Sexual Prohibitions


Moshe Ben-Chaim


In our parsha, Acharay Mos, (Lev. 18) we read the introductory verses for the sexual prohibitions:


 16:3: “As the acts of the land of Egypt where you dwelled, do not perform, and as the acts of the land of Canaan where I bring you there, do not perform, and in their statutes, do not walk.”


We must understand; G-d does not simply desire us to refrain from these two cultures’ actions. It is deeper: these cultures’ activities are harmful in nature. Therefore, G-d commands that we do not indulge. Their corruption stems from nowhere else than man’s own nature. Where else did Egypt and Canaan develop such practices, as we read further? All philosophical and moral corruptions are either learned, or developed independent from others. Meaning, they all start with a corrupt person, and are not part of that which exists outside of man, i.e., G-d’s creation. The sexual deviations listed in our parsha must be understood, if we are to truly benefit from our act of abstention. Refraining from an action without understanding why we refrain does not perfect our minds. In such a case, our minds are not playing any role. Perfection is always “perfection in thought”. Our actions must be an expression of an idea apprehended and valued by each one of us. We must understand why these prohibitions are good for man. As we continue, I intend to quote Maimonides and Ramban as they disclose some direction.


“Each and every man, to all those closely related in flesh, do not draw near to uncover (their) nakedness, I am G-d.”


What is problematic with sexual relations with a relative of such close relations? Rashi states, when Shimone and Levi destroyed the city of Shechem and rescued their sister Dinah; she said to Shimone she would not leave Shechem unless he married her. Additionally, deduction teaches that Adam’s children must have wed their own sisters. If in the cases of such righteous people, marriage to family members was not viewed as corrupt, for what reason does G-d command us to refrain from such unions?


We also notice that the term “shi-air” – close relative – is reserved for only three cases, out of the dozen or so cases enumerated herein. If at the outset, the introductory verse commands “…to all those closely related (“shi-air”) in flesh, do not draw near to uncover (their) nakedness”, we would assume that the reference of “shi-air” applies without exception. Why then, later, only in connection with our parents’ sisters, or the taking of a woman and her daughter together, do we find the term “shi-air”? But all other sexual deviations are not considered “shi-air”, “close relative”?


Let us read Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed on this topic (Book III, Chap. XLIX):

“…The law about forbidden sexual intercourse seeks in all its parts to inculcate the lesson that we ought to limit sexual intercourse altogether, hold it in contempt, and only desire it very rarely. The prohibition of pederasty (Lev. xviii. 22) and carnal intercourse with beasts (ibid. 73) is very clear. If in the natural way the act is too base to be performed except when needed, how much more base is it if performed in an unnatural manner, and only for the sake of pleasure.

Here, Maimonides lays the foundation, that sexual pleasure has its place, but should not be of any central focus. Holding it in “contempt” does not mean to deny the importance G-d saw in procreation being very pleasurable. He means that it must not become a value - something to be pursued. We must not compromise our true objective and joyous pursuit of discovering new knowledge, regardless of how sensually enjoyable another activity may be. Maimonides continues:

“The female relatives whom a man may not marry are alike in this respect that as a rule they are constantly together with him in his house: they would easily listen to him, and do what he desires; they are near at hand, and he would have no difficulty in procuring them. No judge could blame him if found in their company. If to these relatives the same law applied as to all other unmarried women, if we were allowed to marry any of them, and were only precluded from sexual intercourse with them without marriage, most people would constantly have become guilty of misconduct with them. But as they are entirely forbidden to us, and sexual intercourse with them is most emphatically denounced unto us as a capital crime, or a sin punishable with extinction (karet), and as there is no means of ever legalizing such intercourse, there is reason to expect that people will not seek it, and will not think of it. That the persons included in that prohibition are, as we have stated, at hand and easily accessible, is evident. For as a rule, the mother of the wife, the grandmother, the daughter, the granddaughter, and the sister-in-law, are mostly with her; the husband meets them always when he goes out, when he comes in, and when he is at his work. The wife stays also frequently in the house of her husband's brother, father, or son. It is also well known that we are often in the company of our sisters, our aunts, and the wife of our uncle, and are frequently brought up together with them. These are all the relatives, which we must not marry. This is one of the reasons why intermarriage with a near relative is forbidden.”

