Tag Archives: Abraham

An In-Depth Look at Eating Dairy on Shavuot

This Saturday night comes the festival of Shavuot, commemorating the Divine Revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah. There is a well-known custom to eat dairy foods on the holiday. Although it isn’t clear exactly where this custom came from, there are many beautiful explanations for it. Below are some of them.

Cheese & Coffee

The classic and most oft-cited answer for eating dairy on Shavuot is as follows: Since the Jewish people received the Torah on Shavuot, they were now bound by the laws of kashrut. This meant that whatever meat they had available was not kosher. Therefore, they had to consume dairy products. The consensus among the Talmudic sages is that the Torah was given on Shabbat, which means the people would not have been able to shecht fresh meat (Shabbat 88a). So, they ate dairy.

This standard explanation is actually problematic, for it is also forbidden to milk a cow on Shabbat or to make cheese (Shabbat 95a). Although the Israelites could have had cheese from before, making cheese requires rennet which, to be kosher, must be extracted from a kosherly-slaughtered cow. Whatever cheese they had would not have been kosher either! Perhaps they ruled that since only very little rennet is required—certainly less than 1/60th of the cheese’s total mass, although it is a davar hamaamid, a vital ingredient—and that they had produced that cheese inadvertently—not being bound by kosher law at the time—it would be okay.

Or, perhaps they reasoned like Rabbeinu Tam (Rabbi Yakov ben Meir, 1100-1171) who held that rennet was not the issue with non-kosher cheese. He argued that in our day and age all cheese is pretty much kosher, even that made by gentiles, though it is certainly better to be stringent and avoid those made with non-kosher rennet (see Tosfot on Avodah Zarah 35a). It should be noted that the halacha today is not in accordance with Rabbeinu Tam’s lenient position. Although over 90% of the cheese on the market is made from artificial rennet anyway, Jewish communities long ago accepted the prohibition of gevinat akum, not to consume any cheese not made or supervised by Jews.

Of course, it is possible that the Israelites at Sinai didn’t eat cheese at all, but had other dairy products such as butter, which would have been made before Shabbat, and would have been fine to consume. Today, on our fixed Jewish calendar, Shavuot can never coincide with Shabbat (at least not the first day of Shavuot). Because of this, as with other yom tovs, it is common to have a barbeque since cooking on a holiday, unlike on Shabbat, is permitted. Now, most people who had stayed up all night studying (as is customary on Shavuot) are unlikely to start grilling in the wee hours of the morning, nor could they stomach a heavy meat meal. In many synagogues, after staying up in study all night, the community then prays at the earliest possible hour, has a quick breakfast Kiddush—breakfast generally being a dairy meal—and then everyone is off to get some sleep. This is the simplest and most practical reason for the custom of a dairy meal on Shavuot.

Alternatively, others have the custom to have a dairy meal in the evening, before the all-night study session. This is because eating a heavy meat meal will make it hard to stay awake all night. It is better to have a light dairy meal, probably with a strong coffee. Jewish historian and scholar Elliot Horowitz presented a fascinating theory that the practice of staying up all night on Shavuot (as well as Hoshanah Rabbah) only became popular starting in the 16th century because it was in this century that coffee was introduced to the Ottoman Empire! Similarly, among Ashkenazis the practice didn’t take hold until decades later, when coffee was first brought to Europe. (See Horowitz’s 1989 paper, “Coffee, Coffee Houses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry.”)

Mountain of Cheese

In Psalm 68, which is recited on Shavuot, we read:

When God scattered kings therein, it snowed in Tzalmon. A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan; a mountain of peaks [har gavnunim] is the mountain of Bashan. Why do you look askance, you mountains of peaks? The mountain which God has desired for His abode? God will dwell therein forever. The chariots of God are myriads, even thousands upon thousands; God is among them, as in Sinai, in holiness.

In this passage, we see how God’s chosen mountain, Sinai, is called by other names. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:4) elaborates:

[Mt. Sinai] has five names: Har HaElohim, Har Bashan, Har Gavnunim, Har Horev, Har Sinai. “Har HaElohim” because there Israel accepted Hashem as their God. “Har Bashan”, since everything a person eats with their teeth [b’shinav] comes from the merit of the Torah, which was given on this mountain… “Har Gavnunim” because it is pure like cheese [gevinah], free of all blemishes. “Har Horev” since here the Sanhedrin was given the authority to pronounce the death penalty [harev]… “Har Sinai” since henceforth there was hatred [sinah] for idol worshippers [who did not accept the Torah].

