהם, their eyes “feasted” or “fornicated.”  What do you think is suggested by that phrase?  Think about the measure-for-measure nature of the respective rewards and punishments.  Seeing something illicitly is punished by not truly benefitting from it (and the reverse).  Is this relevant to the concern of pornography becoming a substitute for real sexual intimacy with another person?  How else might this passage be relevant?

6.  Vayikra Rabbah, Acharei Mot, 20   |    ויקרא רבה, אחרי מות פרשה כ

רבי יהושע דסכנין בשם רבי לוי אמר משה לא זן עיניו מן השכינה ונהנה מן השכינה לא זן עיניו מן השכינה שנאמר (שמות ג) ויסתר משה פניו ונהנה מן השכינה מנין שנאמר (מות/לד) ומשה לא ידע כי קרן עור פניו

בשכר ויסתר זכה (שמות לג) ודבר ה’ אל משה פנים אל פנים בשכר כי ירא זכה וייראו מגשת אליו בשכר מהביט זכה (במדבר יב) ותמונת ה’ יביט

נדב ואביהוא זנו עיניהם מן השכינה ולא נהנו ממנה מן הדא (במדבר ג) וימת נדב ואביהוא לפני ה’

Rabbi Yehoshua from Saknin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: Moshe did not let his eyes feast upon the Shekhinah, therefore he merited to derive pleasure from the Shekhina.  His eyes did not feast upon the Shekhina, as it says, “And Moshe hid his face [for he feared to look upon God]” (Shemot 3:6).  He merited to derive pleasure from the Shekhina, as it say, “And Moshe did not know that his face shone [when God spoke with him” (Shemot 34:29).

In merit of “he hid” he was rewarded with “And God spoke to Moshe face-to-face.” (Shemot 33:11).  In merit of “for he feared” he was rewarded with “and they feared to draw near to him.”  In merit of “to look” he was rewarded with “And the vision of God he saw” (Bamidar 12:8).

Nadav and Avihu – their eyes feasted upon the Shekhina (see Shemot 24:9-11, “Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadav, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; And they saw the God of Israel… And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not his hand: and they saw God, and did eat and drink.”) – and they did not derive pleasure from the Shekhina, as the verse states, “And Nadav and Avihu died before the Lord.” (Bamidbar 3:4).


The following passage addresses sexual thoughts, not looking at sexual stimuli, and states that such thoughts are worse than the actual act.  Rashi interprets this from a health perspective.  But Sefat Emet, Shalah, and – in fact –Rambam see this as pointing to a way that one corrupts one’s mind and soul by indulging in such thoughts.  How might this be relevant to pornography?

7. Bavli, Yoma (29a)    |    (.בבלי, יומא דף (כט

[אמר רב נחמן…] הרהורי עבירה קשו מעבירה, וסימניך: ריחא דבישרא[Said Rav Nachman…] thoughts of sin worse than the sin itself, and the sign in – the smell of meat

8. Rashi, Yoma 29a   |    (.רש”י, יומא דף (כט

הרהורי עבירה – תאות נשים, קשים להכחיש את בשרו יותר מגופו של מעשה.

ריחא דבישרא – המריח בשר צלי קשה לו ריח מאד, שמתאוה לו.

houghts of sin – regarding lust for women are more difficult to weaken one’s flesh (i.e., have a more deleterious effect on one’s health) than the act itself.

The smell of meat – one who smells roasting meat, it is very hard for him, because he lusts after it.

9. Sefat Emet, Yoma (29a)  |   (.שפת אמת, יומא דף (כט

הרהורי עבירה קשה מעבירה, נראה דקשה לנפש ממש קאמר שקשה לתקן עצמו כשנטבע בהם יותר מלפרוש מעבירות ממש, וגם פוגמים יותר את הנפש כדמייתי ראי’ מהגוף דהריח קשה לו טפי… ורש”י לא פי’ כן:Thoughts of sin are more difficult than the sin itself – it appears that the meaning is that it is more difficult for the soul, for it is more difficult to fix oneself after one has immersed himself in such thoughts more than it is to separate from the sin itself.  Such thoughts also cause more damage to the soul, as the Gemara shows from the example of the smell of meat, which is more difficult [than the eating of the meat itself]… But Rashi did not explain it this way.

10. Shelah, Yoma, Quality of Teshuva   |    של”ה, מסכת יומא, איכות התשובה

הנה ארשום קצת מהפגמים מה שהחוטא פוגם… נמצא באיזה איבר שחוטא הוא פוגם בו… וארז”ל קשין הרהור עבירה קשין מעבירה. כי כלי המחשבה מכוונים נגד רוחניות הפנימית של מעלה כנודע, והפגמים שאדם פוגם בנשמתו ובכל העולמות רבו מלספור.Behold, I will list some of the damages that the sin causes… It emerges that with whatever limb a person sin, the limb is damaged thereby…. And our Sages have said, “thoughts of sin are more difficult than the sin itself,” for the vessels of thought (the mind) are directed towards the inner spirituality above, as is known, and the damages that a person does to his soul and to all the supernal worlds are beyond number.

