Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year

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, and The Silence of Bitterness.

Rated PG-13

Do you want to have an idea of just how important sex is in Judaism? Then consider this:

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, the culmination of the Ten Days of Repentance which begin on Rosh Hashanah, and rise in crescendo each day thereafter. It is the most prominent of the Days of Awe, marked by fasting and dressing in white, like the angels in Heaven.

The day of Yom Kippur itself is one of increasing intensity, commencing with the beautiful and somber Kol Nidrei prayer, and concluding with Neilah — the few final moments in which we are effectively alone with G-d, and we offer our final words of supplication before the Books are sealed and the gates of Heaven closed. It is a prayer of such holiness that the Ark remains open for the duration, and it is customary to remain standing throughout the prayer.

Just prior to Neilah, in the late afternoon, is the Mincha prayer. And during the Mincha prayer we take out the Torah for a special Yom Kippur reading. And what part of Torah was chosen to be read at this significant moment? The portion dealing with forbidden sexual relationships.

Seriously? Do I need that kind of imagery on the holiest day? At a time that I am already weak from fasting, dressed in white, hours and hours of prayer behind me – should I really be thinking about taboo sex?

My personal reactions to this Torah reading have been varied over the years. Some years, I have simply found it jarring in its incongruence, striking a dissonant cord that starkly contrasts with the transcendent purity of the moment. Other years, years in which I have found Yom Kippur to be a relief and an escape from the constant bombardment of sexual stimuli (to which I find myself to be way too receptive), I find myself feeling resentful. Here, I finally feel like my mind is clean, having spent the past 24 hours rinsing it with prayer, and now the Torah itself is reintroducing lascivious thoughts into my head. The fact that the Parsha is prohibiting lascivious acts doesn’t matter – for often being forbidden simply increases a thing’s appeal. And I resent being forcibly titillated on the holiest day of the year. I can’t believe it’s just me.

So what’s up with the choice of Parsha?

There are three reasons offered by the Talmud‘s leading commentators for why the portion addressing forbidden sexual relationships was chosen for this time – each of which is fascinating in its own right:

  • 1. Reading this Parsha will inspire somebody guilty of such things to abandon his/her sins. Sexual sins “are common sins, as a person desires them strongly, and his inclination overpowers him.” Thus, they require special attention and admonition. See Talmud Bavli, Megillah, 31:1, Rashi, also quoted in Shulchan Oruch, 622:4.
  • 2. Because women dress and appoint themselves beautifully in honor of Yom Kippur, it is necessary to remind the men not to falter in their self-control. See Talmud Bavli, Megillah, 31:1, Tosefot.
  • 3. We read the prohibitions on “gilui arayot” – which literally means “exposing forbidden relations”, as way of reminding G-d that he too should not expose and focus on our forbidden deeds. See Talmud Bavli, Megillah, 31:1, Tosefot.

One can see why the first reason was the one adopted by the Shulchan Oruch as the basis for the halacha. The second explanation does not really explain the choice of Parsha: the enumerated forbidden relationships do not include the prohibition of having sex on Yom Kippur; and there is no particular likelihood that a man will be more tempted to indulge in one of the forbidden relationships on Yom Kippur simply because woman dress prettily. The third explanation is more of a homiletic reasoning; it is beautiful and inspirational – but aren’t there several other passages that explicitly reference G-d forgiving our sins?

But even the first reason doesn’t quite explain the timing of the reading. Sure, it’s an important Parsha – but right now?

Yet perhaps the dissonance and the incongruence is actually the point. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, it clashes with the purity of the day, of the moment. But Yom Kippur is not intended as an escape. It is not a day on which we simply focus on our good side and ignore our darker side, leaving it safely awaiting our return when Yom Kippur is over. Yom Kippur – and particularly as it draws to a close – is a day on which G-d wraps us in a huge bear-hug, embracing us fully, with all of our own dissonant parts, and encourages us to change, to commit all of us to Him. When we say, “um, I’d rather not talk about that right now,” He says “and I’d like to discuss all of you right now, without leaving anything out.”

Yom Kippur shouldn’t be a day on which we are holy because we temporarily forget about our human side. It should be a day on which we acknowledge our human side, recognize our weaknesses, and incorporate them into our new commitments to G-d – along with our heartfelt requests that He bless us with a year of personal and national strength, prosperity and health.