Tag Archives: Rambam

The Kabbalah of Kippah

‘Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell

This week’s parasha, Balak, recounts the attempt of two great sorcerers, Balak and Bilaam, to curse the people of Israel. Balak was a Moabite king who worried that Israel would conquer his land. He hired the famous gentile prophet and wizard Bilaam to curse the nation. Bilaam knew he would be unable to do this, for he can only pronounce what God desires. And so, each time Bilaam sought to pronounce a curse, a blessing emerged from his mouth instead. Balak tried several magical tricks and sacrificial rituals to change that, to no avail. Israel remained blessed.

The persistent motif in this parasha is the eye, or vision more broadly. Right from the beginning, we read:

Balak the son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites… He sent messengers to Bilaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of his people, to call for him, saying, “A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the eye of the land, and they are stationed opposite me.” (Numbers 22:2-5)

This kind of language permeates the entire parasha, and is perhaps most concentrated in the following passage:

Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of God rested upon him. He took up his parable and said, “The word of Bilaam the son of Beor and the word of the man with an open eye. The word of the one who hears God’s sayings, who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen yet with open eyes. (Numbers 24:1-4)

Bilaam had a special “open eye” for seeing divine visions. Interestingly, although translated as “open eye”, the Hebrew is actually shtum or stum ‘ayin, which can be read as “closed eye”. Rashi comments on this dichotomy, bringing sources that favour both translations, with the possibility that Bilaam was blind in one eye or was missing an eye. The deeper mystical meaning is referring to an inner, spiritual eye. Aderet Eliyahu (the commentary of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) states that this refers to seeing with divine inspiration. The Torah is alluding to an eye that is covered up, not visible on the face of a person. This eye is often referred to as the “third eye”.

When worn properly, the head tefillin points directly to the pineal gland inside the brain.

In Kabbalah, the third eye is associated with the head tefillin, which the Torah commands be placed “between your eyes”. Despite this, we do not put the tefillin between our eyes, but atop the head, above the hairline. This alludes to the fact that the head tefillin is about opening up our third eye, buried deeper in our brains. Science has shed some incredible light on this subject.

Deep in our brains is a small organ called the pineal gland. It releases the sleep hormone melatonin, and has also been found to contain DMT (dimethyltryptamine), a chemical that causes hallucinations and visions. Some say this chemical generates our dreams, or at least plays some role in dreaming. In South American shamanic rituals, a special tea (called Ayahuasca) with a high concentration of DMT is brewed and drunk in a religious ceremony to open one’s eyes to spiritual visions (and apparently works extremely well).

Pineal gland atop a bird’s brain.

If we can point to any part of the brain as being a “receiver” for prophecy, it would certainly be the mysterious pineal gland. Most intriguingly, scientists have found that the pineal gland contains photoreceptor cells similar to those in our eyes! (In animals, it rests higher in the brain and appears to respond to light, and may even be involved in processes like bird migration.) For these reasons, many have identified the pineal gland with the mystical third eye described in ancient mystical texts.

One of these ancient texts is the Zohar, on this week’s parasha. The section on Balak is possibly the longest in the entire Zohar. It includes what some identify as a separate mystical text that was only later incorporated into the Zohar, called the Yenuka, or “Child”. It describes a dialogue that Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yehuda had with a particularly precocious child. The child reveals some incredible mystical secrets, and one of these is regarding the inner eye. (For more on these secrets, and to the identity of this mysterious child, see the second edition of Mayim Achronim Chova – Secrets of the Last Waters.) The Zohar (III, 187a) reads:

[The Child] opened the discussion with the verse: “The wise man, his eyes are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness…” [Ecclesiastes 2:14] Why does it say the eyes are in his head? Are the eyes of a man in any other place? …Rather, the meaning of the verse is this: it has been taught that a man should not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. What is the reason? Since the Shekhinah rests upon the head, and a wise man’s thoughts and visions are in his head…

King Solomon alluded to the third eye when he said a wise man’s eyes are in his head and show him the light. The meaning of his words are quite clear, for he didn’t mean that a fool is literally blind, rather that he is lacking spiritual vision, which a wise man has. The Zohar comments by first stating that it is obvious the eyes are in (or on) the head. What one should understand is that contained within our heads are all of our holy thoughts and spiritual visions, imbued by God, and thus God’s divine presence, the Shekhinah, hovers over the head.

