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Celibacy and Religious Traditions$

Carl Olson

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780195306316

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195306316.001.0001

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 “And Jacob Remained Alone”

 “And Jacob Remained Alone”

The Jewish Struggle with Celibacy

(p.41) 3 “And Jacob Remained Alone”
Celibacy and Religious Traditions

Eliezer Diamond

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Judaism has been opposed to celibacy because marriage was a normal condition and a divine ordinance. The Jewish tradition provides evidence of exceptions to the rule against celibacy among marginal sects, such as the Therapeutrides, Essences, and Qumran community. There were even exceptions made by Rabbinic Judaism associated with Torah study.

Keywords:   tradition, Therapeutrides, Essences, Qumran community, Rabbinic Judaism

To many readers a chapter about celibacy in Judaism might seem as incongruous as a kosher seafood cookbook. To a degree, the popular conception that Jews have always rejected celibacy as an option is correct––but only to a degree. We have documentation for communities of celibate Jews for the late Second Temple period (second century BCE–first century CE); however, this practice was limited to small and marginal sects. From the time of the temple's destruction and onward we have no record of a celibate community of Jews, although we hear occasionally of individual Jews who did practice celibacy. Moreover, rabbinic Judaism, which slowly became the dominant form of Jewish religious expression from 70 CE onward, understood Genesis 1:28, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it,” to be not only a blessing but also a commandment. 1 The sages also interpreted Exodus 21:10 as establishing an obligation for a husband to have conjugal relations with his wife on a regular basis. 2 The rabbis, who were nothing if not punctilious about detail, even defined the frequency required of men in different professions and social classes. To remain celibate, therefore, was viewed as sinful, as if, say some sages, one had spilt blood or diminished the divine image. To be celibate within marriage, even if one had already had progeny, constituted a breach of the marital contract as defined by the rabbis. Nonetheless, we shall see that the option of abstinence had a powerful attraction for the religious elite of the so‐called rabbinic period (70–589 CE) and for members of several religious movements (p.42) that developed subsequently. This inclination toward celibacy expressed itself both in periodic abstinence and ascetic sexual praxis.

What follows is a description of several Jewish sects of the late Second Temple period (second century BCE–first century CE) that did engage in lifelong celibacy and a delineation of the role of periodic abstinence in the Judaism of the so‐called rabbinic period. I will also refer to practices that reflect the ambivalence of some sages toward sexuality. Some isolated instances of celibacy in the medieval and early modern periods will also be mentioned.

Rather than simply present the evidence for the practice of celibacy by Jews I will also attempt to identify the variety of motives for these practices. In a recent essay, the anthropologists Elisa Sobo and Sandra Bell pointed out the importance of understanding that celibacy can have many different motivations and functions. 3 In Judaism as in other religions, celibacy is freighted with a range of meanings.


In his work On the Contemplative Life, Philo of Alexandria, a first‐century Jewish philosopher and biblical exegete, describes a group of men and women who are celibate, austere in their dining habits (no meat, almost no flavorings, one meal a day), and free of all personal possessions; they devote their entire lives to study, prayers, and hymns. He calls them Therapeutae and Therapeutrides, “either because they profess a healing art [therapeia] better than that in the cities––for the latter cures bodies alone, but the former also cures souls … or because they have been entrusted by nature and by the holy laws to care for [i.e., worship; therapeuein] the Real (τo óν).” 4 Concerning the women in particular, he states: “[They] have retained their purity not out of necessity, as some of the priestesses among the Greeks do, but rather of their own free will, out of their zealous desire for Wisdom. Having desired to live with her, they have had no regard for the pleasures of the body, having struggled in the birth pangs, not of mortal offspring but of immortal ones, which the soul that loves God is able to bear on her own, when the Father has sown the rays of mind in her, by which she will be able to contemplate the teachings of Wisdom.” 5

From this last passage, as well as from Philo's contrasting descriptions of the banquets of the Therapeutae and those of the Greeks, and his emphasis on the sect's practice of self‐restraint or encrateia, it would seem, as Gail Paterson Corrington suggests, that Philo intends to cast the Therapeutae in the mold of Stoic philosophers who are, however, superior to the Stoics themselves in their (p.43) degree of discipline and self‐restraint. 6 One motive for their celibacy, then, is to develop discipline over their natural impulses.

Ross Shepard Kraemer has suggested that the goal of the Therapeutae was to divest their souls of their feminine––that is, sensate––characteristics and to become masculine and then finally virgin, or sexless, so that they could unite with the divine. This notion is suggested by the following Philonic description of the Therapeutae: “Because of their desire for the deathless and blessed life, their mortal life is already over.” 7 Kraemer consequently proposes that it was the Therapeutrides' rejection all of the physical aspects of their femininity––they were childless, unmarried, and quite possibly postmenopausal––that allowed them entrance into the community of the Therapeutae. It was this rejection, she adds, that allows Philo, whose general view of women is generally quite negative, to speak positively about the Therapeutrides. 8

A number of other passages speak of the Therapeutae leaving behind family and friends, bequeathing all their possessions to others. There is also a description of the common meals taken by the sect, during which the young men in the community serve their elders “like true‐begotten sons, pleasing to their fathers and mothers, regarding those who they serve as common parents, more their own than those of their blood.” 9 Taken together, these passages situate the celibacy of the Therapeutae in the context of a broad rejection of the norms of society, replacing the biologically defined family unit and the individual ownership of goods with a community of novices and elders bound to each other through common belief and practice. 10

Finally, celibacy is important because familial ties and obligations are obstacles to devoting oneself entirely to the study of divine wisdom and the practice of its dictates. Thus Philo says of the Therapeutae: “[They] pass their time outside the city walls by seeking solitude in garden spots or solitary wild places, not because of some crude or artificial misanthropy, but because they know that intercourse with persons who are dissimilar in habit is unprofitable and harmful.” 11 Some scholars have questioned the attribution of this work to Philo; in the late nineteenth century, Paul Lucius suggested that the work was written in the third century and that it describes a Christian monastic community of that era. 12 The present scholarly consensus, however, is that On the Contemplative Life was composed by Philo. Another question that scholars have raised is whether the group described by Philo in fact existed or was simply a product of his imagination. 13 Most scholars regard On the Contemplative Life as a description of an actual community, in part because of the similarity between the Therapeutae on the one hand and the Essenes and the Qumran community on the other. This last point raises the question of the relationship between the (p.44) Therapeutae and the Essenes. 14 Because of the similarity of practices, and perhaps even of names, the weight of scholarly opinion is on the side of assuming some sort of connection between these two groups. 15


