A Guide to Sex in Judaism

Jewish wedding ceremony with chuppah
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Judaism regards sex as being similar to eating and drinking in that it is is a natural and necessary aspect of life―but within the right framework and context, with the proper intentions. Even still, sex is a complicated and misunderstood subject in Judaism.

Meaning and Origins

The discussion of sex can be found throughout the whole of the Five Books of Moses (Torah), the Prophets, and the Writings (also known wholly as the Tanach), not to mention the Talmud. In the Talmud, the rabbis undertake sometimes clinical discussions of sex in order to establish a halachic understanding of what is permissible and what is not. 

The Torah states, "it is not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18), and Judaism views marriage as vital to one of the most important commandments, to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28), which ultimately elevates sex to a holy, necessary act. After all, marriage is known as Kiddushin, which comes from the Hebrew word for “holy.”

A few of the ways that sexual relations are referenced in the Torah are "to know" or to "uncover [one's] nakedness." In the Torah, the terminology is used in both instances of positive sexual encounters (those within the framework of marriage) and negative sexual encounters (e.g., rape, incest).

However, although Jewish law, halacha, prefers and uplifts sex within the confines of marriage as the ultimate ideal, the Torah actually does not explicitly prohibit premarital sex. It is simply that marital sex, with the goal of procreation, is preferred. 

Among explicit prohibited sexual activity are those found in Leviticus 18:22-23: 

"You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination. And with no animal shall you cohabit, to become defiled by it."

Beyond Sex

Even certain types of touching and physical contact like shaking hands are prohibited outside the context of marriage under the category called shomer negiah, or "observant of touch."

"None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 18:6).

Likewise, halacha details what are known as the laws of taharat ha'mishpacha, or "family purity laws" that are discussed in Leviticus 15:19-24. During a woman's period of niddah, or literally a menstruating woman, the Torah says, 

"Do not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness (niddah) to uncover her nakedness" (Leviticus 18:19).

After a woman's period of niddah is over (a minimum of 12 days, which includes at least 7 clean days and however many days she is menstruating), she goes to the mikvah (ritual bath) and returns home to restart marital relations. In many cases, a woman's mikvah night is incredibly special and the couple will celebrate with a special date or activity to signify the rekindling of their sexual relationship. Interestingly, these laws apply to both married and unmarried couples. 

Jewish Movement Views

By and large, the understanding of sex in Judaism discussed above is standard among those live a Torah-observant life, but among more liberal Jews, premarital sex is not understood as sin, necessarily.

The Reform and Conservative movements have questioned (both formally and informally) the permissibility of a sexual relationship between individuals who are unmarried but are in a long-term, committed relationship. Both movements understand that such a relationship would not fall under the status of kedushah, or holiness.