The Child goes on to state that a spiritual light emanates from the head of a righteous person, and he sees that light glowing upon the heads of Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yehuda. The Kabbalists associate that light with the two highest souls of a person, the Chayah and Yechidah. While the three lower souls (Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah) reside in the body, the higher souls exude outwards and hover over the body. (For more on this, see A Mystical Map of Your Soul.) This is why it is common to wear two head-coverings, for example a kippah and a hat, which is meant to “cover” the two higher souls. These souls are particularly roused during prayer, which is the deeper reason for having a kippah and a tallit over one’s head.

The Child alludes to a Talmudic teaching of Rav Huna, who said he never walked four cubits with an uncovered head because the Shekhinah hovered over it (Kiddushin 31a). Elsewhere in the Talmud, we learn that an astrologer told the mother of Rav Nahman bar Yitzchak that he would become a thief, so his mother made him wear a head-covering his whole life to ensure “the fear of Heaven should always be upon him” (Shabbat 156b). It worked, and Rav Nahman became a great rabbi instead. Some cite this as the source for calling a kippah a yarmulke, meaning “fear of the King”. A kippah should remind a person at all times Who is above them.

Despite such teachings, wearing a kippah at all times was not a halachic requirement in those days. This was especially the case for an unmarried man, as we learn from another passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29b):

Rav Ḥisda would praise Rav Hamnuna to Rav Huna by saying that he is a great man. Rav Huna said to him: “When he comes to you, send him to me.” When Rav Hamnuna came before him, Rav Huna saw that he did not wear a head-covering. Rav Huna said to him: “What is the reason that you do not wear a head-covering?” Rav Hamnuna said to him: “The reason is that I am not married.” Rav Huna turned his face away from him, and he said to him: “See to it that you do not see my face until you marry.”

The story comes full circle with Rav Hamnuna. The Zohar states that the mysterious Child—who taught the secret of the inner eye and the kippah—is none other than the son of Rav Hamnuna Saba (“the Elder”). Although it isn’t entirely certain if these are the same Rav Hamnunas, it appears that this is indeed the case. Rav Huna (who was so careful with a head-covering) was the one who taught and made sure that Rav Hamnuna would get married and cover his head. The child that resulted from that marriage was the angelic child, who went on to reveal the secret of the head-covering.

It was Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), a great mystic in his own right, who incorporated this practice as law in the Shulkhan Aruch, stating that one should not walk four cubits with his head uncovered (Orach Chaim 2:6). In previous centuries, wearing a kippah or head-covering was only mandatory during prayer (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Ahava, Hilkhot Tefilah 5:5). Even in the centuries following Rabbi Karo, there were those that maintained wearing a kippah all the times was not a strict requirement but a middat hassidut, an extra measure of piety. (Such was the view of the Chida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azzulai, 1724-1806; as well as the Vilna Gaon, and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888).

Today, it has become accepted for a Jewish man to wear a kippah all the time, and for good reason. It is a mark of modesty, and a symbol of one’s Jewishness. It reminds a person of the Heavens above, and saves them from sin. It (hopefully) motivates a person to do Kiddush Hashem. It reminds a person of their higher souls, and the holy Shekhinah resting upon them. And it serves to stimulate and guard one’s “third eye”, one’s inner vision, and those holy Torah thoughts residing in the mind.

Do Men Have More Mitzvot than Women?

This week’s parasha, Tazria, begins by describing the rituals that a mother must perform upon giving birth to a new child. If the child is male, the mother is considered “impure” for seven days following her delivery, and then spends an additional 33 days in purification. For a female child, the durations are doubled, with the mother “impure” for 14 days, and purifying for another 66 days. Why is the duration of purification for a female doubly longer than a male?

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

The apocryphal Book of Jubilees (3:8) suggests an interesting idea: Adam was made on the Sixth Day of Creation but, apparently, Eve wasn’t made until a whole week after. This is why a mother of a male child is impure for a week, but a mother of a female child for two weeks! Jubilees also holds that Adam was only brought into Eden forty days after being created, while Eve was brought in after eighty days. This is why a mother of a male child needs a total of forty days to purify, and a mother of a female child needs eighty days. Of course, Rabbinic tradition rejects the Book of Jubilees, and it is accepted that Adam and Eve were both created on the Sixth Day, and were in Eden from the beginning.

