Note: This page addresses issues of Jewish law that may not be appropriate for younger readers. In places, it discusses sexual behavior in plain and frank terms. Please exercise appropriate discretion. [Editors note: This is an Orthodox perspective on the topic.]
Sex is permissible only within the context of a marriage. In Judaism, sex is not merely a way of experiencing physical pleasure. It is an act of immense significance, which requires commitment and responsibility. The requirement of marriage before sex ensures that sense commitment and responsibility. Jewish law also forbids sexual contact short of intercourse outside of the context of marriage, recognizing that such contact will inevitably lead to intercourse.
The primary purpose of sex is to reinforce the loving marital bond between husband and wife. The first and foremost purpose of marriage is companionship, and sexual relations play an important role. Procreation is also a reason for sex, but it is not the only reason. Sex between husband and wife is permitted (even recommended) at times when conception is impossible, such as when the woman is pregnant, after menopause, or when the woman is using a permissible form of contraception.
Nevertheless, Judaism does not ignore the physical component of sexuality. The need for physical compatibility between husband and wife is recognized in Jewish law. A Jewish couple must meet at least once before the marriage, and if either prospective spouse finds the other physically repulsive, the marriage is forbidden.
Sex should only be experienced in a time of joy. Sex for selfish personal satisfaction, without regard for the partners pleasure, is wrong and evil. A man may never force his wife to have sex. A couple may not have sexual relations while drunk or quarreling. Sex may never be used as a weapon against a spouse, either by depriving the spouse of sex or by compelling it. It is a serious offense to use sex (or lack thereof) to punish or manipulate a spouse.
Although sex is the womans right, she does not have absolute discretion to withhold it from her husband. A woman may not withhold sex from her husband as a form of punishment, and if she does, the husband may divorce her without paying the substantial divorce settlement provided for in the ketubah.
According to the Torah, a man is forbidden from having sexual intercourse with a niddah, that is, a menstruating woman. The law of niddah is the only law of ritual purity that continues to be observed to day. At one time, a large portion of Jewish law revolved around questions of ritual purity and impurity. All of the other laws had significance in the time of the Temple, but are not applicable today.
The Torah does not specify the reason for the laws of niddah, but this period of abstention has both physical and psychological benefits.
The fertility benefits of this practice are obvious and undeniable. In fact, it is remarkable how closely these laws parallel the advice given by medical professionals today. When couples are having trouble conceiving, modern medical professionals routinely advise them to abstain from sex during the two weeks around a womans period (to increase the mans sperm count at a time when conception is not possible), and to have sex on alternate nights during the remaining two weeks.
In addition, women who have sexual intercourse during their menstrual period are more vulnerable to a variety of vaginal infections, as well as increased risk of cervical cancer.
But the benefits that the rabbis have always emphasized are the psychological ones, not the physical ones. The rabbis noted that a two-week period of abstention every month forces a couple to build a non-sexual bond as well as a sexual one. It helps to build the couples desire for one another, making intercourse in the remaining two weeks more special. It also gives both partners a chance to rest, without feeling sexually inadequate.
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