It’s the Thought that Counts

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

Sometimes there is the temptation to view sex as little more than a purely physical function. In fact, this belief is prominent in the whole friends-with-benefits culture, and inherent in all of the Netflixing-and-chilling. After all — it’s just sex. Right?

In truth, however, sex calls upon so much of ourselves, and so many parts of ourselves, that it has the power to — and sometimes does — affect fundamental change in our lives. Relationships are forged — or sometimes broken — during sex. We transcend the limitations of our world through sex, and infuse an otherwise monochrome existence with the dazzling and vibrant colors of sex. Our faculties and senses are heightened during sex, and we are especially susceptible to both internal and external influences during sex.

All of which, of course, we learn from the first verse in this week’s Parshah of Tazria.

The Parshah begins with the words: “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman shall give seed and gave birth to a male, she shall be impure for seven days; as the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be impure.”[1]

One anomaly immediately noted by the commentaries is the expression “when a woman shall give seed.” What does that mean? Why is it there? Obviously, this is not the first time the Torah references childbirth. Since “in the beginning” we have grown familiar with the way the Torah describes pregnancy and childbirth: “And she conceived and she bore” — “VaTahar vaTeled.” [2] So what’s this business about giving seed? And why are the following words — “and gave birth to a male” (“v’Yalda”) in the past tense, as opposed to the typical future tense (“vaTeled”)? Since everything in Torah is precise, there must be a meaning for these anomalies.

There appears to be a consensus among the commentaries that the expression “when a woman shall give seed” refers to the female orgasm, and is an expression that is inherently sexual in nature.

One prominent commentary, known as the Ba’al Haturim, notes that the juxtaposition between the above verse and the end of the previous Parshah, which includes the commandment “and you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy” is intended to teach us that a couple should sanctify themselves and their thoughts during sexual intercourse, elevating the experience from a mundane one to a holy one.[3]

This directive — that we elevate the quality of our thoughts during sex — is not merely a distant, aspirational goal; accordingly to many sources, the nature of our coital thoughts carry real and profound consequences.

Firstly, the Talmud states that the sequence of ideas in the above verse — “when a woman gives seed, and gives birth to a male” — informs us of the following scientific phenomenon: if the woman orgasms first, the resulting child will be a male. Many explanations are offered for this marvel — by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars alike — most of which go beyond the scope of this week’s column.

However, one particular explanation is given by Rabbeinu Bachye. Quoting the natural sciences, he explains that the reason that when a woman orgasms first she bears a son is because, when a woman is filled with desire for her husband, and is heated in turn by his desire for her, her lust and her thoughts are focused on him, and his image is etched in her heart. It is that desire that spurs her on and brings her to orgasm first, and it is the power of that thought and image of him etched in her heart that causes her to conceive a male — as it is her male that occupies her heart and eyes in that moment.

This is the same concept as the peeled wooden rods that Jacob used to cause his flocks to reproduce. He would carve images into the rods, and when the female sheep were in heat and would be mounted by the male sheep, the females would be impregnated with offspring that matched the images on the rods that they saw during sex.[4]

This, Rabbeinu Bachye concludes, works to an even greater extent with humans, whose intellectual faculties make us naturally more susceptible to the power of mental imagery.[5]

Thus, a woman’s mental focus on her lover during sex is capable of determining the gender of her child.

In a similar vein, the Talmud relates a fascinating anecdote regarding Rabbi Yochanan, one of the preeminent sages of the Tannaic period.

Rabbi Yochanan was renowned for his extraordinary beauty, and a radiant and shining countenance. Moreover, unlike the vast majority of his peers, Rabbi Yochanan was beardless, so not even facial hair concealed his handsome features. He was aware of his handsomeness; but he was also aware that his looks were a gift, and one that he was determined to put to good use.

To this end, the Talmud relates, Rabbi Yochanan would make a point of sitting next to entrance of the women’s mikvah. The mikvah is the ritual bath in which Jewish women immerse at the end of their menstrual period; a period in which intimacy with their husbands is forbidden. Thus, immersion in the mikvah marks the end of this sexual separation, and heralds the return to marital intimacy. Women leaving the mikvah are typically on their way home to have sex with their husbands for the first time in two weeks. Because of highly private and intimate nature of a woman’s visit to the mikvah, it is considered immodest and indiscreet for men to loiter around the mikvah area, observing who emerges.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Yochanan would sit right next to the entrance of the mikvah. When asked why, he explained that the women would see him on their way out, and retain his image in their minds while they were intimate with their husbands, and that in this way they would bear beautiful and scholarly children.

From this, too, we see how certain thoughts and images during sex our powerful enough to imprint themselves upon our children.

The author of the Tanya explains this even further in Kabbalistic terms. Quoting the Zohar [6] and the Zohar Chadash,[7] he explains that it is essential that a couple conduct themselves in a holy manner during sexual union, as there is no soul that is without a garment which stems from its father’s and mother’s essence. All the commandments that that soul will later fulfill in life are influenced by that garment, as it through that garment that the soul interfaces with the body; and even the benevolence that flows to a person from Heaven flows through that garment. If a couple sanctifies themselves, the Tanya concludes, they will bring forth a holy garment for their child’s soul.[8]

Finally, the Or HaChayim commentary to the Torah echoes this concept, and, in doing so, sheds light on a fascinating yet enigmatic chapter in biblical history.[9]

The Or HaChayim explains that there are two components to the creation of every child: the creation of the soul, and the creation of the body. The soul, he explains, is created even before the moment of physical conception, as it is the thoughts and the focus during sex that actually imprint upon the soul. This is why it states: “when a woman gives seed, and gave birth,” as though to say that by the time that she gives seed, she has already given birth — to the soul. Thus, the Or HaChayimcontinues, both parents should take care regarding the quality of the soul that they are creating during their sexual congress.