We must distinguish between a nation, and the perfected, Biblical personalities. Marriage to sisters could not be avoided in G-d’s plan of populating the world, while commencing mankind with just one male and one female. A brother had to marry either his sister or mother to beget children. In Jacob’s case, (his marriage to two sisters) and Jacob’s children Shimone and Dinah, no sexual promiscuity, deviation or excess existed. These individuals were so perfected; they obtained G-d’s favor, and his prophecy. We must not make the age-old error of projecting our emotional makeup onto G-d’s selected leaders, psychoanalyzing the pillars of Judaism.  However, when guiding a nation, where morality is not naturally at its optimum, (for no nation is comprised exclusively of perfected individuals), a law must govern man’s sexuality. Maimonides taught very clearly:

“If to these relatives the same law applied as to all other unmarried women, if we were allowed to marry any of them, and were only precluded from sexual intercourse with them without marriage, most people would constantly have become guilty of misconduct with them.”

Maimonides teaches that constant contact with family members will most definitely lead to sexual misconduct, had the Torah not categorically barred these relationships. This also teaches that such relationships are not abhorrent, but prohibited. The Jews were actually recorded as “crying by the household” (Numbers, 11:10) upon receipt of the Torah. On this verse, Rashi interprets “by the household” to mean, “about the household”, or rather matters of the house, i.e., the laws forbidden sexual relations with household relatives. We learn that the Jews had relations with immediate family members, prior to the Torah. There was yet no prohibiting law. Once the Jews received the Torah, they had great difficulty and sadness about the prohibition of sexuality with those family members.

Unrepressed vs Unrestrained Sexuality
Growing up with such prohibitions, we harbor sexual repugnance towards these relatives. However true this is, the Torah and the Rabbis do not fall prey to human repression, and both parties praise those who dream of intercourse with his mother or sister:

Talmud Berachos 57a:

“…If one has intercourse in his dream with his mother, he should anticipate understanding, as it says, ‘If but to understanding you call out…” (Proverbs, 2:3. The word “if” in Hebrew is spelled exactly like “mother” and the verse can be read, “…‘Mother’ may understanding be called…”.  This implies a direct relationship between one’s mother and understanding.)

“…If one has intercourse in his dream with his sister, he should anticipate wisdom, as it says, ‘Say to wisdom, thou art my sister…”(Proverbs, 7:4)

This Talmudic portion teaches an important lesson: one who has little repression in the area of the sexual drives, to the point where he can successfully dream of intercourse with these close relatives, is one whose mind is relatively uninhibited. He is one who will be able to ponder all areas of Torah without any restraint. He will most certainly uncover great insights, as his mind is unbridled. The event of such a dream means that he has now reached a new level of objectivity, and now, he should anticipate wisdom and understanding to a greater level than before. Do not understand this Talmudic portion mystically, for mysticism is only in your imagination. This Talmudic portion is describing the perfection in one who has such dreams, whereby such perfection must lead to greater knowledge. It is natural that when one perfects his mind and his emotions, that he will have such dreams. It is not the dream per se which causes new insight, but the perfection that already exists in this person prior to the dream. (Do not be confused, and view the effect as the cause. Do not view the dream as what gives this person wisdom, as the dream is an ‘effect’ of the perfection that already exists, just as greater knowledge is also an effect of this perfection.)

But be careful with this last statement. Guard yourselves from confusing unrepressed individuals, with unrestrained sexuality: the former is limited to unconscious thought alone; the latter is real, physical corruption. However, those Jews who violate any of these sexual laws, for example, embracing homosexuality, are in direct violation of G-d’s very words: (Lev. 18:29)  “For anyone who commits any one of these abominations, those souls will be cut off…” This is a most sever punishment. Therefore, the new movement we hear of, “acceptance of homosexuality” is a clear denial of G-d’s. 

We learn that our G-d given Torah is absolutely honest and perfectly in line with reality. G-d created and fully understands human emotion and desire. His Torah is a perfect guidebook, which we are foolish to distort in any shape or form. It is laughable that man creates new forms of “Judaism”. These new forms of Reform and Conservative Judaism are inherently flawed, as neither one possesses true validation, i.e., miraculous evidence. Torah is validated as truth, due to the miracles witnessed at its moment of inheritance, at Sinai. It is for this reason we know it as G-d’s word. Until Reform and Conservative Judaism can make such claims to miraculous validation for their edits, G-d’s word remains more valid than theirs. Rabbi Mann wished to comment that the law sentencing a false prophet to death is also problematic for Reform Judaism: The Torah places G-d’s words as the very validation of Torah. But as Reform Judaism claims that the Torah is not G-d’s own words, their reformed Judaism loses all worth. They are truly in a contradiction: they retain G-d’s Torah words, sentencing false prophets to death, but simultaneously claim the Torah is not the Divine as stated by original, Orthodox Judaism! How can they value the Torah, which contains the death sentence for those who oppose “G-d’s words”, and simultaneously hold the position that the Torah is not “G-d’s words”? Simply astounding! We digressed, but for good reason.


