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.)
C. Masturbation for women
Most of the rabbis and Jewish Sages that addressed the issue of “masturbation” didn’t address the issue of “masturbation for women”, mostly due to different natures of men and women. But contemporary poskim and rabbis have been asked about this, so after studying the issue, I will present here my conclusions:
1. According the great posek “Ben Ish Chai” in his books “Ben Ish Chai Halachot” and “Od Yossef Chay Halachot” - based on the words of the Ari HaKadosh in his book “Sha’ar HaKavanot” - the prohibition for women is the same as that for men, the defect/flaw created by her is similar to the defect generated by him. Further on I will quote his words.
2. The famous Posek HaGaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein - in his responsum “Igros Moshe” - also prohibits it, from miscellaneous halachic angles. In his view though, the women’s prohibition is part of additional reasons in the men's prohibition, not from the main reasons that the poskim brought for the men's issue. Further on I will quote his words.
3. Even the rest of poskim that didn’t find a “proper” halachic source to forbid masturbation for women and believe that they don’t have the prohibition (like men) of “spilling seed needlessly” for the following reasons:
A. There is no intentional destruction of seed from the woman’s part, but it’s a natural process that doesn’t depend on her will;
B. They believe that the prohibition of Zera Levatala only applies to men, because they have the commandment of procreation, but women don’t have this commandment, so they don’t have this prohibition. (Birkei Yossef Yore Deah 335:5)
In spite of that, they also opine that women shouldn’t do these behaviors, to purify and keep holy our minds, souls and spirits before the Almighty G-d.
Quotations and sources - regarding masturbation to women
1. Ben Ish Chay Halachot, Shanah Rishona, Parashat Pekudei:
“In the Kerias Shema Sheal HaMitah (recited before sleeping) [one have to] concentrate to fix the sin of Keri and Zera Levatala, which have flown purposely or unintentionally, so the impure bodies that “seize” the Neshamot (from the semen) will die, and the pure Neshamot will take them (the Neshamot from the wasted semen) back to their holy place. And they (the Neshamot) will come down to this world like any other holy Neshama (in newborn baby)... and this Kerias Shema will also benefit a woman, because the seed that leaks from her due to the intense [erotic] desire that she feels. For regarding that is written (Psalms 91:10): ונגע לא יקרב באהלך, זו אשתך - שנקראת אהל (“and no disease will touch your tent” - that’s your wife who’s called “tent”), and see Sha’ar HaKavanot.”
2. Od Yossef Chay Halachot:
“And regarding the second question concerning Keria Shema Sheal HaMitah, of course women also are obliged to say it, and they are also applicable to the fixing made by males for the drops of semen, to erase the Mazikim (bad spirits) that are created by them (semen drops), as it is written in the Sha’ar HaKavanot that our master (Arizal) wrote, and these are his words:
“Be aware that exactly the same way that the Mazikim are created by a man who spills semen needlessly, without a woman; in the same way, a female creates Mazikim without a man (when she masturbates)...”. (See the quoted Sha’ar HaKavanot entirely in this link)
3. An Halachic responsa from the HaGaon HaPossek Rabbi Moshe Feinstein - “Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer tome 1, 69:
“We find two prohibitions in fantasizing (seeing a woman and thinking about her):
The first one is from the Passuk “ונשמרת מכל דבר רע” (“And you shall keep yourself from every evil thing”). In the Gemara Ketubot 46a we learn from this: “Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair said that a person should not have [impure] thoughts in his heart, and thus bring himself to have impurity at night”,and this prohibition applies also to thoughts about a woman that is permitted for him (i.g. single). This prohibition includes: the prohibition of staring at a Niddah (woman during her menstruation cycle), and at a married woman even if she’s ugly, at animals copulating. That’s because we are afraid that the thoughts will cause him to masturbate.
And the second one is from the Passuk “ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם”-“so that you do not follow [after] your heart[s] and [after your] eyes [in your lustful urge]”. In the Gemara (Brachos 12) we learned - “after your eyes” - “means lustful imagination” - here the prohibition isn’t to prevent from Zera Levatala, but the thought of sexual sin is itself is forbidden, exactly as the prohibition of imagining Avodah Zara (idolatry), that the thought of doing it is a prohibition itself, as it is written “after your heart”, the same way the Torah prohibited thinking about sexual sinning.
The following difference between the two sins emerges: The first thought prohibition, which we learn from “ונשמרת מכל דבר רע” and it’s reason is the consequence of the thoughts, which cause him to masturbate - this prohibition doesn’t apply to women, since even “touching” doesn’t arouse them, certainly “imagination” alone doesn’t cause anything. But the second prohibition - which is learned from “after your eyes” - meaning lustful fantasies” - here the prohibition isn’t to prevent from Zera Levatala, but rather the thought of doing sexual sins, as the Torah forbids “thinking about worshiping idols”, this prohibition applies also to women.
And there is an additional prohibition regarding women: the prohibition of a woman engaging in lustful/sensual behaviors due to “Das Yehudis” (Jewish Practice), as it is explained in Ketubot 72a. (See here, in the Mishna.)
Due to both these prohibitions, it is likely to forbid women to masturbate, due to the lustful behavior itself, and also lest she come to thoughts of sexual sins.
In conclusion, a story from the Or HaChayim:
The Lubavitcher Rabbi (Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson) told in one of his speeches that once someone asked the Rebbe Maharash about the issue of “guarding the Bris Milah” (sexual purity). He answered that the guarding should be like that of the “Or HaChayim”, as the following story shows:
Once the “Or HaChayim” was traveling with a caravan in the desert, and when Shabbos arrived they - the people from the caravan - didn’t want to wait for him until Shabbos end. So he remained alone in the desert. In Shabbos, a lion appeared and was going to attack him. He showed him his “Bris Milah”, and when the lion saw it, it (lion) not only didn’t touch him, but also protected the Rabbi from other animals. After Shabbos, he mounted on the lion and traveled this way until he achieved his caravan.
Explained the Lubavitcher Rabbi: “Our Sages said that “no wild animal dominates a person, only if he seems to be an animal”, thus when the lion saw the “signal of the pact” (the Bris Milah), that “Bris” (pact) means connection (with G-d), it was very recognizable in him the “Tzelem Elo-im” (“G-d’s image in man”), which is the very core of men, hence the lion couldn’t dominate him. Just the opposite, the purpose of the lion is to serve him.
May Hashem save us from any bad thing, and may we merit serve the Lord with holiness and purity and we won’t be ashamed nor fail forever. And may we merit the fulfillment of the Passuk: “וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם וגו’” - “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean”, with the true and complete Redemption with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days, Amen.
Rabbi Moshe Ariel HaCohen Roth
Head of the Beit Midrash “Baith Menachem”
Ben Gurion University in the Negev