Traditional Sources on Sex Outside Marriage

While the Torah does not forbid premarital sex, the rabbis of the talmudic era prohibited it--but one modern authority proposed a sanctioned form of exclusive sexual relationship outside of marriage.

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The rabbis forbid this man to have sexual relations or even converse in private with this woman even though she is single and doing so would save his life. They give two reasons: protecting her family name and preventing the daughters of Israel from being morally dissolute. We see here evidence of a rabbinic morality which has developed beyond strict biblical law.

The rabbis of the talmudic era also laid down strict rulings regarding modesty and the separation of the sexes. The intermingling of the sexes in public, even in synagogue, was frowned upon. A man and a woman unrelated by blood or marriage were not permitted yihud, being alone together in private.

Through such rulings and teachings, the rabbis attempted to prevent Jews from participating in sexual relations outside marraige. However, they could not unequivocally claim that sex outside marriage was forbidden in the Torah. Only one rabbi tried to find a Torah basis for the prohibition: “ ‘Do not degrade your daughter and make her a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry and the land be filled with depravity’ (Leviticus 19:29). Rabbi Eliezer taught: This refers to an unmarried man who comes upon an unmarried woman not for purposes of marriage.”

Rabbi Eliezer’s ruling was not accepted as the halakhah (law). After all, the Torah does permit a man to take a concubine, that is, a woman in a monogamous sexual relationship without a ketubbah (marriage contract) or the traditional kiddushin (Jewish marriage).

Maimonides, in his great code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, follows Rabbi Eliezer’s lead in outlawing all sexual relations outside marriage. Before the giving of the Torah, he writes, a man would meet a woman in the marketplace, take her home, and she would become his wife. Or he would meet a woman, pay her a fee, and have a sexual encounter with her. Since the giving of the Torah, however, prostitution has become forbidden and marriage now requires a public ceremony including ketubbah and kiddushin before witnesses. Any other sexual encounter is akin to prostitution, which is forbidden by the Torah.

Maimonides’ ruling is not universally accepted. The Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David) criticizes the Rambam: “Prostitution is only when she is promiscuous and sleeps with any man, but if she is set aside for one man there is no prohibition. This is the concubine discussed in the Torah.”

To summarize, the accepted position in Judaism by rabbis of all movements is that sex outside marriage is forbidden. However, as we have seen, this position is not without controversy. The Torah never explicitly forbids non-marital sex. In fact, it permits the taking of a concubine, a woman who has an exclusive relationship with a man without kiddushin or ketubbah, the basic necessities of marriage. In other words, it is parallel to our modern living together without benefit of clergy. Eventually concubinage fell out of usage in the Jewish community.

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Rabbi Michael Gold

Rabbi Michael Gold is the rabbi at Temple Beth Torah, Tamarac Jewish Center in Tamarac, Florida. He is the author of four books, and his articles have appeared in Moment, Judaism, Jewish Spectator, B'nai Brith International Jewish Monthly, and numerous other publications. He also served as co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly's committee on human sexuality.