We see that one of the names for Sinai is “mountain of cheese”, which is another reason to consume dairy products on Shavuot. Better yet, the gematria of cheese (גבינה) is 70, alluding to the “seventy faces” of Torah, as well as the seventy names for God, and the seventy names for Israel—all revealed at Sinai.

Interestingly, in the Talmud, Rav Kahana adds that Sinai comes from the word nes, “miracle”, since the Jewish people witnessed the greatest miracle there (Shabbat 89a). The Sages countered his point by saying: Then it should’ve been called Har Nisai! Another Midrash adds that Sinai comes from the word sneh, the burning bush through which Moses first encountered God on that mountain (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 41).

Suckling Milk

We read in the Torah that when Moses was born, his mother hid him from the Egyptians for three months (Exodus 2:2). Since we know that Moses’ birthday was the 7th of Adar, three months later would be the 7th of Sivan. According to one opinion in the Talmud, the Torah was actually given on the 7th of Sivan, even though today we celebrate Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan (Shabbat 88a). Whatever the case, Shavuot is the day when Moses was placed into the River and discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.

We then read in the Torah that Moses’ sister, Miriam, who was a servant of Pharaoh’s daughter, told her: “Shall I go and call you a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?” (Exodus 2:7) Miriam brought Yocheved, and Moses was nursed by his own mother despite being raised in the Egyptian palace (Sotah 12b). So, another reason to eat dairy on Shavuot is in commemoration of baby Moses being reunited with his mother and continuing to nurse from her. In fact, the entire nation standing on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot is likened to a newborn baby, for this is the officially birthday of the Jewish people. At that moment, the Jewish people “nursed” directly from God. And there is an allusion to this in Psalm 68, cited above.

There, the first verse refers to God coming upon Mt. Sinai using the Name Shaddai. The first time this Name appears in the Torah is when God reveals Himself to Abraham: “…I am El Shaddai, walk before me, and be pure, and I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” (Genesis 17:1-2) Later we read how Isaac blesses Jacob and says: “May El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples.” (Genesis 28:3) Finally, Jacob invokes the Name Shaddai when he blesses his own children: “…And by Shaddai you will be blessed, with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches beneath, blessings of the breasts [shaddaim], and of the womb.” (Genesis 49:25)

In all of these cases, we see that El Shaddai is associated with blessings of fertility and reproduction. The last verse in particular makes this explicit, connecting Shaddai with shaddaim, “breasts”. In fact, later in the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:13), God states that He “suckles” us with sweet honey, and the Name used is once again Shaddai (though it should be mentioned that it is typically read as saddai, “My field”). In short, El Shaddai is a Name of fertility and reproduction, and symbolic of the Jewish people—children of God—“suckling” and sustaining ourselves from God’s blessings. The association with milk is quite clear.

Better yet, the Torah itself is compared to nourishing milk (Song of Songs 4:11). And, fittingly, the gematria of “milk”, halav (חלב) is 40, alluding to the 40 days and nights that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to bring down the Torah. Forty is the value of the letter mem, which is unique in that it has an “open” (מ) and “closed” (ם) form. The open mem is incomplete, searching for meaning and for its purpose, while the closed mem is complete, a full circle (or square). The open mem’s value is only 40, while the closed mem is 600. The difference between them is 560, the value of parpar (פרפר), “butterfly”, the ultimate symbol of transformation and metamorphosis. All of this alludes to a person’s own growth, transformation, and completion through Torah.

Chag sameach!

Eye-Openers from the Book of Jubilees

This week’s parasha, Behar, begins with the command to observe shemitah, the Sabbatical year, and to proclaim a yovel, “Jubilee”, on the 50th year, after seven such cycles. The 50th year is a particularly special one, where “freedom shall be proclaimed”, slaves are freed, and all property returns to their ancestral owners. This is one of several incredible mitzvot which demonstrate the Torah’s strong emphasis on socio-economic equality and justice.

‘Jubilee Year’ by Yoram Raanan

In the ancient Jewish world, the Jubilee was an important milestone for tracking the passage of time. For example, the Talmud (Arakhin 12b) calculates how long each Temple stood in terms of the number of Sabbaticals and Jubilees elapsed, and that there were exactly 17 Jubilees between Israel’s entry into the Holy Land and their exile by the Babylonians. In fact, there is an entire book, known as Jubilees, written some time in the Second Temple era which divides the early history of Israel and the world into segments of Jubilees. This intriguing text is one of the most controversial books of that era.