Three first‐century authors––Pliny the Elder, 16 Philo, 17 and Josephus 18 ––describe a Jewish sect called the Essenes. Although there are differences among the accounts, they all agree that at least some of the Essenes were celibate. Pliny states that the sect of the Essenes “has no women and has renounced all sexual desire.” Philo also describes the Essene community as consisting entirely of men; Josephus, in his description in Antiquities, portrays the Essenes as exclusively male. In his account in War he adds: “There is yet another order of Essenes, which, while at one with the rest in its mode of life, customs, and regulations, differs from them in its views on marriage. They think that those who decline to marry cut off the chief function of life, the propagation of the race, and, what is more, that were all to adopt the same view, the whole race would very quickly die out.” 19 Even these Essenes, however, only marry women who have proven themselves to be fertile (that is, they have had at lest three regular menstrual periods) and they do not have sex with their wives during pregnancy. Sex, then, is permitted only for the purpose of procreation. 20

It is striking that the accounts by Philo and Josephus paint an extremely negative picture of women. Although, says Josephus, celibate Essenes are not opposed in principle to marriage and procreation, “they wish to protect themselves against women's wantonness, being persuaded that none of the sex keeps her plighted troth to any one man.” 21 In Antiquities the reason given for the avoidance of marriage is that a wife “opens the way to a source of dissension.” 22 And despite his positive portrait of the Therapeutrides, Philo explains the celibacy of the Essenes with a lengthy diatribe against women, characterizing them as selfish, jealous, and manipulative. 23 Of course, such negative depictions of women can be found in the sapiential literature of the Bible, particularly in Ecclesiastes, and in both Greek and Roman literature beginning with Homer. 24

Taking these accounts together, it would seem that Essene celibacy resulted mainly from a rejection of material and sensual pleasure and a desire to devote oneself to a life of study, prayer, and honest labor undisturbed by the complications of marriage and family life. Josephus also speaks of the Essenes' focus on ritual purity but he does not link that concern explicitly with their sexual abstinence. 25

(p.45) Qumran

The question of celibacy at Qumran has long occupied the attention of scholars. 26 The celibacy of the Qumran community was first assumed because it was hypothesized that they were identical with the Essenes. There is no explicit statement in any of the Qumran scrolls indicating that celibacy was the norm for the members of the community. On the contrary, there are several instances in which some versions of the Damascus Document deal with matters pertaining to married life––although the Rule of the Community makes no reference to women and children, other than an enigmatic mention of a blessing of “long life and fruitfulness of seed.” 27

Nonetheless, there is one passage in the Damascus Document, fragments of which were already discovered in the Cairo Geniza by Solomon Schechter and cited by Louis Ginzberg in the early nineteenth century, that apparently alludes to two groups of Qumran covenanters, one celibate and the other married. The passage reads as follows: “For all those who walk according to these matters in holy perfectness, in accordance with all his teachings, God's covenant is a guarantee for them that they shall live a thousand generations. And if they reside in camps in accordance with the rule of the land, and take women and children, they shall walk in accordance with the law and according to the regulation of the teachings, according to the rule of the law, as he said: ‘Between a man and his wife, and between a father and his son.’ ” 28

The writer is contrasting “those who walk according to these matters in holy perfectness” with those “resid[ing] in the camps.” From the fact that the latter marry and have children, it would appear that part of the “perfectness” of the former group is that they are celibate. 29 The reason for the celibate lifestyle of the former group, Ginzberg suggests, is that they occupy “a sanctuary built by the sect in the land of Damascus.” Column 12 lines 1–2 of the document states, “No one should sleep with a woman in the city of the temple, defiling the city of the temple with their impurity”; hence the need for celibacy. Ginzberg's assumption that the sect's final place of settlement was Damascus has been subsequently rejected by scholars on the basis of the findings at Qumran, but the evidence he found for the existence of a celibate community at Qumran has been widely accepted. 30

We have just seen that Ginzberg connected celibacy at Qumran with purity regulations. Other scholars have suggested other rationales for Qumranite celibacy. Elisha Qimron has offered an argument similar to Ginzberg's. As Ginzberg noted, the Damascus Document forbids intercourse within the city of the temple. Some among the Qumranites, argues Qimron, viewing as they (p.46) did the Temple and Jerusalem as having been defiled by their opponents, offered to serve as “a temporary substitute for Jerusalem and its Temple” by taking upon themselves the holiness of Jerusalem. This included sexual abstinence. 31

Albert Marx, who identifies the Qumran community with the Essenes, notes that in connection with the eschatological battle of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, the War Scroll excludes women and young men from the war camps of the covenanters “when they leave Jerusalem to go to war, until they return.” 32 The Qumran community, argues Marx, had already “left Jerusalem” and viewed itself as a war camp preparing for the battle at the end of days. Therefore women were perforce excluded from the community. 33

A third argument is that of Antoine Guillaumont, who also assumes that the Qumranites are Essenes. He suggests that the members of the Qumran community saw themselves as the recipients of ongoing divine revelation and that therefore, like the Israelites at Sinai, they had to separate themselves from all sexual contact with women. 34

Recently Michael Satlow has argued that none of the literary evidence for celibacy at Qumran is convincing; rather, the most compelling evidence is archaeological. 35 Excavations at Jerusalem and Jericho have shown that at least wealthier Jews of the first centuries BCE and CE preferred to be buried in family tombs, thus emphasizing the importance for them of the family as an organizing principle and a source of identity. At Qumran, however, the vast majority of the (relatively small) number of graves excavated so far are male, and there are no family plots. Satlow takes this as evidence of a Qumranite rejection of the Greco‐Roman ideal of the oikos. What was important was not the family unit but rather the community, with fictive familial relationships that supplanted biological ones. From Satlow's perspective, then, the celibacy of the Qumran community was as much a rejection of societal norms as it was an expression of personal piety or purity.

Even for those members of the community who were married, sex was permitted only for procreative purposes. One of the Cave IV fragments of the Damascus Document mentions a prohibition against a husband sleeping with his pregnant wife. 36 There were also other restrictions on married sexual behavior, but the nature of these prohibitions is unclear. 37

It was mentioned previously that a number of scholars who attributed celibate behavior to the Qumranites did so on the basis of identifying them with the Essenes. This identification itself is far from clear. As in the case of the Therapeutae, it seems reasonable to assume that there is some relationship between the Essenes and the Qumran community but that they are not necessarily identical. 38

(p.47) Ascetics and Prophets of the Late Second Temple Period (Second Century BCE–First Century CE)

As noted by Richard Horsley and John Hanson, the direct rule of Judea by the Romans beginning in 6 CE began a period of periodic unrest in the Jewish population that ended in the revolt of 66 CE. This unrest was due to, as they put it, the “colonial situation” of Palestinian Jews under Roman rule. Two major irritants for the Judeans were the tax burden and interference, actual or perceived, in the religious life of the community. 39

