ARR 479-480


American Reform Responsa

153. Masturbation


QUESTION: What does the tradition say about masturbation? Are any distinctions made between males and females, young or old, married or unmarried? (CCAR Family Life Committee)

ANSWER: The tradition has considered masturbation as a sin and strictly prohibited it. Any seed which was brought forth in vain involved a sin punishable by God (Gen. 38:8ff; Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha-ezer 23.1-3; Nida 13a,b), although it was not listed among the six hundred thirteen commandments derived from Biblical texts (which raised exegetical problems). This prohibition was carried even further, and anyone who excessively touched his genitals was considered a transgressor (Nida 2.1; Shab. 108b). It might be all right for a married man to do so (Nida 13a), but certainly not for a single individual; and an especially “holy” man would try never to place his hands below his belt (Shab. 118b). These thoughts never went as far as the preoccupation with masturbation found in the prohibitions of Catholic religious thinkers. The question has been treated at length by them in every century (J. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 1965).

These prohibitions were extended even further so that no masturbation through other means occurred. For example, tight-fitting pants were prohibited (Nida 13b). Riding a camel bareback excluded such individuals from the heave offering; nor were individuals supposed to sleep lying flat on their backs, which also might have the same results (Nida 14a). Young people were not to sit and study alone (Ber. 63b). There is no mention in the Talmudic literature about the women masturbating. The only reference to it is a folk saying: “He masturbates with a pumpkin and his wife with a cucumber” (Meg. 12a). Of course, these practices are vigorously rejected. Although women often had to examine themselves to see whether they were in a state of uncleanliness, none of this was thought to lead to masturbation (Nida 13a).

There is some discussion of masturbation in Jewish medieval ethical writings, and also in the responsa, but it is limited (Trani, Minchat Yechi-el, vol. II, #4, 22; Jacob Ettlinger, Binyan Tsiyon, #137; Penei Yehoshua, Even Ha-ezer, vol. II, #44). The matter was taken up again in connection with the question of artificial insemination. The sperm must be obtained through masturbation or through withdrawal before completing intercourse. Orthodox authorities are divided on whether this is permitted under these special circumstances. Those who are permissive have felt that in this case the sperm is not being wasted, while the opponents reject this interpretation. A complete discussion can be found in Noam, vol. I, pp. 111ff, as well as in Eliezer Waldenberg’s Tsits Eli-ezer, section 3, no. 27, and Moshe Feinstein, Igerot Mosheh, Even Ha-ezer.

Although the statements of tradition are very clear, we would take a different view of masturbation, in the light of current psychological thought. Masturbation should be discouraged, but we would not consider it harmful or sinful.

Walter Jacob

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.