“Root and Branch”
Maimonides now continues, but offers his understanding, referring to a “root and branch”:

“But according to my opinion the prohibition serves another object, namely, to inculcate chastity into our hearts. License between the ‘root’ and the ‘branch’, between a man and his mother, or his daughter, is insolent (“chutzpah gedolah”). The intercourse between root and branch is forbidden, and it makes no difference whether the male element is the root or the branch, or both root and branch combine in the intercourse with a third person, so that the same individual cohabits with the root and with the branch (i.e., man cohabitating with a woman and her daughter). On this account it is prohibited to marry a woman and her mother, the wife of the father or of the son; for in all these cases there is the intercourse between one and the same person on the one side and root and branch on the other.

The law concerning brothers is like the law concerning root and branch. The sister is forbidden, and so is also the sister of the wife and the wife of the brother; because in the latter cases two persons, who are considered like root and branch, cohabit with the same person. But in these prohibitions brothers and sisters are partly considered as root and branch and partly as one body; the sister of the mother is therefore like the mother, and the sister of the father like the father, and both are prohibited.”

What is Maimonides taking about with this “root and branch”? We may ask, “What is the relationship between the root of a tree, and its branch?” The root causes the generation of the branch by supplying water. But how does this help us understand Maimonides’ cryptic words?

Maimonides is clearly referring to the parent/child relationship with his term “root and branch”. He distinguishes between sexual activity between parent and child, and between sexual activities with all others. He refers to the former as “insolent”, meaning audaciously rude or disrespectful. (Be mindful that the Biblical personalities never crossed the line of cohabitating with one’s mother or daughter. Although we read of Lote’s two daughters who did so, even in their case, it was not for lustful reasons.)  Being purely objective, what is so much more “insolent” (as he put it), when man sleeps with his mother or daughter, over the sleeping with his sister? What does “inculcating chastity into our hearts” target as its goal?

Approaching an answer, we will also answer our original question: “Why are our parents’ sisters, and the marriage to a woman and her daughter, alone, deserving the reference of “shi-air”, close relative?”  It is an interesting observation, and suspect it is an intentional parallel that Maimonides describes a “root and branch”, while the Torah too singles out this “root and branch” relationship as an additional sexual deviation called “shi-air”. Besides being close relatives, intercourse between parent and child, and also, intercourse with both; parent and child, carry an addition corruption. What is this additional corruption?

I am not fully certain of Maimonides’ complete intent, but I will offer some of my own thoughts, prodded by Maimonides’ words: The tree creates the branch. The very existence of the branch would demand recognition by the branch, of a superior position that the tree holds, as the branch owes its entire existence to the tree. Therefore, one’s act of procreation between the “branch and the tree”, (the child and parent) denies the tree’s significance. A false equality between the parent and child is also forged through such a union. The child does not recognize the institution that created him. He confuses what brought him into existence, with an object of pleasure - he confuses G-d’s laws of procreation - his own mother - wherein his life was made possible, a life for wisdom, and mistakes that very institution as a sexual object - the opposite of man’s true goal. Perhaps this is the “audacity” Maimonides refers to, when man does not maintain the correct position his parent holds, and is so submerged in his sexual desires, that his desires overshadow the normal relationship between parent and child. He is audacious towards G-d. And the reverse is also true, i.e., when a parent has intercourse with a child. Here, the parent is the cause of the harm we just mentioned above. Additionally, the parent corrupts his own view of a caretaker and guardian/teacher of his own child. Engaging in such relations, one allows the sexual to gain prominence over the true reality of G-d’s plan for man. Instead of subduing one’s emotions so as to allow one’s metaphysical perfection to ensue, he inverts this equation, subduing the intelligence in favor of lusts. Sexual activity is thereby raised to an institutional status surpassing G-d’s intended, spotlighted institutions of parents and children. The correct focus of life is gravely distorted.

The superior role of the parent is also seen in G-d’s grouping of “Honor thy Parents” together with the first five of the Ten Commandments, addressing G-d. The latter five Commandments are between man and his fellow, where we would assume “Honor thy Parents” belongs. But G-d’s placement in the first five Commandments between man and G-d teaches us that honoring parents is in fact a law, which targets the recognition of G-d. Through our acceptance of these two authority figures from youth, we learn to recognize “authority” I general, something essential for recognizing G-d. G-d’s creation of a system of birth and parenthood is not accidental. Through such a system, G-d desired man learn the concept of “authority”, to be latter transferred onto G-d Himself.


Curbing our Desire
Maimonides concludes:

“…The reason why it is prohibited to cohabit with a menstrual woman (Lev. xviii. 19) or with another man's wife (ibid. 20), is obvious, and requires no further explanation.

