Sex on Pesach

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

Pesach — Passover — is one of the truly special holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is perhaps the most famous and remembered holiday, even in a culture where many of the other holidays have faded from memory, celebrated only by the more observant elements of the Jewish nation. Sukkot? Shavuot? What are those? Yom Kippur is famous, sure, but most would hardly consider a somber day of awe on which we fast and refrain from sexual activity to be any sort of holiday.
Pesach occupies a league of its own, enjoying near-universal familiarity, and, 3,000 years later, continuing to bring families together to celebrate the Hebrew exodus from Egypt.

Even the hilarious 2005 film, “When Do We Eat,” illustrates (if anything at all), that no amount of dysfunction among the members of a family can or should prevent them from getting together for a Passover seder.

Why Passover?

Passover reminds us of who we are as a people in a way that no other holiday does. We were forged from the furnace of Egyptian slavery, and made into a nation that has shaped the contours of the world ever since. Our crazy Passover rituals and our recounting of the exodus in the Haggadah recall to us every year our common bond, and the historic moment in which our nationhood sprung into existence.

Our Passover seder is bursting with symbolism. We drink wine and recline, to symbolize the freedom that we now enjoy. We eat bitter herbs and use a salt-water dip to recall the bitter, salty tears that we shed as a result of our bondage. We dip our matzah and maror in charoses, which is made to look like mortar, as a symbol of the building materials that we used in our slave labor. We eat matzah to commemorate our rush to escape Egypt, without even waiting for our dough to rise.

We don’t just remember the exodus, or even just talk about the exodus; we do our best to make it a virtual experience, to feel the bitterness, and the sweet sensations of freedom. Incorporating both the suffering and the salvation, we make sure that the seder recalls the pain of cruelty and servitude, just as it celebrates the relief.

And, you’ve got to hand it to us: with the help of the seder, we have lasted a very long time. As we read in the Haggadah: “This is what has stood by our fathers and us! For not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!” Isn’t “this” the series of rituals that we go through with our family each year, recalling what it meant to be slaves, then to be redeemed, and extracted from amidst another nation to become G-d’s chosen people.

In fact, in Roger Kaminetz’s Jew in the Lotus he relates his experience being part of a multi-denominational delegation of Jews, invited by the Dalai Lama to his place of exile in Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama figured that who better than the Jews would understand how a people could possible maintain their national identity despite years of exile?

Fascinatingly, one member of the delegation – R’ Zalman Schechter – had this advice: make a seder. For is it not this annual ritual that has stood by Jews throughout the millennia, despite the adversity of our conditions?

Indeed, we have a biblical commandment to recall our exodus from Egypt every single day and night of our lives; and – as the Hagaddah discusses – this obligation will continue even after the coming of the Moshiach, and we have been redeemed from the longest exile of all!

This is because Passover/Pesach/Exodus is at the very core of our identity, and the oppression and constraints that we suffered in Egypt – and the resulting liberation from that oppression and those constraints – provide a template and a model for all our future national and personal “Egypt” experiences.

All of this is a rather long-winded introduction to the more sexually-oriented portion of this column: sex on Pesach.

Benny was talking to his best friend Sam. “Don’t tell anyone, Sam, but mine Sadie once again had a headache last night.”

“Really?” said Sam.

“Yes,” replied Benny, “it’s been like this for some weeks now and I’ve been thinking that they must have named a Jewish holiday after my sex life.”

“Which one?” Sam asked.


But, notwithstanding Benny’s kvetching, how does Passover view sex?

Tomorrow night, as we read the Haggadah, we will come to following passage:

“‘And he saw our suffering’ — this refers to abstinence from marital intimacy, as it is written: ‘G-d saw the children of Israel, and G-d took note.’”

There is (of course there is!) much discussion as to how either of the above verses suggest abstinence; however, regardless of the source, it is clear that, for at least the 2,000 years since the compilation of the Haggadah, we have been celebrating not only our liberation from physical labor, but the restoration of sexual intimacy.

Of course, as we have discussed on several earlier occasions, sex found a way, even in the midst of the oppression of Egyptian slavery. Thus, we have the story of Shlomit bat Divri, who thought she was having sex with her husband, although he turned out to have been her husband’s Egyptian taskmaster; and we have the Hebrew women’s use of their copper mirrors to beautify themselves in order to entice their husbands to sex. Still, there was very clearly a disruption of sexual intimacy; something which was particularly troubling to G-d, and of which He “took note.”

However, the renewal of uninhibited sexual activity was not merely a by-product of the larger exodus; indeed, sexual ardor appears to be a distinct Passover theme.

It is customary to read the Song of Songs – the most erotic book of the Tanach – on Passover. The Rabbis of the Talmud describe the Song of Songs as a parable of G-d’s feelings toward the Jewish people as he took them from Egypt – not because the Rabbis were troubled by eroticism, as some have denigratingly suggested, but because G-d’s relationship with the Jewish people is a highly erotic one, and our most erotic and explicit book is, first and foremost, an attempt to capture the passion of that relationship.

Indeed, one can hardly avoid the erotic imagery conjured up by the passage in the Haggadah in which G-d says: “I caused you to thrive like the plants of the field, and you increased and grew and became very beautiful your bosom fashioned and your hair grown long, but you were naked and bare.”

Passover is about G-d passing over all others, and selecting us to be His bride, with distinct conjugal intent. He took note of the earlier disruption to sexual intimacy, because our own interpersonal sexual intimacy is tied to our collective sexual availability to Him. Taking us from Egypt freed not only our bodies and souls, but our sexual spirit, removing the obstacles to sharing intimacy with each other, and kindling our erotic sensitivities toward G-d.

So really, Pesach, the single holiday that most reflects our identity, is all about sex.