Outdoor Sex

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

Outdoor Sex!

The content of this week’s column is acknowledgedly and largely borrowed from the discussion at the end of Adam Arotti’s erotic eBook Through the Window.

The story, and the analysis that follows, is based upon an episode in this week’s Parshah, Toldot. But first, here is the context:

Isaac is probably around 73 years old. His wife Rebecca, who according to many commentaries is 37 years his junior, is around 36. She is a beautiful and captivating woman. After many years of childlessness, Isaac and Rebecca are finally blessed with twin boys, Jacob and Esau, who grow to be very different young men, their distinctions not pertinent here. Due to famine, Isaac moves from his home in Be’er Lachai Ro’i to the Philistine city of Gerar. When the male inhabitants ask covetously about his wife, Isaac is fearful that they might seek to kill him to free her for marriage. Consequently, following his father Abraham’s example before him, he announces that Rebecca is actually his sister, not his wife.

Here, however, Isaac’s experience proves different that Abraham’s. On both occasions in which Abraham and his wife Sarah had pretended to be siblings, Abraham’s fears regarding his wife’s appeal among the locals were vindicated, as Sarah was in fact apprehended first by Pharaoh in Egypt,[1] and then by Avimelech in Gerar.[2] On the other hand, Rebecca, despite her great beauty, remains strangely untouched, and over time, she and Isaac lower their guard.

Thus, “it came to pass, when he had been there for many days, that Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, looked out of the window, and he saw, and behold, Isaac was jesting with Rebecca his wife.”[3]

Now, the major biblical commentaries understand the words “jesting with Rebecca his wife” to be a euphemism for sex.[4] Thus, Avimelech looked through the window and saw Isaac having sex with his wife.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Our patriarch, Isaac, and our matriarch, Rebecca, were enjoying marital intimacy in full view of Avimelech. Obviously, this kind of conduct represents a significant departure from what is today considered acceptable sexual conduct. Indeed, several Jewish halachic sources strongly discourage sexual intercourse even to the light of a candle, or during the daytime, and certainly not in the markets, streets, gardens or orchards, or any place outside of a house[5].

And yet, there were Isaac and Rebecca, having sex in full view of Avimelech.

Now, to be fair, there are commentaries that wrestle with this. For example, the Or HaChayim explains that Isaac and Rebecca were just being affectionate, but in a way that unmistakably identified them as husband and wife (not that public displays of affection are considered any more acceptable in modern-day Orthodox culture). However, acknowledging that there are commentaries that insist that Isaac and Rebecca were engaged in full-blown sex, the Or HaChayim suggests two possibilities that may have made it permissible for Isaac and Rebecca to have sexual intercourse during the day: either it was a necessary health measure, for which daytime sex is okay, or perhaps Isaac had some unusual pent-up sexual energy that he needed to release immediately lest it lead to some greater sin.

However, it is difficult to to describe this as an isolated incident that happened to occur on a day that Avimelech happened to be looking through the window, or that it was health-related, or that Isaac was using Rebecca as merely an outlet for his sexual release — for two reasons: First, the unusual expression “Mitzachek” — jesting — is one that denotes a playful, loving and flirty tête-à-tête; not a coupling out of medical necessity, or an urgent sexual distraction. Second, the Torah itself provides the reason that Avimelech was able to witness their marital ardor: Isaac “had been there for many days,” and was therefore no longer worried about maintaining the pretext of Rebecca not being his wife. In other words, Isaac was doing exactly what he would have done if he was not hiding the nature of his relationship with Rebecca.

And there’s more.

When I learned this passage as a youth (but not too young, as such adult-oriented material was alway carefully omitted from those lessons), I just assumed that Avimelech was passing by the home of Isaac and Rebecca, and that he looked into their window and happened to see them engaged in sexual activity.

Not so.

The Hebrew word for “looked out of the window” – Vayashkeif – indeed means looking out of the window.[6] In other words, this was not Avimelech looking in to their window, but rather looking out of his own window at Isaac and Rebecca having sex. Besides, Isaac and Rebecca dwelled in tents,[7] which have doors but not necessarily windows.[8]

This suggests that, not only were Isaac and Rebecca having sex in a way that could be seen by Avimelech, but they were having sex in view of Avimelech’s window –- and so near that he could look out and recognize the participants!

So what does this mean?

To Adam Arotti, it means that our forefathers and mothers were much more sexual and much less inhibited than we are, and than we give them credit for — and it is hard to argue with this proposition.

What is particularly striking, however, is how unremarkable this story is. Nothing in the syntax suggests that this was a particularly noteworthy event in Isaac or Rebecca’s lives. Avimelech wasn’t surprised that he saw them having sex — he was just surprised that they were married.

And, by the way, where were Jacob and Esau, the twins? Were they around too? How about Eliezer, and the other servants? If Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, could see Isaac and Rebecca in their sexual congress, they almost certainly had a much larger audience.

Yet the only reason that his story appears in the Torah at all is to tell us how Avimelech discovered that Rebecca was actually Isaac’s wife, and how that discovery led to an historic meeting between Avimelech and Isaac. The sexuality and eroticism inherent in the story is not even the point.

Clearly, there is much more to our ancestors’ sexuality than meets the eye — even as it seems from this week’s Parshah that quite a bit of it did, literally, meet the eye.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Genesis, 12:15.

[2] Genesis, 20:2.

[3] Genesis, 26:6-8.

[4] Genesis Rabba, 64:5; Rashi; Rashbam; Ba’al Haturim.

[5] See, e.g., Maimonides, Hilchot Isurei Biah, 21:11, 15.

[6] For additional examples of the use of this word, see Genesis, 19:28 (when Abraham arose to inspect the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah); Exodus, 14:24 (when G-d looked out over the Egyptian army gathered at the Dead Sea, and threw them into confusion); and Deuteronomy, 26:15 (providing the text of our prayer to G-d, when bringing the first fruit offering, that G-d “look out” upon us and bless us).

[7] This is strongly suggested both by their frequent traveling, as well as by the expression “And he moved from there” — Vayatek — in Genesis, 26:22, which is a word ordinarily associated with pitching camp.

[8] The 16th century commentator and author of the Kli Yakar has a different take on this episode. He explains that it was Avimelech that was curious as to why Isaac, who was apparently a single man, was not seeking marriage, and so he went to look into their window to see what was up. However, this explanation requires that “Vayashkeif” be translated as “looking in,” as opposed to “looking out”; that Isaac and Rebecca were in something with windows, and that Avimelech — the king — would have made a visit to their home to look inside — and all without alerting them to his presence. See also Sifsei Chachomim (which additionally concludes that it was actually Avimelech seeing the closed window that led Avimelech to understand and perceive that Isaac and Rebecca were probably having sex, and that they must therefore be husband and wife; because “Heaven forfend that a righteous man like Isaac would leave a window open!”).