Masturbation: A Touchy Subject

Though traditional Judaism frowns upon male masturbation, today there may be reasons to be more permissive.

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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

While women clearly can and do masturbate, the topic of masturbation in Jewish law refers exclusively to males. Female masturbation normally does not involve emission of fluids, and since that is the focus of most of the discussion in historical texts about male masturbation, so much of what follows will not mention women.

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The Source of Strength

Jews historically shared the abhorrence of male masturbation that characterized other societies. Interestingly, although the prohibition was not debated, legal writers had difficulty locating a biblical base for it, and no less an authority than Maimonides claimed that it could not be punishable by the court because there was not an explicit negative commandment forbidding it.

In the case of males, the prohibition undoubtedly stemmed in part from assumptions about the medical consequences of ejaculation. Maimonides articulates this:

"Semen constitutes the strength of the body, its life, and the light of the eyes. Its emission to excess causes physical decay, debility, and diminished vitality. Thus Solomon, in his wisdom, says: 'Do not give your strength to women' (Proverbs 31:3). Whoever indulges in sexual dissipation becomes prematurely aged; his strength fails; his eyes become dim; a foul odor proceeds from his mouth and armpits; the hair of his head, eyebrows, and eyelashes drop out; the hair of his beard, armpits, and legs grow abnormally; his teeth fall out; and besides these, he becomes subject to numerous other diseases. Medical authorities have stated that for each one who dies of other maladies, a thousand are the victims of sexual excess."masturbation

Maimonides here is speaking about ejaculation during sexual intercourse. Jewish sources on ejaculation in the specific context of masturbation, however, do not base the prohibition primarily on medical considerations, at least not in that language. They focus rather on concerns about self‑pollution, the murder of unborn generations, and the creation of demons.

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.