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Notes from Limmud 2004: "Women Who Rub": The Rabbis Talk About Lesbians

Notes from Limmud 2004

"Women Who Rub": The Rabbis Talk About Lesbians

Jay Michaelson, Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for GLBT Jews

With acknowledgement and thanks to Orthodykes
Translations of the sources by Elaine Chapnik (with a little help from her friends)

[I said I wasn't going to type this up, but with it so topical I changed my mind.]

Where does the prohibition on lesbianism come from?


The Torah has the following to say:

Lev. 20:13 ויקרא כ יג
If a man has sex with a man as he would with a woman, they have both commited a toēvāh [normally translated "abomination"]; they should be put to death and their blood shall be put upon them. וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת־זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם; מוֹת יוּמָתוּ דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם׃

(The other passage dealing with homosexuality, Lev. 18:22 ("You shall not lie down with a man as you would with a woman; it is an abomination"), might imply only the active partner is censured; this passage unequivocally refers to both.)

Does this prohibition extend to women? Answer: No; it never has, historically. This is not the basis of the prohibition on lesbianism. Note that this means from the halachic perspective homosexuality is not one thing.

What exactly does מִשְׁכְּבֵי mean? This word is used in Genesis to refer to Jacob. It's not clear exactly what it means. Not it is used to reference to unethical practices, e.g. weights and measures (also to eating shellfish, though). There are references to תועבת מצרים, the abominations of Egypt—but these are things we are asked to do! Perhaps the concept is one of a cultural taboo.

A few verses before the second source referred to above, we find:

Lev. 18:3 ויקרא יח ג
After the doings of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelt, you shall not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, into which I bring you, shall you not do: neither shall you walk in their laws. כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּהּ לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ; וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ־כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכוּ׃


The Sifra is a collection of midrashim which can be given halachic weight, though not in all subjects—depends how the later sources use it. When something is in the Torah or Mishna we can't say no to it. When something is in the Sifra that's not enough [to make it law by itself]. On the other hand, it is used by later sources in which are authoritative, in this case.

The Sifra has this to say about the above passage:

What is the meaning of "according to the doings of the land of Egypt and according to the doings of the land of Canaan you shall not do"? Is it possible that one should not build buildings like theirs or plant crops as they do? After the ways of the Egyptians you shall not go. Therefore, the Torah teaches, "and in their laws you shall not walk." Only the laws that have been established for them and their ancestors are specified.1 And what are they? A man would marry a man, a woman would marry a woman,2 and a woman would be married to two men.3" Therefore, it says, "and in their laws you shall not walk."

Now this only applies to marriage. What about non-marital lesbianism? Is it considered sex at all (given that sex constitutes marriage in Judaism)? Given the heterosexual nature of the Talmud, if there is no penis, it is not sex, therefore cannot be marriage! See further the next source.

We have no way of knowing whether the Sifra is saying anything about either ancient or contemporary Egyptian practices. It's not recorded in Egyptian sources(?). But cf. gender role bending for female pharaohs [MSG: there was more than one (Hatshepsut)?]. Or maybe this is a later reaction to Graeco-Roman homosexuality; finding an "ancient" pretext for banning it (speculation).

  1. I.e. not clear is a law of Egypt but the prohibition does not apply to this because it is not specific for the Egyptians.
  2. Also a man would marry a woman and her daughter.
  3. The converse, of course, a man marrying two women, was okay at that period.


Gemara (500 CE): (i) Yevamot 76a

Yevamot 76a: יבמות עו א
Rav Huna said, women who are מסוללות mesolelot3 with each other are prohibited from marrying a member of the priesthood1. And even according to Reb Eleazar, who says: an unmarried man who has sexual intercourse with an unmarried woman not for the purpose of marriage causes her to be considered a zonah2, these words concern a [woman who has sex with] a man. But [a woman who has been mesolelot with another], it is prizuta b'alma mere lewdness4 [not intercourse]. דא״ר הונא נשים המסוללות זו בזו פסולות לכהונה ואפילו לרבי אלעזר דאמר פנוי הבא על הפנויה שלא לשם אישות עשאה זונה ה״מ איש אבל אשה פריצותא בעלמא׃
  1. Rav Huna considers mesolelot to be an act of illicit sexual intercourse and therefore zenut, which is a technical halachic (legal) term referring to an act of prohibited intercourse, such as incestuous sex or sex with a gentile or mamzer (a child of an illegal union). A Cohen is forbidden to marry a zonah (a woman who has engaged in an act of zenut).
  2. Even though the act of intercourse was not a prohibited one (such as incest or sex with a mamzer or gentile), inasmuch as it consisted of intercourse between two unrelated, unmarried Jewish people of the opposite sex, it is nevertheless still considered to be zenut according to halacha because a man is involved. In order for a woman who engages in a sex act to be considered a zonah, there must be penile penetration. Because the act of mesolelut between two women does not involve men, the women are not considered to be zonot and so they are not prohibited from marrying Cohanim.
  3. "Rub up against one another"—but then of course there is discussion as to what exactly this means.
  4. This phrase is also used for dressing immodestly (for mild forms of immodesty—it would not refer to woman naked in public!). According to the Gemara, lesbianism is on the same level of badness as wearing a bikini!

