Double Mitzvah – Behar

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by David Bookbinder. David is an educator and part of the amazing leadership team of Jewrotica. For more of David’s columns, check out Double Mitzvah – Tzav, Double Mitzvah – Shmini, Double Mitzvah – Tazria, Double Mitzvah – Metzora, Double Mitzvah – Acharei Mot, Double Mitzvah – Pesach, Double Mitzvah – Kedoshim, and last week’s column Double Mitzvah – Emor.

Rated PG-13
So…what’s your number?

‘When were you last tested?’ ‘Have you been tested since your last partner?’ ‘Have you had an STI before?’ These are some of the most uncomfortable and awkward questions a person can ask. Whether hooking up casually or starting a new relationship, knowing a person’s sexual history is important. Yes, condoms and dental dams prevent many STIs, but they are not 100% reliable. Not everyone likes talking about their past, especially their sexual past. It is easy to feel insulted, hurt, embarrassed, or even judged in these circumstances. For some, it can make or break a relationship. So, with all that’s at risk – what does Judaism say on the matter? Enter parashat Behar.

The main thrust of this week’s parasha is real estate laws and business ethics, specifically surrounding the institutions of Shmita, the Sabbatical year, and Yovel, the Jubilee year. During Shmita, which occurs every seven years, the land lies fallow and debts are cleared. During Yovel, which occurs every 50th year at the end of seven cycles of Shmita, slaves are freed and owned land reverts back to its ancestral owners. The applicable bit for us is in a section of business ethics.

Leviticus 25:14-17
[14] When you sell to or buy from your neighbour, do not wrong one another […details of the law…] [17] One shall not wrong one’s neighbour. You shall fear your God, since it is I who am Hashem your God.
*edited for gender neutrality

At first glance, this doesn’t have anything to do with our question; it is simply about business ethics. This is true of the pshat, the plain meaning of the text, however the rabbinic exegesis of the text, the drash, takes it to another level. The rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud, specifically in tractate Bava Metzia on page 58a noticed that verses 14 and 17 have an almost identical phrase: do not wrong one another/one’s neighbor. Why the repetition? In modern biblical scholarship we know that the Torah frequently uses this style of repetition to frame important laws. But according to the rabbinic drash, the second mention refers to verbal wronging. In a financial context the verb in question, תונו (tono), could be translated as defraud or embezzle. In a personal context one could translate it as deride, denigrate, or insult. In fact the rabbis spell it out for us:

Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b
One may not say to a sinner who repented ‘remember your prior deeds!’
[…] Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani says “verbal wronging is worse, for it cannot be returned (undone).” If one whitens a person’s face (makes him blush – a euphemism for embarrassment), this is like bloodshed.
*edited for gender neutrality

According to Jewish law bringing up a person’s previous misdeeds or embarrassing aspects of their past is completely forbidden. The rabbis go on at length about how evil this act is and even compare it to murder. This is a very strong statement which seems to contradict the notion of asking a partner about their sexual past. So what do we do?

Luckily, Rashi (1) is here to put our fears to rest. In his commentary on verse 17 he states:

One might say ‘who will ever find out my intentions were malicious?’ Therefore it says, ‘you shall fear your God’ […] since God knows what is truly in one’s heart.
*edited for gender neutrality

So yes, you should not maliciously bring up someone’s previous bad behaviours or embarrassing past. But for the sake of pikuach nefesh, preserving life, you should kindly and gently start a conversation about your partner’s sexual history. Many people are afraid to broach the subject, especially if it is for a more casual encounter. We don’t want things to be awkward and we don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings or insult them in any way. But we must remember that by having that conversation, you are safeguarding the health and safety of both you and your partner. To quote one blogger:

It’s a frank and adult conversation between two…well…adults. IMO if you can’t have this conversation without feeling “awkward” you shouldn’t be having sex. Period. YOUR health is more important than getting laid, and can be looked after quite easily with a few simple questions. (2)

For help with your few simple questions please refer to:


1. late 11th century French rabbi known for his commentary on the Torah and the Talmud.
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