Forbidden relationships in Judaism

Forbidden relationships in Judaism (איסורי ביאה Isurey bi'ah) are those intimate relationships which are forbidden by prohibitions in the Torah and also by rabbinical injunctions.

Some of these prohibitions—those listed in Leviticus 18, known as arayot (Hebrew: עריות‎)—are considered such a serious transgression of Jewish law that one must give up one's life rather than transgress one of them.[1] (This does not necessarily apply to a rape victim.[2]) This is as opposed to most other prohibitions, in which one is generally required to transgress the commandment when a life is on the line.

Some of these prohibitions (such as those related to homosexuality), while still observed by Orthodox Jews, are currently observed to a lesser extent or not at all by some of the non-Orthodox movements.


Adultery is prohibited by the seventh of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12) which says simply:

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

It is forbidden for a man to have sexual relations with a married woman not his wife. (Leviticus 18:20, 20:10)


A man is not allowed to have sexual relations with a woman—including his wife—during and after her menstrual period (Leviticus 18:19), until after she undergoes the proper cleansing procedures in a mikveh. Such a woman is referred to as niddah.

Religious intermarriageEdit

Religious intermarriage is forbidden in Judaism. There are differing opinions among the rabbis as to when the prohibition on sexual relations with non-Jews is from the Torah, and when it is rabbinic.[3]


Biblical prohibitionsEdit

Sexual relations with certain close relatives are forbidden. Though they are generally called incestuous relations, the biblical list does not necessarily correspond to those prohibited under state laws.

The relationships forbidden by Leviticus 18 are:

Rabbinically prohibited relationshipsEdit

In addition to the relationships biblically prohibited to Jews, rabbis have gone further to prohibit additional relationships with various blood relatives or in-laws. These are called "Shni'ot" (secondary prohibitions or seconds). Some of these are:[1]

Adopted children who are raised together are not permitted to marry because of appearances, even if they are not biologically related.[4]

Exclusions from the assemblyEdit

The Bible excludes certain categories of people from taking part in the qahal (assembly) of Hashem. Jewish tradition considers this to be solely a limitation on marriage.

Biblical peoplesEdit

A Jew is prohibited from marrying a male Moabite and Ammonite convert (Deuteronomy 23:4); or an Egyptian or Edomite convert up to the third generation from conversion (Deuteronomy 23:8-9).

Nethinim/Gibeonites are prohibited by rabbinic injunction.[5]

As the people currently living in those areas may not be descended from the original peoples, these prohibitions may not apply today.[6]


A mamzer in Jewish law is a child resulting from an incestuous liaison or an adulterous liaison by a married woman.[7] (This is not necessarily the same definition as a bastard by other societies, as it does not include a child of an unmarried woman.)[7] As a mamzer is excluded from the assembly, (Deuteronomy 23:3) the Talmud forbids a marriage by an ordinary Jew to a mamzer.[8] However, a mamzer may marry a convert or another mamzer, though their child would also be considered a mamzer.[9]

Certain eunuchsEdit

Jewish tradition also forbids marriage to a man who has been forcibly emasculated; the Greek term spadon (σπάδων; Latin: spado) which is used to refer to such people, is used in the Septuagint to denote certain foreign political officials (resembling the meaning of eunuch).[7] The Jewish prohibition does not include men who were born without visible testicles (conditions including cryptorchidism), or without a visible penis (conditions including hermaphroditism).[7] There is dispute, even in traditional Judaism, about whether this prohibited group of men should include those who have become, at some point since their birth, emasculated as the result of a disease.[10]

Special rules for priestsEdit

Israelite priests (kohanim) are not allowed to marry:

Some of these prohibitions are biblical, and some are rabbinical.

The Kohen Gadol (high priest) must also not marry a widow (Lev. 21:14). Sexual relations with a widow are also forbidden (Lev. 21:14). He is required to marry a virgin maiden (Lev. 21:13). However, if he was married to a woman otherwise permitted to a kohen, and was then elevated to the high priesthood, he may remain married to her.

Homosexuality and bisexualityEdit

Orthodox viewEdit

Orthodox Judaism interprets (Leviticus 18:22) as forbidding men from lying with other men in the manner in which they would with a woman, and calls it an abomination. (Leviticus 18:14 specifically prohibits such relationships with one's father or uncle.)[14]

There are three reasons rabbis give for men lying with other men being prohibited in Jewish law:[15]

  1. It is a defiance of gender anatomy, which is unlike God's intention of procreation and sexual activity
  2. The sexual arousal involved results in a vain emission of semen
  3. It may lead a man to abandon his family

There is no prohibition in the Torah against sexual intercourse between two women, but rabbinic law has prohibited it as an extension of the "activities of (ancient) Egypt" (see Leviticus 18:3).[16] However, it is not considered adultery, and does not prohibit the woman to a kohen.[17]

Conservative viewEdit

Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has validated different approaches to homosexuality and bisexuality, with one opinion being like the Orthodox position in many respects, and another opinion permitting many forms of homosexual sex and relationships, while continuing to regard anal intercourse between men as prohibited.

