Sunday, March 5, 2017

Biblical Sources and the Story of Onan

It is always a challenge to figure out where to start when discussing a topic as vast as masturbation in Halachah, so the best approach is to start with the first major verses of the Torah that are relevant to the topic, the story of Onan in the Torah.  This is the first, and most explicit mention of the "destruction of seed" in the Torah, and any search for a biblical source for this prohibition has to start here.

I have found over the years that it is useful to divide any study of a parsha in the Torah into two distinct categories.  There is what I will call "parshanut"  and what I will call "halachic".  I know that many traditional sources like to discuss "pardes"  which divides the meaning of each pasuk into four categories Pshat - the simple meaning, "Remez" - the meanings that are only hinted at but not explicit, "derush" - usually moral messages one can derive from the verse, and "sod" - usually referring to hidden kabbalistic meanings.  However, I find that it is more useful to lump all of those four categories into one and call it "parshanut".  

Parshanut in my scheme refers to the entire body of literature that studies and explains the pasuk.  This encompasses a huge range of styles, traditions, and methods.  The range includes all the way from Lurianic Kabbalah to Rationalistic Rishonim to scientific and historical scholarship.

Halachic refers specifically to how a pasuk is used to derive practical Halachah.  This generally follows the familiar accepted pattern from the Talmudic interpretations to the rishonim, Rambam, acharonim, Tur, Shulchan  Aruch, poskim, she'elot v'teshuvot etc...

I am going to start with an analysis of the "parsha" of Onan from a parshanut perspective.  Obviously, it would be impossible to do a comprehensive treatment of this (or any) parsha in the Torah on this blog in a post like this.  However, I do hope to give a general taste of how this parsha has been and can be interpreted and explained from several major vantage points.  I will start of course, with basic p'shat.  By "p'shat" one means a simple reading of the text, according to the principle "ein mikrah yotzey midey peshuto".

The best treatment I have ever seen of this parsha from a "p'shat" perspective is found in the doctoral thesis of Shilo Pachter entitled "Shemirat HaBrit" and submitted December 2006.  I don't have an online link to this paper, which is recommended reading for anyone who wants to research this topic, but I can send a copy of her paper to anyone interested by email, so feel free to request it.

To summarize her approach, a reading of the parsha makes it clear that the Torah is trying to emphasize the importance of the continuation and perpetuation of the family's lineage.  The sin of Onan was clearly, according to the pasuk, due to the fact that he did not want to contribute to the perpetuation of his deceased brother's name.  He therefore "spilled his seed" instead of allowing Tamar to become pregnant.  The rest of the parsha continues with this theme, and demonstrates how God's plan to bring forth the future Kings of Israel, and indeed the Moshiach himself, continued through Yehuda and Tamar.  The sin of Onan then, according to p'shat, was that he did not want to do his part in the continuation of his family's name and mission.

Next I would like to mention the Kabbalistic approach to this parsha,  In this analysis, I do believe that this approach is particularly important.  That is because I believe that the influence of Kabbalah upon the development of the halachic approach to masturbation has been very influential.  As we continue to delve into this subject, I hope to demonstrate this.

The Kabbalistic approach obviously has gone through many iterations over the years, Lurianic Kabbalah, Hassidic approaches (both Chabad and "non-Chabad"), and other schools of Kabbalah.  However, they all begin with the foundation text of the Kabbalah, the Zohar.  So I will bring here my own translation of the Zohar's words on this parsha. By no means do I pretend to think that this constitutes anything close to a full analysis of the parsha of Onan in Kabbalistic sources.  However, I do believe that it will be exceedingly clear from the "get-go" how the Zohar, and almost all Kabbalistic works that follow on its heels, view the meaning of the sin of Onan. Here is my translation:
"Genesis 38:10 "and it was evil in the eyes of God, that which he (Onan) had done, and God killed him as well" ... and come and see, among all of the sins that one can contaminate himself with in this world, this sin is the one with which a person can contaminate himself the most, both in this world, and in the next world. One who spills his seed for waste,  and draws out his seed with his hand or leg and contaminates himself with it. as it states (Tehillim 5:5) "For you are not a God that desires wickedness, and evil does not reside with You" Therefore, such a person will never merit to see the "Atik Yomin" (the presence of God that the righteous will see in the next world), As it is written here "Evil does not reside with You" and it also states here that (Genesis 38:7) "and Er the first born of Yehuda was Evil in the eyes of God (here the Zohar is making the assumption that the sin of Er was the same as the sin of his younger brother Onan - which the Torah does not explicitly state, but the Zohar - and the Talmud as well as we shall see - make this assumption - RMH).  Regarding this it is also written, (Yeshayahu 1:15)  "Your hands are filled with blood"
The Zohar is making several assumptions and assertions that are by no means reflected in the text of the Torah, but it forms the basis of all subsequent Kabbalistically influenced understandings of this parsha.  The Zohar assumes that:

