Talmud pages

Nedarim 20

Permissible sex.

The actor Paul Newman was once asked why he didn’t cheat on his wife, actress Joanne Woodward. His response: “Why would I go out for a hamburger when I have steak at home?” This statement was famously held up as a model of marital fidelity. Less famous is Woodward’s own reaction. She is reported to have said: “Every time I hear that line, I want to burst.” She hated that her husband compared her to a piece of meat. 

We see a similar comparison on today’s daf, there the Gemara offers two opinions on the kinds of sex a married couple can have. The first is that of Rabbi Yohanan ben Dehavai, who lists four kinds of sexual activity that lead to the conception of disabled offspring: oral sex, talking during sex, sex where a man looks at a woman’s genitalia and “overturning the table.” There’s an extensive scholarly debate about what exactly this last phrase means. 

We could spend pages unpacking how the rabbis think about disability, and if you’re interested in reading more about it, I highly recommend Dr. Julia Watts Belser’s book, Rabbinic Tales of Destruction: Gender, Sex, and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem. But for now, let’s focus on how Rabbi Yohanan ben Dehavai limits the kinds of intimacy that a married couple can have. His opinion is (mostly) addressed to both a husband and a wife. But a second opinion, from a different Rabbi Yohanan, addresses itself only to one partner. 

The halakhah is not in accordance with Yohanan ben Dehavai. Rather, whatever a man wishes to do with his wife he may do

The majority opinion related by Rabbi Yohanan is that there are no sex acts prohibited to married couples. He then offers an illustrative comparison that that evokes Paul Newman: 

It is like meat that comes from the butcher. If he wants to eat it with salt, he may eat it; roasted, he may eat itcooked, he may eat itboiled, he may eat itAnd likewise fish that come from the fisherman.

On the one hand, the majority opinion offers couples many kinds of ways of being physically intimate in their marriages. On the other hand, the way the second Rabbi Yohanan describes this position doesn’t explicitly take the wife’s preferences, or even her consent, into account. The first Rabbi Yohanan restricted marital sex acts, but he seemed to address both partners. The second opinion addresses the male exclusively. After all, a piece of meat has no opinion on how it gets prepared, and if we follow that parable to its logical limits, the animal that it used to be would likely have strongly preferred that it not be eaten at all. To paraphrase Joanne Woodward, “Every time I read that comparison, I want to burst.”

Indeed, numerous later legal authorities anticipated this critique, combining the mutuality of Rabbi Yohanan ben Dehavai’s position with the permissibility of the majority opinion, upholding the permission for a wider variety of kinds of intimacy while rejecting the meat comparison. As just one example, Rabbi Joseph Karo, author of perhaps the most influential rabbinic legal code of all, the 16th-century Shulchan Aruch, states about marital sex: “He may not have intercourse without her consent, and if she is not interested? He should appease her until she is interested.”

Read all of Nedarim 20 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 14th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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