Are Women the Only People Who Talk About Their Sexual Experiences in the Babylonian Talmud? [Talmud Tuesday]
Something I noticed years ago and about which I am still curious is that women seem to be the only people who discuss their sexual experiences in the Babylonian Talmud. Now, I have not read the entire Babylonian Talmud, so it’s quite possible that there are texts that feature men discussing their own sexual experiences, but so far, I’ve only come across women speaking about their sexual experiences.
When it comes to discussing sex, the rabbis in the Talmud typically speak in normative discourse, which is typical for them, however, there are a few instances in which we see people speaking about their own sexual experiences. What is striking is that it is women! What is particularly shocking about this is that women don’t get to speak that frequently in the Babylonian Talmud and they seem to utterly dominate this area.
The first instance is a beraita in which unnamed rabbis inquire of Rabbi Eliezer‘s wife, Imma Shalom about their children (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
Imma Shalom was asked: “On account of what are your children so exceedingly beautiful?”
She replied: “He speaks with me neither in the beginning of the night, nor at the end of the night, rather at midnight. And, when we speaks with me, he reveals a handbreadth and covers a handbreadth, and it seems as if he were compelled by a demon.
“And I asked him, ‘What’s the reason?’ and he told me, ‘In order that I should not place my eyes on another woman and the children result into coming into bastardy.'”
The next two instances are pretty similar (bNedarim 20b):
ההיא דאתאי לקמיה דרבי אמרה לו רבי ערכתי לו שלחן והפכו
אמר לה בתי תורה התירתך ואני מה אעשה ליך
A certain woman came before Rebbe (Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi). She said to him, “Rabbi, I set a table for him and he overturned it.” He said to her, “My daughter, Torah has permitted you. And I, what can I do for you?”
And (bNedarim 20b):
ההיא דאתאי לקמיה דרב אמרה לו רבי ערכתי לו שלחן והפכו
אמר מאי שנא מן ביניתא
A certain woman came before Rav. She said to him, “Rabbi, I set a table for him and he overturned it.” He said to her, “How is it different from a fish?”
In these latter two instances, we have these distressed women who are concerned presumably about the halakhic acceptability of what happened sexually with their husbands – why aren’t the husbands asking these rabbis? And, in the first text, why doesn’t Rabbi Eliezer talk about his own sexual activities – it’s his wife talking about what he told her?
Okay, at this point, some people may point to the following text in which Rav Kahana talks about a sexual experience (bBerakhot 62a):
רב כהנא על גנא תותיה פורייה דרב שמעיה דשח ושחק ועשה צרכיו
אמר ליה דמי פומיה דאבא כדלא שריף תבשילא
אמר ליה כהנא הכא את פוק דלאו אורח ארעא
אמר לו תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך
Rav Kahana went in and lay down under the bed of Rav. He heard that he was talking and laughing and “doing his needs”.
He said to him, “The mouth of Abba seems as if it has never sipped this dish before!”
He said to him, “Kahana, are you here?(!) Get out, for this is not proper behavior!”
He said to him, “It is Torah, and I need to learn” it.
Even Rav Kahana speaks about a sexual experience, yet, it’s not his own.
Could it be
- because the rabbis deemed it unseemly to discuss their own sexual experiences and preferred to speak in normative fashion?
- women are sexual creatures and, therefore, in the minds of the Sages, they are the ones to talk about sexual experiences?
- maybe a combination of the previous two: where men are not supposed to discuss themselves having sex, because it would go go up against some sort of masculine code, but women are okay to talk about their own sexual experiences, since they are “sexual creatures”?
I have a feeling I have to now go check out a Michael Satlow work…stay tuned (to be continued).