Intimacy on Shabbat: Was It Always a Mitzvah?
The Sabbath is one of only a handful of mitzvot whose observance can be traced all the way back to biblical literature. Indeed, the Sabbath is mentioned in the creation story itself in Genesis 2, as well as at the moment that the nation of Israel underwent its nascent formation in Exodus 16. Moreover, throughout the biblical and post-biblical period, observance of the Sabbath was considered a major barometer of one’s overall religious observance. Yet the nature of this observance, what keeping the Sabbath really was, changed dramatically between the Second Temple and the rabbinic periods.
Evidence suggests that in the Second Temple period, for instance, pious Jews abstained from physical intimacy on the Sabbath whereas it is this very indulgence that characterizes the experiential joy of the Sabbath represented in rabbinic literature. This article will examine the Second Temple and early rabbinic texts that refer to intimacy on the Sabbath and will consider why this paradigm shift occurred.
Second Temple Sectarian Literature – Intimacy as Forbidden on Shabbat
Jubilees, a book dated to the 2nd century BCE and found among the Dead Sea Scroll documents, expresses the divine commandment to observe the Sabbath in the following manner:
Six days you will work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God… And let the man who does anything on it die. Every man who will profane this day, who will lie with his wife….let him die.
Rather astonishingly, Jubilees posits that sexual intercourse on Sabbath is punishable by death.
Another document found at Qumran, this one known as the Damascus Document, which lays out the rules of conduct for the Qumran community, prohibits sexual activity “in the city of the Sanctuary” on Shabbat:
No man shall lie with a woman in the city of the Sanctuary, to defile the city of the Sanctuary with their uncleanliness… But no man who strays so as to profane the Sabbath and the feasts shall be put to death; it shall fall to men to keep him in custody. And if he is healed of his error, they shall keep him in custody for seven years and he shall afterwards approach the Assembly.
Like Jubilees, the Damascus Document provides limitations on sexual activity on the Sabbath. Because these documents were both discovered at Qumran, one might argue that they stem from the same small community and therefore it is not striking that these prohibitions appear in two documents, since they nevertheless share the same origin. Nevertheless, two factors indicate that these documents were authored by individuals in two separate circles. First, according to Jubilees, this violation of the Sabbath is punishable by death whereas according to the Damascus Document, the violation of the Sabbath is punishable only by communal isolation. Second, Jubilees prohibits intimacy on the Sabbath in any place whereas the Damascus Document prohibits only in one city. The fact that two separate communities forbid marital intimacy on Shabbat may attest to the popularity of this prohibition in the Second Temple period.
Rabbinic Literature – Intimacy Encouraged on Shabbat
In contrast to Jubilees and the Damascus Document, Rabbinic literature shows no awareness of a ban or limitation on physical intimacy on Shabbat, and even seems to encourage it. According to Mishna Ketubot (5.1),
The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independence, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for ass-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months. These are the rulings of R. Eliezer.
The Babylonian Talmud (Ketubot 62b) elaborates that the designated time for scholars to engage in physical intimacy with their wives is Friday night:
How often are scholars to perform their marital duties? Rav Judah in the name of Samuel replied: “Every Friday night…” Judah the son of R. Hiyya and son-in-law of R. Jannai would spend all his time in the schoolhouse but every Sabbath eve he came home.
In this passage, the Talmud indicates no awareness that the Sabbath is a time of sexual abstinence. To the contrary, marital intimacy is encouraged and making time for it on the Sabbath is praised.
Explaining the Shift in Jewish Outlook
When trying to understand Second Temple and Rabbinic Jewish sources, scholars are often tempted to interpret in light of their broader Greek and Roman sociocultural atmosphere. We know that, just as Jews living in the Western world are influenced by Western culture, the Greeks had an influence on how even the most devoted and pious Jews practiced Judaism. Indeed, this paradigm shift regarding the Sabbath can be satisfactorily explained if we assume that each tradition was guided by polemical reactions to the surrounding culture. Second Temple Jewish texts may have been responding to a Greek culture that embraced physical pleasure, whereas Rabbinic Jewish texts may have been responding to a Christian culture that embraced asceticism.
