She’elot U’teshuvot Notorious # 3 – A Responsum on Certain Sexual Practices – For Adults Only

The Notorious R.A.V. respectfully requests that you do not read this posting if you are under 18 or at any age if you prefer not to read a fairly blunt discussion of sexual behaviors as they are discussed in classical Jewish texts.

Question: During the course of a discussion, a friend stated the belief that non-vaginal sex between a husband and wife is prohibited by the Torah. It was suggestion that any sexual relationship what could not result in conception would be considered “motzi zera l’vatala”, the spilling of seed in vain, and therefore prohibited. I was asked whether in fact this is the case.

Answer: It’s interesting how this type of statement is often made as if it was a clear, indisputable fact. However, the discussion of permissibility of different sexual practices was a subject of debate dating back to Talmudic times, if not earlier.

A few basics:

  • The “mitzvah” that prohibits shedding of semen in vain is of dubious origin. The source usually quoted is from Bereshit / Genesis 38. In that chapter, we learn of two brothers, Er and Onan. Er is married to a woman named Tamar. He commits an unnamed crime (“was wicked in the eyes of the Lord”) and dies childless (the rabbis of the Talmud tried to tie his sin to that of Onan). The ancient law of Levirite marriage, in which the brother of the deceased marries the childless widow in order to continue the family name, kicks in. Onan begins to fulfill the obligation but, before ejaculation, withdraws, apparently ejaculating on the ground. His behavior is described as intentionally refusing to inseminate Tamar, as children she bears will not have his name, but that of his brother.
  • The shedding of semen in vain is not included in the 613 mitzvot of the Torah traditionally ennumerated. While rabbinic tradition and texts are outspoken in their opposition to “shedding seed in vain”, because it is not stated outright by the Torah, we have to understand it as a rabbinic prohibition that, at most, is hinted at by the Torah.
  • The sin of Onan is complicated. Through one action, he fails to fulfill the practice of Levirate marriage on the grounds that any children will not carry his name and also spills seed. Which is the sin for which he is killed? Was it any one part or the combination of all components of his behavior? The text itself does not tell us.

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