In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we read about the five daughters of Tzlafchad, named Machlah, Noa, Chaglah, Milkah, and Tirzah. After the partitioning of the Land of Israel, the daughters approached Moses with a complaint. Because their family only has girls, and no boys, the daughters worried about what would happen to their father’s land and inheritance. Moses took the case up to God, who answered that daughters are able to inherit just as sons are in such situations. This is one example in the Torah of what might today be described as “gender equality”. The Torah (and Judaism more broadly) is sometimes criticized for its apparent gender inequality. One of the most common points of contention today is that blessing in Birkot HaShachar where men thank God for “not making me a woman”. Traditionally, women recite the blessing that thanks God “for making me kirtzono”, loosely translated as “like His will” Where did these blessings come from and what do they really mean?
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.
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.”
This week’s parasha is Toldot, which begins:
And these are the genealogies [toldot] of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac. And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca… for a wife. And Isaac prayed to Hashem opposite his wife, because she was barren, and Hashem accepted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived.
The Torah explicitly juxtaposes Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca with Isaac’s successful prayer. One of the Torah’s central principles of interpretation is that when two ideas or passages are placed side by side, there must be an intrinsic connection between them. What is the connection between marriage and prayer?
Another central principle of interpretation is that when a word or concept appears for the first time in the Torah, its context teaches the very epitome of that word or concept. The first time that the word “love” is used between a man and woman in the Torah is with regards to Isaac and Rebecca, and the two thus represent the perfect marital bond (a topic we’ve explored in the past; see: ‘Isaac and Rebecca: the Secret to Perfect Marriage’ in Garments of Light).
So, we see that Isaac and Rebecca were very successful in their love and marriage, and simultaneously very successful in their prayers. In fact, our Sages teach that when the Torah says “Isaac prayed… opposite his wife”, it means that the two prayed together in unison, and some even say they prayed while in a loving embrace, face-to-face, literally “opposite” one another. God immediately answered their prayers. What is the secret of Isaac and Rebecca’s success in love and prayer?
It is commonly (and wrongly) believed that prayer is about asking God for things. Not surprisingly, many people give up on prayer when they feel (wrongly) that God is not answering them, and not fulfilling their heartfelt requests. In reality, prayer is something quite different.
A look through the text of Jewish prayers reveals that there is very little requesting at all. The vast majority of the text is made up of verses of praise, gratitude, and acknowledgement. We incessantly thank God for all that He does for us, and describe over and over again His greatness and kindness. It is only after a long time spent in gratitude and praise that we have the Amidah, when we silently request 19 things from God (and can add some extra personal wishes, too). Following this, we go back to praise and gratitude to conclude the prayers.
Many (rightly) ask: what is the point of this repetitive complimenting of God? Does He really need our flattery? The answer is, of course, no, an infinite God does not need any of it. So why do we do it?
One answer is that it is meant to build within us an appreciation of God; to remind us of all the good that He does for us daily, and to shift our mode of thinking into one of being positive and selfless. Through this, we build a stronger bond with God, and remain appreciative of that relationship.
The exact same is true in marriage. Many go into marriage with the mindset of what they can get out of it. They are in a state of always looking to receive from their spouse. Often, even though they do receive a great deal from their partner, they become accustomed to it, and forget all the good that comes out of being married. They stop appreciating each other so, naturally, the marriage stagnates and the couple drifts apart.
Such a mindset must be altered. The dialogue should be like that of prayer: mostly complimenting, acknowledging, and thanking, with only a little bit of request. The Torah tells us that God created marriage so that man is not alone and has a helper by his side. The Torah says helper, not caretaker. We should appreciate every little bit that our spouses do, for without them in our lives we would be totally alone and would not even have that little bit. The Talmud (Yevamot 62a) tells a famous story of Rabbi Chiya, whose wife constantly tormented him and yet, not only did he not divorce her, but he would always bring her the finest goods. His puzzled students questioned him on this, to which he responded: “It is enough that they rear our children and save us from sin.”
A Kind Word
By switching the dialogue to one of positive words and gratitude, we remain both appreciative of the relationship, and aware of how much good we do receive from our other halves. Moreover, such positive words naturally motivate the spouse to want to do more for us, while constant criticism brings about the very opposite result.
