Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi

Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

Daf Shvui No. 75

Parashat Acharei Mot

Forbidden Sexual Relationships and The Holiness

of the People and the Land

Dr. David Elgavish

Department of Bible

Parashat Aharei Mot speaks of the holiness of Israel and its purity, opening with the ritual of the purification on Yom Kippur: "For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord" (Leviticus 16:30). The parashah ends with the demand that Israel purify themselves by avoiding forbidden sexual relationships. That both subjects are connected is expressed in the halachah that the verses dealing with forbidden sexual relationships is to be read from the Torah at Minhah of Yom Kippur.

The extreme severity with which the Torah viewed sexual transgressions is also reflected in its literary structure. The list of forbidden relationships (Lev. 18: 6-23) is preceded by an exhortation (1-5) and ends with another one (24-30). The opening speech begins and closes with the expressions "I the Lord am your God," "I am the Lord," and the entire parashah begins and ends with the phrase "I the Lord am your God" (2, 30). These admonishments indicate that the Torah was not satisfied with a list of prohibitions and added words of warning to persuade the reader that he best avoid these severe sins.

The introductory speech (1-5) consists of two parts, its pattern being "avoid evil and do good" (sur mera v'aseh tov). To begin, it presents the evil: "You shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt where you dwelt or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws." Later, the same demand is worded in the positive: "My rules alone shall you observe and faithfully follow My laws".

The list of forbidden relationships in the main body of the parashah (6 - 23) contains prohibitions which fall into three categories:

1. Relationships forbidden because the man and the woman are blood relatives. These include a man's mother (7), his sister by either parent (9), his granddaughter (10) and maternal and paternal aunts (12-13).

2. Relationships forbidden because of a blood relationship with the woman's husband, including: a father's wife, son's wife (15), paternal uncle's wife (14) and a brother's wife. These prohibitions remain in force even after the death of the husband or after the couple is divorced.

3. Relationships forbidden because of a blood relationship between the two women: to marry a mother and her daughter (16), a woman and her granddaughter (16), or a woman and her sister (18).

The above list involves four generations relating to any individual:

1. The generation before him: his mother, his father's wife, his father's sister, his mother's sister, and the wife of his father's brother;

2. His own generation: his sister, his half-sister, the daughter of his father's wife and his brother's wife.

3. The generation following him: his daughter in law.

4. The second generation following: the daughter of his son or daughter.

All above illicit sexual relationships are called incest (gilui arayot literally "to uncover the nakedness"), in contrast to the current usage of the term to refer only to sexual relationships between parents and children or between brothers and sisters.

In our parashah and in Parashat Kedoshim, the Torah makes the point that these degenerate practices were characteristic of the Egyptians and of the Canaanite peoples prior to the arrival of the Children of Israel in the Land (Leviticus 18:3, 20:23). Numerous other passages in the Bible accuse both the Canaanites and the Egyptians of lewdness and prostitution. The earliest mention refers to Ham the son of Noah, of whom the Torah says: "Ham, the father of Canaan saw his father's nakedness" (Gen. 9:2), which is interpreted by some authorities as a euphenism for an incestuous homosexual act (Bavli, Sanhedrin 70a). Since both Mitzrayim (Egypt) and Canaan were descendants of Ham (Gen. 10:2), they were seen as being steeped in incest from earliest antiquity. The sexual impropriety of Egypt is also highlighted in the story of Sarai, who was abducted to the house of Pharaoh (Gen. 12:15-18) and in the story of the wife of Potiphar, who attempted to seduce Joseph (Gen. 39). Egyptian promiscuity is described at length in the prophecy of Ezekiel (16:26; 23:19-21). The degenerate conduct of the Canaanites is cited in the story of the people of Sodom (Gen. 19:4-9), in the taking of Sarah to the house of Abimelech (Gen. 20, and compare Gen. 26:10) and in the rape of Dinah by Shechem (Gen. 34:2).

Various epigraphic findings lend additional weight to these descriptions. Egyptian sources speak of Pharaohs who married their sisters and Canaanite and Mesopotamian legends present their gods as being especially tainted by vice and adultery. The chief Canaanite deity, Ba'al, was the god of fertility who brings the rain. Rain was considered to be the masculine seed of heaven which fertilized the female earth. Therefore, farmers who prayed for rain would encourage the gods to fulfill their roles by engaging in licentiousness to stimulate the sexual appetites of the gods.[1]

These ideas made their way into Israelite culture as well. The story of Ba'al Peor (Numbers 25:1-3) shows the great sexual temptation presented by idolatry. When the prophet Hosea criticized the people of his generation, "For they go off with the prostitutes and sacrifice with the harlots" (Hosea 4:13), he was indicating the strong link between prostitution and cultic activity. Isaiah proclaimed: "Those who take comfort in the gods... on a high, towering mountain did you make your bed, you also went up there to bring sacrifice" (58:5-8) and Jeremiah admonished: "Your adultery and your celebration, the lewdness of your prostitution is on the hills, in the field I have seen your abominations" (13:27). As we saw earlier, the agricultural seasons served as special occasions for lewd behavior: "You loved a harlot's wages above all the harvests of grain" (9:1). [2]