It is unknown who wrote Jubilees, but it itself claims to be a revelation given to Moses by the angels upon Mt. Sinai. Moses is the subject of the book, the “you” to whom the angels are speaking. It presents a comprehensive history from Creation until the given of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, organized into 50 Jubilees. The book holds that a Jubilee year, the fiftieth year, is also the first year of the next shemitah cycle. This means that a complete cycle is not 50 years, but 49 years. That’s precisely the debate in the Talmud page cited above. The Sages question whether the Jubilee year is the first year of the next shemitah or not. Rabbi Yehuda insists that it does, which is just one example of the Book of Jubilees overlapping with traditional Judaism.

Having said that, our Sages did not include Jubilees in the Tanakh. Although it reads very much like a Biblical book, it was excluded from the canon. This was not the case among Ethiopian Jews, who surprisingly did include Jubilees in their Tanakh! The same is true for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Many ancient Christian scholars referenced Jubilees, too, while modern scholars have shown that Jubilees was an important book for the Maccabees. The Hasmonean dynasty that followed made extensive use of it, as did the priests of the late Second Temple era. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jubilees is one of the most prevalent texts, more than all other books of ‘Nakh except Psalms and Isaiah. All of this proves that the Book of Jubilees was of great significance in olden days, and greatly influenced Judaism (and Christianity). Intriguingly, some scholars have shown that Jubilees had an even greater impact on Islam, and much of the Quran was clearly inspired by it. (See the work of Jan van Reeth for more.)

In traditional Jewish texts, too, especially in Midrash and Kabbalah, there are numerous teachings which are also found in Jubilees. In fact, Jubilees may be the earliest known written source for some foundational points of Judaism today. For example, in chapter 7 we see the first description of God giving a set of laws to Noah. A careful count shows there are seven. The Torah does not explicitly say anything about a code of law given to Noah, but Jewish tradition of course speaks of seven “Noahide” laws.

In Jubilees, these laws are: 1) be just and righteous, 2) dress modestly, 3) bless the Creator, 4) honour parents, 5) love your fellow, 6) abstain from sexual sins, plus 7) the prohibition of eating the limb of a live animal which was relayed a bit earlier in the text. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a-b), the Noahide laws are: 1) establish courts of law, 2) bless the Creator, 3) not to worship idols, 4) abstain from sexual sins, 5) not to murder, 6) not to steal, and 7) not to eat the limb of a live animal.

The first law in Jubilees and the Talmud is one and the same: being just implies having a justice system, ie. establishing courts of law. The second in the Talmud is phrased as “blessing Hashem”, just like the third in Jubilees, but is taken to mean not to curse Hashem, since we don’t expect gentiles to know the Hebrew blessings. In any case, it is the same law. Not to engage in sexual sins and not to consume the limb of a live animal are the same. All in all, four of the seven are identical, and there are some parallels between the other three.

Another idea that finds its earliest expression in Jubilees is the concept of a messianic “millennium” (23:18-29). After a series of great travails, the world will enter an idyllic age that lasts one thousand years, with no evil and Satan destroyed. This is similar to descriptions in the Talmud (see, for instance, Sanhedrin 97a).

A final example: Jubilees states that God created seven things on the First Day: Heaven and Earth, water, spirits, darkness and light, and the abyss (tehom, as in Genesis 1:2). This is essentially identical to the Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 3), which says eight things were created on the First Day: Heaven and Earth, water, the Divine Spirit, darkness and light, and tohu v’vohu (also in Genesis 1:2), which can be seen as two parts of the tehom.

The Book of Jubilees presents many more fascinating details. Although not officially accepted in the Jewish canon, we see that it does contain a great deal of accurate information that is also in accepted Jewish texts. This makes it a potentially very useful tool to shed light on some of the big mysteries in Judaism. Indeed, we have referenced Jubilees many times in the past (such as here on Esau and Rome, and here on the guardian angels, among others). What follows is a list of some of the most intriguing and perhaps controversial teachings from the Book of Jubilees.