It is well known that we must not indulge in any sensual enjoyment whatever with the persons included in the above prohibitions: we must not even look at them if we intend to derive pleasure there from. We have explained this in "the laws about forbidden sexual intercourse" (Laws of Forbidden Relations, xxi. 1-2), and shown that according to the Law we must not even engage our thoughts with the act of cohabitation (ibid. 19) or irritate the organ of generation; and when we find ourselves unintentionally in a state of irritation, we must turn our mind to other thoughts, and reflect on some other thing till we are relieved. Our Sages (B.T.Kidd 30b), in their moral lessons, which give perfection to the virtuous, say as follows:" My son, if that monster meets you, drag it to the house of study. It will melt if it is of iron; it will break in pieces if it is of stone: as is said in Scripture, ‘Is not my word like a fire? saith the Lord, and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? '" (Jer. xxiii. 29). The author of this saying thus exhorts his son to go to the house of study when he finds his organ of generation in an irritated state. By reading, disputing, asking, and listening to questions, the irritation win certainly cease. See how properly the term monster is employed, for that irritation is indeed like a monster. Not only religion teaches this lesson, the philosophers teach the same. I have already quoted verbatim the words of Aristotle. He says: "The sense of touch which is a disgrace to us, leads us to indulge in eating and sensuality," etc. He calls people degraded who seek carnal pleasures and devote themselves to gastronomy: he denounces in extenso their low and objectionable conduct, and ridicules them. This passage occurs in his Ethics and in his Rhetoric.”


Ramban on Sexual Prohibitions
On verse 18:6, Ramban questions Maimonides’ reasoning of prohibiting those who man is with regularly. Ramban states, “And what damage is there if man marries his daughter as was the practice of the children of Noah? Or marry two sisters as was done by our patriarch Jacob?” Ramban calls this a weak reason.  Ramban open states, “A person could not do better than to give his daughter in marriage to his elder son, and they would inherit his possessions and multiply and increase I his house.” In the end, Ramban states, “we have no reason for the tradition of forbidden relationships”, but it has to do with the success of the seed, according to Ramban. He states that marriage between close relatives will not succeed in seed, which will prosper.

On verse 18:17, Ramban addresses one of our questions, that of “shi-air” and the term “zimah” - why the Torah uses this specific term in connection with a man who married a mother and her daughter, and one who married his father’s sister. After demonstrating by example that “zimah” refers to “thought”, Ramban states:

“In my opinion, Scripture states it is ‘zimah’, in the case [of sexual relationships with] a woman and her daughter, and also a woman and her mother, in order to condemn the matter, saying that when one lies with the one, who is his wife, he thinks of the other one on account of their relationship and likeness, and thus lying with both of them is a cause of lewdness in him.”

“It is for this reason that Scripture states here that, ‘the nakedness of a woman and her daughter etc.’ and similarly it says, “And if a man take with his wife also her mother, it is lewdness.” 

“He states ‘shi-air’ meaning to say that they are also forbidden because they are near of flesh to each other, and lying with both of them would be lewdness, as I have explained. Similarly, Scripture states, ‘and each that has lewdly defiled his daughter-in-law’ meaning that he defiled her to her husband, because even when she will be with her husband, she will think of his father because of their likeness.”

Ramban introduces a new facet to the corruption contained in the sexual acts prohibited by the Torah. What is this “thinking of the other because of their likeness” which Ramban mentions twice? What is wrong with such thoughts?

It is clear, until the decree of Rabbeinu Gershon to wed only one woman, man was permitted to wed more than one wife. (However, I will mention, quoting a Rabbi, that many of our Torah leaders wed only one wife. Those who had more, like Abraham and Jacob, did not wed more than one wife, without the consent of their first wife. This teaches a certain morality and perfection in the marriage to just one woman) According to Ramban, marrying more than one woman was not a problem, as their was no similarity between two people, unless they were mother and daughter, or sisters. He thereby fine-tunes the exact union containing a specific problem. So what is the problem in marrying two people of similarity? What is problematic in “thinking of the other”, as Ramban states? What is the “lewdness”?

It would appears that in such a marriage, to two siblings or two consecutive generations, that man is preoccupied with the “person” of his sexual activity. This is why he wants an “additional” instance of his first partner – he desires “two” of that person, and not one. He seeks to gratify an emotion of sexual lust, of “lewdness”. The Rabbis agree: intercourse is to serve the purpose of procreation. So essential to sustaining humanity, it was made so pleasurable. But to chase the pleasure, is to be preoccupied with the means, and not the ends. When marrying two similar individuals, man attempts to gratify a means, the pleasurable component, and not the procreative goal. However, when man used to marry two unrelated people, he was not in violation of this specific corruption. In this latter union, marriage to one did not promote the thinking of the other. This also assists in removing rivalry.