Sex, Famine and Chanukah

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing 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.

Rated PG-13

What does this week’s Parshah of Mikeitz, Chanukah, and famine all have in common?

Sex, of course. This is Jewrotica, after all.

In this week’s Parshah. the Torah tells of Joseph’s rise to power after he correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, Pharaoh, recognizing the wisdom of this divinely-inspired young man, appoints him as his second over all of Egypt, and gives him Osnat, the daughter of Poti-Phera, for a wife. The strangeness of this match is discussed here.

Joseph’s primary task as the new grand vizier of Egypt was to ready Egypt for the seven years of famine that Pharaoh foresaw in his dream. That famine would be upon them in seven years, during which time there was much work to do in terms of stockpiling grain and food. “And Joseph gathered grain like the sand of the sea, in great abundance, until one stopped counting, because there was no number.” Genesis, 41:49.

Then Torah then tells us that “to Joseph were born two sons before the year of the famine set in, whom Osnat the daughter of Poti-Phera, the governor of On, bore to him.” Genesis, 41:50.

Why does the Torah specify that Joseph’s two sons were born before the famine began?

The Talmud teaches that it is from here that we learn that “a man may not have marital relations during years of famine.” Thus, knowing that a famine would soon be upon them, Joseph got to work on building his family while there was still plenty (although the Talmud does state that a childless couple may procreate even during a famine, and most commentaries agree that a couple is considered “childless” until they have at least one son and one daughter). See Babylonian Talmud, Taanit, 11a.

You may recall a similar principal being discussed with respect to Noah and his family during the Great Flood. As we discussed here, G-d’s instructions to Noah were: “You shall come into the ark, you and your sons, and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.” Genesis, 6:18. There, too, the Talmud notes that the men are listed separately from the women, because they were prohibited to engage in marital relations in the ark. See Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 108b. A few verses later, Rashi reiterates this prohibition, when the Torah states that “Noah came, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him, into the ark” (Genesis, 7:7), noting that “they were prohibited from engaging in marital relations since the world was steeped in pain.”

Why not have sex during a famine? The Talmud does not provide a clear reason. It seems to be based upon the moral principle that, while others around you are suffering from privation, it would be insensitive for you to continue in your life of leisure. As Joseph’s position all but guaranteed that he would not be sharing in the privation of ordinary Egyptians, the least he could do is refrain from sex. Same thing with Noah. Perhaps it is the notion that, as important and sacred as sex is, it is still a pleasurable indulgence, and where the basic staples of life are missing, it would be inappropriate to indulge in such excess. Perhaps, also, the workout that one gets from sex increases the family’s water needs, which one should endeavor not to do during a famine.

(Maybe this can even help explain the interesting juxtaposition of the following verses in Parshat Lech Lecha: “And there was a famine in the land, and Abram descended to Egypt to sojourn there because the famine was severe in the land. Now it came to pass when he drew near to come to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, ‘Behold now I know that you are a woman of fair appearance.'” Genesis, 12:10-11. Why did Abram only then become aware of his wife’s beauty? Perhaps it is because they had avoided sexual contact so long as they were in famine-ravaged Canaan, and it was only once “they drew near to come to Egypt,” where there was no famine, that he once again took notice of Sarai’s sexual charms.)

Still, it’s a difficult one. What qualifies as the kind of calamity that requires us to put our sex lives on hold. A famine? A flood? How about ISIS? An intifada? Economic collapse with high unemployment? Climate change? Is there a time limitation on the prohibition, or does it continue indefinitely, for so long as the crisis endures? Certainly in the case of Joseph, he knew in advance that the famine would last for a maximum of seven years. And Noah had advance knowledge of the duration of the flood. But how about the rest of us who don’t enjoy such prescience? Moreover, in a state of crisis, shouldn’t we increase in sex, taking whatever pleasure we may when and where we are able? The details of this prohibition haven’t been fully ironed out.

Ironically, hundreds of years later, in the midst of a man-made famine caused by a Syrian-Greek siege upon the town of Bethulia, in the land of Judea, a Jewish heroine utilized her sexual charms to save her people from certain death. Her name was Yehudis, the daughter of Yochanan, the High Priest and the father of the Hasmonean family and the Maccabees, who would soon defeat the vast Syrian-Greek armies.

The town of Bethulia was besieged by the army of Holofernes, a Syrian-Greek general notorious for his cruelty towards rebels.

The men of Bethulia had fought bravely and desperately to repel the Syrian-Greek forces. Rather then risk any more of his own men in battle, however, Holofernes decided to lay siege to the town, and to starve its inhabitants. He cut off Bethulia’s food and water supply, and before long the town indeed neared the fate intended by Holofernes.