Similarly, our Sages teach that when we constantly praise God and speak positively of Him, it naturally stirs up His mercy, and this has the power to avert even the most severe decrees upon us. We specifically quote this from Jeremiah (31:17-19) in our High Holiday prayers:
I have surely heard Ephraim wailing… Ephraim is my precious child; a child of delight, for as soon as I speak of him, I surely remember him still, and My heart yearns for him. I will surely have compassion for Him—thus said Hashem.
Ephraim is one of the Biblical names for the children of Israel, especially referring to the wayward Israelite tribes of northern Israel. Despite the waywardness, Ephraim’s cries to God spark God’s compassion and love for His people.
A kind, endearing word can go very far in prayer, as in marriage. The same page of Talmud cited above continues to say that Rav Yehudah had a horrible wife, too, yet taught his son that a man “who finds a wife, finds happiness”. His son, Rabbi Isaac, questioned him about this, to which Rav Yehudah said that although Isaac’s mother “was indeed irascible, she could be easily appeased with a kindly word.”
Judging the Self
The Hebrew word for prayer l’hitpalel, literally means “to judge one’s self”. Prayer has a much deeper purpose: it is a time to meditate on one’s inner qualities, both positive and negative, and to do what’s sometimes called a cheshbon nefesh, an “accounting of the soul”. Prayer is meant to be an experience of self-discovery. A person should not just ask things of God, but question why they are asking this of God. Do you really need even more money? What would you do with it? Might it actually have negative consequences rather than positive ones? Would you spend it on another nice car, or donate it to a good cause? Why do you need good health? To have the strength for ever more sins, or so that you can fulfill more mitzvot? Do you want children for your own selfish reasons or, like Hannah, to raise tzadikim that will rectify the world and infuse it with more light and holiness?
Prayer is not simply for stating our requests, but analyzing and understanding them. Through proper prayer, we might come to the conclusion that our requests need to be modified, or sometimes annulled entirely. And when finally making a request, it is important to explain clearly why you need that particular thing, and what good will come out of it.
Central to this entire process is personal growth and self-development. In that meditative state, a person should be able to dig deep into their psyche, find their deepest flaws, and resolve to repair them. In the merit of this, God may grant the person’s request. To paraphrase our Sages (Avot 2:4), when we align our will with God’s will, then our wishes become one with His wishes, and our prayers are immediately fulfilled.
Once more, the same is true in marriage. Each partner must constantly judge their performance, and measure how good of a spouse they have been. What am I doing right and what am I doing wrong? Where can I improve? How can I make my spouse’s life easier today? Where can I be more supportive? What exactly do I need from my spouse and why? In the same way that we are meant to align our will with God’s will, we must also align our will with that of our spouse.
The Torah commands that a husband and wife must “cleave unto each other and become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The two halves of this one soul must reunite completely. This is what Isaac and Rebecca did, so much so that they even prayed as one. In fact, Isaac and Rebecca were the first to perfectly fulfil God’s command of becoming one, and this is hinted to in the fact that the gematria of “Isaac” (יצחק) and “Rebecca” (רבקה) is 515, equal to “one flesh” (בשר אחד). More amazing still, 515 is also the value of “prayer” (תפלה). The Torah itself makes it clear that marital union and prayer are intertwined.
The last major aspect of Jewish prayer is confession. Following the verses of praise and the requests comes vidui, confessing one’s sins and genuinely regretting them. It is important to be honest with ourselves and admit when we are wrong. Among other things, this further instills within us a sense of humility. The Talmud (Sotah 5a) states with regards to a person who has an ego that God declares: “I and he cannot both dwell in the world.” God’s presence cannot be found around a proud person.
In marriage, too, ego has no place. It is of utmost significance to be honest and admit when we make mistakes. It is sometimes said that the three hardest words to utter are “I love you” and “I am sorry”. No matter how hard it might be, these words need to be a regular part of a healthy marriage’s vocabulary.
And more than just saying sorry, confession means being totally open in the relationship. There should not be secrets or surprises. As we say in our prayers, God examines the inner recesses of our hearts, and a couple must likewise know each other’s deepest crevices, for this is what it means to be one. In place of surreptitiousness and cryptic language, there must be a clear channel of communication that is always wide open and free of obstructions.
To summarize, successful prayer requires first and foremost a great deal of positive, praising, grateful language, as does any marriage. Prayer also requires, like marriage, a tremendous amount of self-analysis, self-discovery, and growth. And finally, both prayer and marriage require unfailing honesty, open communication, and forgiveness. In prayer, we make God the centre of our universe. In marriage we make our spouse the centre of our universe. In both, the result is that we ultimately become the centre of their universe, and thus we become, truly, one.