Intense Sex? The Case of Rabbi Eliezer and Imma Shalom [Talmud Tuesday]
One of the central texts in the Talmud as it relates to how a man and a woman should have sexual intercourse is one which does not, ostensibly, seem as if it should have anything to do with sexual intercourse. Curious as to how her children became so beautiful, some (students, perhaps?) ask Imma Shalom what made them as such. Instead of responding anything about their upbringing, she describes her husband’s sexual activities (bNedarim 20a-b):
שאלו את אימא שלום מפני מה בניך יפיפין ביותר
אמרה להן אינו מספר עמי לא בתחלת הלילה ולא בסוף הלילה אלא בחצות הלילה וכשהוא מספר מגלה טפח ומכסה טפח ודומה עליו כמי שכפאו שד
ואמרתי לו מה טעם
ואמר לי כדי שלא אתן את עיני באשה אחרת ונמצאו בניו באין לידי ממזרות
They asked Imma Shalom, “Why do you have such beautiful children?
She said to them, “He does not speak with me at the beginning of the night, nor at the end of the night, but at midnight. And when he speaks with me, he unveils a fistbreadth and covers a fistbreadth and it seems as if he is driven by a demon. I asked him, ‘What is the reason?’ And he said to me, ‘In order that I do not give my eyes on another woman’ and his children will be found to come into bastardy.”
It should be clear that Imma Shalom is employing a euphemism here, with “speaking” really meaning having sex, otherwise why would Rabbi Eliezer be worried about having children when chatting with his wife? One thing that is quite striking: what does her husband’s sexual activities have to do with how beautiful her sons came to be? One might think, prima facie, that it has to do with how they were raised; yet she takes it back not only to how they were raised, but well but well before that – at their very conception!
With that having been pointed out, let’s examine her description of why Rabbi Eliezer acted sexually the way he did (and it should be pointed out that Rabbi Eliezer never directly speaks in the Talmud about his sexual activities, as is typical for the Talmud – to have women speaking about their sexual experiences). According to her, he did two unique activities: 1) only “spoke” with her in the middle of the night – neither at the beginning, nor at the end and 2) when he did “speak” with her, he would do so as if compelled by a demon, revealing and concealing a fistbreadth. And, when she asked him, she tells the students, he said he does those two things so as not to think about another woman while doing so, which, if done, might result in his children either being bastards or coming to eventually engage in bastardly relations (in other words, they would engage in relations, the offspring of which would result in bastards).
One thing that is quite peculiar is to his idea that it might be possible that his children could be bastards or eventually creating bastards if he thinks that he is having sex with another woman, since he is not actually having sex with another woman. On the other hand, however, perhaps by having sex with his wife while another woman is on his mind is that his children might have in their minds to engage in relations that would result in bastards….
Nevertheless, we see that he is concerned to try not to conjure up any women in his mind while having sex and needs to figure out a way to focus on his wife. With the first activity, we see how clear this is – he may have seen a woman in the evening or in another part of his day and she may still be on his mind, so the first part of the night is out as a possibility, due to the fear that a woman might still be on his mind when having sex with Imma Shalom. And, in the end of the night, he may be thinking about the coming day and perhaps into whom he may run or with whom he may have business dealings. So, the middle of the night works well for him to focus on his wife when engaged in conjugal relations.
However, this leaves one last element: the curious “revealing and concealing of a handsbreadth as if compelled by a demon.” This text has
traditionally been read to refer to hurried intercourse. This reading, when combined with the recommendations for the exposure of only a small amount of flesh as well as intercourse in the middle of the night, seems correct. Sex was to take place quickly, with a minimal amount of lust, totally in the dark. All of these strictures, the text says, are to avoid bringing his children into mamzerut, making them mamzerim.1
In other words, “Rabbi Eliezer’s behavior as if driven by a demon apparently represents his conviction that he is fulfilling an obligation that should not be enjoyed, but should be performed as quickly as possible.”2 However, “the continuation of the story, however, renders this interpretation problematic”, since once one reads
this text carefully, we see that it is not at all an unambiguous representation of a negative attitude toward sexuality. While Rabbi Eliezer’s behavior certainly would have had the effect of reducing dramatically the pleasure of sex, it is not presented as having that intention, but rather as being the expression in practice of a severe rabbinic prohibition on having sex with another woman that one does not fully desire or of fantasizing about another partner during sex.3
Thus, the biggest problem with this reading is that if a man were to engage in sexual intercourse in such a fashion, how does that help him focus on the woman with whom he is having sexual intercourse? Indeed, “the ‘true’ meaning of Rabbi Eliezer’s sexual behavior, the narrator, through the speech of Imma Shalom, inscribes it in the intimacy code.”4 If anything, it seems as if he is detached from his wife – at the very least, emotionally, mentally, and, perhaps also physically, even – since he is not focussed on her while engaged in this activity. Also, what does that have to do with “revealing and concealing a handsbreadth”?
A reading that satisfies our questions, however, is to suggest that his “seemingly being compelled by a demon” is that of Rabbi Eliezer’s sexual intensity: he is so engaged in the sexual activity that he is fully focussed on his wife. And this “fistbreadth” is referring to his penis, such that he is intensely penetrating and removing it from her with such vigor, as opposed to a more lackadaisical repetition.5 By thrusting so intensely, it would seem to Rabbi Eliezer, he is able to focus on his wife and not have thoughts of other women enter his mind.
So, we see that this first-century rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, is espousing a sexual ethic for men to be vigorously engaged while having sexual intercourse with one’s wife so as to help them focus on their wife and not to think about another woman while doing so. We later see a century-and-a-half later that Rav Kahana also enjoys his bedtime activity (bBerakhot 62a).
1. Michael Satlow, Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality (Providence, RI: Brown University, 1995), 308.↩
2. Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1993), 47↩
3. Boyarin, Carnal Israel, 48, n. 28.↩
4. Boyarin, Carnal Israel, 121.↩
5. As heard by the author in September 2006 from Rabbi Yaakov Love.↩