Starving and despairing, the townsfolk gathered in the marketplace and demanded that their leaders tender their surrender to the enemy, rather than facing imminent starvation. Both Uzziah, the commander of the defense forces, and the elders of the town, tried to dissuade their people from giving into Holofernes, but the hunger-ravaged people simply wanted an end to their suffering, and no longer held out any hope for military success. the populace without success. Finally Uzziah pleaded with them to give the defenders just five more days to defeat the Syrian-Greek army. The citizens reluctantly agreed and dispersed to their homes.

Reluctantly the people agreed, and slowly they dispersed. Only one person, a woman, remained in her place, as if riveted to it, and she addressed Uzziah and the elders, who had also turned to go. Her voice was clear and firm.

Yehudis was a young widow, blessed with extraordinary charm, grace and beauty, and well-respected and admired for her piety and kindness. She remained, after the others had gone, and challenged Uzziah and the elders to have more faith in G-d’s salvation, She further advised them that she had a plan, for which she would need to leave the city with her maid, and visit Holofernes in his encampment. Uzziah and the elders were unsuccessful in dissuading Yehudis from such a perilous mission, and shortly thereafter Yehudis passed through the gates of Bethulia, dressed in her most beautiful clothing; clothing that she had not worn since her husband passed away. A delicate veil shaded her beautiful face, and she was accompanied by her faithful maid, who carried on her head a basket filled with rolls, cheese and several bottles of old wine.

When Yehudis and her maid finally reached Holofernes’s camp, they were granted an audience with Holofernes. At Holofernes’ prompting, Yehudis explained that life in the beleaguered town had become too unbearable, and that she was willing to give-up her countrymen in exchange for her own survival. She told him that she had bribed the watchmen to let her and her maid out, that she had heard of Holofernes’s bravery and mighty deeds in battle, and that she was enamored of his great reputation. Finally she told Holofernes the secret to her people’s destruction: Their situation was desperate, this was true; however, their faith in G?d’s salvation remained strong, and they had no intention of surrendering. If, however, their desperation grew to the point that they began to eat the flesh of unclean animals, G?d’s anger would be turned against them, and the town would quickly fall.

Holofernes was intrigued by Yehudis’s strategy, and approved her request to visit the city gates every evening to glean information as to when the Jewish combatants might turn to non-kosher food. Indeed, Holofernes was so captivated by this beautiful Jewess that he proclaimed that if her strategy delivered the city into his hands, he would make her his wife. He then gave orders that Yehudis and her maid were to have complete freedom to walk through the camp, and that none should attempt to molest them in any way. A comfortable tent was prepared for the two women, right next to his own.

Several days and nights passed, during which time Yehudis and her maid traveled back and forth from the gates of Bethulia, bearing true words of encouragement for her Jewish brethren, and false words of encouragement for Holofernes. Each time, Holofernes became more and more enchanted by the beautiful Yehudis. Thus, on her fourth visit to Holofernes, he requested to be left alone with Yehudis, and strictly forbade all from entering his tent without being summoned.

In the center of his tent, a table was set up with delicacies and fine drinks; but it was Yehudis that Holofernes eyed hungrily.

“Dine with me tonight, my sweet.” He motioned to her to draw near to the table.

“You honor me, General,” Yehudis replied demurely, “But I have brought my own delicacies to share with you this night.”

“Indeed?” Holofernes asked, smiling indulgently, as he watched her uncover her basket laden with bottles of wine and cheese.

She seduced him that night, as she fed him chunks of salty cheese, and washed them down with strong, aged wine. He became inebriated, pawing at her, eating and drinking. She teased him and taunted him, goading him into trying yet another chunk, another vintage,

Eventually, he succumbed to his drunkenness, his head resting in her arms. Yehudis carefully arose, replacing her arm with a really cute Dakimakura pillow under his head. Then she uttered a silent prayer.

“Answer me, O L?rd, as You answered Yael, the wife of Chever the Kenite, when you delivered the wicked general Sisera into her hands. Strengthen me this once, that I may bring Your deliverance to my people whom this cruel man vowed to destroy, and let the nations know that You have not forsaken us…”

She slowly unsheathed Holofernes’s mighty sword and, taking careful aim, she brought the sword down on his neck with all her might. And just like that, without a cry, Holofernes was dead, his head severed from his body.

After Yehudis composed herself, she wrapped up severed head in rags, concealed it beneath her shawl, and calmly walked out of Holofernes’s tent and into her own, where he summoned her maid. The two of them set out immediately, walking slowly and leisurely so as not to arouse suspicion, until they reached the gates of the city. She presented with Uzziah with Holofernes’s head, and counseled him to prepare for a surprise attack on the Syrian-Greek encampment at dawn. The enemy soldiers, she knew, would immediately run to their general’s tent and, finding his headless body, they would be disorganized and helpless, running around like a chicken, well, without a head.

And that is precisely what happened, and the city of Bethulkia was saved due to the faith, courage, wisdom and charm of Yehudis the Maccabee.

May the lights of Chanukah illuminate our own paths to faith and wisdom, and dispel the darkness of pain and fear forever!

Happy Chanukah!