In 2012, the American branch of Conservative Judaism devised a commitment ceremony for same-sex couples, though not defined as kiddushin. In 2016, the rabbis of the American branch of Conservative Judaism passed a resolution supporting transgender rights.

Humanistic JudaismEdit

In 2004, the Society for Humanistic Judaism issued a resolution supporting "the legal recognition of marriage and divorce between adults of the same sex", and affirming "the value of marriage between any two committed adults with the sense of obligations, responsibilities, and consequences thereof".[18]

Reform viewEdit

Reform Judaism interprets Leviticus 18:22 as forbidding men from using sex as a form of ownership over men. Reform Jewish authors have revisited the Leviticus text, and ask why the text mentions that one should not lie with a man "as with a woman". If it is to be assumed that the Torah does not waste words, the authors ask why the Torah includes this extra clause. Most Reform Jews suggest that since intercourse involved possession (one of the ways in which a man "acquired" a wife was to have intercourse with her), similar to the Christian theology of using sex to "consummate" a marriage, it was abhorrent that a man might acquire another man—it is not the act of homosexual intercourse itself which is abhorrent, but using this act to acquire another man and therefore confuse the gender boundary.[19]


Men and women are forbidden from engaging in bestiality. (Leviticus 18:23) It is considered an abomination according to the Torah.[1]


Rather than being seen as merely a literary device to quickly describe the populating of the earth, the biblical instruction to go forth and multiply[20] was interpreted by the classical rabbis to mean that it was the duty of every male Jew to marry as soon as possible.[21] Several Talmudic rabbis urged that children should be married as soon as they had reached the average age of puberty, which was deemed to occur at 14 years of age;[22][failed verification] however, it was also strictly forbidden, by classical rabbinical literature, for parents to allow their children to marry before the children had reached this age.[22][failed verification] Despite the young threshold for marriage, marriages with a large age gap between the spouses (e. g. between a young man and an old woman) were thoroughly opposed by the classical rabbis[23][24]

The classical rabbis saw 18 as the ideal age to become married,[25] and anyone unmarried after the age of twenty was said to have been cursed by God;[26] rabbinical courts frequently tried to compel an individual to marry, if they had passed the age of twenty without marriage.[7] Nevertheless, the classical rabbis viewed study of the Torah as a valid reason for remaining unmarried, although they were only rarely willing to regard life-long celibacy favourably.[27] Since the classical rabbis viewed marriage as a duty deriving from the instruction to go forth and multiply,[21] they also believed that the duty to marry ended once the husband had fathered both a son and a daughter;[28] despite this, they also argued that no man should live without a wife even after he has several children.[28]

Ability to give consentEdit

Children, however, were not regarded as old enough to make an informed decision, and so could not consent to marriage themselves,[7] although marriage to a female child was still permissible if her father consented, whether she agreed to it or not;[7] if the father was dead, such consent could be given by her mother, or her brothers, but in this latter case, the girl could annul the marriage when she reached the "standard" age of puberty (12), if she wished.[7]

The mentally handicapped, and deaf-mutes, were also regarded, by traditional Jewish law, as being unable to give their consent; indeed, marriage to such people was forbidden. However, the rabbis allowed deaf-mutes to marry each other.[7]


  1. ^ a b c Eisenberg 2005, p. 324.
  2. ^ Rama and other commentaries on Shulchan Aruch II:157:1
  3. ^ Shulchan Aruch, III:16:1-2 and commentaries
  4. ^ "The Yichud Prohibition- Part One: To Whom Does It Apply?". 16 November 2002. Archived from the original on 2 July 2013. Retrieved 10 September 2013.
  5. ^ Yevamot 8:2
  6. ^ Mishnah Yadayim 4:4; Rabbi Joseph Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 4:10 and commentaries
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Jewish Encyclopedia, Marriage Laws
  8. ^ Yebamot, 4:13
  9. ^ Maimonidies, Mishneh Torah, Sanctity, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions, 15:7-8
  10. ^ Jacob ben Asher, Eben ha-'Ezer, 5
  11. ^ Ketubot 22a
  12. ^ Ketubot 27a
  13. ^ Yebamot 24a
  14. ^ Eisenberg 2005, p. 327.
  15. ^ Eisenberg 2005, p. 325. Lamm, 1991 has a similar list.
  16. ^ Rabbi Joseph Karo, Shulchan Aruch, III:20:2
  17. ^ Beit Sh'muel, Shulchan Aruch, III:20:2 based on Maimonidies
  18. ^ Archived from the original on 10 October 2013. Retrieved 19 November 2013. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  19. ^ "homosexuality | contemporary-issues | a-to-z-of-reform-judaism- The Movement for Reform Judaism". Archived from the original on 3 April 2013. Retrieved 10 September 2013.
  20. ^ Genesis 1:28
  21. ^ a b Maimonides, Minyan haMitzvot, 212
  22. ^ a b Sanhedrin 76b
  23. ^ Yebamot 44a
  24. ^ Sanhedrin 76a
  25. ^ Pirkei Abot 5:24
  26. ^ Kiddushin 29b
  27. ^ Yebamot 63b
  28. ^ a b Yebamot 61a

Further readingEdit