Adam and Eve in Elda

We mentioned in the past how Jubilees (3:8) states that Eve was made a week after Adam, and that Adam only entered the Garden of Eden forty days after his creation, and Eve after eighty days. We go on to read that Adam and Eve actually spent seven whole years in the Garden, and the Serpent came to them on the 17th of Cheshvan (3:15-17). Although Rabbinic tradition is that Adam and Eve ate of the Fruit on the same day they were created, there is some sense in tying their Fall to the month of Cheshvan, which has no holidays and is referred to as Marcheshvan, “bitter Cheshvan”. It is interesting to note that the letters in “Cheshvan” (חשון) spell Nachash (נחש), “Serpent”.

In Jubilees, Adam and Eve do not have children until long after their expulsion from Eden, when they are living in a land called Elda (3:32). There is an explanation for why Adam died at 930 years old. God had decreed that Adam would die “on that very day” if he eats from the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 2:17). Yet, we read how Adam goes on to live many years. Didn’t God say Adam would die on the selfsame day? Jubilees reminds us that a “day” for God is 1000 years for man (as we read in Psalm 90:4). So, when God said Adam would die on the same day, He meant a day for Himself, not Adam! This is why Adam didn’t live to 1000 years.

Enoch and the Fallen Angels

‘Michael Casts Out Rebel Angels’ by Gustav Doré

In the genealogy of Adam, the Torah briefly mentions Yared (Jared), son of Mehalalel and father of the great Enoch (Genesis 5:15). Jubilees explains that he was named Yared, meaning “descent”, because in his time angels descended to Earth. These angels are called ‘Irin—meaning “awake ones” in Hebrew and often translated according to the Aramaic “watchers”, also mentioned in Daniel 4:10-14. Jubilees says they were sent to “instruct the children of men”. However, some of these Watchers became rebellious and mated with human women. Their children were the giant Nephilim, and this is the meaning of Genesis 6:1-4. This notion is found in traditional Jewish texts as well, as we have briefly explored in the past here. It is explored in much more depth in another apocryphal work, the Book of Enoch.

Speaking of Enoch, Jubilees describes him as the first scholar in history. He was the first writer, and composed an entire history of the world until his day. He was also a great astronomer, and put together the first calendars. He may have been the first prophet, too, as he looked into the future all the way until Judgement Day. Enoch was the first to bring offerings to God on the Temple Mount in what would later become Jerusalem (4:25). His wife’s name was Edni, or Edna.

Jubilees then solves another mystery about Enoch: why did God “take him” up to Heaven while still relatively so young? (Genesis 5:24) Jubilees says God took Enoch to Heaven so that he could testify against the fallen Watchers. The result of this was God’s decree of the Great Flood, to exterminate the Watchers, the angel-human hybrids, and the giants, and to purify the world from the evil they had brought.

The Flood and the Calendar

When the Torah describes the Great Flood, it states that it began and concluded on the “second month”. The Sages debate whether this refers to the second month starting from Tishrei or from Nisan. Jubilees goes with the latter, and states that the Flood began and ended in the month of Iyar. It goes on to state that Noah offered up his sacrifices shortly after in Sivan, what would become the holiday of Shavuot. This is the day when God displayed the rainbow and made a new covenant with Noah, and all of mankind. It is therefore fitting that God would make a covenant with Israel and give them the Torah on that same day, centuries later.

This brings up the key point of contention between Jubilees and the Rabbinic tradition: Jubilees holds that the calendar should follow only the sun, and that a year should be exactly 52 weeks of seven days. (Presumably there would be some kind of leap year every so often since that makes only 364 days.) This means that each holiday would fall on the same day every year. Shavuot is always on the 15th of Sivan, counting fifty days from the day after the first Shabbat following Pesach, since the Torah literally states to start Sefirat haOmer mimacharat haShabbat. (Our Sages explain that since the Torah describes Pesach as a Shabbat as well, we count the Omer from the day following the first day of Pesach. Therefore, Shavuot is on the 6th of Sivan.)

Jubilees explains its calendar system in Chapter 6, and it is certainly not without flaws. In fact, there are some blatant contradictions, and a lack of knowledge of the Rabbinic calendar system and the the leap year having a 13th month. It clearly reflects the great debate taking place at the end of the Second Temple era between Jews who followed a lunar-solar calendar and those that followed a strictly solar one. Much has been written about this by secular and religious scholars alike, and one who studies these sources will conclude that the Rabbinic method is undoubtedly better.