Commenting on this week’s parasha, the Zohar (III, 43b) states that it takes a soul 33 days to settle in the body. This is primarily referring to the new soul that enters a newborn baby, as it takes time for the ethereal soul to get used to its descent into a physical world. The Zohar doesn’t add too much more on this, but we might assume that, based on the words of the Torah, it takes a male soul 33 days to settle, and a female soul 66 days to settle. At the same time, the Zohar may be referring to the soul of the mother, too, as she is the one that spends 33 or 66 days in purification. As we’ve explained in the past, the severing of the mother’s direct connection to her child distresses her soul for 33 or 66 days following childbirth.

Whatever the case, the implication is that a female soul is somehow greater than a male soul. It has more spiritual power, taking longer to settle. The notion that female souls are greater is found throughout Jewish texts, especially mystical ones. Sefer HaBahir, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic texts, states that the female soul is the most beautiful of all, and an aspect of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence (chs. 173-175). It explicitly makes clear that life on Earth would be impossible without the life-giving mother, who in this regard is much closer to God.

On that note, it has been said that God created the world sequentially from simple to complex, starting with the basic elements: light, air, water, earth; progressing to plants, then simple animals, then mammals, then man, and finally woman. The woman is the last of God’s creation, and therefore the most intricate and the most refined. It may be because of this that the Arizal taught that while male souls typically reincarnate to rectify themselves, female souls rarely if ever reincarnate at all (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 9).

It is important to mention here that we are speaking of female souls, not necessary to all women. The Arizal (as well as the Zohar cited above) speak of the possibility of female souls in male bodies, or male souls in female bodies. And it should also be mentioned that this does not necessarily affect the body’s sexuality. A “female” soul in a male body can still very much be a heterosexual male, and vice versa. (For more on this, see Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s lecture here on the female soul of the forefather Isaac, as well as the prophets Samuel, Jonah, and Habakkuk.)

There are a number of consequences to the greater souls of females. For one, it gives them binah yeterah, an “extra understanding” sometimes referred to as “women’s intuition” (Niddah 45b). This is one reason why the women of the Exodus generation, for example, did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf, nor the sin of the Spies. In fact, the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, 1550-1619, on Numbers 13:2) states that, had Moses sent female spies, there would have been no problem at all!

On the other hand, a more elevated soul and an extra depth of understanding means a greater sensitivity to the world, which makes women generally less prone to violence and drug abuse, but significantly more prone to depression and anxiety. The greater female soul has the amazing potential to bring life, yet simultaneously (to balance the equation) the potential for severe destruction, “more bitter than death”, to borrow from King Solomon in Kohelet 7:26. This is symbolically reflected in the menstrual cycle, where a lack of conception of life necessarily results in the shedding of blood, a “minor death” that is then rectified in the living waters of the mikveh.

Finally, a greater soul means that women require slightly less mitzvot than men. After all, the “mitzvot were given only in order that human beings might be purified by them… their purpose is to refine…” (Beresheet Rabbah 44:1) A more refined female soul does not need the same mitzvot that a male soul does. Unfortunately, this has sometimes been a point of contention in modern times. Yet, upon closer examination, we see that the differences in mitzvot between men and women are actually minimal and, contrary to the general belief, there is a perfect balance between those mitzvot done exclusively by men and those done exclusively by women.

“Time-Bound” Mitzvot?

The general rule is that, at least in principle, women are exempt from any mitzvah that can only be done at a particular time. This includes mitzvot like prayer, tefillin, and tzitzit. However, in practical terms we see that this “rule” isn’t really a thing, and there are many time-bound mitzvot that women are obligated in. For example, women are obligated in eating matzah on Pesach, and fasting on Yom Kippur, even though they are time-bound mitzvot.

