Traditional Sources on Sex Outside Marriage

While the Torah does not forbid premarital sex, the rabbis of the talmudic era prohibited it--but one modern authority proposed a sanctioned form of exclusive sexual relationship outside of marriage.

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The following is adapted and reprinted with permission of the author from Does God Belong in the Bedroom?. One note of clarification: regarding contemporary authorities, the author writes that the rabbis of all movements forbid sex outside marriage. This is imprecise. While most Orthodox and Conservative rabbis do consider sex outside marriage inappropriate, most Reform and Reconstructionist (and some Conservative) rabbis are less severe in their language. The official position of the Reform movement is that sex outside of marriage is not ideal, but it is not considered “forbidden.” Few Reconstructionist rabbis would disapprove of all sex outside mar.

The written Torah never forbids sex outside the context of marriage, with the exception of adultery and incest. On the contrary, the Torah seems to assume that it is a natural part of life. For example, when Judah sleeps with his daughter‑in‑law Tamar, mistaking her for a prostitute (Genesis 38), he is never condemned for the sexual act, only for avoiding his levirate responsibilities. Similarly, when King David in his old age is unable to keep warm, a young virgin, Abishag the Shunammite, is brought to share his bed and wait on him (I Kings 1:1‑4). The Bible is natural and unembarrassed about the sexual activities of its major personalities. Although adultery and incest are explicitly forbidden, fornication is not.premarital sex 

It was the rabbis of the talmudic period who explicitly outlawed sexual relations outside marriage. One fascinating passage articulates the rabbinic attitude:

“Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: A man once conceived a passion for a certain woman, and his heart was consumed by his burning desire [his life being endangered thereby]. When the doctors were consulted, they said: ‘His only cure is that she shall submit.’ Thereupon the sages said: ‘Let him die rather than that she should yield.’ Then [the doctors said]: ‘Let her stand nude before him.’ [The sages answered]: ‘Sooner he should die.’ The doctors said: ‘Let her converse with him from behind the fence.’ ‘Let him die,’ the sages replied, ‘rather than that she should converse with him from behind a fence.’

Now Rabbi Jacob ben Idi and Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani disputed therein. One said that she was a married woman, the other that she was unmarried. Now, this is intelligible on the view that she was a married woman, but on the latter, that she was unmarried, why such severity? Rabbi Papa said: Because of the disgrace to her family. Rabbi Aha the son of Rabbi Ika said: That the daughters of Israel not be immorally dissolute. Then why not marry her? Marriage would not assuage his passion, even as Rabbi Isaac said: Since the destruction of the Temple, sexual pleasure has been taken [from those who practice it lawfully] and given to sinners, as it is written: ‘Stolen waters are sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant’ (Proverbs 9:17).”

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Rabbi Michael Gold

Rabbi Michael Gold is the rabbi at Temple Beth Torah, Tamarac Jewish Center in Tamarac, Florida. He is the author of four books, and his articles have appeared in Moment, Judaism, Jewish Spectator, B'nai Brith International Jewish Monthly, and numerous other publications. He also served as co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly's committee on human sexuality.