Tag Archives: Sha’ar HaMitzvot

Shehakol: the Mystical Chemistry of Water

This week’s parasha, Ekev, begins by stating that if the Jewish people observe God’s laws, He will in turn bless us tremendously. The first aliyah ends with the famous verse “And you will eat and be satiated and bless God…” The Zohar (Ra’aya Mehemna) begins its commentary on the parasha by explaining the meaning of a berakhah, “blessing”. It explains that when we recite a blessing, beginning with the words Barukh atah Adonai, it does not mean that we are blessing God, rather that God is the source of all blessing. We derive our blessings from Him.

The next words Eloheinu melekh haolam secretly allude to the fact that, Continue reading

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.”

How Many Soulmates Do You Have?

An 1873 illustration of King Josiah (Yoshiyahu) listening to a reading of the Torah

In this week’s parasha, Shoftim, the Torah relates the laws pertaining to Jewish kings. According to the Torah, the king of the Jews is not, and should not be, like the king of other nations. His primarily role is not to be a dictator or a conqueror. Rather, he must act like a divine messenger of God, and his duty is to ensure the observance of Torah law throughout the Holy Land. This is why we read across the Tanakh how the best Jewish kings—like Hezekiah and Josiah—were the ones that expunged idolatry from Israel and restored proper spirituality.

It is also why we see on several occasions in the Book of Shoftim (not to be confused with this week’s parasha of the same name) that the time before kings was lawless: “…there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) The Jewish king, therefore, is like God’s representative on Earth. In this regard, he is likened to an angel, which is why the term for a king, melekh (מלך), is nearly identical and shares the same root with the word for an angel, malakh (מלאך).

Not surprisingly, the Jewish king is held to a very high standard. The Torah (Deuteronomy 17:16-20) tells us that he:

may not acquire many horses for himself… And he shall not take many wives for himself, and his heart must not turn away, and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself. And it will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll, before the priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear Hashem, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them, so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, in order that he may prolong [his] days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel.

The Talmud discusses the finer points of these rules. One of the questions the Sages ask is: How many wives is too many? (Sanhedrin 21a) The Mishnah states the maximum is eighteen wives. Rav Yehuda then opines that a king can take more wives, as long as they will not “turn his heart astray”. Rabbi Shimon insists that even a single wife might turn her husband’s heart astray, and thus, the king must not take more than eighteen “even if they be women like Abigail”. Abigail, of course, was one of the righteous wives of King David, who is listed among the seven female prophetesses of Judaism.

In fact, the Talmud derives the maximum of eighteen wives from the case of King David:

Whence do we deduce the number eighteen? From the verse, “And unto David were sons born in Hebron; and his firstborn was Amnon of Ahinoam the Jezraelite; the second, Khilav of Abigail, the [former] wife of Naval the Carmelite; the third, Avshalom the son of Maacah; and the fourth, Adoniyah the son of Hagit; and the fifth, Shefatiah the son of Avital; and the sixth, Ithream of Eglah, David’s wife. These were born to David in Hebron.” (II Samuel 3:2-5) And of them the Prophet [Nathan] said: And if that were too little, then would I add unto thee the like of these, and the like of these” (II Samuel 12:8), each “these” implying six, which, with the original six, makes eighteen in all.

Scripture tells us that David had six wives while he reigned from Hebron during his first seven years: Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Hagit, Avital, and Eglah. When his court prophet Nathan recounted how he had once blessed him, he said he would multiply the king’s wealth (and wives) kahena v’kahena, more and more “like these”. This implies that David would have, or potentially could have, eighteen wives.

The Talmud continues to cite the opinion of Ravina, who believed that each kahena refers not to six, but twelve. He holds that David had six wives, the blessing was to double that to twelve, and “if that were too little”—as Nathan said—then he would multiple them kahena v’kahena. Thus, Ravina reasons that the maximum is twenty-four wives, not eighteen. The Talmud admits that there is an alternate Mishnaic teaching that 24 is the maximum, and yet another teaching that the maximum is 48. The latter comes from the fact that there is a letter vav in the term, meaning 24 and another 24! Nonetheless, the accepted tradition is a maximum of 18 wives, and no more.

The Talmud interestingly points out a potential flaw: wasn’t David also married to Michal, the daughter of King Saul, while in Hebron? The Sages conclude that Michal is the same person as Eglah. They then raise the following issue: how could Michal be Eglah if the Tanakh states Michal was childless while Eglah gave David a son? In a classic Talmudic interpretation, the Sages take the verse “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child until the day of her death” (II Samuel 6:23) to mean that she did not have children until her death, and died in childbirth. So, she finally had a child on the day of her death.