Rashi's commentary (1041–1105 CE)

Mesolelot means in imitation of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. The women rub their genitalia together.
Which shows you how much he knew!

Tosafot (commentary, 1100–1300 CE)

The Rīvan explained that this phrase, נשים המסוללות זו בזו, refers to women who implant their husbands' sperm in each other. But that interpretation could not be correct because elsewhere in the Gemara, in Shabbat 65a/b, where it says that Shmuel1 did not let his daughters sleep with each other because of Rav Huna's dictate [that נשים המסוללות זו בזו are zonot and so prohibited from marrying Cohanim. His daughters must have been unmarried since they still lived with their father. So how could the term hamesolelot refer to their husbands' sperm? Equally incorrect is Rashi's explanation of Rav Huna's dictate that women who are mesolelot with each other are prohibited from marrying a cohen. According to Rashi, Rav Huna meant that they are only prohibited from marrying the High Priest (Cohen Gadol). [That interpretation is rejected] because of the dispute presented here [between Rav Huna and Reb Eleazar]. Tosafot quote Yevamot 76a: "And even according to Reb Eleazar, who says [etc, see quotation above] a [woman who has been mesolelot with a woman]—it is mere licentiousness." For Rav Huna, the act of being mesolelot is zenut [not just mere licentiousness]. Therefore, in Rav Huna's view, they are prohibited from marrying any Cohen, not just the Cohen Gadol.
  1. Our texts say "Shmuel's father."

Gemara: (ii) Sabbat 65a/b

This Gemara is mainly concerned with whether it is considered to be a violation of the halacha against carrying on Shabbat for women to go outside wearing threads—some kind of attractive clothing (the rest of this section is about modesty)—on Shabbat. Shmuel the Amora's father was very strict (machmir) and he prohibited his daughters from going outside wearing threads on Shabbat, as well as from sleeping together.

(Also he made his daughters special mikvas for use in the month of Nissan, when the rain level in the main one would be low, and who knows who might be watching?)

The father of Shmuel [the Amora] wouldn't permit his daughters1 to sleep with each other. Shall we say that this practice of Shmuel's father, of not letting his daughters sleep with each other, gives support to Rav Huna, who said that נשים המסוללות זו בזו are [zonot and therefore] prohibited from marrying a Cohen? No, the father of Shmuel didn't want them getting used to a foreign body2. אבוה דשמואל לא שביק להו לבנתיה דנפקי בחוטין ולא שביק להו גניאן גבי הדדי ועביד להו מקואות ביומי ניסן ומפצי ביומי תשרי לא שביק להו יוצאות בחוטין והאנן תנן הבנות יוצאות בחוטין בנתיה דאבוה דשמואל דצבעונין הוו לא שביק להו גניאן גבי הדדי לימא מסייע ליה לרב הונא דאמר ר״ה נשים המסוללות זו בזו פסולות לכהונה לא סבר כי היכי דלא לילפן גופא נוכראה׃
  1. The fact they were sisters doesn't come into it. The Talmud recognises sex happens between all kinds of people.
  2. As Rashi explains, this could lead them to have sexual relations with men under unsuitable circumstances.

[There's some more quotations here, from Rashi and the Tosafot explaining the above, but the speaker skipped them due to time, and I shall because it's a lot of work to type all this up.]

This explicitly rejects lesbianism as zenut—the Gemara argues against letting women sleep together being zenut. This is the end of the tradition in the Gemara. So how do we get the situation we have in which lesbianism is forbidden?


