Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach

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Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, and The Power to Transform.

Rated PG-13

This week’s Parsha, Vayeshev, is chock full of sexual encounters and the lessons to be learned as a result. Let’s see if we can hit some of the major ones.

After Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to Egypt, Judah takes a break from his family and begins a partnership with Chirah, who becomes Judah’s close friend. During the course of that partnership, Judah gets married, and his wife gives birth to three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah finds a wife for his firstborn, Er – a beautiful girl named Tamar.

(Keep in mind that all of the above events, as well as those that followed, happened within a pretty short time frame. Accordingly to Rashi, Judah left his family because of the role that he played in selling Joseph. However, Judah was back with his brothers when they encountered Joseph again 22 years later. It is unclear why Judah was in such a rush to marry Er to Tamar; one wonders whether Judah, even then, saw something so attractive in Tamar that he could not wait to have her in his family.)


Now Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the eyes of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. So Judah said to Onan, “Come to your brother’s wife and perform the rite of the levirate, and raise up progeny for your brother.” Now Onan knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother. Now what he did was evil in the eyes of the Lord, and He put him to death also. Genesis, 38: 7-10.

It was probably sometime in the 1700s that the word “Onanism” first came into use, referring to an act like Onan’s: ejaculating outside of the female, or masturbating which leads to spilled, or “wasted” semen, rather than using it for procreation. This was something that G-d found to be evil, and He put Onan to death.

What did Er do to deserve death? According to Rashi, the Torah‘s use of the word “also” when describing Onan’s death, suggests that he was guilty of the same crime as Er. Since we know what Onan did, we can therefore conclude that Er, too, was guilty of “Onanism.” What was Er’s excuse for not inseminating Tamar? Rashi offers that Tamar was so very beautiful that Er did not want to mar her beauty by making her pregnant.

Now, on a personal level, I find this difficult to relate to. From my perspective, pregnancy only enhances a woman’s beauty and eroticism on so many levels. Pregnancy evokes and highlights all that is feminine: the curves, the fertility, and the deep nurturing power that all women possess inside – in addition to the obvious symbol of sexually activity. Nor does a woman lose that beauty postpartum. Whatever changes to her body were wrought by the pregnancy are erotic battle scars; signs that she has experienced the purely feminine experiences of pregnancy and childbirth. To me, these diminish her beauty not at all.

However, it does appear to have been a common belief in those days that pregnancy and beauty were inconsistent with one another. Thus, when we are first taught that Lemech had two wives (see Genesis, 4:19), Rashi tells us that “so was the custom of the generation of the Flood, one [wife] for propagation and one for marital relations. The one who was for marital relations would be given a potion of roots to drink, so that she should become sterile, and he would adorn her like a bride and feed her delicacies, but her companion was neglected and was mourning like a widow. This is what Job explained (24:21): ‘He feeds the barren woman who will not bear, but he does not adorn the widow.'”

Er must have similarly felt that Tamar’s beauty should not be tampered with, and refused to inseminate her.

Many modern-day commentators suggest that Er and Onan’s intentions were likely highly significant factors in G-d’s decision to put them to death. Er, who adopted an approach to marital intimacy that was akin to that embraced by the generation of the Flood – hardly a worthy act to follow; and Onan, who refused to propagate his brother’s name. Perhaps there was something even more deeply discomfiting about Onan’s behavior – for we know that, under Torah law, for a man to refuse a Levirate marriage does not incur the death penalty. See Deuteronomy, 25:5-10. However, in an ordinary rejection of a Levirate marriage, the man simply refuses to marry his erstwhile sister-in-law. Onan, however, agreed to marry Tamar – he just didn’t agree to have any children that would bear his deceased brother’s name. So, he wanted Tamar – but not her children.

Thus, many have speculated as to whether the deaths of Er and Onan ought to have any halachic bearing on, say, a couple that uses masturbation as part of their intimate play, or a single male that does not have a female partner. In these situations, the reprehensible motives attributed to Er and Onan would not play a role, and the act would be a far different one. A question for the Rabbis.


After Onan’s death, Judah promises Tamar that when his third son, Shelah is old enough, Shelah will marry her. In the meantime, he instructs her to return to her father’s house and to wait. The Torah reveals to us Judah’s inner thoughts: he had seen both of his older sons die, and he was worried that that his third might die as well. See Genesis, 38:11.

What were his concerns? Rashi quotes from the Talmud, suggesting that Judah was quite clueless as to the true reasons for his sons’ deaths. He simply concluded that this Tamar is a woman whose husbands presumably die young, and he was not willing to risk Shelah’s life in that way. If that’s the case, though, why didn’t he simply call it off? Why did he string Tamar along, if he never intended to have her marry Shelah?

And sure enough, Tamar noticed that “Shelah had grown up, but as for her she was not given to him for a wife.” Genesis, 38:14.

Not only did he string her along, but he instructed her to “remain as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.” Did he feel that keeping her as a widow, mourning her dead husbands, he was performing a community service by warding off any other potential suitors (who might end up dead)? Is there such a thing as being too beautiful? Did Judah ever wonder whether Tamar might be blameless for the death of his sons; or did he simply look at the statistics and conclude that, regardless of culpability, this was too concerning a pattern to ignore?

Regardless, Tamar decided that it was time to take her fate into her own hands. She would wait at home as a widow no longer.

Judah’s wife had died, and, seeking consolation, Judah took a trip to Timnah with his friend Chirah to oversee his sheep-shearers.

Now, this is interesting.

Tamar hears of Judah’s plans. She removes her mourning clothes, covers her face with a veil, and she rushes to the crossroads on the way to Timnah for the purpose of intercepting Judah. Nothing in the Torah states explicitly that she dressed provocatively, but when Judah saw her, he assumed that she was a prostitute. According to Rashi, his assumption was based upon the fact that she was sitting at the crossroads, and he couldn’t recognize her because of her veil. Was that her intention? What was she planning? What was she thinking?

Again, Rashi tells us that that was exactly what she was thinking. That when she saw that she was not to be Shelah’s wife, “she made herself available to Judah, for she longed to bear sons from him.” How fascinating! She did not attempt to seduce Shelah, and perhaps to then force a shotgun wedding; she went straight to Judah, the obviously true object of her desire.

And her seduction works. Despite her veil, her attractiveness must have shown through her clothes, for Judah unknowingly evaluates his daughter-in-law, and then solicits her. Interestingly, the words that Judah uses – “get ready now, I will come to you” – Rashi explains are the equivalent of “prepare yourself and your mind for this.” Intense!

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