Sunday, March 19, 2017

Let's Get Back to Halachic Basics - The Discussion of Wasting Seed and the Halachic Process

Every time I tackle a topic, I always have to find a balance between being both comprehensive, and staying relevant and readable.  Needless to say, there is so much related material that I have to make serious decisions about how to approach each step of this analysis.  The biggest one of course is the one I am about to make, that is the Talmud itself on the subject of Hotza'at Zera Le'Vatalah.  This is going to form the basis of our Halachic analysis, as the Talmud is of course the basis of Halachah.  Everything we say from this point on will somehow have to relate back to the Talmudic discussions which we are about to analyze here.  

I also will have to go out on a dangerous limb and make the following statement of policy.  This statement was reiterated numerous times before on this blog, most especially during my discussion of the treatment of Gentiles on Shabbat.

My statement is as follows.  I am fully aware that often times my analysis will not reflect the analysis and understanding that was made by the majority of commentators and Halachic Decisors over the centuries.  I therefore declare openly that if a reader of this blog will criticize my analysis on the basis of  "most poskim hold ...etc..." then your criticism is valid, and you should probably go to another blog.

On the other hand, if you are interested in a reading of a particular sugyah (topic) that is BOTH halachically valid AND consistent with rationalist principles, then please go ahead and read further here.  That is my goal.  I am trying to look at this sugyah and understand it in a rationalistic AND halachically valid way.  So I will often have to choose and find halachically valid but sometimes minority opinions that will help us understand the sugyah.  It is well known,  and there is significant precedent for deciding halacha according to minority opinions when the need to do so is extenuating. I will freely admit that I believe that these are extenuating circumstances that require us to find a Halachic path that is both halachically acceptable AND Rationalist.

If you want to know what the principles of Rationalist Medical Halacha are, please refer back to the first post of this blog, where I laid out the five principles of RMH.

Now, let us begin.  The most important reference to the issue of masturbation in the Gemara is in Massechet Niddah 13a-13b.

The text is too long to quote here, so I very strongly recommend that you go get yourself a gemara, and learn the sugyah yourself before you read any further.  If you are finished reading, or if you are such a BAKI B'Shas that you already know the daf by heart, or if you are willing to trust my admittedly very rushed and inadequate summary, go ahead and read further.

Here is my summary of the sugyah.

First, the mishna states that a man who "checks himself" too often should "have his hand cut off" (obviously not literally .. but that it is a bad habit).  The gemara then explains that since a man is "sensitive" he shouldn't check because it may lead to arousal.  The gemara then explains that under certain circumstances it would be OK, like to use a cloth or other item to check himself or clean himself.

The second part of the sugyah records a discussion between Rabbi Eliezer and the Chachamim.  Rabbi Eliezer stated that anyone who holds his male organ is bringing a "mabul" to the world.  The assumption is that it will lead to spilling seed and this was one of the sins of the generation of the flood. The chachamim were concerned that someone really should hold his penis while urinating because if he didn't his urine would spray wildly and people would think he was a "K'Rut Shafcha" meaning that his urethra was damaged and therefore they would suspect that his children were not really his own, as a Krut Shafcha cannot father children.  Rabbi Eliezer felt that it would be better to cast aspersions on his children then to do such a terrible sin as to potentially cause himself to have an erection which may lead to committing the sin of spilling seed.

The gemara goes on to qualify this prohibition of Rabbi Eliezer by bringing some examples where holding oneself would be permitted.  These examples would be cases where one is near his teacher, standing in a high place where he needs to maintain his balance, or a person who has sufficient fear of heaven that he doesn't need to be worried about stimulating himself.  The gemara also states that it does not refer to a married man, because even if he did become stimulated, he has permissible ways to relieve his sexual urges, and only refers to holding oneself at the tip of the penis but not the shaft.

The gemara brings several statements about the extreme severity of this sin, comparing it to the "big sins of idolatry and  murder and states that one who commits this sin deserves the death penalty.

The last segment of the gemara (mostly on 13b) continues to bring more related admonishments, criticizing one who intentionally arouses oneself to the point of getting an erection, and it describes how the Yetzer Harah works, first he gets you to arouse yourself, and then eventually he gets you to commit more egregious sins.  The gemara continues to criticize those people who "Commit adultery with hands and feet" and those people who "play with children".

This gemara is the most explicit and most important source for the idea that spilling seed is a sin and a severe one at that.  So please learn through it carefully on your own.