I believe that the primary reason why Jewish tradition never accepted Jubilees as a holy work is because of the calendar issue. The fact that Ethiopian Jewry had included it in their Tanakh is either because they split from the mainstream Jewish world before the end of the Second Temple era, or because they were influenced by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Building Cities

Jubilees continues (in chapter 7) to state that after being cursed and banished by Noah, Ham went out and built a great city. When his brother Yefet saw it, he also left to build a great city of his own. Only Shem stayed with his father Noah, and the two built a city as well. Over time, these cities started warring with each other. Noah called in his sons and rebuked them, commanding them to keep additional laws, primarily not to murder. Along with this came a set of laws later to be found in the Torah, including not to consume the blood of animals and to bury it in earth, and not to eat the fruit of a tree in its first three years.

‘Noah Cursing Canaan’ by Gustav Doré

Later, Noah divides up the Earth for his sons and their clans. They take a draw, and Shem wins the best part—all the lands from the Nile to the Pacific. Ham drew next and got everything to the west and south of that, ie. Africa. Yefet got the last part: Europe, and the lands to its east. Jubilees summarizes by saying that Yefet got the cold lands, Ham got the hot lands (Ham literally means “hot”), and Shem got the temperate lands (8:30). Later, we are told how Canaan, a son of Ham, came out of Africa (where he belonged) and stole the Holy Land (10:29). For breaking the peace treaty and encroaching on land that didn’t belong to him, he was cursed by the rest of the family. This justifies Israel’s future re-conquest of the Holy Land, as it never belonged to Canaan to begin with. The land belongs to Israel, the descendants of Shem (or “Sem” in English, hence the modern term anti-Semite).

Abraham Celebrates Sukkot

Jubilees reveals some interesting details about Abraham, some of which we have explored in the past here. It states that Abraham separated from his idolatrous family when he was 14 years old. He initially became famous not for being a monotheist, but for inventing a new kind of plow and a device that prevented birds from eating farmers’ seeds. Abraham is later able to convince many to abandon idolatry, including his father Terach. He later sets his father’s idols on fire, and his brother Haran jumps in to save them, perishing in the flames (12:14). This is an interesting spin on the famous Midrashic account where Haran dies in the pyre that Nimrod had set up for Abraham.

Jubilees informs us that God revealed the holy Hebrew tongue to Abraham, after it had been hidden during the Great Dispersion following the Tower of Babel (12:25). We are given some chronological details, including Abraham’s age when he married Sarah (49), and the length of time he spent living in Egypt (5 years). We then read how, like Noah, Abraham also commemorated Shavuot, and with him, too, there was a covenant involved.

According to Jubilees, God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his household on Shavuot! Abraham did so that same day, forging a covenant with God. Thus, we now have three layers of meaning to Shavuot: it was the day that God made a brit with Noah, and the day that God made a brit with Abraham, and the day that God made a brit with Israel. And it wasn’t just Shavuot that Abraham celebrated.

Jubilees states that Abraham established the holiday of Sukkot because his family dwelled in booths in Beer Sheva. During this time, the angels that announced the birth of Isaac returned to tell Abraham he would have six more sons (Genesis 25:2), so Abraham established a seven-day festival for the seven sons he was blessed with, including Isaac (Jubilees 16:16-21). There is a great explanation here for why on Sukkot, in Temple times, they would bring 70 sacrifices for each of the 70 nations: Because Abraham is considered the father of all nations, and he instituted Sukkot in honour of those six extra sons who fathered those nations, it is fitting to bring sacrifices on their behalf. In addition, Jubilees describes Abraham as taking lulav and etrog on Sukkot, and making seven hakafot as we do today (16:30-31).

Finally, Abraham also instituted Pesach, the remaining holiday of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals. This is the day when Abraham was tested at the Akedah. He made a seven-day festival to commemorate this because the entire journey took seven days: three days to get there (Genesis 22:4), one day on the mountain, and three days to get back.

A Warrior Jacob

We read in Jubilees that it was Abraham who commanded Rebecca to make sure that Jacob gets the blessing from his father (19:15). Abraham goes on to bless Jacob himself, and states that he loves his grandson more than any of his own children. More surprisingly, Jubilees paints a picture of Jacob as a brave warrior, and not someone who flees. In fact, Jacob is not afraid of Esau at all, and intends to kill him first, but Rebecca asks him not to (27:4). It ends up happening later anyway:

While Esau appears to repent towards the end of his life, his sons are even more evil than he is, and convince him to go to war with the sons of Jacob. They raise a huge army and mount an attack, but Jacob and his sons are ready. They crush the enemy, and Jacob himself shoots Esau in the chest with an arrow (38:2). Jacob buries his brother in Edom.