11.  Guide for the Perplexed, III:8

Man must have control over all these desires, reduce them as much as possible, and only retain of them as much as is indispensable. His aim must be the aim of man as man, viz., the formation of ideas, and nothing else. The best and sublimest among them is the idea which man forms of God, angels, and the rest of the creation according to his capacity. Such men are always with God, and of them it is said, “Ye are princes, and all of you are children of the Most High” (Ps. lxxxii. 6). This is man’s task and purpose.

Others, however, that are separated from God from the multitude of fools, and do just the opposite. They neglect all thought and all reflection on ideas, and consider as their task the cultivation of the sense of touch,—that sense which is the greatest disgrace; they only think and reason about eating and sex…

On sexual intercourse, I need not add anything after I have pointed out in the commentary on Abot (i. 17) how it is treated by our Law, which is the teaching of pure wisdom—no excuse whatever should induce us to mention it or to speak of it. Thus our Sages said, that Elisha the prophet is called holy, because he did not think of it, and consequently never found himself polluted with semen. In a similar manner they say that Jacob had the first issue of semen for the conception of Reuben. All these traditional stories have the object of teaching the nation humane conduct.

There is a well-known saying of our Sages, “The thoughts about the sin are more dangerous than the sin itself.” I can offer a good explanation of this saying: … A person who thinks sinfully sins therefore by means of the nobler portion of his self (his mind)… For this specifically human element, with all its properties and powers, should only be employed in suitable work, in attempts to join higher beings, and not in attempts to go down and reach the lower creatures… Those who employ the faculty of thinking and speaking in the service of that sense (touch) which is no honor to us, who think more than necessary of drink and sex, or even sing of these things; they employ and use the divine gift in acts of rebellion against the Giver, and in the transgression of His commandments. To them the verse may be applied: “And I multiplied her silver and gold, which they prepared for Baal” (Hos. ii. 10).


Practical Considerations
The prevalence and easy access of pornography makes it an almost irresistible temptation for some people.  The Talmud was well aware of how such realities can easily lead a person to sin.

12.  Bavli, Berakhot (32a)   |    (.בבלי, ברכות דף (לב

דבי רבי ינאי אמרי, מהכא: ודי זהב, מאי ודי זהב? אמרי דבי רבי ינאי, כך אמר משה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: רבונו של עולם, בשביל כסף וזהב שהשפעת להם לישראל עד שאמרו די – הוא גרם שעשו את העגל…

אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: משל, לאדם אחד שהיה לו בן, הרחיצו וסכו, והאכילו והשקהו, ותלה לו כיס על צוארו, והושיבו על פתח של זונות, מה יעשה אותו הבן שלא יחטא?

The school of R. Yannai learned it from here: “And di-Zahav” (Devarim 1:1). What is “di-Zahav”? They said in the school of R. Yannai: Thus spoke Moses before the Holy One, blessed be He:  “Sovereign of the Universe, the silver and gold [zahav] which Thou didst shower on Israel until they said, Enough [dai], that it was which led to their making the Calf…

R. Hiyya b. Abba said: It is like the case of a man who had a son; he bathed him and anointed him and gave him plenty to eat and drink and hung a purse round his neck and set him down at the door of a house of prostitution. What should the boy do if not sin?


Can pornography be used as a marital aid?  In addition to always having to weigh the mitzvah of onah and the importance of shalom bayit in all such cases, there is also the question of whether it is a concern since it could avoid most if not all of the problems generally associated with pornography – wasteful emission of seed, thoughts that lead to sin, and the like.  In the following teshuva, Rav Moshe allows a soon-to-be-married man to read a sex manual if there is not a concern that it will lead to the wasting of seed.

13. Iggrot Moshe, Even Ha’Ezer, 1:102   |    אגרות משה אבן העזר, א:ק”ב

ובדבר שאלתך אם קודם הנישואין כדאי לקרא בספרי חכמי הרופאים בענין התשמיש איך שיהיה באופן הנאות להאשה כדי שיהיה שלום בית. הנה בימים האחרונים שקודם הנישואין שחתן טרוד במחשבת בעילה דהא בלילה הראשונה שאחר הנישואין נחשב זה גם טירדא דמצוה ליפטר מק”ש כמפורש בגמ’, יכול לקרא בהם אבל קודם לזה אינו כדאי שיש לחוש שיבא מזה ח”ו לידי הרהור ולהוצאת זרע לבטלה אם לא שבטוח בנפשו שלא יבא לכך אבל מי הוא בזמננו שיכול לבטוח בנפשו כ”כ.Regarding your question – if prior to marriage it is appropriate to read in books written by medical experts regarding sex, how it should be done so that it is the most pleasing for the woman, so that there will be marital peace (shalom bayit).   Behold, in the days immediately leading up to the wedding, when the groom is distracted by thoughts regarding sex – for on the first night following the wedding this is considered to be even a distraction of a mitzvah to exempt him from reciting Shema, as is stated explicitly in the Gemara – he is permitted to read such books.  But prior to this it is not fitting for him to do so, for there is reason to be concerned that this this may possibly – God forbid – lead to sexual thoughts and to wasteful emission of semen, unless he is confident in himself that this will not occur.  But who is it in our day who can be so confident in himself?