The Jewish tradition devotes considerable attention to sexuality. Sexuality is the subject of many narratives and many laws in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature.

Attitude towards sexualityEdit

Many Jews describe the overall attitude towards human sexuality and sexual behavior in Judaism as positive (as opposed to other faiths). They note, for example, that procreation and sexual pleasure in marriage are seen as positive commandments. The commandment to procreate, Peru Urevu (פרו ורבו), is the first Mitzva in the Torah:

"And God blessed them; and God said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply [Peru Urevu], and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth"

Genesis, 1:28

This specific commandment might be considered to apply also to non-Jews, since it was given to Adam, the first man and father of mankind, before Abraham and the Jewish lineage was created. However, the commandment is not included in the in the universal Seven Laws of Noah.

The basic Jewish positive attitude towards sex and sexuality is especially opposed to Western Christianity, which does not view the matter much in favor, due to a belief that sex has been contaminated by original sin. The Jewish sages recognized that the sexual need of mankind (also known as Yitzra De'arayot) is essential for perpetuating society, despite having known its negative sides which may lead to sins. For the aforementioned reason, Chazal's attitude and statements on the matter are dual, and they recognize two inclinations in mankind, the Yetzer hatov (the "Good inclination") and the Yetzer hara (the "evil inclination"), that can both influence sexuality and sexual behaviours.

In that conjunction, the attitude towards sexual pleasure in a sexual act stretches from viewing it as impure to viewing it as a religious experience. Some Cabalists view the sexual pleasure as a possible path leading to a sublimation of devoutness.

Maimonides presented a complicated attitude to the sexual act - both permissive and limitative:

"A man's wife is permitted to him. Therefore a man may do whatever he desires with his wife. He may engage in relations whenever he desires, kiss any organ he desires, engage in vaginal or other intercourse or engage in physical intimacy without relations, provided he does not release seed in vain [1]. Nevertheless, it is pious conduct for a person not to act frivolously concerning such matters and to sanctify himself at the time of relations, as explained in Hilchot Deot. He should not depart from the ordinary pattern of the world. For this act was [given to us] solely for the sake of procreation...

... Our Sages do not derive satisfaction from a person who engages in sexual relations excessively and frequents his wife like a rooster. This reflects a very blemished [character]; it is the way underdeveloped people conduct themselves. Instead, everyone who minimizes his sexual conduct is praiseworthy, provided he does not neglect his conjugal duties, without the consent of his wife"

Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah, 21:9,11

Forbidden sexual acts in JudaismEdit

Main article: Forbidden relationships in Judaism
  • Incestuous relations [2]
  • Offerings sexual acts
  • Sexual intercourse between Jews and Gentiles [3]
  • "... A man who lies with a male as one would with a woman" [4] (some do not strech this prohibition to a female-female intercourse)
  • Masturbation - despite not having been explicitly prohibited in the Torah, the Halakha and the Oral Torah view masturbation as an Halakhaic prohibition and a great sin. The attitude towards a male sperm is one of a potential future living human being, and thus masturbation, as an act of Sperm in vain, is referred to as a murder, in which the masturbator is exterminating his potential offspring.

Relations within marriage, are the permitted relations, however, there are exceptions to it.

Masturbation and "Sperm in Vain"Edit

Sperm in vain (or "Semen in vain" or "Seed in vain"; Hebrew: 'זרע לבטל, pronounced: zerah le-batalah or zera levatala) is a Talmudic term and concept that refers to any sexual act in which a male's sperm is being "wasted", as an act not for the purpose of procreation, which would turn the sexual act to be not in accordance with the Halakha[5]:

"But why all these precautions? — Because otherwise one might emit semen in vain, and R. Johanan stated: Whosoever emits semen in vain deserves death, for it is said in Scripture."