On page 82 of the thesis of Shilo Pachter, that I have mentioned several times, he begins a lengthy analysis of the opinion of the Rambam and how the Rambam interprets this Gemara.  One of our readers has brought to my attention that though I have been referring to Shilo as a "she" that was because I do not know him personally and the only other "Shilo" that I know is a woman.  Shilo is actually a man, so I apologize for this mistake.  Thank God, I live in a time when I have read enough extremely erudite and insightful Halachic analyses written by women that I could easily make the mistake of assuming that the writer of this incredible thesis could have been a woman as well as a man.  Blessed are we who have arrived at this point in history.

Without quoting all of the lengthy passages of the Rambam (I will gladly provide anyone who asks with the full thesis of Shilo Pachter, just send me an email and I will send it to you), I will summarize the approach of the Rambam.  The Rambam includes the laws of "spilling seed" among the laws meant to keep one away from from committing the worse sins of actual adultry and forbidden sexual relationships.  According to the Rambam, there are two problems with "spilling seed".  One problem is that it may be a method of preventing one from fulfilling the mitzvah of procreation.  This was the sin of Er and Onan, who purposely spilled seed in order to prevent their wife from conceiving a child. The second is that by arousing oneself to the point of masturbation, one brings himself closer to committing the deed of actual forbidden relationships.  When one is married and when it does not interfere with the mitzvah of procreation, there would then be no prohibition against types of sexual activities that do not lead to conception.

The scary pronouncements regarding the sin of spilling seed, are therefore, according to the Rambam, meant to keep us away from unholy activities that potentially lead one to much worse transgressions. They are intended to keep us holy and involved in holier pursuits.  When one looks at the gemara in this way, it all makes a lot of sense.

  1. Not to hold oneself in a way that may arouse you, unless circumstances are such that it is unlikely to lead to arousal
  2. Not to intentionally arouse oneself sexually
  3. Not to intentionally think about sexually arousing thoughts 
  4. Not to commit adultery "with the hand"
  5. not to "play" with children in a sexually arousing way
One who does these things brings him closer to the edge of the prohibited  sexual acts, and creates an environment that can lead toward sin. This explains why this was relevant to the generation of the flood.  It was not the "spilling seed" per say that was the problem, but the unholy environment that was created by their attitude that led to a generation full of immoral behavior.

Most interesting is the interpretation of the Rambam of "committing adultery with the hand and foot".  It has become almost a basic assumption that this refers to masturbation.  This seems to be how most poskim understand this gemara.  By masturbation I mean a person stimulating himself with his own hands in order to reach orgasm and ejaculation.  This however was not at all what how the Rambam understood it.  

The words of the Rambam Pirush HaMishnayot Sanhedrin 7:4 (my translation)
"One who has intercourse with any of the prohibited relations" ..... or if he caresses or touches one of her limbs in order to derive pleasure, regardless of which part of her body he touches for example he rubs himself against her arm or leg. this type of abomination is what the Chachamim referred to as "committing adultery with the hand or foot" 
This is quite different from the "conventional" understanding of "Ni'uf Be'yad" which was so highly condemned by Chazal.  It is very different from what the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh condemned in the quote we brought in the last post.  But it also is so much more accurate of a translation of the language!.  Ni'uf everywhere else has other people involved.  The way the Rambam understood the gemara makes so much sense!  The gemara begins with admonitions not to touch oneself in a way that might cause arousal (even under circumstances that he has no intention of arousing himself as he is only holding himself to urinate), then continues with admonitions not to think arousing thoughts, then continues with admonitions not to intentionally cause oneself to have an erection, then continues to warn that touching a woman (obviously not referring to his spouse!) in a way that causes arousal or even ejaculation is a terrible sin that will often lead to actual intercourse, then continues to warn against touching children in a way that leads to arousal (God forbid).

So we now have a completely different understanding of the sugyah.  The prohibition of "spilling seed" is not an issur in and of itself.  Rather it is a safeguard against getting involved in sins of much worse consequence.  The severe pronouncements about the severity of the sin are meant to scare us away from activities that may lead us down a bad path.  They are not meant literally to say that one who masturbates is actually akin to murder.  There are myriads of examples where Chazal used similar terms to refer to sins as being vastly more horrible then they actually are, and conversely, relatively minor mitzvot that are given way more importance in order to impress upon us how special they are.