The Mishnah (Berakhot 3:3) states that women are exempt from reciting Shema, yet it is quite normal for women today to say Shema twice daily just as men do. The same Mishnah exempts women from tefillin, but the Talmud (Eruvin 96a) states that a certain woman named Michal (presumably the daughter of King Saul and wife of King David) did wear tefillin and no one made a big deal out of it. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Kiddushin 34a) states that women are exempt from tefillin for the same reason that they are exempt from Torah study. Today, of course, it has become normal for women to study Torah, too. In fact, women always studied at least some Torah throughout history, and the Shulchan Arukh requires women to recite the blessing on Torah study just as men do, implying that they are obligated in Torah study as well (Orach Chaim 47:14).

Interestingly, there was one opinion in ancient times that while women are exempt from sitting in a sukkah, shaking the lulav, and donning tefillin, they are not exempt from tzitzit (Tosefta Kiddushin 1:8). This may be why the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies as law that while women are not obligated to wear tzitzit, they may do so if they wish (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tzitzit 3:9). In the same place, the Rambam actually permits women to do any other mitzvot that they are not obligated in if they want to, but without reciting a blessing.

Another such mitzvah is hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, which women were traditionally exempt from. By the time of the Shulkhan Aruch, though, we see it state that it is proper for women to hear the shofar, and even for a man who has already fulfilled the mitzvah to blow the shofar again for a woman who hasn’t yet fulfilled the mitzvah (Orach Chaim 589:6). In a bit of irony, today it is normal to see traditional Jewish women hear the shofar and shake the lulav, but not wear tzitzit or tefillin, even though our ancient sources suggest that it once may have been the opposite!

The Connection Between Tefillin and Mezuza

There is an intriguing connection between tefillin and mezuza, a mitzvah which women are obligated in (Berakhot 3:3). Both involve parchments in boxes, and the Torah twice commands the mitzvah of tefillin and mezuza together (as we read in the first two paragraphs of Shema). It was believed then, as it is now, that mezuza and tefillin both confer spiritual protection on their users. Some hold that the letter shin customarily written on the mezuza box, and the letters shin, dalet, and yud written on the mezuza scroll stand for shomer delatot Israel, God “guards the doors of Israel”. Similarly, the head-tefillin box has a shin written on it, too, and offers spiritual protection for its wearer. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe famously launched his “tefillin campaign” shortly before the Six-Day War in an effort to strengthen Israel.)

We know that in ancient times men wore their tefillin all day long, and not just for morning prayers as we do today. The reason was that men needed that spiritual protection throughout the day as they were going about their business. In light of this, it has been said that women, who were generally at home, did not need to wear tefillin since they were protected by the mezuzas of the house!

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan teaches something similar in his book, Tefillin. He points out that the tefillin boxes are called batim, literally “houses”. The tefillin is like a mini-house for a man. They are a man’s spiritual home. The woman, meanwhile, is naturally more concerned with the physical home. We might add that tefillin was once a “piece” of the home that a man could take with him wherever he went, to extend that protection in his journeys.

Male vs. Female Mitzvot

In Temple times, women were also exempt from making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year during the holidays, but were required to appear every seven years during Hak’hel. A woman would bring a sacrifice just as a man would, but the Sages state she would not do semicha, where the person bringing the sacrifice lays their hands, or leans, on the animal.

So far, all that’s been discussed is positive commandments, of which there are a total of 248. When it comes to the 365 negative commandments, the Sages state that women are obligated in all but two: shaving, and for daughters of priests to be near dead bodies. (For a deeper look as to the connection between not shaving and the dead, see ‘Shaving and the Mystical Power of Beards’ in Garments of Light.)

In his Sefer HaMitzvot, the Rambam lists the mitzvot that women are obligated in, even though they are time-bound mitzvot: Kiddush on Shabbat, fasting on Yom Kippur, and eating matzah (along with the Rabbinic mitzvot of drinking four cups of wine and singing Hallel on Pesach), observing the holidays, Hak’hel, korban Pesach, Chanukah candles, and hearing the Purim Megillah. The Rambam also lists the 14 mitzvot that women today (or at least, in his day) are exempt from: Shema, head tefillin and arm tefillin (which are technically counted as two separate mitzvahs), tzitzit, Sefirat haOmer, sukkah, lulav, shofar, studying Torah, writing a Torah scroll, reciting the priestly blessing, having children, brit milah, and the mitzvah of a man gladdening his wife following their wedding and staying with her for an entire year uninterrupted.

