Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Tum'ah Ve'Taharah" Ritual Uncleanliness and Spilling Seed

Before I begin the topic of today's post, I would like to add a source to illustrate the point I was trying to make in the last post.  If you recall, I developed the idea that the Zohar, and it's interpretation of the Parsha of Onan, became highly influential in how we view the sin of Onan.  This is turn influenced our interpretation of halacha to the extent that the sin of masturbation has become identified with the sin of Onan.  This is true, even though it is quite clear that the sin of Onan was clearly not that he masturbated and spilled seed, but rather that he refused to carry on the name of his brother.

The best example of this is the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.  The Kitzur was one of the most influential works of Halchah of the 19th and 20th century, and acted (and still does) as a practical halcahic guide for generations of Halacha-abiding Jews for generations.  Here are his words (my translation) 150:1
"It is prohibited to waste seed. This sin is more severe than any other sin in the Torah. These (or this refers to:) are those people who commit adultery with their hands and spill their seed for naught. Not only is this a severe prohibition, but the one who does this is excommunicated, and regarding these people it is said "Your hands are filled with blood" and it is as if he is guilty of murder. See what Rashi writes about this is Parshat Veyeshev regarding the story of Er and Onan who died due to this sin. Sometimes, do to this sin, one's children may die when they are young, or they will be ill, or a person will sufffer from poverty."
There is SO much that can be said about this quote, but the points I would like to make are the following.  A practical Halachic work of incredible influence has just taken the theme of our last post full circle.  The sin of both Er and Onan was spilling seed (specifically by masturbation) .  It is akin to murder. One suffers horribly from it. He even interprets Rashi this way, although that is far from clear - as we saw in our last post.  The ultimate source for everything in the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh and the interpretation of the parsha is completely and totally taken from the Zohar.  This clearly and undeniably demonstrates the point I was trying to make.

Now I would like to move on to an area of influence that we are not used to talking about when discussing practical halacha in modern times.  The laws of Tu'mah ve'tahara, or ritual uncleanliness.  Ritual uncleanliness is a concept that was at one time in our history highly influential in the day to day practice of traditional Jews.  Especially during the time of the Bayit Sheni, it was the reason our ancestors, the forebears of what eventually became Halachic Judaism, were called "perushim" or Pharisees in the secular literature.  However, we no longer adhere to these rules, for reasons which are beyond the scope of this blog.  However, there are a few areas where the influence of the laws of Tu'mah ve'tahara are still felt in our days, and our current topic is one of them.

 In Vayikra 15 we have the following three verses (cut and paste from JPS 1917 edition):
"16 And if the flow of seed go out from a man, then he shall bathe all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the evening. 17 And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the flow of seed, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the even. 18 The woman also with whom a man shall lie carnally, they shall both bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the evening."
The meaning of uncleanliness is a topic which is beyond the scope of this blog, but there are several observations that are very relevant to our discussion here.  First of all, this verse is clearly referring to "seed" that has been ejaculated in any way, both through normal marital intercourse, and through masturbation. Indeed, this "uncleanliness" even extends to the woman who has seed inside her vagina due to normal intercourse.  It is therefore clear that this seed makes one "unclean" even after doing what is traditionally considered a great Mitzvah, an obligation upon every man to procreate and engage in normal sexual activity to enhance his relationship and to satisfy his and his spouses normal sexual needs.  This is similar in many ways to the "uncleanliness" that comes upon a person after engaging in one of the greatest and most holy deeds that one can possibly do, that of taking care of a human body after death.

Why it is that a great mitzvah can bring one to "uncleanliness" is beyond the scope of this article, but it has been the topic of many a sermon over the years.  For our purposes here, as a blog dedicated to Halachic Rationalism, I just want to point out that ritual "uncleanliness" and whether an act is prohibited halachically have very little correlation to each other.  Nonetheless, for whatever reason, in the area of spilling seed, the topic of uncleanliness has had significant influence in making the act of masterbation quite "taboo".

