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.
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.
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.
The first of these concerns accounts for the most common line of reasoning. Exposed semen, in the view of those who take this approach, somehow contaminates the environment and taints its holiness. The sources do not go into great detail as to how or why this happens, but that is because they rely on earlier sources regarding purity.
In the Torah, impurity results whenever there is a loss of elan vitale, of life energy. The extreme case of impurity is therefore a dead body, the most potent source of spreading impurity as “the father of the fathers of impurity” (avi avot ha-tumah). Impurity arises also, however, when bodies deviate in any way from their wholeness. This happens even when what is going on is perfectly normal and natural, such as a woman’s menstrual flow or a man’s ejaculation.
At that point, the woman or man becomes impure, which means that she or he is unfit to engage in public rituals until a prescribed time has passed and a ritual of ablution, later transformed into immersion in a natural body of water or a specially constructed pool (mikveh), has been fulfilled.
Even though, ironically, the public, ritual disqualifications of men after seminal emission fell into disuse, the initial sense that ejaculation produced impurity persisted, and that undoubtedly undergirds much of the talmudic and medieval horror concerning masturbation.
What is the point behind the Torah’s laws of impurity in the first place? One common scholarly theory is that impurity marks the loss of life energy. If that is correct, the medieval concern with masturbation as polluting the man who masturbates (and possibly anyone else who comes into contact with the semen) is simply a ritual expression of the same medical theories expressed in Maimonides’ medical language. That is, masturbation is objectionable because it saps the sexual energy of a man and thereby threatens his health and well‑being. That is why the exposed semen and the man himself become impure.
While this [impurity] is the primary concern about masturbation expressed in the sources, the mystical tradition in Judaism gave particular emphasis to another objection. In the Bible, Onan is killed by God for “wasting the seed.” The act to which this phrase refers is interrupted coitus, but the Jewish mystical tradition applied it to masturbation as well.
Taking their cue from this biblical phrase, the mystics asserted that since a man who masturbates prevents the use of that semen for conceiving a child, he is guilty not only of murder but of the murder of his own (potential) children. He is therefore a criminal more reprehensible than any other. On the other hand, ejaculation is prized in heterosexual relations, even in those that do not lead to procreation, and no “murder” is said to take place, nor are the forces of evil enhanced.
The mystics also claimed that even involuntary emissions of semen created demons, which were a danger not only to the man who masturbated but to the entire community. Such notions appear in folk literature as well as in rabbinic mystical texts. Thus the narrator in I.B. Singer’s short story, “From the Diary of One Not Born,” says: “I was not born. My father, a yeshivah student, sinned as did Onan, and from his seed I was created‑half spirit, half‑demon…I am and I am not.”
In modern times, many Orthodox Jews retain these beliefs and prohibitions, but Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated Jews largely do not. The grounds for this change are largely medical: neither physicians nor laypeople believe that masturbation has the medical consequences described by Maimonides. Moreover, few believe the mystical tradition’s depiction of the dire results of masturbation. To date, none of the three movements has taken an official position validating masturbation, but in practice the tradition’s abhorrence of masturbation is largely ignored.
Part of that reaction, no doubt, stems from the realities of modern life. Large percentages of Jews today postpone marriage until after college or graduate school, long after they are physically mature.
Although the sexual hormones are plenty strong in teenage women too, males in particular feel this hormonal pressure during their teenage years, for the largest number of ejaculations a male will experience per year during his lifetime occurs between ages sixteen and eighteen, whereas the largest number of physical climaxes a female will experience per year will occur between ages twenty‑six and thirty. That means that realistically, the choices for teenagers and people in their twenties are either to masturbate or to engage in nonmarital sex.
Jewish concepts, values, and laws advance compelling reasons to oppose nonmarital sex. Because nonmarital sexual intercourse communicates commitments that the couple clearly are not ready to take on, it is effectively a lie. Even if the couple say explicitly to each other that their sexual act is only for pleasure and not part of any intended long‑term relationship, the sexual act itself belies what they say they intend…
Consequently, even if contemporary Jewish authorities are not prepared to revise Jewish law’s prohibition of masturbation entirely, they must surely agree that on the basis of Jewish moral values, if the choice is between masturbation and nonmarital sex, masturbation is preferable…
If that conclusion is true for males, it is all the more true for females. Discussion of female masturbation does not appear in the sources, and it is therefore not explicitly prohibited in the first place. Moreover, the same considerations that would make us prefer that males masturbate rather than engage in nonmarital sexual intercourse would apply to females as well.
Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.