How would the Rambam advise a young man who was stimulated sexually by something that he saw, something that he read, something that he dreamt about etc., and then he had an erection and masturbated?  Obviously, I have no right whatsoever to speak on behalf of the Rambam.  However, I would assume that he would advise him to do as the Rambam himself states in Issurei Biah 22:21.  Try to focus your thoughts on holier matters.  Do not ever intentionally arouse yourself. He would then tell him to find a wife so that he can satisfy his sexual urges in a permissible way.  He would certainly not tell him that he is liable for death as a murderer for spilling his seed.

There is so much more to be said of course. However, I am not going to pretend that I have explained the sugyah according to every Rishon and Acharon.  I am only telling you how the Rambam understood the sugyah, and the most readable and rationalistic way of understanding the Gemara.

In my next post, I plan on analyzing several other sugyot in the Talmud that demonstrate that "spilling seed" in and of itself is not a sin, as long as it is not done intentionally to arouse oneself sexually in such a way that may lead to sin.  In other words, not being done in a way that the Rambam would strongly disapprove of.


  1. I just wanted to tell you, as a graduate from a Modern Orthodox Jewish high school how deeply I appreciate your exploration of masturbation in halacha. In school we were told that it was an aveira once or twice, but not directly taught anything about it; (one time the gemara shuir rabbi used his struggle with cigarettes as an analogy, only later did I realize what he was "actually" talking about). I used to feel extremely guilty and depressed that I could succumb to my base sexual urges. I have since basically accepted that while I have no outlet for it there's no way I cannot masturbate from time to time.

    When I went to yeshiva after high school I felt really guilty about doing it in Israel. I searched everywhere online for help. Most of what I could find was chassidic sites condemning masturbation, and giving the suggestions listed in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

    After 8 months I couldn't take it anymore and came out to one rabbi and told him of my struggles. His response surprised me. He showed me a responsa in the book Alei Shur, where Rav Wolbe sites the Gemara that says something like "yaakov avinu never messed up his sheets," while I assumed this meant in terms of wet dreams, my rabbi and Rav Wolbe seemed to understand it as masturbation as well. Rav Wolbe went on basically saying as long as you keep learning Torah and stuff masturbation doesn't really matter so much. I regret that my mouth was sealed shut this entire time, because I still have a lot of questions as to the specifics of what he was telling me. What I took away from it was that even if I masturbate, while it is still wrong, I shouldn't regret my actions until I get married.
    I finally felt understood for once, and wished other people would have also known this stuff.

    You were absolutely correct in your assessment that these are pressing times for open discussion of masturbation.
    You're giving me an even better understanding of the consideration that real halacha actually has on the matter.

    I'm really really glad you took this on. Thank you

    There is another layer to this too. I find that being sexually frustrated leads to being more productive and creative, but that could just all be in my head. It's still sometimes a little hard for me to feel fine after masturbating.

    1. Dear Yid, I am very happy you no longer beat yourself up about the whole masturbation issue. Like you, I am very much impressed by this series on the halachic weight of the sin of masturbation according to a rationalist perspective.
      I am however worried that you might have been seeing things in a very black and white way. Although I am no rabbi and would never contradict yours, I am almost sure that, as much as your rabbi tried to ease your mind about this sin so that you would not beat yourself over it, he did not advise you to deal with it as if it is permissible until you get married.
      As this post pointed out, the gemara teaches that one bad behaviour on this area can very quickly lead to worse. And being this area a very addictive one, if you simply give up fighting for greater kedusha, you might just see yourself involved with porn or other innapropriate activities.
      I recommend you take a look at . Although they insist on never giving up on the fight against the yetzer, the attitude they recomend would never be one that would lead to living in guilt. The Guard your Eyes philosophy is one in which you strive for greater kedusha, but DO NOT focus on guilt or shame.
      Although they do not have a strong rationalist mindset, Im sure theirs is one that can help you to, at least, achieve longer streaks without masturbating, which is in itself a great victory!

  2. In earlier times people married very young and men had several wives who were not niddah at the same time and did not have to follow the extra days of zava. Thus young women of 12 and 13 were going to the mikveh. Today everything is different, and one realistic solujtion is for the ability of unmarried females to go to the mikveh to avoid any possibility of karet. Beyond that, if a live embryo up to 30 days has a din of mayim, then what could possibly be the issue of masturbation where a person's impulses overwhelm him? This issue has misled so many people and made people's lives miserable. After all, how could such a scenario be the intention of the Zohar and gemara when such a scenario is not even mentioned in the Torah itself as part of the prohibitions? This subject is just one more issue that is misunderstood in Judaism by people who consider themselves well educated in Jewish subjects.