Nevertheless, we can analyze these sources not only in terms of the broader Hellenist and early Christian cultures that influenced them, but also in terms of their different intended audiences. The Second Temple texts that have survived are sectarian documents written by Jews who most likely represented a very small percentage of the Jewish population, whereas the Rabbinic texts regarding the Sabbath may have been regarded as authoritative to a broad lay community who looked to the Rabbis for Rabbinic guidance.
Therefore, although much of Second Temple and Rabbinic literature can be read in light of the Greek and later Roman-Christian context in which they were composed, we should be wary of attributing all differences to a binary in which Second Temple Jews were the “opposite” of Greeks, and the Rabbis were the “opposite” of Rome. It is just as likely that the Rabbis’ understanding of how to observe the Sabbath could be traced to their Pharisaic Second Temple predecessors, who were already formulating a religious prototype that embraced the physical world in response to sectarian Jews who practiced asceticism on the Sabbath.
An Alternative Second Temple Shabbat
Upon closer inspection there are Second Temple sources contemporaneous with Jubilees and the Damascus Document that complicated the question of how Sabbath was viewed during this period. The practices of physically indulging by having intercourse on the Sabbath may be traced all the way to the book of Isaiah, which reads,
3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ 4 For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
This passage in Isaiah, which comes from a section of the book that was likely composed sometime during the early Second Temple period, is profoundly significant. Although a eunuch is unable to engage in sexual intercourse, the prophet assures him that his observance of Sabbath is cherished by God. The underlying presumption here, I would argue, is that sexual activity is an integral part of the experiential joy of Shabbat. This explains why the eunuch is cited as complaining that he is a “dry tree.” His complaint is that, as a eunuch, he cannot celebrate the Sabbath to its fullest, most pleasurable extent with a partner.
The eunuch’s complaint is coupled with the concern of the foreigner, who is concerned that he too, cannot fully participate in the covenantal community, because he does not possess Jewish familial roots. To these complaints, which both regard the question of genealogical and physical connection to the covenantal community, the prophet offers this answer: God cares not about the identity of one’s familial connections; God cares only about whether the person in question is devoted to God’s service.
Reevaluating the Question of Intimacy on Shabbat
We now return to our original question: How did it happen that some Second Temple sources define piety as abstaining from sex on Shabbat, but that the Rabbis defined Shabbat by the embrace of this very activity? Devising a binary between Second Temple Judaism and Greek Culture on the one hand and a binary between Rabbinic Judaism and the Christian Religion on the other may offer us some limited insight but not a complete, nuanced answer. The fact is that the demarcation lines are very blurred between Second Temple Jewry and Hellenism, and Rabbinic Jewry and Christianity. There is compelling evidence that Jews participated in Greek gymnasiums and attended Greek philosophical schools, and there is also evidence that Christians were practicing Jewish customs as late as the fourth century.
If we presume that the Second Temple Jewish tendency towards asceticism and the rabbinic tendency towards indulgence represent polemical responses to outside enemies, incompatible with their own lifestyles, we easily forget the internal conflicts within these Jewish communities that also helped these groups to formulate their identities. As unsatisfying as it is, the question of whether there is a direct sociocultural link between these attitudes may be lost for perpetuity.
Although we may not be able to know how this change occurred, we can nevertheless appreciate the ingenuity of the rabbis in nurturing the experiential and sensual aspects of Judaism. By encouraging marital intimacy on the Sabbath, and by composing blessings for even the basest of bodily functions, Rabbinic traditions invite us to merge our physical surroundings with our religious identities. Rather than live in tension between indulging physical necessity and transcending these needs to attain spiritual meaning, Rabbinic Judaism helps us to attain spiritual meaning by acknowledging that God’s universal dominion is both physical and spiritual, vast and infinite.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
January 20, 2014
January 18, 2021
Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series