The uncleanliness that the Torah refers to prohibits a Kohen from performing the Avodah, and indeed anyone from entering the Har Habayit.  It prohibits a person from coming into contact with holy items related to service in the Beit HaMikdash.  None of this has relevence in our time, and does not relate to what a person is allowed to do or prohibited from doing.  However, it is well known that Ezra HaSofer decreed that one who is Tameh from spilling seed cannot read from the Torah (Berachot perek 3). It is also well known that this Takanah did not stand and is no longer relevent today (Talmud Berachot 22a, Rambam Hilchot K'riat Shemah 4:8).

None the less, it has become the practice of many Jews, mostly Chassidic Jews, to go to the mikvah every day in order to fulfill the Takanah of Ezra.  It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this custom of going to the mikvah on the overall idea of the prohibition and "uncleanliness" associated with the "emission of seed".  In the mind of most people, one is not only washing away ritual uncleanliness, but one is washing away sin.  This is true despite the fact that the "uncleanliness" is sometimes a result of one of the greatest Mitzvot, and therefore is not at all related to sin and prohibition.

The sifrei Chassidut, and the works of the Mekubalim of Tzefat, often intertwine the issues of tum'ah with the sin of  wasting seed.  At the same time, the special holiness of the marital act is considered something which brings purity and holiness to the world.  One would get the impression from reading these works, that Tum'ah only comes from the "wasting" of seed, and not from normal marital intercourse.  This point was made by Shilo Pachter in the thesis I mentioned in the last post.  She brings the extremely influential source the "Igerret HaKodesh" which served as the basis for almost all Kabbalistic discussions of sexual intinacy that succeeded that work (origin is in the 13th or 14th century and variously attributed to several different Kabbalists).

The point that I would like to make is as follows.  The emphasis of today's Chassidim on takanat Ezra is one of the very few modern remnants of the practice of Tum'ah ve'tahara.  If you combine this with the association of tum'ah as coming from sin that was emphasized by the kabbalists, one gets a sin that carries a huge amount of "metaphysical weight". In the non-rationalistic world of right wing Orthodoxy today, this makes this quite a scary sin!

None of this of course, has any real Halachic weight.  Tum'ah, we have shown quite clearly is not a result of doing prohibited acts. The practice of mikvah in modern times for takanat Ezra, is not Halachically required, and even if it is recommended for some spiritual reason, certainly has nothing to do with the sin of spilling seed (as it would apply to one who engaged in normal marital intercourse as well).

In the next post I hope to begin the Halachic discussion of the origin of this sin as interpreted by the Halchic sources.  This will obviously take a while, so I hope you are ready for a nice ride.


  1. For a long time I have wondered: in previous generations, even in Ashkenaz, people married much earlier, closer to puberty. Now, among the (Ultra) Orthodox, even Chasidim, the earliest for males is probably 18, more usually 20+. Premarital sex is prohibited, masturbation is murder, science is treif, sex education is non-existent. What do the leaders expect regarding healthy sexual development among their followers?

    Answers to this rhetorical question are perhaps not unconnected with "it has become the practice of many Jews, mostly Chassidic Jews, to go to the mikvah every day": it is gradually becoming public knowledge what has been going on in these mikvas...

  2. You could also mention that women routinely become impure once a month

  3. Thank you for pointing all this out.
    Also see:
    page 25 Naphtali Wieder argues that mikvah for men came back to Judaism from Islam in geonic times (called ghusl by Muslims ).
    Rambam in a teshuva says that in his youth when he was in Spain the Chachmei France and Rome mocked the Sefardim for men using the mikva after keri- they taunted that the Spanish Jews were being "noheg minhag yishma'ealim".

    1. This is really interesting, and thank you for bringing it to my attention. The influence of Christianity nd Islam on this issue is something I plan on dealing with in future posts, this comment of the Rambam is quite revealing.

    2. That is most strange, as the Ramabam himself writes in mishna torah how careful he was with tevilas ezra. "Miyomei lo bodalti" or something like that.

    3. That is very interesting. The Rambam himself writes in mishna torah that he was careful to keep takonas ezra (moyomei lo botalti or something like that.