As we have been discussing for several days now, Leviticus 21:13 requires the high priest to marry a (young) virgin. This sounds simple, but it all becomes a lot more complicated when we start to ask who counts as a virgin, and, as we’ll focus on today, how the rabbis can know for certain which women are virgins, and which are not.
Figuring out who is a virgin and who isn’t is a project that has occupied human societies for millennia, and the rabbis were no exception. It’s important not just for determining who is a fit bride for a high priest, but also for setting bride prices in ordinary marriages (we’ll learn more about this in Tractate Ketubot). One of the rabbis’ virginity tests is described in today’s daf. The text reads:
And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead four hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man and brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan” (Judges 21:12).
How did they know (the young women were virgins)? Rav Kahana said: “They sat them on the opening of a barrel of wine. If the woman had been penetrated, the scent (of the wine) would be detectable; if the woman was a virgin, the scent would not be detectable.
The idea of this test is that the woman in question will sit on the opening of the wine barrel with no barriers between her genitals and the mouth of the barrel. (Don’t forget that underwear as we think of it wasn’t necessarily the norm in the ancient world, so this could probably have been accomplished by just spreading her skirts around her.)
If she is not a virgin, the rabbis believed, the wine vapors would enter her vagina, and — since any physical barriers have been removed by previous sexual intercourse — the scent will travel unimpeded through her body and come out her mouth, making it detectable on her breath. If she is a virgin, on the other hand, and her genitals are still “closed,” the wine vapor won’t enter her body and her breath won’t smell like wine.
There are a lot of ways to think about the meaning of this test. But I’d like to focus on what it does (or doesn’t) tell us about how the rabbis understood virginity. Specifically: What did they imagine blocked the wine vapors? To a modern reader, this question might seem obvious: It’s the unperforated hymen, of course!
But in fact, we don’t have any solid evidence that the rabbis knew of the hymen’s existence (and especially not of its being used in virginity tests) until the early 5th century CE, which is likely after this text was written. (And, as modern medical literature will tell you, the hymen remains deeply misunderstood — and certainly it cannot be used to “prove” virginity.)
But if this test doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of a hymen, what does it depend on? The rabbis more likely used an understanding of virginity similar to the one we see in texts from ancient Greece. They probably imagined a woman’s reproductive system as an upside-down drawstring pouch: the pouch represents the uterus; the drawstring entrance represents the vagina. In this model, a virgin’s vagina is drawn tightly closed, like a closed drawstring bag. But, once she’s had sex, the “drawstring” loosens a little.
The “drawstring” model could be behind the wine barrel virginity test as well. If the vaginal opening is “drawn tight,” it doesn’t need a membrane like a hymen to block the entry of the wine vapors. And if it’s been loosened, it similarly doesn’t need the removal of any barriers to explain how the wine vapors can enter a non-virgin’s body.
This distinction between a missing hymen and a loosened “drawstring” may seem academic. In both cases, the rabbis understand the vagina to be in some measurable way “closed” prior to sex. It’s worth pointing out, however, because this alternate medical model reminds us that our fundamental assumptions about how the world works (who hasn’t heard the hymen mythology?) aren’t universal. It also highlights the way that virginity, in particular, has often been something men desperately wished they could measure without relying on a woman’s word — so much so that virginity tests end up relying on cultural narratives about sex and female bodies more than they do on anatomical reality.
Read all of Yevamot 60 on Sefaria.