One of the manifestations of this unrest was the appearance of a number of prophetic and messianic figures, including Jesus of Nazareth. There is no explicit mention of the practice of celibacy by any of these figures. However, the ascetic behavior attributed to some of them (such as John the Baptist) and their peripatetic lifestyles make it unlikely that they had wives and children; if they did, they probably had abandoned them in order to preach or simply to live as anchorites far from civilized society. 40 Jesus himself seems never to have married; more to the point, he and his followers personified what Gerd Thiessen has labeled Wanderradikalismus. 41 This was a way of living that involved turning away from wealth and possessions and forsaking family ties. As in the case of the Essenes and the Qumran community, this meant substituting the community of believers for one's family of origin. Stephen Patterson adumbrates this ideology as follows: “The rigorous follower of Jesus loses his or her family ties, but is integrated into a new kinship group, articulated in ideal terms and offered as a new construction of reality.” 42 Paul, as is well known, favored celibacy and was himself celibate; this suggests that the notion of celibacy was not foreign to the circles, Jewish and Gentile, in which he traveled.

Celibacy as a Response to Catastrophe

Some of the works written in the wake of the Temple's destruction in 70 CE articulate the view that in light of this catastrophe there is no point in continuing normal family life. Thus in the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch we find the following lament:

  • And you, bridegrooms do not enter,
  • and do not let the brides adorn themselves.
  • And you, wives, do not pray to bear children,
  • for the barren will rejoice more.
  • (p.48)
  • And those who have no children will be glad,
  • and those who have children will be sad.
  • For why do they bear in pain only to bury in grief?
  • Or why should men have children again? 43

Although this is clearly the language of poetic hyperbole, it suggests a response to the calamities of the first and second centuries that some Jews adopted, to a greater or lesser degree, for some time to come. Rabbinic literature records a meeting between R. [= Rabbi] Joshua, a Levite who was a member of the temple choir, and a group of perushim––literally, “those who have separated themselves”––who had given up eating meat and drinking wine as a response to the temple's destruction. R. Joshua dissuades them from such extreme behavior and recommends instead a much more modest symbolic commemoration of this event: “Rather, this is what the rabbis said: ‘A man plasters his house with plaster and leaves a bit [unplastered] to commemorate Jerusalem.’ ” 44

It is true, of course, that celibacy is not mentioned as part of the regimen of the perushim. That possibility is raised, at least theoretically, by R. Ishmael (first to second century CE): “He used to say: Because they are uprooting the Torah from our midst we should decree that the world be desolate. We should neither marry nor have children nor perform circumcisions until Abraham's seed comes to an end of its own accord. They said to him: Better that the community should sin unintentionally rather than intentionally.” 45

R. Ishmael's claim that “they [the Roman imperium] are uprooting the Torah” probably refers to the Hadrianic decree or decrees forbidding circumcision, and possibly other Jewish practices as well, in the third and fourth decades of the second century. 46 Such legislation made it difficult if not impossible for Jews to carry out their religious obligations; circumcision in particular was viewed as being vital to one's entry into God's covenant with Israel.

The response of R. Ishmael's colleagues is striking. They invoke a principle of rabbinic jurisprudence that discourages religious leaders from publicizing a prohibition when it is likely that it will continue to be flouted nonetheless. Thus they agree with R. Ishmael in theory but view it as impossible to impose such a harsh regimen on the people. Here too one senses the presence of hyperbole; after all, none of the rabbis, including R. Ishmael himself, actually rejected marriage and family despite the dire political and religious situation.

There seems to have been a dissenting view among the rabbis. A rabbinic tradition uses Exodus 2:1 as a pretext for claiming that Amram, Moses' father, separated from his wife, Yocheved; this was done in response to the Pharaonic (p.49) decree that required all newborn male Israelites to be cast into the Nile. His daughter Miriam took him to task, arguing that her father's decree was harsher than Pharaoh's, who had decreed death for males only; Amram's abstinence precluded the possibility of female children as well. Amram relented, and consequently Moses was conceived. 47 The origin and date of this reading is unclear and it is impossible to know what subtext, if any, is encrypted in this exegesis; nonetheless, it is plausible that biblical interpretation is being employed here to argue against the appropriateness of sexual abstinence as a response to persecution.

The third- to early fourth‐century Palestinian rabbi R. Abin proscribes sexual relations during a time of famine or catastrophe. 48 A number of late third‐century Palestinian rabbis attribute such behavior to Noah during the flood and Joseph during the years of famine in Egypt. 49 It is likely that these traditions were meant to be understood as paradigms that should be imitated. Although this response to calamity is identical with R. Ishmael's reaction, the motivation seems to be different. This prohibition could be understood in part as a practical measure: one ought not to bring more children into the world when there is insufficient food for those already living or when conditions are horrific. More likely, however, celibacy serves here as a means of identifying with communal suffering, or as a penitential act. 50 The former interpretation seems to emerge from the Palestinian (or Yerushalmi) Talmud. There it is stated that one who desires children may engage in intercourse; however, this permission is limited to the night a woman immerses in the miqveh or ritual bath to end her status as a menstruant forbidden to her husband. The rabbis believed––correctly––that this was a particularly propitious time for conception. In this way the Yerushalmi is ensuring that sex will take place only for procreative purposes and not for pleasure's sake.

The Rabbis and the Problematization of Sex

The rabbis inherited a biblical tradition in which chastity plays an important role. Leviticus in particular lists a host of sexual restrictions and makes residence in the land of Israel dependent on the fulfillment of these commandments. However, to use Foucault's distinction, these restrictions constitute a code, not a sexual ethic. Certain acts and relations are forbidden; there is no broader discussion of how one should conduct oneself sexually, nor are any modes of self‐discipline proposed. The one example of the voluntary ascetic in biblical literature, the Nazi rite, is restricted in the realms of food, drink, and purity but has no special sexual restrictions placed on the individual.

(p.50) Nonetheless, we must not forget that the Hebrew Bible already requires periodic abstinence within marriage; Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18 forbid intercourse with a niddah, or menstruant; from Leviticus 15:24 it appears that this prohibition is in force for seven days beginning with the onset of menstruation. Moreover, as Leviticus 20:26 explains, it is the observance of this restriction as well as others concerning food and sex that constitute Israel's holiness. A further link between holiness and sexual restriction is found in Leviticus 21; women that are permitted to the Israelites are forbidden to the priests because they have been chosen to “be holy to their God.” 51

The rabbis understood these verses as signifying that restrictions on sexual behavior are the cause of holiness as well as its expression. Hence the rabbis interpret the biblical imperative “you shall be holy” (Lev. 19:1) as specifically forbidding sexual immorality. 52 As a logical consequence of this view they seek out ways to limit sexual expression beyond the proscriptions in Leviticus. Some restrictions were encoded as universal obligations. Thus the rabbis created significant stringencies that increased the monthly period of forced abstinence, requiring that seven days pass without any bleeding before a couple resumes conjugal relations. Jewish males and females were forbidden to be alone with each other in a secluded venue. A man was not permitted to listen to a woman singing. Men were warned not to walk behind women.

