The Talmudic Prohibition Against Manual and Pedal Adultery [Talmud Tuesday]
A seemingly often overlooked text found in the Talmud relating to adultery/cuckoldry is the following text which expands the notion of adultery/cuckoldry (bNiddah 13b):
תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל: לא תנאף – לא תהא בך ניאוף בין ביד בין ברגל
It was taught at Rabbi Yishmael’s house/academy: “‘You shall not adulter’ (Ex. 20.12) – there shall not be adultery with you – whether by hand nor by leg/foot.”
While the typical manner in which illicit sexual behavior occurs is vaginal penile penetration (although one can imagine anal and oral, as well), this teaching from Rabbi Yishmael’s house/academy expands it to include even non-penetrative activities, such as manual and pedal sex.
This text, though, is introduced with another text that uses similar language, which comes from a sage a few generations later (bNiddah 13b):
ואמר ר’ אלעזר מאי דכתיב ידיכם דמים מלאו? אלו המנאפים ביד
Rabbi Elazar said: “What [is the meaning of] what is written ‘your hands are full of blood’ (Is. 1.15)? These are those who adulter by hand.”
It is unclear why Rabbi Elazar made this exegetical move, although one can sense that manual sexual impropriety could be read into the Isaiah verse. What makes this discussion get further interesting is that, due to their literary placement, they get differently understood due to their context. The entire pericope concerns non-procreative seminal emission and, when reading the other texts, it may occur to the reader to understand the above texts not as perceiving manual and pedal adulterous sex as problematic, but manual and pedal sex with one’s one penis as a problem!
However, as Michael Satlow has previously pointed out, that, in “its original context, this baraita almost certainly referred to different kinds of heterosexual activities…” and that “the placement of the baraita, immediately after [Rabbi Elazar’s statement] suggests that the ‘hand’ is to be taken as a reference to male masturbation.”1 Moreover, “there is no compelling reason to interpret R. Eleazar’s statement as referring to men who masturbate.”2 Indeed, Rabbi Elazar’s statement was surely commenting on the teaching from Rabbi Yishmael’s school, “condemning this ‘adultery by hand’.”3 However, owing to “the editorial placement might lead a reader to interpret the unit as referring to male masturbation.”4
While male masturbation, it would seem, was not the intent of Rabbi Yishmael’s school, it would also seem that it may not have been Rabbi Elazar’s either. The editors, however, arranged the pericope to make the reader think that it was.