The prohibition of masturbation for both men and women
Halachic Responsa from Rabbi Moshe Ariel HaCohen Roth, Head of the Beit Midrash “Bet Menachem”, Ben Gurion University in the Negev. (Translated by “Micha” from the Hebrew at this link: http://forum.bgu.co.il/index.php?showtopic=71994)
1) May men masturbate? Is there any (rabbinic) dispute regarding that? If not, for what reason?
2) And the same regarding women. Are they prohibited to masturbate? Is there a discussion regarding that? If not, why?
To the honorable questioner.
Although this subject requires modesty and prudence, due it’s importance and for the many that ask this question could benefit from it, I will try to present the Jewish-Halachic sight of this issue.
First, let's call it by it’s name: masturbation="איסור הוצאת זרע לבטלה". (Zera Levatala). This means “the prohibition of ejaculating in vain”.
A. We can find find “ejaculation in vain” in the Pentateuch (Genesis 38:9):"וידע אונן כי לא לו יהיה הזרע והיה אם בא אל אשת אחיו ושחת ארצה לבלתי נתן זרע לאחיו" - “But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother.”
What did Onan do? The commentators (Medrash Rabba, Rashi, Ibn Ezra) explain that he did what is called in science “coitus interruptus”, i.e. withdrawal of the penis before ejaculation, ejaculating “outside”.
And what was his punishment?
The Gemara (Niddah 13a) says: “Rabbi Yochanan said (that) whosoever emits semen in vain deserves death, as it’s written (ibid., 10): "וירע בעיני ה' אשר עשה, וימת גם אותו" - “What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and He took his life also.”
In Hebrew masturbation is called “אוננות” (onenut). That’s due to the episode above, in Onan’s name (אונן).
B. Masturbation for men
Prohibited - unequivocally - there is no (rabbinic) discussion about it!
Shulchan Aruch: “It is prohibited to spill seed needlessly and this sin is more severe than all Torah transgressions. For this reason a man should not thresh inside and sprinkle [his semen] outside [of a woman]... Those who 'commit adultery' with their hand and thereby cause semen to be spilled it is not enough that this is a great prohibition, but one who does so should sit in excommunication and about them it is said "Their hands are full of blood" and it is as if they have killed a person.”(Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 23:1-2)
The Rambam (Maimonides) also wrote those words.
Some opine that this prohibition is דאורייתא, i.e. prohibited by the Bible itself. But many opine that it’s דרבנן, i.e. a rabbinic prohibition, but with source in the Torah.
Source of the prohibition
The major opinion is that this prohibition is included in the commandment “לא תנאף”, “Don’t commit adultery (fornication)”, i.e., don’t commit adultery using any organ, i.g. the hand. They believe that this applies also for masturbation.
Some learned the prohibition from “ונשמרת מכל דבר רע”(Deuteronomy 23:10), for the Gemara said ““And you shall keep yourself from every evil thing”; From here R. Pinchas b. Yair said that a person should not have [impure] thoughts in his heart, and thus bring himself to have impurity at night.”(Ketubot 46a)
(There are a few different opinions regarding the prohibition and it’s source. See אנציקלופדיה תלמודית ערך השחתת זרע.)
Severity of the prohibition
The prohibition of spilling semen needlessly is very severe, and according to the Zohar it`s the worst of all sins in the Torah.
We can learn about its severity from our sage`s words in the Talmud, in the Zohar and in the Kabbalah books.
And so is stated in Chazal and in the books of the great Jewish sages: “Whosoever emits semen in vain... it is as though he shed blood” (Niddah 13a) - for “every drop was worthy of generating holy offspring” (Chavos Yair 31).
They also say that someone who wastes semen is “like an idol worshiper” and “like one who brings a flood to the world, and he’s considered as an animal and deserving of death”.
In the Chabad literature they don’t single out the severity of the issue, for various reasons, but it’s enough to quote a few words from Rabbi Shneyur Zalman from Lyadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, in his book “Tanya” (Chapter 7), and these are his words: “Severe is this sin - spilling semen needlessly- and it’s bigger (worse) than extramarital relationships - for it increases impurity more then with prohibited relationships”.
The Ari HaKadosh said that this sin is responsible for the length of the galus and it delays the redemption.
Some wrote that in consequence of this sin, his children (sinner’s offspring) die while infants, or they become רשעים (evil, sinners), and he becomes poor.
And some kabalists said that everything bad reaches him. (מז"ל - במ'וציא ז'רע ל'בטלה. The word “fortune/luck” in Hebrew is formed by the initials of “spills semen in vain”.)
Reason for the prohibition
It is forbidden for a man to spill semen in vain. The prohibition “in vain” is not because the semen is lost without fertilization, but rather the prohibition is because he spills the semen in a place where he shouldn’t, because G-d decreed that the male should only release his seed inside a female, in the special place for this. (Rav Pealim 3,2)
Our Sages and the poskim prohibited certain things that may potentially cause this sin:
It is forbidden for a man who is not married to touch his private parts so that he doesn't come to have a sexual thought. And he may not even touch anywhere under his belly button lest he have a sexual thought. And when he urinates he should not hold his member and urinate. He also should not stare at his penis while it’s drawn.
From the “ancient pious ones” and the great sages, one of them prided himself of never having seen his penis his entire life, and some of them were proud of never thinking (imagining) their wives silhouette, because their hearts deviated from meaningless thoughts to truthful thoughts that fixate themselves in their holy hearts.
It is forbidden for a man intentionally make himself have an erection or to cause himself to think about sex, and those who do this should sit in excommunication and he is considered a sinner (and perpetrator);
It is forbidden for someone to sleep on their back with his face up, rather he should lean on his side so that he doesn't come to have an erection.
One is forbidden of thinking about lust. This applies only when he focus himself and concentrates in that thought. (I.e., it’s only forbidden when he pay attention to the thought.)
It is forbidden to read romantic books and words of desire, for he brings in the evil inclination to his body. Even reading scientific books regarding sexual relations is forbidden before marriage.
One shouldn't watch a beast or a wild animal or bird when the male and females are copulating. But it is permitted for those who bring animals to mate to 'put the applicator in the tube' because that is their work and it won't cause them to have sexual thoughts. Also someone who studies natural sciences and needs to know their sexual habits is allowed to watch their copulation.
(The poskim discuss the Teshuva for this sin and what to do to fix it. Also they discussed how to keep yourself far away from this sin.)