However, the rabbis also developed a sexual ethos encapsulated in a statement by the fourth‐century Babylonian rabbi Rava: “Sanctify yourself within what is permitted to you.” 53 This meant that beyond specific prohibitions some rabbis sought to attain greater holiness through the ascetic stylization of their sexual behavior and the monitoring of their thoughts. “Sinful thoughts,” says the Talmud, are worse that sin itself.” 54 In the sections that follow we will see the specific ways in which this attitude expresses itself in rabbinic thought and legislation.

The Ordinance Attributed to Ezra

The Mishnah (composed ca. 200 CE), one of the foundational documents of the rabbinic movement, prescribes that a ba̒al qeri––literally, “one who has had an event,” a euphemism for one who has engaged in sex or had a nocturnal emission––may not pray or recite the biblical verses known as the Shema until after having immersed himself in a miqveh, a ritual bath. A number of contemporaneous sources forbid a ba̒al qeri to study Torah, although there is significant debate about what genres of Torah he may or may not study. 55 An anonymous tradition in the Babylonian Talmud attributes this ordinance to Ezra, which simply means that the practice is assumed to have been quite old. 56

(p.51) Very little is clear about the history, the significance, and the parameters of this ordinance. Presumably it is based on Leviticus 15:16, which requires a man who has emitted semen to immerse himself; he is considered ritually impure until evening. However, the requirement to purify oneself is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible only in connection with the consumption of sanctified food (that is, some of the agricultural apportionments given to the priests and the flesh of sacrificial animals), and entering or serving in the sanctuary or temple. Nowhere does the Torah suggest that purification is required in order to pray and study. The rabbis themselves were well aware of this anomaly; they note that those who are considered impure because of genital flux, menstrual flow, or having had sexual relations with a menstruant may all study Torah but a ba̒al qeri may not. 57

Nonetheless, earlier rabbinic sources (in other words those dating from before 200) seem to understand this ordinance as motivated by purity. In discussing who is considered a ba̒al qeri, the rabbis use the terms tamei, ritually pure, and tahor, ritually impure. 58 Even the words of a second‐century opponent of the ordinance, R. Judah b. Betera––“words of Torah cannot contract impurity”––assume that its proponents are framing it as a purity regulation. Perhaps, as Louis Ginzberg suggests, this was a means of protecting the sanctity of God's name and of the words of Torah. 59 Ironically, Ginzberg notes, this would place this practice in the same orbit as the tovelei shacharit or Hemerobaptists, whom the rabbis clearly considered sectarians. The rabbis themselves record a dispute between the tovelei shacharit and the Pharisees (with whose position the rabbis identified) in which the Pharisees are accused of pronouncing the divine name without having previously immersed themselves. Some of the rabbis involved in discussing the ba̒al qeri ordinance adopt the position of the Hemerobaptists explicitly, if not intentionally; they restrict the requirement for immersion to one who wishes to pronounce God's name. If we assume, however, that the ordinance dates from after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, after which time this sect presumably disappeared, it may be, as Ginzberg theorizes, that the rabbis had no compunctions about adopting a stringency that was previously the hallmark of a group that they considered heterodox. 60

The Amoraim (the post‐Mishnaic rabbis), however, offer other explanations. One view recorded in the Babylonian Talmud is that engaging in sex puts one in a frivolous frame of mind that is incompatible with prayer and study. Immersion is apparently viewed as an aid in making the appropriate psychological and spiritual transition from one activity to the next. Another view recorded there is that the ordinance's intent is to prevent Torah scholars from, as the Talmud puts it, adopting the lusty sexual habits of roosters; that is, it is (p.52) viewed as a delirium that the sexual activity of Torah scholars be held to a minimum. Requiring one to immerse before study––a significant inconvenience at a time when immersion pools were of necessity outdoors and unheated––has the effect of forcing students of Torah to choose between sex and study; the rabbis' confident expectation was that the latter would prevail.

A similar but somewhat different explanation is given in the Yerushalmi. The concern is that one will have sex with his wife while assuring himself that he will study later that evening; in reality this probably will not happen. The added burden of immersion will dissuade the Torah scholar from engaging in sex, and he will go straight to his studies.

Whether or not these later explanations are historically accurate––and they well may not be––they reflect the mindset of rabbis in Palestine and Babylonia in the third and fourth centuries. They view study and sexuality as being inimical to each other, both because the physical and emotional milieu of sex is seen as being incompatible with or potentially detrimental to study (Babylonian Talmud) and because the use of one's allotted time on earth is a zero‐sum game. Time and energy devoted to sex are lost to study. One thinks of Woody Allen's postcoital observation in Annie Hall: “As Balzac would say, ‘There goes another novel.’ ”

Am I saying that rabbis were celibate as a result of this ordinance? No. The rabbis understood themselves to subject to the obligations of marriage, procreation, and fulfilling their conjugal debt to their wives. However, one might say that Ezra's ordinance, or more accurately the later rabbinic understanding of this proscription, reveals the existence of what I would call a celibate impulse within rabbinic culture. This impulse is almost never followed to its extreme conclusion, but it makes for an ongoing tension between (holy) work and love (or at least sex). 61

Torah Study versus Marriage and Family

Daniel Boyarin has described Torah as “the other woman.” 62 Although a Christian saint can imagine herself as Christ's bride or beloved, a rabbi who envisions himself as being romantically involved with Torah––and Torah is generally given a feminine persona by the sages––is creating potential conflict between his celestial beloved and his earthly spouse. The most powerful formulation of this idea appears in a story told about the only explicitly celibate sage in rabbinic literature, Ben Azzai. 63 After one of his colleagues says that one who fails to heed the obligation to reproduce is likened to a murderer, and another that he is regarded as having diminished the divine image, Ben Azzai declares that both are true. At that a colleague, with the incongruity between (p.53) Ben Azzai's declaration and his celibacy in mind, turns to Ben Azzai saying, “You preach well but you do not do well.” To this Ben Azzai answers, “What shall I do? My soul lusts for Torah. Let the obligation of procreation be fulfilled by others.” Ben Azzai describes himself as being too bound up with his celestial love, Torah, to have any time or emotion for a relationship with a woman of flesh and blood.