As an example of the powerful affect that our sexual thoughts can have on our progeny, the Or HaChayim references an episode in the life of the Jewish King Hezekiah, which had profound consequences for the Jewish people.

King Hezekiah was on his deathbed, suffering from an incurable illness, when he was visited by the prophet Isaiah.[10] Hezekiah asked Isaiah why G-d had decreed his suffering, and Isaiah informed him that it was because he had never taken a wife and had children. Hezekiah explained, however, that he was afraid that his children would grow to be wicked, and so he had decided that it would be better not have any at all.[11] Isaiah was not impressed; as G-d commands us to marry and reproduce, he said, Hezekiah’s subjective fears and concerns were no justification for failing to obey G-d’s commandment. At this point, Hezekiah suggested that Isaiah give him Isaiah’s daughter in marriage, and that perhaps, in their joint merit, they would have righteous children. Isaiah responded that it was too late for that; G-d’s decree was already in motion, and Hezekiah’s death was imminent.

Demonstrating, however, that it is never too late to seek G-d’s mercy or reconsideration of a harsh decree, Hezekiah turned to prayer. With an unprecedented intensity and fervor, Hezekiah prayed for mercy; and Isaiah subsequently informed him that G-d had granted him an additional 15 years of life.

Suddenly healed, Hezekiah immediately took a wife named Hephzibah, believed to indeed be the daughter of Isaiah.

Shortly after his health was restored, King Hezekiah received a delegation from Marodach-Baladan, king of Babylonia. Through his servants, Marodach-Baladan expressed his wonder at Hezekiah’s miraculous cure. King Hezekiah received the envoys warmly, hosted them, fed them, entertained and gave them a tour of his treasury. Hezekiah’s motive was surely political, seeking to impress the Babylonian king with his prosperity. Nevertheless, Isaiah’s reaction Hezekiah’s generosity and magnanimity was harsh. He prophesied that the Babylonians would one day return to sack Jerusalem, and to carry off the treasures that Hezekiah was displaying, and that they would carry off “some of your sons, your own issue whom you will have fathered…and they will be stewards in the house of Babylon.”[12]

History demonstrates that Hezekiah was succeeded by his son, Manasseh, who was initially a blight upon Jewish practice and belief. He reversed his father’s religious reforms, and restored and sponsored idolatry throughout the kingdom.

What happened? Why wasn’t the combined merit of righteous Hezekiah and Isaiah’s own daughter sufficient to ensure that their son would be pious, and follow in his father’s path of righteousness? And why did Isaiah react so harshly to Hezekiah’s generosity when entertaining the Babylonian envoy?

The Talmud relates that Hezekiah’s own wife (presumably, Hephzibah) was displayed before the Babylonian envoy, and that she, personally, served them drinks.[13] The Or HaChayim suggests that Hephzibah was herself affected by her exposure to the handsome Babylonian envoy, and that she later carried her thoughts of them into her bed with Hezekiah. As a result, she drew down an evil soul for both of her two sons. They never even had a chance.

It is difficult to pinpoint the precise effect that our thoughts during our hottest moments have (the Or HaChayim states that the very quality of the soul of one’s offspring is determined by one’s thoughts; the Tanya states that it is the soul’s garment and its interface with the body that is determined by one’s thoughts); or even the particular thoughts that are detrimental and those that are helpful (a woman thinking about Rabbi Yochanan while she is with her husband is good; Hephzibah thinking about the Babylonian envoy is bad).

What is clear, however, is that our thoughts during sex are not fleeting or mere whimsy; they are powerful and potent, and fine-tuning them in a holier direction has the potential to elevate our own lives and the lives of our families.

Works Cited

[1] Leviticus, 12:2.

[2] Genesis, 4:1.

[3] Ba’al Haturim, Deuteronomy, 12:2. Interestingly, the Ba’al Haturim’s admonition is directed at the male half of the couple — despite the fact that the entirety of this commandment is directed to the female.

[4] Genesis, 30:37-42.

[5] Rabbeinu Bachye, Leviticus, 12:2.

[6] See Zohar II, 204b; III, 80-82.

[7] Genesis, p. 11.

[8] Tanya, Likutei Amarim, Ch. 2.

[9] Or HaChayim, Leviticus, 12:2.

[10] The Scripture’s details of Isaiah’s visit described in Kings II (ch. 20) are exceedingly sparse; however, the Talmud supplements this account. See Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 10a, Sanhedrin, 104a; Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin, ch. 10, hal. 2.

[11] Hezekiah would have known, first hand, of the particular dangers inherent in a wicked member of the royal family; his own father and predecessor — King Ahaz — was such a person, whose reign was seen as disastrous to the religious state of the kingdom.

[12] Kings II, 20:18.
[13] Babylonian Talmud, 104a.