Jubilees gives Leah a happy ending. The Torah does not explicitly say what happened to Jacob’s wife, but Jubilees states that he did end up loving her after Rachel passed away. Only then did he see the perfection of Leah, and loved her “with all his heart and soul” (36:23). We know from the Torah that Jacob lived to the age of 147, which Jubilees points out is exactly three Jubilee cycles (45:13). It also notes how in the earliest of days, people could easily live 19 Jubilees, but today few can make it through even two of them (23:9).

In Egypt and in Time

Jubilees numbers the Egyptian victims of the Ten Plagues at 1 million. It states that this was a measure for measure punishment from God, since the Egyptians had drowned 1 million Israelite babies (48:14). Jubilees identifies the fourth plague, ‘arov—generally accepted in the Jewish tradition as a stampede of wild beasts—with a swarm of flies (48:5). The book’s history of events ends with the Divine Revelation at Sinai.

All in all, there are 50 chapters representing the 50 Jubilees that elapsed form Creation to the giving of the Torah on Sinai. This is a fitting conclusion, as we prepare for the holiday of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah by counting 50 days. It’s almost as if God counted His own 50 Jubilees before giving us His Torah. And 50 is an important number, as it represents the 50 constrictions and impurities with which the Israelites were constrained in Egypt, and had to extract themselves from, as well as the nun sha’arei Binah, the 50 Gates of Understanding which Moses ascended (Rosh Hashanah 21b).

Chronologically, however, putting the Torah’s revelation at 50 Jubilees from Creation is problematic. According to Jubilees, Israel entered the Holy Land at the end of 50 Jubilees, meaning 2450 years. They therefore received the Torah in the year 2410. The traditional Jewish dating for the giving of the Torah, based on precise calculations of dates in the Tanakh, puts it at the year 2448. While this is a minor discrepancy, such temporal contradictions (including Jubilee’s vastly different dating for the Flood and the Tower of Babel) is probably another reason why Jubilees never made it into the official Jewish canon. It is a most fascinating book nonetheless.


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

Wasting Seed: Minor Taboo or Grave Sin?

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read about the incident of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda’s eldest son, Er, marries a beautiful woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er “was evil in the eyes of God, and God put him to death.” (Genesis 38:7) As was customary in those days, since Er died without a son, it was expected that his brother, Onan, would perform levirate marriage and take Tamar as his wife. As the Torah describes, the purpose of this is to essentially provide a sort of heir for his childless brother. Onan was happy to marry Tamar, but

knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother. And what he did was evil in the eyes of God, and He put him to death also. (Genesis 38:9-10)

As we know, Yehuda would end up being with Tamar himself, and out of that union would come Peretz, the ancestor of King David.

‘Judah and Tamar’

The big question is: what was it that Er and Onan did that was so despicable to God? The classic answer is that they wasted their seed (as the Torah states above), which is why they were punished so severely. This narrative is then used as proof from the Torah that wasting seed is among the gravest of prohibitions.

And yet, the Torah itself does not actually prohibit wasting seed anywhere, at least not explicitly. Considering how strictly the Sages spoke about not wasting seed, we might be surprised to find that it is not one of the 613 commandments. So, what is the true extent of this prohibition? Where did it come from? And what was really going on with Er and Onan?

A Closer Look at Er and Onan

While the Torah tells us that Er was evil in God’s eyes, it does not explain why. Many commentators (including Rashi and Rabbeinu Bechaye) assume that he must have been evil for the same reason his brother Onan was: for wasting seed. Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340) clarifies that the sin was not the act of wasting seed itself, but rather for an ulterior motive. Er did not want to impregnate Tamar so that her beauty would not be ruined. He wanted her solely for physical pleasure. This is what was despicable to God.

Similarly, a careful look at the Torah makes it clear that Onan’s sin was not wasting seed either. What the Torah says is that Onan did not want to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage. He avoided impregnating Tamar because he “knew the progeny would not be his”, and the reason he spilled his seed on the ground was “in order not to give seed to his brother”. The sin here was not the act of wasting seed, but rather disrespecting his own brother, and refusing to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage.