On the one hand, Ben Azzai is the exception that proves the rule; on the other, the impulse he describes is present in many of his peers. As Boyarin puts it, “The story of Ben‐Azzai is an index of how much energy was required to combat the attractiveness of the celibate life.” 64 It was expected of most disciples of the rabbis in third‐century Palestine that they take upon themselves a significant period of celibacy in order to devote themselves to Torah study. Isaiah Gafni has suggested that this system was a partial adoption of Ben Azzai's philosophy. 65

This being said, it is important to distinguish between the celibacy of young students of Torah in Late Antique Palestine and that practiced by Christian monastics and the like. For the fourth‐century Egyptian hermits and monks, celibacy was part a larger program of anachoresis or withdrawal from the world. This included an abandonment of any material goods or somatic concerns that were not necessary for bare survival. In a religious culture in which celibacy was an acceptable, even honorable option, rejecting sexuality was one more way of disentangling oneself from unnecessary physicality and emotion.

On the whole, the rabbis had no interest in celibacy as a spiritual discipline. Rather, their intense commitment to Torah study, on the one hand, and their sexual code, on the other, made it necessary for them to do without sex for long periods of time. The ideals that motivated their behavior were a love of Torah and a commitment to the virtue of chastity and its attendant obligations, not an acceptance, even temporarily, of the discipline of celibacy. 66 Elsewhere I have called this type of abstinence incidental or instrumental asceticism. 67 The ethos of the Palestinian practice is best summed up by a statement attributed to the third‐century Palestinian sage R. Yohanan: “Shall one study with a millstone [i.e., family responsibilities] around his neck?!” 68

Sex as Obligation, Not as Pleasure

Some Palestinian sages conducted themselves sexually in a manner that minimized the pleasurable component of sex, emphasizing that it its permissibility was limited to reproduction and fulfilling one's marital obligation to one's wife. Thus, R. Eliezer's wife attributed the pleasing appearance of her sons to the chaste sexual habits of her husband, which included having intercourse “as (p.54) though compelled by a demon”––in other words as though it were against his will. 69 In the same Talmudic passage, R. Yohanan b. Dehabai reports a communication he received from the ministering angels that those who engage in unconventional forms of sexual behavior (such as cunnilingus) will have children with birth defects.

This restrictive attitude toward sexual conduct was, however a minority view. R. Yohanan (mentioned above) says that the majority view is that “whatever a man wishes to do with his wife he may do.” It is no different, he says, than the consumption of meat; some like it roasted while some like it cooked. The androcentric nature of R. Yohanan's analogy may offend the modern ear; what is important, however, is that he is normalizing sexual appetite by treating it as no different from the gustatory instinct.

Michael Satlow suggests that we understand the attitude of the Palestinian sages as reflecting the Greco‐Roman ideal of the oikos, the household, which includes the obligation to procreate and thereby perpetuate the family and the polis. In this context, the major function of sex is procreation, a notion emphasized by Palestinian sources to the virtual exclusion of any discussion of sexual intimacy or pleasure. 70

I would add that the Palestinian rabbinic attitude can be further illuminated by Foucault's exegesis of Xenophon's Oeconomicus, a prescription for the proper management of one's estate. 71 The arts of ruling that one must develop to be a successful landholder must be applied to marriage and civic life as well. To rule––over one's workers, one's wife or one's fellow citizens––one must first have demonstrated, through the control of one's passions and impulses, the ability to rule oneself. Only one who is not enslaved to his own desires has the ability and the respect necessary to manage domestic and communal affairs. Consequently, the ability to view sex as the fulfillment of a duty rather than as a pleasurable pastime is part of Xenophon's portrait of the ideal manager, and this is so for the Palestinian rabbis as well. One is reminded of the teaching of the second‐century Palestinian sage Ben Zoma: “Who is mighty? He who conquers his impulses.” 72

Finally, we should mention Boyarin's citation of a number of Hellenistic Jewish texts that suggest that first‐century Palestinian Judaism was “at best, powerfully ambivalent about sexuality.” 73 The term often used by the earliest rabbis to refer to sexual desire is, in fact, צד הדע‎, or “the evil inclination”; surely this does not bespeak a positive attitude toward sexuality. Boyarin goes on to argue that Paul's negative view of sex was a natural outgrowth of the Palestinian Jewish culture of his time; he sees the more positive attitudes of later rabbis as a reaction to this perspective.

(p.55) The Babylonian View

The Babylonian practice, beginning in the first half of the third century or perhaps earlier, was for students of Torah to marry and then to spend years in study, often far from home. 74 There were two motivations for this approach. The first was the Babylonian rabbinic view, consistent with the views of the surrounding Zoroastrian culture, 75 that the only possible antidote to sexual temptation was early marriage. The late‐third‐century Babylonian sage R. Hisda states, “I am better than my fellows because I married at sixteen; had I married at fourteen I would have been able to say to Satan: ‘An arrow in your eye!’ ” 76 The second was the belief that one who had “a loaf in his basket,” that is, someone to whom sex was generally available, would be better able to withstand periods of sexual deprivation. 77

The Babylonians are aware of the toll that such an arrangement can take on the wife. They consider this issue through the medium of stories concerning various rabbis who spent long periods of time away from home. These range from romanticizing the love between R. Aqiba and his wife, Rachel, which transcends a separation of twenty‐four years, to an implicit indictment of those who abandon their families. 78 The expectation seems to have been that a good wife would support a husband in his decision to absent himself for the sake of Torah study; that husband, in turn, was expected to be considerate and appreciative of the sacrifices made by his wife. The following story sums up these themes neatly: “R. Hiyya's wife would torment him. [Nonetheless] when he would find something [appropriate for her] he would wrap it in his scarf and bring it to her. Rab said to him, ‘But, sir, doesn't she torment you?’ He replied, ‘It is as much as we deserve that [our wives] raise our children and save us from sin.’ ” 79

There is a series of narratives in the Babylonian Talmud that have as their common theme the invincibility of the sexual impulse. 80 We hear of R. Amram the Pious who, entrusted to protect redeemed female captives from molestation, falls victim to his own desires. He stops himself from acting upon them only by confessing his intentions and bringing shame on himself and his colleagues. The great sages R. Aqiba and R. Meir think themselves immune from the blandishments of sex; however, when Satan appears to them in the guise of a beautiful woman they are saved from sin only through God's grace. The rabbi Polemo is shown, in a Rabelaisian tale that ends with him falling into a latrine, that he cannot hope to defeat the evil impulse decisively.

(p.56) The final story is about R. Hiyya b. Ashi, who despite the fact that he has separated from his wife, asks God daily to be saved from the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. The story continues as follows:

One day his wife heard him. She said, “Given that he has separated himself from me for quite some time, why does he say this?”

One day he was studying in his garden. She adorned herself and passed before him several times.

He said to her, “Who are you?” She said, “I am Harutah who has returned just today.” He propositioned her. She said, “Bring me that pomegranate from the top of the tree.” He hastened to bring her the fruit.