—Babylon Talmud, Tractate Niddah, p. 13a

Prior to the 20th century, it was a Jewish term usually (but not only) referring to male masturbation. In Shulchan Aruch, on Yoreh Deah, it is stated that wasting sperm, not for the purpose of procreation, is considered to be a sin greater than any sin in the Torah. However, in some forms, the Halakha permits intercourse with one's wife who is pregnant, or infertile, or elderly for the purpose of fulfilling the "onah" mitzvah-commandment, in which the husband is obliged to fulfill his marital obligations of satisfying his wife sexually.

Homosexual intercourse is also considered an act of sperm in vain; as for masturbation, despite not having been explicitly prohibited in the Torah, the Halakha and the Oral Torah views masturbation as a Halakhaic prohibition and a great sin. The attitude towards male sperm is one of a potential future living human being, and thus masturbation, as an act of sperm in vain, is referred as a "murder," in which the masturbator is "exterminating" his potential "offsprings" not yet born. Even marital sexual acts in which the sperm is not aimed at the vagina (and should it be spilled), is considered an act of sperm in vain.

The Halakhic attitude towards female masturbation is more of a moderate approach. Despite two rabbinical opinions of R. Ben Ish Chai and R. Moshe Feinstein, comparing it to an act of a male's masturbation, all other rabbinical statements view such an act more leniently than male masturbation, and not as an act of "sperm in vain" because obviously females have no sperm.

In modern days, the Halakhic question on whether taking male semen and sperm for the purpose of medical examinations or insemination remains in dispute among Jewish legal authorities.


Some interpret the Torah as forbidding anal intercourse between two males. The source of this prohibition is a verse from the Book of Leviticus: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination." (Leviticus, 18:22) . In addition, some (especially among the Lesbian Israeli community, religious or observant Lesbians), view this as not to be extended into a prohibition on a female-female intercourse. Rashi interpreted the matter as only prohibiting anal sexual act between two men (and not other sexual acts between them), as he stated: "As one would penetrate a blue-brush into a receiver". However, other authoritative commentators of the Torah see all sexual acts between two males to be included within the ban on "sperm in vain."

The Jewish sages (Chazal) added additional barriers to this ban, and have forbidden males to put themselves in any situation that might lead to such an offense. For example: Chazal prohibited two single males to be sleeping under the same blanket [6].

Fulfillment of a lesbian sexual orientation act is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. However, in other later rabbinical Halkhaic texts it is mentioned as a forbidden sexual act, as Maimonides wrote: "A conduct of women rubbing oneself against the other, lesbians" (Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Book of Kedushah, Issurei Biah, 21:8) [7].

Biblical David and JonathanEdit

Main article: David and Jonathan
File:Yael Dayan.jpg

The biblical text does not explicitly depict the nature of the relationship between the biblical figures of David and Jonathan, however, one may wonder on the nature of the implicit language and the choice of the Hebrew Bible's words on this relationship, especially in the two following verses:

David on Jonathan:

"very pleasant hast thou been unto me; wonderful was thy love to me, passing the love of women" (2 Samuel, 1:26)

Jonathan's father:

"I know you have chosen the son of Jesse - which is a disgrace to yourself and the nakedness of your mother!" (1 Samuel, 20:30)

The aforementioned dispute over the interpretation of the language and meaning of the bible has turned into an important political debate between the Israeli gay community and the right wing conservative as well as the general Israeli public.

The public discourse around this issue has reached its peak, when, then Knesset Member, Yael Dayan, on 10 February 1993, made her famous speech on the Knesset floor, on the need for gay rights, and while quoting from Biblical Davids' words on Johnathan.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

  • Judaism and sexuality, for an additional in depth reading on the matter; "My Jewish Learning" - Article

Links relating to "sperm in vain - zera levatala":


  1. such as 'oral sex'; i.e. a seed (sperm) should be aimed at reproduction only
  2. Leviticus, 18
  3. Deuteronomy, 23:18
  4. Leviticus, 20:18
  5. Bris Kodesh, Glossery
  6. Arba'ah Turim and Shulchan Aruch
  7. Hebrew: "נשים המסוללות זו בזו"
fr:Sexualité dans le judaïsme

he:מיניות ביהדות

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