Such is the opinion of Tzror haMor (Rabbi Abraham Saba, 1440-1508), and we see similar comments by Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 1475-1550). Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) goes even further, saying that Onan was really out to increase his share of land, for if he would have fulfilled the mitzvah, the child would receive Er’s portion of land, and if not, then Onan would be the inheritor. From these commentaries, and the Torah’s own simple reading, we can definitively conclude that the sin was not the wasting of seed itself but the evil ulterior motives behind it, especially the disrespect for a brother.

All of this is right in line with the Torah’s persistent theme of brothers failing to love each other, starting with Cain and Abel and continuing through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Yehuda’s sons. The Torah takes every possible opportunity to remind us to love each other wholeheartedly (as we are all brothers), and that tragedies always befall the Jewish people when we lack brotherly love—as our Sages explicitly state countless times.

Going back to the subject at hand, nowhere else in the Torah is wasting seed an issue. The Torah does state that a man who has an “emission” is impure for purposes of going to the Temple. What he must do is bathe in water, and wait until the evening for the impurity to go away (Leviticus 15:16). No other punishment is prescribed, irrespective of why the man might have the emission.

Spilling Seed, or Spilling Blood?

It is in the Talmud where wasting seed takes on its grave overtones. The Sages compare one who wastes seed to a murderer, an idolater, and an adulterer (Niddah 13a-b). This is quite shocking, considering that murder, idolatry, and adultery are the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism. These are the things one must give up their life for in order to avoid, even if coerced. The Sages are equating wasting seed with the worst possible sins.

In the same pages, we read how Rav Yochanan holds that one who wastes seed “deserves death”. Interestingly, he bases himself on the verses in the Torah concerning the deaths of Er and Onan! Yet, as we’ve seen, their sin was not the act of wasting seed, but their evil ulterior motives. In reality, the Sages are hard-pressed to find a good source for the prohibition. They resort to various colourful interpretations of Scriptural verses in an attempt to illustrate the evils of wasting seed. For example, Isaiah 1:15 says “And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; when you make many prayers, I will not hear, [because] your hands are full of blood.” Rabbi Elazar says that “hands are full of blood” is referring to those who masturbate, since spilling seed is like spilling blood! This is far from the plain meaning of the verse, which is obviously talking about actual bloodshed.

We should keep in mind that in these Talmudic pages, the Sages are not just prohibiting masturbation or wasting seed, but even for a man to simply touch their “member”—even to urinate! “Rabbi Eliezer said: Whoever holds his member when he urinates is as though he had brought a flood on the world.” Rabbi Tarfon later adds that his hand should be cut off! It goes without saying that the Sages were exceedingly careful to avoid any sexual transgressions, and raised many “fences” to ensure that no one should even come close to sinning so gravely. We must remember that the Talmud often uses hyperbole to get a point across and it isn’t always wise to take statements literally. The Sages themselves question Rabbi Eliezer, and say that not holding one’s member would be very impractical, for “would not the spray splatter on his feet…?”

The point, rather, is to teach us that “such is the art of the evil inclination: Today it incites man to do one wrong thing, and tomorrow it incites him to worship idols and he proceeds to worship them.” (Niddah 13b) The Sages are specifically referring to one who fantasizes to “give himself an erection”, and that such a person “should be expelled”. After all, the yetzer hara works in such a way that it gets a person to make a tiny sin, and slowly leads them to greater transgressions. It might start with a small thought, grow into a consuming fantasy, and eventually leads one to grossly misbehave. In short, the fear is that a person will get accustomed to bad habits, and it will end up leading to more severe transgressions.

Halacha & Kabbalah of Spilling Seed

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies as law the prohibition of wasting seed, whether with one’s partner or on their own (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 21:18):

It is forbidden to release semen wastefully. Therefore a person should not enter his wife and release outside of her… Those who release semen with their hands, beyond the fact that they commit a great transgression, a person who does this will abide under a ban of ostracism. Concerning them, it is said: “Your hands are filled with blood.” It is as if they killed a person.

The Rambam makes a distinction between a situation of husband and wife versus a man doing it on his own, which is far worse and likened to murder. Having said that, many other great authorities in Jewish law were more lenient when it comes to wasting seed, especially when the intention is not evil. The Rambam’s contemporary, Rabbi Yehuda haHasid (1150-1217), wrote in his Sefer Hasidim that while masturbation is forbidden, and requires a great deal of penance to repair, it is occasionally permitted if it will prevent a person from a more serious sin. On that note, the Rambam himself wrote elsewhere (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7:4) that wasting seed is not an explicit Torah prohibition, and carries no actual punishment of any kind. However, he writes in the same place that although many things are permitted when done consensually between husband and wife, it is nonetheless important to be exceedingly modest when it comes to sexuality.