When he came home, his wife was putting fuel in the oven. He went and sat inside it. She said to him, “What is this?” He said, “Thus and thus occurred.” She said to him, “It was I.” He paid no attention to her until she produced evidence that this was so. He said to her, “Nonetheless my intention was to sin.” This righteous man fasted all his days until he died of that. 81

It is not clear why R. Hiyya b. Ashi has stopped sleeping with his wife. Rashi (French, eleventh century), one of the premier medieval commentators on the Talmud, suggests that this was a result of incapacity due to old age. The point of the story would then be that if sufficiently inflamed with lust even the old and feeble can, as it were, rise to the occasion. Once again, we are being told that only the dead are free from the tug of sexual desire.

However, I prefer a reading suggested recently by Shlomo Naeh. 82 He assumes that R. Hiyya b. Ashi has intentionally taken celibacy upon himself. The narrative, suggests Naeh, is a polemic against those Babylonian rabbis attracted to the sexual asceticism of the qadishayya and ihidayya, the celibates of Syriac Christianity. I will not rehearse Naeh's subtle and complex interpretation of the narrative; I wish simply to emphasize that his interpretation turns the story into an argument that any attempt to practice celibacy will actually result in greater sinfulness.

Let us be clear that the Babylonian view that sexual desire cannot be fully contained is not simply a variation on Paul's declaration that although it is better to remain unmarried “it is better to be married than to be burnt up.” 83 In general the rabbis celebrate reproduction as a positive good as well as a commandment, and they recognize the crucial role of sexual desire in the building of society: “If it were not for the evil [read: sexual] impulse, a man would not build a house, marry a wife, and have children.” 84 Moreover the Babylonian sages, more than their Palestine colleagues, look favorably on sexual plea (p.57) sure. 85 Rather, even as they understand the benefits and pleasures of sex and sexuality, the Babylonian rabbis are acutely aware of its destructive––often self‐destructive––potential. For some this leads to a deep desire to be done with sex, to be liberated from its bonds. The counsel of the Babylonian rabbis is: We understand your yearning; nonetheless, we urge you to accept your sexual urges as a divinely ordained component of human identity that cannot be ignored or denied, only properly channeled.

The Babylonian rabbis express this attitude most vividly by means of a legend. The beginning of the legend deals with a problem that arose for the rabbis because of their belief that the earlier generations of Jews had been more righteous than the later ones. How, then, were they to explain that the Israelites of the First Temple period worshiped idols whereas Jews of the Second Temple era did not? The rabbinic explanation, based on an interpretation of some impenetrable verses in Zechariah, is that the spirit of idolatry was exorcised from the people through the prophet's agency, upon their return from exile in Babylonia. They mean to say that subsequent generations were able to eschew the practice of idolatry not because of their merit or piety but through a divine act of grace. The legend then goes on to report an attempt to subject the spirit of sexual desire to exorcism:

[The Jews returning from the Babylonian exile in the late sixth century] said, “Because it is a time of favor let us pray [to be released from] the impulse to sin [sexually]. They prayed and the evil impulse was handed over to them. [The prophet Zechariah] said to them, “Be careful, for if you kill it the world will come to an end.”

They imprisoned it for three days; they then searched for a newly laid egg throughout the land of Israel and they could find none. They said, “What shall we do? If we kill it the world will be destroyed. If we ask for half [i.e., only to have licit sexual desires]––heaven does not grant by halves.”

They put kohl in its eyes [and blinded it]. It helped to the extent that one is no longer sexually aroused by one's close kin. 86

The rabbis fantasize here about a scenario in which they are given control of their own sexual urges. Yet, they realize, what would they do if they were indeed granted this power? To destroy sexuality is to destroy the world. To expect that one will only experience “good” sexual impulses is unrealistic; desire is an undifferentiated force that does not make distinctions between the permitted and the forbidden. They therefore conclude that we can only be thankful for the few realms in which desire has little power to undo us; and as for the rest, we face the daily task of wrestling with our sexual instincts and doing our (p.58) best to harness them for our own good and the god of those around us. More than that, says our narrator, we cannot do.


In its general outlines, then, the assumption that celibacy plays a marginal role in Jewish spiritual practice is correct. When one looks more closely, however, one sees that for many Jews, particularly the religious elite, the tension between sex and spirituality never disappears. The mystics of thirteenth‐century Spain and sixteenth‐century Safed developed a deeply erotic mythology concerning the masculine and feminine aspects of the Godhead, and they viewed their own sexual relations with their wives as performing the holy task of reuniting the Shekhinah, the divine presence, with her male counterpart in the divine constellation. At the same time, this sacralization of sex led these same mystics to forswear sex on any day other than the Sabbath and to avoid deriving pleasure from intercourse. 87 A number of Hasidic masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contracted celibate marriages with their wives. 88 The Lithuanian yeshivot or Talmudic academies of the 1800s had their perushim (“abstinent ones”) who followed the Babylonian rabbinic practice of spending years at a time away from their wives and families. 89 Even among the eighteenth- and nineteenth‐century Maskilim, the “enlightened” Jewish intellectuals who saw themselves as rebels against traditionalism and staunch foes of the Hassidim, there was a widespread sentiment that marriage should be set aside in favor of male fellowship and intellectual pursuits. 90

A recent development in American Judaism has added a new element to the situation. Much of the conflict between study and family within Judaism is connected to the assumption that only men are obligated to engage in intensive Torah study. That assumption is being challenged today, even––and in (p.59) some respects especially––within the Orthodox world. (Although only the non‐Orthodox movements have been willing to grant ordination to women, most of the intensive Talmud study among women is taking place in Orthodox circles.) Married women are now being supported by their husbands in their efforts to become Talmud scholars and ordained rabbis. This support undoubtedly includes holding the fort at home while one's spouse pursues her studies. Will we see the emergence of female perushot who spend long periods away from their families engaged in study? Only time will tell.

Every religious tradition must address the question of sex. Judaism came to value two conflicting sets of obligations––marriage and procreation on the one hand, and study and prayer on the other––with equal fervor and intensity. Some unresolved queries in the Babylonian Talmud end with the word teyku, “let it stand.” A fanciful interpretation of this word parses it as an acronym signifying, “[Elijah] the Tishbite [the forerunner of the Messiah] will resolve all difficulties and questions.” Until the arrival of Elijah one can expect the question of what constitutes an appropriate balance of family and spiritual endeavor within Jewish practice to remain a teyku.

(p.60) (p.61) (p.62) (p.63) (p.64)


(1.)  For an exhaustive discussion of Jewish and Christian exegesis of this verse, see Jeremy Cohen, “Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It”: The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989). See in particular 158–165, where Cohen considers possible motivations for the rabbinic understanding of Genesis 1:28 as having legal force.

