Traditional Jewish Sexual Practices and Their Possible Impact on Jewish Fertility and Demography

Traditional Jewish Sexual Practices and Their Possible Impact on Jewish Fertility and Demography

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Traditional Jewish Sexual Practices and Their Possible Impact on Jewish Fertility and Demography

By Evyatar Marienberg

Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 106:3 (2013)

Excerpt: Limits regarding the days on which a married couple could have sexual relations have a history also among Jews. Unlike the situation in large parts of the Christian world, this is not only a matter of the past: these limits still exist among Jews who observe, more or less strictly, rabbinic law. The number of those who observe these laws is often estimated to be between 10 and 20 percent of world Jewry today. Can a study similar to the one performed by Flandrin, but applied to the Jewish world, be useful?

Flandrin found that the majority of the Christian prohibitions were related to the days of the week and to the liturgical calendar. Only a few depended on the woman’s biological cycle. In the Jewish world, the situation is exactly reversed. The majority of the prohibited days for intercourse are directly related to feminine biology. The Jewish calendar contains very few days in which marital relations are categorically prohibited. Two of them originate in talmudic law: Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year) and the ninth day of the month of Av, a fast commemorating the destruction of the temples. The other prohibited days are of a much later origin and depend on local or group (e.g., kabbalistic, Hasidic) traditions: Christmas night, or as it is often called in Jewish sources, the “Nittel”; the first (and some also say the last) night of Passover; the holiday of Shavuot, the Jewish counterpart (or, to an extent, origin) of Pentecost; the Jewish New Year; and a few other dates.

It is obvious that the impact of not having relations on these few days of the year is, on the whole, negligible, even if it might influence the chances of a specific woman at a specific time to conceive. Having said that, we should remember the existence of two additional rabbinic practices that connect sexuality to the weekly cycle: a custom of not having relations on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, and another custom of having marital relations specifically on Friday night (a night also referred to in this article as “Sabbath Eve”). These two practices are found in the talmudic period (around the third to sixth centuries C.E.) and continue to be attested, although in very different frequency, in later generations. The first custom seems to be, at best, a marginal curiosity. We will mention it again later but will remain skeptical about the possibility that it ever had many followers. The second one is much more commonly attested; however, it is not always clear whether this meant couples refrained (or were encouraged to refrain) from relations on other days of the week, making Friday their exclusive day for intimate relations. The prescription may have led some couples to have more frequent relations on Fridays without necessarily refraining from relations on other days of the week as well.

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