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Notes from Limmud 2006

Can Sex Before Marriage Ever Be Kosher

Rabbi Joel Levy

Standard disclaimer: Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.

You could be mistaken in certain educational establishments for thinking that sex outside of marriage is forbidden as a primary rule of Judaism. This is not the case. It is a significant ruling that you can't have adultery; this is אסור דאורייתא [a Toraitic prohibition]; but we are not talking about that here; we are talking about sex between a פנוי and פנויה (single, lit. "available", people).

The above reading of Judaism is political; it's an attempt to make Judaism acceptable to those who think modern society is flawed.

There are three ways to get married in Judaism: through money, through a document, or through sex (for the purposes of marriage). This changes the woman from being פנויה [single] to אשת איש [the wife of a man]. There is no change, however, to the status of the man.

What is the status of a sexual act which takes place outside of the context of kiddushin [marriage]? In particular, is it אסור דאורייתה [a Toraitic prohibition]?


Exodus 22:15-22:16 שמות כב טו–טז
If a man seduce a virgin that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father refuses absolutely to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the marriage price of virgins. וכי יפתה איש בתולה אשר לא ארשה ושכב עמה מהר ימהרנה לו לאשה׃ אם מאן ימאן אביה לתתה לו כסף ישקל כמהר הבתולת׃

The context for this is that of laws of damages. Here it's the case where the woman's value is damaged, as something belonging to the father. It's a civil complaint; there's no whiff here of sin, just the whiff of damages. There's no איסור [prohibition] presented here.

Leviticus 19:29 ויקרא יט כט
Do not profane your daughter, to cause her to be a harlot; lest the land fall to harlotry, and the land become full of wickedness (zimah). אל תחלל את בתך להזנותה ולא תזנה הארץ ומלאה הארץ זמה׃

So what is a zonah (translated above as "harlot")? לחלל is often used in the context of the Temple; it means making something profane. This isn't not a civil complaint but a religious one.

Leviticus 21:7-21:9 ויקרא כא ז–ט
[Priests] shall not take a wife that is a harlot, or profaned; neither shall they take a woman put away from her husband: for he is holy unto his God. Thou shalt sanctify him therefore; for he offers the bread of thy God: he shall be holy unto you: for I the LORD, which sanctify you, am holy. And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by harlotry, she profanes her father: she shall be burnt with fire. אשה זנה וחללה לא יקחו ואשה גרושה מאישה לא יקחו כי קדש הוא לאלהיו׃ וקדשתו כי את לחם אלהיך הוא מקריב קדש יהיה לך כי קדוש אני ה׳ מקדשכם׃          ובת איש כהן כי תחל לזנות את אביה היא מחללת באש תשרף׃

Again, what is zenut? It's not clear what this means; but we will be seeing lots of rabbinic attempts to work this out.

A man takes a wife thinking she was not a virgin...

Deuteronomy 22:20-22:29 דברים כב כ–כט
But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the harlot in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you. If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel. If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you. But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die. But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter: For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her. If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days. ואם אמת היה הדבר הזה לא נמצאו בתולים לנער׃ והוציאו את הנער אל פתח בית אביה וסקלוה אנשי עירה באבנים ומתה כי עשתה נבלה בישראל לזנות בית אביה ובערת הרע מקרבך׃          כי ימצא איש שכב עם אשה בעלת בעל ומתו גם שניהם האיש השכב עם          האשה והאשה ובערת הרע מישראל׃ כי יהיה נער בתולה מארשה לאיש ומצאה איש בעיר ושכב עמה׃ והוצאתם את שניהם אל שער העיר ההוא וסקלתם אתם באבנים ומתו את הנער על דבר אשר לא צעקה בעיר ואת האיש על דבר אשר ענה את          אשת רעהו ובערת הרע מקרבך׃ ואם בשדה ימצא האיש את הנער המארשה והחזיק בה האיש ושכב עמה ומת האיש אשר שכב עמה לבדו׃ ולנער לא תעשה דבר אין לנער חטא מות כי כאשר יקום איש על רעהו ורצחו נפש כן הדבר הזה׃          כי בשדה מצאה צעקה הנער המארשה ואין מושיע לה׃ כי ימצא איש נער בתולה אשר לא ארשה ותפשה ושכב עמה ונמצאו׃ ונתן האיש השכב עמה לאבי הנער חמשים כסף ולו תהיה לאשה תחת          אשר ענה לא יוכל שלחה כל ימיו׃