(2.)  Unless otherwise indicated, the terms “sage” and “rabbi” refer to the virtuosi who constituted the rabbinic movement in its first phase, which began with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE (or perhaps somewhat earlier) and ended sometime in the late sixth or early seventh century.

(3.)  Elisa J. Sobo and Sandra Bell, “Celibacy in Cross‐Cultural Perspective: An Overview,” in Elisa J. Sobo and Sandra Bell, ed., Celibacy, Culture and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 3–23.

(4.)   On the Contemplative Life 2. Translations of On the Contemplative Life are from Gail Paterson Corrington, “Philo, On the Contemplative Life: Or, On the Suppliants (The Fourth Book of Virtue),” in Vincent Wimbush, ed., Ascetic Behavior in Greco‐Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 134–155. All other translations of Philo's writings are from the Loeb Classical Library edition.

(5.)   On the Contemplative Life 68.

(6.)  Paterson Corrington, “Philo, On the Contemplative Life,” 135–136. Compare Philo, The Life of Moses 2.216: “For what are our places of prayer throughout the cities but schools of prudence and courage and temperance and justice [i.e., the four virtues of the Stoics], etc.”

(7.)   On the Contemplative Life 13.

(8.)  Ross Shepard Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings: Women's Religious among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco‐Roman World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 114–115. See also her discussion of Mary Douglas's theory concerning the combined role of minimal ascribed status and stratification (“low grid”) and strong communal identity (“strong group”) in creating an egalitarian environment (14–19, 199–208).

(9.)   On the Contemplative Life 72.

(10.)  The Shakers make their case for celibacy along these lines, although they provide other rationales as well; see Peter Collins, “Virgins in the Spirit,” in Sobo and Bell, Celibacy, Culture, and Society, 104–121.

(11.)   On the Contemplative Life 20. Compare Philo's observation concerning the Essenes in Quod Omnus Probus 76.

(12.)  Paul Ernst Lucius, Die Therapeuten und ihre Stellung in der Geschichte der Askese. Eine kritische Untersuchung der Schrift De vita contemplativa (Strassburg: C. F. Schmidt, 1879). The church historian Eusebius (third–fourth centuries) accepted the attribution of the work to Philo but preserved Philo's description of the Therapeutae in his Historia Ecclesia (2.17) because he believed that Philo was actually describing early Christian monastics.

(13.)  This possibility has been raised most recently by T. Engbert‐Pedersen, “Philo's De Vita contemplative as a Philosopher's Dream,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 30 (1999): 40–64.

(14.)  The relationship between the Essenes and the Qumran community will be addressed below.

(15.)  It is possible that the appellation Eσσηνoí or Eσσαîoi is derived from the Aramaic אסיא‎, “healers.” See Geza Vermes, “The Etymology of ‘Essenes,’ ” Revue de Qumran 2 (1960): 427–443. On the connection between the groups, see Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, revised and edited by Geza Vermes et al. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1973–1987), 593–597; and Lester Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian, vol. 2 The Roman Period (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 499. See, however, his cautionary remark in Grabbe, Judaic Religion in the Second Temple Period (London: Routledge, 2000), 206.

(16.)   Natural History 5.73.

(17.)   Quod Omnis Probus, 75–87; Hypothetica (cited by Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 8).

(18.)   War 2.120–161; Antiquities 18.18–22.

(19.)   War 2.160. This and all subsequent translations of Josephus are from the Loeb Classical Library edition. Note that earlier in his account in War (2.120) he tells us that the Essenes “adopt other men's children … and regard them as their kin and mold them in accordance with their own principles.”

(20.)   War 2.161.

(21.)   War 2.121.

(22.)   Antiquities 18.21.

(23.)   Hypothetica 11.14–17.

(24.)  See Eva Cantarella, Pandora's Daughters, translated by Maureen B. Fant (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

(25.)  See War 2.123, 129, 150 and Antiquities 18.19.

(26.)  This section is an expanded version of my discussion of celibacy at Qumran in Eliezer Diamond, Holy Men and Hunger Artists: Fasting and Asceticism in Rabbinic Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 33–34; for a summary of the evidence see Joseph M. Baumgarten, “Celibacy,” in Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. VanderKam, eds., Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 1:123–124.

(27.)  1QRule of the Community, column 4 line 7. However, 1QRule of the Congregation, which contains the rule for “the final days,” marriage, and family are mentioned; the minimum age for marriage is set at twenty (column 1 lines 9–10).

(28.)  Cairo Damascus Document MS A, column vii lines 4–9. This and all subsequent translations of the Damascus Document and Qumran texts are from Florentino García Martinez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, eds. and trans., The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997).

(29.)  See Louis Ginzberg, An Unknown Jewish Sect, translated and edited by Ralph Marcus et al. (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1976), 32–33. See Eli Ginzberg's foreword, ix–xi, for a history of the genesis of this work.

(30.)  See Eli Ginzberg's foreword, xiii. The precise meaning of “Damascus” in the Qumran documents has been the subject of much debate; see Jerome Murphy‐O'Connor, “Damascus,” in Schiffman and VanderKam, Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1:165–166.

(31.)  Elisha Qimron, “Celibacy in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Two Kinds of Sectarians,” in J. T. Barrera and L. V. Montaner, eds., The Madrid Qumran Congress: Proceedings of the International Congress on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Madrid 18–21 March, 1991 (New York: E. J. Brill and Editorial Complutense, 1992) 1:287–294, esp. 291. See the passage in the Damascus Document cited above, the Temple Scroll, column 45 lines 7–12, and other sources cited by Qimron.

(32.)  War Scroll (1QM), column 7 lines 3–4.

(33.)  Albert Marx, “Les racines du célibat essénien,” Revue de Qumran 7 (1970): 338–342.

(34.)  Antoine Guillamont, “A propos du celibate des Esséniens,” in Homage á André Dupont‐Sommer (Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1971), 395–404.

(35.)  Michael Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 21–24.

(36.)  4Q270 fragment 2 II lines 15–16. As was mentioned previously, Josephus describes the Essenes as abiding by this restriction. One should also note that in the apocryphal work The History of the Rechabites, a work of uncertain date that clearly has Christian interpolations but may have a Jewish core, some of the community is designated as celibate while other members marry but have intercourse with their wives only once in order to procreate.

(37.)  4Q267 fragment 9 vi lines 4–5 (= 4Q270 fragment 7 column I lines 12–13). It has been suggested that the rather opaque statement that “no one should intermingle [יתעדכ‎] voluntarily on the Sabbath” (Cairo Damascus Document MS A column XI line 4) is a prohibition of sexual activity on the Shabbat, but this is mere speculation.

(38.)  See Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian, 2:496.