The later Kabbalists understood that the Torah carries no explicit punishment for wasting seed, but found an allusion to a more mystical punishment. They taught that wasting seed produces banim shovavim, literally “wayward children” (a term that comes from Jeremiah 3:14 and 3:22). These impure spirits—potential souls that are brought into this world without a body—attach to a man’s neck and cause him great damage, and can harm his children, too. There is no doubt that the Rambam, being a strict rationalist and staying away from anything “Kabbalistic”, would disagree with this approach. The Rambam did not believe in demons or evil spirits, and refused to accept the validity of many (if not all) Kabbalistic ideas and practices.

The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), perhaps the greatest of Kabbalists, was a major proponent of the banim shovavim notion. Since his time, it has become customary in some communities to focus on purifying from sexual sins and from wasted seed during the weeks when we read the consecutive parashas of Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, and Mishpatim. Since the initials of these parashas spell “shovavim”, it is thought to be an auspicious time for such repentance. Yet even the Arizal taught that wasting seed is primarily a problem when a person does so on their own, for selfish, lustful reasons. If one is married, and there is genuine loving intimacy between husband and wife, the prohibition is no longer so clear cut. (See, for example, Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Noach).

Indeed, many authorities were lenient with regards to wasting seed in the context of a husband and wife being together—as long as they are not like Er or Onan. If the intention is pure, and the couple has fulfilled the mitzvah of procreation (so they are obviously not trying to avoid having children), then occasionally wasting seed is permissible. Among those that held this opinion include the tosafist Rabbi Isaac ben Shmuel (c. 1115-1184, in his comments to Yevamot 34b) and the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631, in his comments on Nedarim 20a).

In fact, even the Arizal taught that, in certain special cases, wasted seed can serve a positive purpose. In Sha’ar HaGilgulim (ch. 26), we read how the ten drops of wasted seed that unintentionally emerged out of Joseph (as per the famous Midrash) resulted in levushim, protective “garments” for the soul. The seed wasted indirectly by tzaddikim may similarly produce such protective garments, especially when it happens during proper, loving, holy zivug (union) between husband and wife. Such union, while not fruitful in this world, corresponds to “heavenly unions” that are spiritually fruitful. It is important to repeat that this entails being an actual tzaddik—being righteous, just, observant, modest, humble, selfless—and being intimate in a holy, loving, kosher, monogamous union.

On that note, it is worth mentioning that a couple that is childless, or already pregnant, is absolutely allowed to continue to be intimate, and this is not at all considered “wasting seed”. (The Talmud adds that intimacy during the third trimester is particularly healthy for both mother and baby, see Niddah 31a.) At the very start of Sha’ar HaMitzvot, the Arizal explains that such unions might not produce physical children, but they produce many spiritual children. This is one meaning for the verse in the Torah that says Abraham and Sarah “made souls” in Charan (Genesis 12:5)—although they were physically childless, they had produced many souls in Heaven, and these souls later came down into human form. In fact, there are those who say these souls are given to converts, who receive a Jewish soul upon their successful conversion. The souls that Abraham and Sarah made all those years come down into the bodies of converts, which is the deeper reason why all converts are referred to as “ben Avraham” and “bat Sarah”.

To summarize and conclude, the issue of spilled seed is indeed a serious one, and should not be taken lightly. There is room to be lenient in certain situations, such as a righteous married couple who already has multiple children, or a young, unmarried gentleman, whose frustration might reach a point where he is led to worse sins. The Sages recognized how incredibly difficult the latter case can be, and stated that a young bachelor who lives in the city and can still hold himself back from sexual sins is so praiseworthy that God personally calls out his name in Heaven every day (Pesachim 113a). Rabbi Chiya, meanwhile, said that it is best to stay married no matter what, and to always treat one’s wife exceedingly well—even if she is the worst possible wife—because wives “save us from sin” (Yevamot 63a). It is fitting to end with another famous adage from the Talmud (Sukkah 52b): אבר קטן יש לו לאדם מרעיבו שבע משביעו רעב “There is a small organ in a man’s body—if he starves it, he is satisfied; if he satisfies it, he starves.”