Again, a financial implication from having sex. But in this context, the woman is killed for not being a virgin. Does this cause problems for those saying sex before marriage is okay? No, because the penalty is because she was selling herself under false pretences. There's deception and betrayal.

Deuteronomy 23:18-23:19 דברים כג יח–יט
There shall not be cult prostitutes among the daughters of Israel, nor among the sons of Israel. Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the LORD thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the LORD thy God. לא תהיה קדשה מבנות ישראל ולא יהיה קדש מבני ישראל׃ לא תביא אתנן זונה ומחיר כלב בית ה׳ אלהיך לכל נדר כי          תועבת ה׳ אלהיך גם שניהם׃

What's a קדשה [cult prostitute]? This too the rabbis will attempt to lay down. Once again there is a financial implication.

Tannaitic Sources

Sifra Kedoshim Parsha 3 chapter 7:
"Do not profane your daughter, to cause her to be a harlot." (Leviticus 19:29) Is it possible that you should not give her to a Levi or to a Israel? The Torah teaches: "to cause her to be a harlot." I am only referring to a profanation that is in the name of harlotry, and what is that? That is someone who gives his single daughter to his neighbour except for the purpose of marriage, and also one who gives herself except for the purpose of marriage.

This clearly states any form of sex outside of marriage constitutes זנות. This is interpreted here as an איסור דאורייתא [Toraitic prohibition]. (There is also a shift from the Biblical tradition in that this accepts the possibility of the initiative coming from the woman.

Ibid. 5:

R. Eliezer Ben Yaakov says: Since he has sex with many women and does not know which ones he has sex with, and she receives from many men and does not know from which she received, he can err and marry his daughter, he can err and marry her to his son, and it turns out that he wull be married to his daughter and his son to his sister, and it turns out that the whole world is filled with mamzerim as it is said, "And the land become full of lewdness (zimah)," [which is interpreted as an acronym for] zeh mah hu—"this, what is he?"
Sifra Emor Parsha 1 Chapter 1 ספרא קדושים פרשה ג פרק ז
"(They shall not take) a wife who is a harlot." (Numbers 21:7) R. Yehudah says: Zonah—this is an aylonit (lit. a man-like woman—incapable of conception). The rabbis say: A zonah is only a female convert* or a freed female slave or a woman who has engaged in zenut sex. Rabbi Eleazar says: Also the single man who has sex with a single woman except for the purpose of marriage. אשה זונה רבי יהודה אומר זונה זו איילונית וחכמים אומרים אין זונה אלא גיורת ומשוחררת ושנבעלה בעילת זנות רבי אלעזר אומר אף הפנוי הבא על הפבויה שלא לשם אישות׃

* Because we don't know what she was getting up to beforehand. Likewise for the female slave.
† This is of course a circular argument.

Again, this is the extreme position—any form of sexual behaviour outside of marriage is זנות [harlotry].

Talmudic Sources

Yoma 18b יומא יח ב

Whenever Rav came to Darshish, he would announce: Who would be mine for a day? Whenever Rav Nachman would come to Shekunzib he would have it announced: Who will be mine for a day?

But has it not been taught: No man should marry a woman in one country and then go and marry a woman in another country lest they [their children] might marry one another with the result that a brother would marry his sister or a father his daughter, and one fill all the world with mamzerut to which which the scriptural passage refers, "and the land become full of lewdness zimah" (Leviticus 19:29). I will tell you: [The affairs of] the Rabbis are well known.

But did not Rabba say: If one has proposed marriage to a woman and she has consentented then she must await seven clean days? The Rabbis informed them before by sending their messenger earlier. Or, if you like, say: They only arranged for private meetings with them, because "You cannot compare one who has bread in his basket with one who has not bread in his basket."