The Kabbalah of Soulmates

The Arizal gives a deeper, mystical answer to why the maximum number of wives for a king is eighteen. The implications of his teachings are not just relevant to kings, but to every Jew. While we generally think of a person as having a single soulmate, the Arizal explains that a person actually has eighteen soulmates (see, for example, Sha’ar HaMitzvot on this week’s parasha). Why would a person need eighteen soulmates?

The Talmud (Sotah 2a) famously states that “forty days before conception a Bat Kol [Heavenly Voice] proclaims: the daughter of so-and-so is destined for so-and-so…” The same passage states that pairing a person with their soulmate is “as difficult as the Splitting of the Sea”. The Midrash adds to this that ever since the Splitting of the Sea, God is busy making matches between people (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 2:4). The Sages conclude that a person’s first match is pre-destined, while a second or subsequent match (if the first marriage fell through) becomes as difficult as splitting a sea.

The central issue that all of this rests on is free will. While a person does have a perfect, pre-destined match, free will can very easily get in the way and ruin things. For example, person A is destined to be with person B, but A makes some really poor decisions in life and ends up in a bad place (or dead). Does that mean B is now condemned to spend the rest of their life without their rightful soulmate? Must they now hopelessly struggle in search of the “right one” or be miserable in a series of failed relationships for the rest of their life, through no fault of their own? Surely, the Most Merciful God would not allow this to happen. And so, He spends all of His time “making matches”, finding alternate soulmates.

For this reason, a person has up to 18 different soulmates designated for them. If, due to free will, the match of A and B doesn’t work, there is always A and C. And if C, too, decides to move to the other side of the world, there’s a D behind them. Granted, the Arizal puts the soulmates in hierarchical fashion: D is not as good as C, nor is C as good as B—but they are all matching souls for A nonetheless. Of course, each of B, C, and D have 18 of their own soulmates, so one can see how complicated this matchmaking game becomes—“as difficult as the Splitting of the Sea”. The Arizal notes that 18 is a maximum, and not necessarily will there be 18 soulmates for a person alive all at once. Elsewhere, the Arizal explains that a person who does not find one of their soulmates will reincarnate to try again in a future life, as might one who needs to unite with a better soulmate, higher up on the chain of 18.

This brings us back to the first question: why is a king allowed up to, but no more than, 18 wives? A king, like every person, has up to 18 soulmates. He may choose to seek out and find all 18 of them, to unite with all of his soulmates. However, he must not take even a single wife more, for a nineteenth wife would certainly not be a soulmate. A king should not be taking a wife or concubine solely for pleasure. He may have more than one (and this may even be a political necessity), but only on the condition that she is one of his soulmates anyway.

The Kabbalah of David and Batsheva

The above discussion helps to explain the Talmudic dictum that one who believes David sinned with Batsheva is mistaken (Shabbat 56a). Recall that Batsheva was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s generals. When Uriah was away in battle, David spotted Batsheva bathing and ended up sleeping with her. She would become pregnant, and to hide the sin, David ultimately placed Uriah in a situation where he would die in battle.

‘David and Goliath’ by Gustave Doré

From a mystical perspective, Batsheva was one of David’s 18 soulmates. In fact, she was his #1, and the two had been matched by God all the way back in the “six days of Creation” (Sanhedrin 107a). The Midrash relates that it was David’s own hubris that prevented him from marrying her. When David had defeated Goliath, he wanted (or needed) to decapitate the giant with his own sword. At the time, Uriah the Hittite happened to be the attendant of Goliath. David promised Uriah the best woman in Israel if Uriah would only provide him with Goliath’s sword. Uriah did so. He later became a righteous convert, and one of David’s greatest warriors. (This is why he is called a Hittite, for he was not originally Jewish.)

At the same time that David made the promise to Uriah, God made a decree in Heaven: Because of David’s haughty and immodest offer to distribute the daughters of Israel, God will mete out his punishment by giving away his very own soulmate to Uriah! What David did with Batsheva was certainly a sin, and the Talmud (ibid.) recounts how severely he was punished, including six months of intense leprosy in addition to the punishments already enumerated in Scripture. Yet, Batsheva was his rightful soulmate, and would go on to produce his rightful heir, King Solomon. The Talmud concludes that David simply rushed to be with her. Uriah was destined to die soon enough anyway, and then David could marry Batsheva with no issues.

The Kabbalists see David and Batsheva rushing to be with each other as a replay of Adam and Eve rushing to consume the Forbidden Fruit. Had Adam and Eve waited until Shabbat, they would have been permitted to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. David and Batsheva, too, needed only to wait a little longer. The connection between the two couples is deeper than that, for David and Batsheva were none other than the reincarnations of Adam and Eve. They had the opportunity to complete a great tikkun, a rectification for that primordial sin. (In some ways, so does every young couple that must wait until marriage to be intimate in holiness.) Alas, they failed, and the same souls will return one last time in Mashiach and his wife to finally fulfil the task.

(For more on the Adam-David-Mashiach connection, see here.)