Sex Before Marriage In Orthodox Judaism

Marc B. Shapiro writes: Because the masses had no interest in what the rabbis had to say about this matter, R. Landsofer concludes that one need not even rebuke them, as they won’t listen anyway. Not long ago I heard a rabbi going on about the holy communities of Europe of a few hundred years ago, about their support of Torah, the respect they gave to the rabbis, and their commitment to halakhah. All of this is true, but if you look a little closer you find that these communities were actually very much like contemporary Modern Orthodox communities, in that together with a commitment to halakhah, many people also felt that they could determine which halakhot could be ignored. Or perhaps they didn’t even think they were violating halakhah. Maybe they assumed that the rabbis were making their lives difficult with extreme humrot. Either way you look at it, it is very obvious that there were many in traditional Jewish societies who created their own standards of practice which did not always correspond to what the rabbis insisted on, and they had no interest in changing their ways because of what the rabbis were saying…

R. Israel David Margulies (19th century) cites this text from Sefer Maharil and correctly notes that in medieval times the brides were much younger than in his day. He assumes that the typical bride was under 12 and a half years old, and therefore there was no problem of impure thoughts with such brides…

Regarding the age of Jewish brides in medieval times, See Avraham Grossman, Hasidot u-Mordot (Jerusalem, 2001), ch. 2. He makes the following interesting point (Pious and Rebellious, trans. Jonathan Chipman [Waltham, 2004], pp. 47-48):

“The phenomenon of beating wives may also have been exacerbated by marriage of girls at an early age. The fact that at times the wife was extremely young led the husband to relate to her as he would to his own daughter. This was particularly true in those places where young girls were married to husbands significantly older than themselves, which was, as we have seen, a common phenomenon in Jewish society, and particularly in Muslim countries. Moreover, it may well be that the beating of the wife, which was a part of the life of the young couple, also continued thereafter.”

…In a comment to my last post, Maimon wrote: “On the subject of R. Bachrach’s responsum – it bears noting that the pre-reform homogeneous [should be: heterogeneous] Jewish society (especially in Germany) contained people of varying levels of observance from across the spectrum and as such many behavioral patterns that would be unthinkable in contemporary Orthodox society are detailed in the Halakhic writings from that era.” Maimon is correct, and it is not only in recent centuries or in Germany that one finds communities with people of different levels of religious observance. This is how Jewish societies have always been, in every era and place, at least until the second half of the twentieth century and the creation of haredi societies. I have already cited numerous examples that justify this statement, but let offer one more that shows how even in medieval times young men and women would socialize in a way that Maimon might say “would be unthinkable in contemporary Orthodox society.” I would only add that instead of “contemporary Orthodox society,” I prefer to say “contemporary haredi society,” since as mentioned already, Modern Orthodox society still has significant variations in level of observance. (When I speak of variations in level of observance, I have in mind bein adam la-Makom halakhot. I am not referring to halakhot having to do with monetary issues and dina de-malchuta dina, regarding which I believe the Modern Orthodox community is superior to what we find in the haredi world.)

R. Meir of Rothenburg was asked about young Jewish men and women who were drinking together. As a joke, one of the young women asked one of the men if he would betroth her. He took a ring and threw it to her, and recited the text of kiddushin. (At a future time I can discuss the halakhic arguments that R. Meir used to free the woman from having to receive a get.) One cannot overlook the fact that the way the young men and women were socializing together, much like you would find among kids at Modern Orthodox high schools, shows that there was no strict separation between the sexes…

7. Two people have asked me to comment on Rabbis Yitzchok Adlerstein’s and Michael Broyde’s article here arguing that hasidic schools shouldn’t be forced to offer secular education. While the Seforim Blog is not the place for commenting on these sorts of matters, after reading the article I felt I had to make one point. Adlerstein and Broyde cite the famous Supreme Court case which allowed the Amish to opt out of secular education and they apply this logic to the hasidic communities. While it is true that if it went to court the hasidic communities would probably prevail, there is a big difference between the Amish and the hasidic communities. The Amish do not take welfare, food stamps, and other forms of government assistance. Thus, they make choices and live with the consequences. However, the hasidic communities refuse to provide their children with the basic skills needed to function in the modern economy, and as a result rely heavily on the welfare state. No one who believes in limited government and is opposed to the welfare state can support a situation where kids are allowed to grow up almost guaranteed to be in need of public assistance.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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