רב כי מקלע לדרשיש מכריז מאן הויא ליומא׃ רב נחמן כד מקלע לשכנציב מכריז מאן הויא ליומא׃ והתניא רבי אליעזר בן יעקב אומר לא ישא אדם אשה במדינה זו וילך וישא אשה ואב נושא> במדינה אחרת שמא יזדווגו זה אצל זה ונמצא אח נושא אחותו וממלא כל העולם כולו ממזרות ועל זה נאמר ומלאה <בתו הארץ זמה אמרי רבנן קלא אית להו׃ והאמר רבא תבעוה להנשא ונתפייסה צריכה לישב שבעה נקיים רבנן אודועי הוו מודעו להו מקדם הוו מקדמי ומשדרי שלוחא׃ ואי בעית אימא יחודי הוו מיחדי להו לפי שאינו דומה מי שיש לו פת בסלו למי שאין לו פת בסלו׃

Yevamot 61a-b יבמות סא רש״י Rashi*





כהן הדיוט לא ישא אילונית אלא אם כן יש לו אשה ובנים רבי יהודה אומר אף על פי שיש לו אשה ובנים לא ישא אילונית שהיא זונה האמורה בתורה וחכמים אומרים אין זונה אלא גיורת ומשוחררת ושנבעלה בעילת זנות׃

כשמה—לשון טועה שטועה מתחת בעלה לאחרים דלרבי אליעזר אין זונה אלא אשת איש׃

מופקרת—ואפי׳ פנויה מאחר ההפקירה עצמה לכל קרויה זונה אבל משום בעילה אחת לא הויא זונה הפנויה׃

הלך בעלה—לב״ד הגדול והוליכה והשקותה מי המרים שקינא לה ונסתרה ואסורה לו עד שתשתה עשאה זונה הואיל ונבעלה לפסול לה ואם מת אוסרה לכהן׃

אלא גיורת—דנבעלה בנכריותה לעובדי כוכבים וכן משוחררת דעובד כוכבים ועבד הואיל ולאו בני קדושין נינהו פסלי׃

ושנבעלה—לפסול לה כגון א׳ מכל העריות וכגון בת ישראל לנתין וממזר׃

As her name—the tongue erred, that it erred under her husband to others that to Rabbi Eleazar is not a zonah but retains the status of wife.

Utterly sexually available—And even a woman with single status, since availability to everyone itself [?results in her being called] a zonah, but because one act of sexual intercourse does not turn a woman from single to zonah.

Her husband going—to the Great Court and causing her to go, and <something> the bitter waters that envy to her and she is [? refuted ?upset] and she is forbidden to him until she has drunk makes zonah since having sex to make her unfit, and if she dies forbidden to the priest.

Except a female convert—That she had sex whilst a Gentile to star worshipers. [...] Because an idol worshiper and a slave, since they cannot have kiddushin, their sex is possul.

And had sex—To render her unfit such as one of all the lewdnesses, and such as a Jewess to a citizen(?) and a mamzer.

Gemara: Said the Exilarch to Rav Huna: What is the reason? Obviously because of the duty of the propagation of the race; are, then, only priests commanded concerning the propagation of the race while Israelites are not commanded? The other replied: Because it was desired to state in the final clause, "RABBI YEHUDAH SAID: EVEN THOUGH HE HAS HAD A WIFE AND CHILDREN HE SHALL NOT MARRY A WOMAN INCAPABLE OF PROCREATION, SINCE SUCH [IS INCLUDED IN THE TERM OF] HARLOT MENTIONED IN THE TORAH." Since priests only were commanded concerning the harlot while Israelites were not so commanded, therefore PRIEST only was mentioned...