  1. The sin of Onan is the sin of "wasting seed" (as opposed to the sin of not wanting to perpetuate the family name or some other explanation)
  2. The sin of the older brother Er (which is not specified in the Torah) is also the sin of masturbation
The Zohar also makes the following assertions:
  1. The reason for the sin of masturbation is that it is akin to murder
  2. One who is guilty of masturbation has no portion in the World to Come
Needless to say, these assumptions and assertions are quite powerful. For those schools of Judaism that have been heavily influenced by the Zohar, which in many ways includes most of mainstream Halachic Judaism today, this has had a very strong influence on how masturbation is viewed and how the story of Onan is interpreted.

I would like to go back to the subject of P'shat now, but take it a little deeper.  While the Pachter thesis I mentioned takes the approach of an analysis of the text itself, obviously there is a vast and rich heritage of commentators who explain the text according to its simple meaning.  I think it is obvious to anyone who studies the Torah with the traditional commentators that each commentary has an approach that is variously influenced by many factors including, the Talmud. Midrash, Halacha, Various philosophical schools, Kabbalisitic, and other historical factors.  

Most well known and most influential of course is Rashi, who consistently uses the Talmud, Midrash, and Halacha in his explanations of P'shat.  Therefore, in the minds of most of the readers of this blog, Rashi's interpretation of this Parsha remains the most prominent explanation of the lessons of the story of Onan.

To summarize Rashi, the sin of Er was that he did not want his wife's beauty to be tarnished by pregnancy, and he therefore spilled his seed instead of engaging in natural intercourse.  Rashi's source is the Talmud in Yevamot, and we will delve into that later in the blog extensively. This is a classic example of how Rashi uses a Talmudic interpretation for the explanation of the simple meaning of a verse.  Rashi, in his usual fashion, uses the Talmud to explain the plain meaning of the pasuk, even though the pasuk does not explicitly say anything about Tamar's beauty or about Er spilling his seed.

Many other well known commentators follow Rashi's lead when they explain the sin of Er, including the Rashbam and others.  However, notably, the Ramban explicitly points out that the Torah does not specify the sin of Er, thus leaving it open for interpretation. Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and many others focus on the sin of Onan as the desire not to perpetuate his brother's family name, which adheres much closer to the simple meaning of the text. They choose not to discuss the sin of masturbation at all when explaining this parsha, as it is not necessary for the understanding of the text.  The Ramban does go into depth explaining the mystical significnace of the mitzvah of Yibum in perpetuating the brother's family name.  Although he veers deeply into a mystical topic, he still stays within the plain meaning of the text that does indeed mention that Onan sinned in that he did not want to fulfill that commandment.

To summarize, in this post I tried to demonstrate several approaches to the reading of the story of Onan.  I demonstrated that a simple reading of the Torah says nothing about the sin of spilling seed, but that various traditions have superimposed the sin of spilling seed onto the Parsha in order to explain the narrative.  Rashi used the Talmud and Halachic process to explain the story, and the Zohar used its understanding of the sin of spilling seed in order to explain the Parsha. Ramban and Ibn Ezra used the simple meaning of the text and did not use either Talmudic or Medrashic sources in order to understand the text.

I do ask you to be patient as we move through this topic.  There are many other proposed sources for this prohibition which we will encounter as we go through the Halachic analysis, and a halachic anlysis of this parsha is forthcoming.  For those who are familiar with my style, you already know that I will try to leave no stone unturned, but it takes time.  I do sincerely welcome comments, criticisms, etc, as I find them to be a huge source of information, opposing thoughts, and opinions.  What you tell me does influence my thinking greatly as I try to always keep an open mind.

In the next post I plan on discussing the issues of Tum'ah v'tahara - ritual impurity, and its influence on the prohibition of masturbation.


  1. Thank you for another thorough post. Looking forward to the next!

  2. The Chizkuni's interpretation, which is says is the pshat interpretation, is a completely different translation of what he thought to do. He refused to have relations with her at all because of economic considerations (he wouldn't be able to maintain his land).

  3. I was aware of this, but his interpretation of "Zerah" meaning seed, as in grain, as opposed to semen, is quite unusual. But thank you for bringing this to our readers attention.

  4. I would to get that dissertation of Shilo Pachter

  5. Send your request to my email at and I will; gladly send it to you.