As we have already seen, reciting Shema, sitting in a sukkah, shaking lulav, hearing the shofar, and studying Torah have all become women’s mitzvot, too. Writing a Torah scroll is not something any average Jew does today, whether man or woman, and reciting the priestly blessing is only relevant to a minority of kohanim. The others that the Rambam lists are actually subject to rabbinic debate. Some say women are obligated in having children, and even though the Torah phrases the mitzvah of marriage as being incumbent specifically upon men, women are obligated in marriage, too. This was, for example, the opinion of the Ran (Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, 1320-1376, on Kiddushin 16b). Besides, it is impossible for a man to marry or have children without a woman, so the mitzvah can only be fulfilled with them together as a couple. Sefirat HaOmer is debatable, too, with some saying women are obligated, including the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, on Kiddushin 34a).

With regards to brit milah, a woman obviously cannot have this mitzvah done. There is no need to because women are considered already “circumcised”, at least in a spiritual sense, straight from birth! (Avodah Zarah 27a) Now, the mitzvah is really incumbent upon a father to have his son circumcised, though a mother can certainly step in if necessary, just as we saw with Moses and Tzipporah (Exodus 4:25-26).

At the end, we are essentially left with just two mitzvot that today are considered strictly for men: tefillin and tzitzit. On the other hand, there are two mitzvot which are today associated most with Jewish women: lighting Shabbat candles, and immersion in a mikveh. If we look a little closer, we’ll find that the two “male” mitzvot and the two “female” mitzvot are intricately related.

Embracing God

The major purpose of wearing tefillin is, as the Torah clearly states, to serve as a sign (ot in Hebrew) of our Covenant with God, and as a symbol of our devotion to Him. Shabbat is similarly described as an ot, a sign between Hashem and us. In this way, tefillin and Shabbat are highly related. The Sages explain that this is why wearing tefillin on Shabbat is unnecessary: Shabbat already serves as the ot of the day, so there is no need for another ot. Tefillin is strictly a weekday sign.

Interestingly, Shabbat is always described in feminine terms: it is a “queen” and a “bride”. While the six days of the week have masculine energy, the Sabbath is entirely feminine energy. The Kabbalists relate them to the seven lower Sefirot, the first six being the masculine ones (called dchura, or duchra, “male” in Aramaic), and the seventh, Malkhut, being the feminine, nukva. It is therefore fitting that it is specifically women that light Shabbat candles to usher in the spirit of the day. The Shabbat candles themselves serve as a physical sign of the spiritual Sabbath. In this way, they perfectly parallel tefillin. Men tie two tefillin boxes during the six “masculine” days of the week as a sign, and then women light two candles as the same sign for the seventh “feminine” day of the week. Together, the couple maintains that symbolic and spiritual relationship with Hashem, each on the days that are more spiritually fitting for their souls.

The same is true for the parallel mitzvot of tzitzit and mikveh. When men wrap themselves in a tallit, the idea is to feel the “embrace” of God, so to speak. We affirm this very notion when putting the tallit on, as it is customary to say the verse: “How precious is Your lovingkindness, God! And people take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.” (Psalms 36:8) The tallit is compared to God’s “wings”, and we take shelter in His loving embrace.

The mikveh is the same, a mitzvah in which a woman can completely immerse in, and be “bathed” in Godliness. In several places in the Tanakh, God is actually called “Mikveh Israel”, as the Prophet said: “Hashem is Mikveh Israel; all that forsake You shall be ashamed; they that depart from You shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken God, the fountain of living waters.” (Jeremiah 17:13) God Himself is the fountain of living waters, mekor mayim chayim, in an explicit Scriptural reference to the living waters of the mikveh. In this way, women “embrace” God in the waters of the mikveh, similar to the way (and in a much more powerful way) that men “embrace” God wrapped in a tallit.

To conclude, while there are certainly numerous details of halacha that pertain specifically to men or women alone, when it comes to God’s mitzvot in particular there is a wonderful balance in what is commanded to women and men. Ultimately, the Sages teach that any person is only half of a human being (Yevamot 63a), for it is only when man and woman unite that their soul is complete, and only as one can they properly fulfill all the mitzvot, and merit to have the greatest Godly presence in their lives.

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.”