אמר ליה ריש גלותא לרב הונא מאי טעמא משום פריה ורביה אפריה ורביה כהנים הוא דמפקדי וישראל לא מפקדי אמר ליה משום דקא בעי למיתני סיפא רבי יהודה אומר אף על פי שיש לו אשה ויש לו בנים לא ישא אילונית שהיא זונה האמורה בתורה דאזונה כהנים הוא דמפקדי וישראל לא מפקדי משום הכי קתני כהן׃

Surely it was taught:

  • Zonah implies, as her name [indicates, a faithless wife]; so Rabbi Eliezer.
  • R. Akiva says: Zonah implies one who is mufkeret—utterly sexually available.
  • R. Matia ben Cheresh says: Even a woman whose husband, while going to arrange for her drinking, cohabited with her on the way, is rendered a zonah.
  • And the Sages say: A zonah is only a female convert or a freed female slave or a woman who has engaged in zenut sex.
  • Rabbi Eliezer [sic] says: A single man who has sex with a single woman except for the purpose of marriage renders her a zonah.
  • ...
"Rabbi Eleazar says: A single man who has sex with a single woman except for the purpose of marriage renders her a zonah." Rav Amram says: The halachah is not in agreement with the opinion of Rabbi Eleazar.


  • זונה זונה כשמה דברי רבי אליעזר
  • רבי עקיבא אומר זונה זו מופקרת
  • רבי מתיא בן חרש אומר אפילו הלך בעלה להשקותה ובא עליה בדרך עשאה זונה
  • וחכמים אומרים אין זונה אלא גיורת ומשוחררת ושנבעלה בעילת זנות
  • רבי אליעזר אומר פנוי הבא על הפנויה שלא לשם אישות עשאה זונה
  • ...
רבי אלעזר אומר פנוי הבא על הפנויה שלא לשם אישות עשאה זונה׃ אמר רב עמרם אין הלכה כרבי אלעזר׃

* Rashi, except for "except a female convert", is in my rather flaky translation, which could use a little help, as it doesn't seem to make much sense. :o)

† הפכר means ownerless. Somebody who is sexually boundaryless.

‡ For the sotah trial by ordeal ritual for women suspected of adultery.

The Talmud is not concerned with working out what is a necessary reading of the tradition but what is a possible reading of the tradition.

R. Eliezer says you can't be a זונה unless you're already married!

R. Eleazar has the most extreme position: anyone not having sex within marriage is a זנות. The Talmud then goes on to say the halacha is not like that. It doesn't often do that. It's making a point. (Though it doesn't say what the halacha is here.)

(Note none of the above talk about taking money; this is a presupposition: a zonah could take money.)

Mediaeval Sources

Maimonides seems to pasken that sex outside of marriage is זנות [zenut]. Lots of people get angry with him about this because it is the one text that is ruled out by the Talmud. His position is because this is not in the רוח יהדות [spirit of Judaism]—but he is also fudging the position because he had an agenda: that he wanted people to get married.

Rambam, ספר המצות prohibition 355:

Be careful not to coabit with a woman without ketubah [marriage certificate] and kedushin [marriage ceremony], as the Torah tells us explicitly not to, saying, "There shall not be a kedesha [cult prostitute] among the daughters of Israel." Also, this warning is already repeated in different language, saying, "Do not profane your daughter to prostitute her". And in the language of the Sifri [sc. Sifra], "Do not profane your daughter to prostitute her". [...]

And hear from me, why are there two verses which teach this in this way? Because there is a verse beforehand that says if a man seduces a woman there is only a financial penalty to pay, as it is said, ...

We might have thought that since this thing is only a financial problem, the ruling should be like all other rulings pertaining to financial clauses; and just as it is permissible for someone to hand over his money to whoever he wants as he sees fit, and it's fine, someone might wrongly think it's permissible for a man to give over his minor daughter that someone should have sex for her, and say he won't take the money, that this is one of the man's rights.

If you thought the husband has absolute rights over that money and can do as he sees fit, or that her father has absolute rights over her; the Bible therefore comes to say "do not prostitute your daughter" because it's not just a financial problem but also a prohibition.