(39.)  Robert A. Horsley with John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 35.

(40.)  Note, for example, Josephus's description of the ascetic Bannus in Life 2: “[He] dwelt in the wilderness, wearing only such things as trees provided, feeding on such things as grew of themselves, and using frequent ablutions of cold water by day and night for purity's sake.”

(41.)  Gerd Thiessen, The Sociology of Palestinian Christianity, translated by John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).

(42.)  Stephen J. Patterson, “Askesis and the Early Jesus Tradition,” in Leif E. Vaage and Vincent L. Wimbush, eds., Asceticism and the New Testament (New York: Routledge, 1999), 64.

(43.)  2 Baruch 10:13–16a. This translation is from James Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983).

(44.)  Tosefta Sotah 15.11–12. The date of the Tosefta's composition has not been determined definitively; I assume that it dates from the mid‐third century. This and all subsequent translations of rabbinic texts are my own.

(45.)  Tosefta Sotah 15.10.

(46.)  There is reason to question whether these were actually imperial rescripts or the work of the provincial governor Tinnaeus Rufus; see Y. Geiger, “The Decree against Circumcision and the Bar‐Kochva Revolt” (in Hebrew) in A. Oppenheimer, ed., Mered Bar Kokhva (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 1980), 85–93. In rabbinic literature, the period of the Hadrianic persecutions is known as שׁעת השׁמד‎, “the time of utter destruction.” Saul Lieberman points out that this phrase is equivalent to the Latin extirpatio, a term used by the Romans to describe the uprooting of a religion. See Saul Lieberman, “The Persecution of the Jewish Faith” (in Hebrew), in Salo Whittmayer Baron Jubilee Volume on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, edited by Saul Lieberman, Hebrew Section (Jerusalem: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1974), 228–229. See Lieberman, “Persecution,” for a full discussion of this question.

(47.)  BT (Babylonian Talmud; final editing in sixth century [?]) Sotah 12a and parallels. A particularly interesting version of this legend is found in a midrashic collection of uncertain date and provenance, Pesiqta Rabbati (Pisqa 43), where it is said that Moses' father Amram, in conjunction with his fellow elders, actually issued a decree forbidding Israelite men to have relations with their wives because of Pharaoh's decree.

(48.)   Genesis Rabbah (fifth‐century Palestinian midrashic collection) 31:12 and parallels.

(49.)  PT (Palestinian Talmud, edited in final third of fourth century [?]) Ta̒anit 1:6 (64d) and parallels.

(50.)  Sexual relations were forbidden by the rabbis during the later and more stringent of the fasts that were instituted in case of drought or famine (Mishnah Ta̒anit 1:6). The rabbis also defined the biblical requirement that on Yom Kippur “you shall afflict yourselves” as including a prohibition of sex.

(51.)  Leviticus 21:6.

(52.)  See Diamond, Holy Men and Hunger Artists, 78.

(53.)  BT Yebamot 20a.

(54.)  BT Yoma 29a.

(55.)  Tosefta Berakhot 2:12, PT Berakhot 3:4 (6b), BT Berakhot 22a. All subsequent citations of and references to rabbinic discussion of this subject can be found in the PT or the BT at these locations.

(56.)  BT Bava Qamma 82a. The Palestinian Talmud (Shabbat 1.4, 3c) lists this as one of the eighteen ordinances decreed by the disciples of Shammai despite the opposition of the disciples of Hillel in the early first century.

(57.)  Tosefta and parallels.

(58.)  Mishnah Miqva'ot 8:2–4.

(59.)  Louis Ginzberg, A Commentary on the Palestinian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot (in Hebrew; New York: Ktav, 1941), 2:234, 269.

(60.)  Ibid., 2:240, 271.

(61.)  See Steven Fraade, “Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism,” in Arthur Green, ed., Jewish Spirituality from the Bible through the Middle Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 275.

(62.)  Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 134.

(63.)  Tosefta Yebamot 8:7. This story has been analyzed numerous times. See Boyarin, Carnal Israel, 134–136, and Diamond, Holy Men and Hunger Artists, 35–38.

(64.)  Boyarin, Carnal Israel, 136.

(65.)  Isaiah Gafni, The Jews in Babylonia in the Talmudic Era: A Social and Cultural History (in Hebrew; Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1990), 267–268.

(66.)  I am paraphrasing here the distinction made by Paul Southgate in “A Swallow in Winter: A Catholic Priesthood Viewpoint,” in Sobo and Bell, Celibacy, Culture, and Society, 248.

(67.)  Diamond, Holy Men and Hunger Artists, 16.

(68.)  BT Qiddushin 29b.

(69.)  BT Nedarim 20a–b.

(70.)  Satlow, Jewish Marriage, 12–21, esp. 19, 280 n. 109; Satlow, Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 290–294.

(71.)  Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, volume 2, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990), 152–165.

(72.)  Mishnah Abot 4:1.

(73.)  Daniel Boyarin, “Body Politic among the Brides of Christ: Paul and the Origins of Christian Sexual Renunciation, in V. Wimbush and R. Valantasis, eds., Asceticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 460.

(74.)  Boyarin, Carnal Israel, 159–165, by comparing the Palestinian and Babylonian versions of the midrash that Moses separated himself from Zippora permanently after the revelation at Sinai, shows that the Palestinian version probably reflects Palestinian disapproval of this Babylonian practice.

(75.)  See the observation of Anne Drafthorn Kilmer, reported in Boyarin, Carnal Israel, 140 n. 13, that from a very early date Babylonian culture and religion view sex as a necessity for everyone. See also Diamond, Holy Men and Hunger Artists, 131.

(76.)  BT Qiddushin 29b–30a.

(77.)  See BT Ketubot 62a–b and 63a–b.

(78.)  See the series of stories in Bavli Ketubot 62b–63a and the analysis in Boyarin, Carnal Israel, 146–158.

(79.)  BT Yebamot 63a–b.

(80.)  BT Qiddushin 81a–b.

(81.)  BT Qiddushin 81b.

(82.)  Shlomo Naeh, “Freedom and Celibacy: A Talmudic Variation on Tales of Temptation and Fall in Genesis and Its Syrian Background,” in J. Frishman and L. Van Rompay, eds., The Book of Genesis in Jewish and Oriental Christian Interpretation (Louvain: n.p., 1997), 73–89.

(83.)  I Corinthians 7:9.

(84.)   Genesis Rabbah 9:7 and parallels.

(85.)  See Boyarin, Carnal Israel, 56 and passim; Satlow, Tasting the Dish, 315–327 and passim.

(86.)  BT Yoma 69b.

(87.)  See David Biale, Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 109–118.

(88.)  Ibid., 137–141.

(89.)  Ibid., 147–148.

(90.)  Ibid., 157–158.