Mishne Torah, Kiddusha, Issuray Be'ah 21:8 משנה תורה להרמב״ם, ספר קדושה, הלכות איסורי ביאה כא ח
נשים המסוללות זו בזו are performing a forbidden act because it is a ma`aseh Mitzrayim (doing what the Egyptians did), and forbidden. It is an act of the Egyptians, against which we were warned. As it is said, "the doings of the Egyptians you shall not do. And what are they? The Sages said, "a man would marry a man, a woman would maary a woman, and a woman would marry two men." Even though it is forbidden, Torah-status lashes are not appropriate, because the women have not violated a specific prohibition of the Torah and there is not sexual intercourse [because no man is involved]. Therefore, such women are not prohibited from marrying Cohanim or from being with their husbands [sexually] because they have not committed zenut. However, it appropriate to flog them with lashes1 for their rebellious behaviour (מכת מרדות, makot mardut) because what they have done is forbidden. A man should be particularly careful in regard to his wife in order to prevent women known for engaging in such activity from associating with her, whether they come in to her or she goes out to them. נשים המסוללות זו בזו—אסור, וממעשה מצריים הוא שהוזהרנו עליו: שנאמר "כמעשה ארץ מצריים ... לא תעשו" (ויקרא יח,ג); ואמרו חכמים, מה היו עושים—איש נושא איש, ואישה נושאה אישה, ואישה נישאת לשני אנשים׃ אף על פי שמעשה זה אסור, אין מלקין עליו—שאין לו לאו מיוחד, והרי אין שם ביאה כלל; לפיכך אין נאסרות לכהונה משום זנות, ולא תיאסר אישה על בעלה בזה--שאין כאן זנות. וראוי להכותן מכת מרדות, הואיל ועשו איסור׃ ויש לאיש להקפיד על אשתו בדבר זה, ולמנוע הנשים הידועות בכך מלהיכנס לה ומלצאת היא אליהן׃
  1. A different type of lashes for a lesser crime.

This is what causes the problem. This is something the Rambam did—conflated two different prohibitions, the light on in the Gemara and the heavy one in the Sifra. These are prohibitions on different things. This is a fence—lesbians might want to consumate their relationship in marriage. This argument has been made but it is not what the Rambam is doing here.

Note that the Rambam does not explicitly forbid anything except mesolelut (according to Rashi?). However, possibly he does mean all activities. He has an agenda, and it probably reflects the practices in his culture, with lesbianism in harems, etc. Culturally, the inclusion of the last sentence suggests association with known lesbians was a real potential problem for the Rambam; this is substantiated by other sources.

The Magid Mishna (R. Yom Yov Vidal from Toulouse, ca. 1300) on the Rambam

The Magid cites the Sifta in Torat Cohanim [regarding same-sex marriage] and Rav Huna's opinion in the Gemara (Yevamot 76a) that נשים המסוללות זו בזו are prohibited from marrying a Cohen. The Magid does not accept Rav Huna's opinion as halacha. The explanations of Rīvan and Rashi are cited with regard to the term נשים המסוללות זו בזו, which, the Magid says, they define as women who exchange semen with each other1
  1. While the Magid is right about that view with regard to Rīvan, he is clearly mistaken about Rashi's view on it.
Further quotations follow from the Tur (1268–1340 CE), the Beit Yosef (Joseph Caro, 1555 CE), the Prisha (Yehoshua Falk, 1450–1514) and the Smag (1200—1260), which I'm also skipping here.

Shulchan Aruch (Joseph Caro, 1564 CE): Even HaEzer 20:2

נשים המסוללות, meaning rubbing and grinding [המשחקות ומתמככות], are forbidden under the warning not to go after the ways of the Egyptians. מכת מרדות [lashes] are apprpriate since they violate a prohibition [not found in the Torah itself]. A man should take care that his wife not associate with women who are known to engage in such activity, whether they are coming in to her or she goes out to them.
This is a problem: the Shulchan Aruch is an authority and is difficult to get by even for the Conservative Movement.

Stance of the Conservative Movement (prior to 2006)

The handout finishes with pages 4–5 of R. Joel Roth's 1992 Teshuva on Homosexuality, in which the speaker got rather annoyed with Roth getting things wrong, for example "The sages, however, have forbidden female homosexuality", and "Female homosexuality is no less forbidden by law than male homosexuality"—neither of which, as the above quotations ought to make clear, is actually the case; and "Among the practices mentioned in the Sifra as intended by Lev. 18:3 is lesbianism," likewise; etc.

Jewish learning notes index

Tags: cool, halacha, limmud
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