Nachmanides writes in a critique of the Rambam: How can Rambam claim that having sex with a woman without a כתובה [marriage certificate] is דאורייתא [a Toraitic prohibition] when the כתובה is not דאורייתא? And secondly, the real problem isn't a פנוי [single man] having sex with a פנויה [single woman]. The real problem is a father who would hand over her daughter for a sexual act that is forbidden: a forbidden relationship! This, Nachmanides says, is what זנות zenut is.

In his commentary on the Rambam's ספר מצות, the Ramban [Nachmanides] says:

But, for two people who could get married, if it is for the purposes of concubinage, which means to say that she should be special to him, that is permitted. אבל בבני הקדושין פנוי הבא על הפנויה אם לדעת פלגשות, רצוני לומר שתהא מיוחדת, זה מותר הוא׃

He goes on to list people from the Bible who have had that kind of relationship.

So long as she is specially put aside for him, he says this is מותר [permitted].

So, what's concubinage? For R. Jacob Emden, it's a situation of female monogamy—the woman is only having a sexual relationship with him. (There remain constraints nevertheless; e.g. the amount of time she would have to wait between that relationship and a following relationship.)

In this context, because they are not saying in front of witnesses, the following sexual act constitutes marriage, it does not. On the contrary, they are saying that the following sexual act constitutes concubinage.

Jacob Emden, 1697–1776, lived in Germany, and was very well regarded in his community there.

[Here there follows in the handout a vast amount of Hebrew, which I'm not typing up here.]

To summarise: He takes Nachmanides' position and tries to flesh it out to see how it can be applied in his community. He goes through and fields all the objections that can be made. Note: R. Levy is not here saying the halacha is according to Emden; rather, he is trying to say the halacha is more nuanced than it is generally portrayed. It's a halachic argument: different rabbis could pasken different ways on this, but they have to look into it and reason with it first.

R. Levy took pains to emphasise, several times, that he is not paskening here. What he is seeking to do is educate people, so Orthodox people can now go back to their rabbis and say, "Why did you pasken in this way, when there is halachic precedent for doing otherwise?", and engage them in halachic debate.

R. Emden's teshuva sets very specific guidelines. He explicitly says a chance sexual encounter is forbidden because it's unconstrained. For him, zenut is a women who is hefker [sexually unrestrained].

Otherwise, it's okay subject to the premises of:

  • Mutual consent.
  • They have to talk about the duration of the relationship.
  • They have to talk about the financial constraints—are they going to support each other?
  • Monogamy on the part of the woman—she has to promise not to have sex with anyone else.

There are many objections to R. Emden's position—but R. Levy believes he fields them. He also gives a whole list of reasons why someone would want to have a concubinage relationship in the first place. At the end he suggests that rather than being a defensive position, this is a position that people should be brave enough to take.

Why is he doing this; why is he trying to give permission to something people consider forbidden? Wouldn't it be better to leave things as they are?

Emden says he believes this is the way things ought to go. People are out there having premarital sex, but thinking they are putting themselves beyond the bounds of Judaism. And the rabbis are keeping their heads down; and there are thousands of people who think they are breaking the halacha and doing wrong. Wouldn't it be better to try and accommodate those people, since it actually is permitted in the first place! Wouldn't it be better working with them and get them to tweak their relationships so they fit into the halachic framework?

And because people think they are doing wrong, they are not going to the מקוה [ritual baths]. The standard halachic position is forcing people to break halacha. His proposition can encourage people to go to the מקוה which is a דאורייתא [Toraitic] requirement.

Jacob Emden's main concern is that this leads to married people taking mistresses with rabbinic sanction! But he is inviting rabbis to take this seriously.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2007-01-25 01:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] missniceness.livejournal.com
Wow....this is a simply amazing post...

Date: 2007-01-25 08:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Glad to be of service. (Reactions like this justify the effort of tidying up my notes to make them bloggable.) As a matter of interest, how did you come across this entry?

Date: 2007-01-26 12:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] missniceness.livejournal.com
It was linked in this post:


Very good post.

Date: 2007-03-19 04:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] arielsokolovsky.livejournal.com
If you would like here are two sites I made on this subject http://www.pilegesh.blogspot.com and http://www.pilegeshpersonals.com


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