Traditional Sources on Sexual Pleasure

Some classical Jewish statements about sex might surprise you.

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We generally think of traditional Judaism as being concerned only with procreation. What do these texts teach us about Judaism’s view of sex within marriage?

In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides takes an even more remarkably progressive view of sexual pleasure.

Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Forbidden Relations 21:9

“Since a man’s wife is permitted to him, he may act with her in any manner whatsoever. He may have intercourse with her whenever he so desires and kiss any organ of her body he wishes, and he may have intercourse with her naturally or unnaturally [traditionally, this refers to anal and oral sex], provided that he does not expend semen to no purpose. Nevertheless, it is an attribute of piety that a man should not act in this matter with levity and that he should sanctify himself at the time of intercourse.”

The above texts are remarkably progressive; they sound as if they could have been written today. [It should be noted that the above passage is not a statement about a husband’s right to demand sex from his wife, but—despite being framed regarding men—about what kinds of sexual expression are permitted in general.] This is not to say, however, that the Rabbis were totally liberated. Consider the following texts.

Talmud, Niddah 17a

“Rav Hisda ruled: A man is forbidden to perform his marital duty in the daytime, for it is said, ‘And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ (Leviticus 19:18). But what is the proof? Abaye replied: He might observe something repulsive in her, and she would thereby become loathsome to him.”

Talmud, Gittin 70a

“Three things enfeeble a man’s body, namely, to eat standing, to drink standing, and to have marital intercourse in a standing position.”

Talmud, Niddah 13b

“It was taught at the school of Rabbi Ishmael, ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ implies, Thou shall not practice masturbation either with hand or with foot.”

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Paul Yedwab

Rabbi Paul Yedwab is the author of The Aleph-Bet of Blessing and Learn Hebrew Today.