Due to the pernicious influence of these ideas the Bible wages an ongoing campaign against the Canaanite peoples. Abraham commanded his servant to take a wife for Isaac from among the women of the country of his birth and not from among the daughters of Canaan (Genesis 24:3-4). Abarbanel poses one very obvious question: Were not the people of Aram-Naharaim idol-worshipers as well? Rabbenu Nissim in his Sermons explains that it is possible to weed out false incorrect beliefs, but very difficult to eradicate habits and practices which cater to "the evil desire". He means that the people of Aram-Naharaim were modest in their sexual behaviour. Abraham was commanded to perform the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17:11) because this mark on the sexual organ separated Abraham from the rest of the inhabitants of the Land vis-a-vis the unbridled sexual activity which characterized the Canaanite inhabitants. The generation which entered the Land were given strict instructions on this point. They were told: "You shall not let a soul remain alive. No, you must proscribe them -- the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites ...lest they lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods" (Deut. 20:16-18). Israel's failure to carry out this instruction resulted in the influx of negative Canaanite norms into Israelite society and corrupt practices in the area of sexual behavior, illustrated in the narrative of the concubine of Gibeah (Judges 19:22-25).

The struggle against the fertility cult is found not only in the legal portions but in the speeches of the Torah and the Prophets as well. The dependence of the Land of Israel on rainfall which in the Canaanite belief was tied to profligate behavior, by contrast serves, in the Torah as a means to strengthen belief. Scripture says: "But the land which you are about to cross into and occupy, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye from year's beginning to year's end. And it will come tpass if you carefully listen to My commandments, which I command you this day... I will grant the rain for your land in its proper time, the early rain and the late." (Deut. 11:11-14).

The dependence of the Land on rain creates a dependence of man on the good will of Heaven. However, in contrast to the Canaanite belief this dependence brings Israel to sanctification and the Chosen Land fulfills its role as the place which connects the People of Israel to God and His commandments. Therefore, when the People of Israel sin, Elijah announces a drought which lasts for three years (1st Kings 17:1; 18:1); and when the people proclaim "The Lord - He is God, the Lord - He is God", the skies grow dark with rain clouds (1 Kings 18:38-45). In this way, Elijah taught that the rain or the lack thereof was in God's hands, not in Ba'al's.

Similarly, in the prophecy of Hosea: "For she did not know that it was I that gave her the corn and the wine and the oil, and multiplied unto her silver and gold, which they used for Ba'al... and I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees of which she has said, These are my hire that my lovers have given me" (Hosea 2:10-14). The people related the fertility of the field to Ba'al and to acts of prostitution which accompanied his worship. In contrast the other lands of the ancient East were watered by flowing rivers, and were not dependent solely upon rain. It was therefore impossible to use the threat of drought as a means of educating them. This should have made their lives quite comfortable, as they were free to indulge in all they desired. However, such nations also lacked a warning mechanism which could have returned them to the path of righteousness and the punishment for their evil ways then strikes them out of the clear blue sky without warning. So the prophet Jonah said to the people of Nineveh: "In forty days time the city will be overturned" (Jonah 3:4), as punishment for their sins.

The unique relation between sexual misconduct and the Land is brought to the fore two times: "Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations which I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus was the Land defiled and I punished its iniquity and the Land spewed out its inhabitants... So let not the Land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you" (Lev. 18:24-28). All this is repeated again in Parashat Kedoshim: "Therefore keep all my statutes and all my judgments and do them, lest the Land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out" (Lev. 20:22).

This prohibition teaches us a new category in the classification of the commandments. We generally accept the definition of Nahmanides in his commentary to verse 25 of chapter 18, that forbidden sexual relationships are a personal obligation of each individual and are not in the category of commandments which are conditional upon residency in the Land of Israel; yet in the quotes above the sanctity of the Land seems to be conditional upon avoiding forbidden sexual relationships. The Land of Israel as a Holy Land cannot tolerate the abominations of forbidden sexual relationships. If Israel acts like the Egyptians - what point was there to taking them out of Egypt? If they behave like the Canaanites - why should the former inhabitants of the land be driven out for the benefit of Israel? Nahmanides himself explained that Rachel died just as Jacob entered the Land of Israel so that he would not dwell on the soil of the Holy Land while he was simultaneously married to two sisters, a prohibition in our parasha; Amram married his aunt Yocheved (Ex. 6:20) but that occurred outside the Land of Israel.

It should be mentioned that even when idolatry had been eliminated in Israel, several expressions in the realm of agriculture which were conceived and born in pagan mythology persisted in Hebrew; even though no contaminated belief stands behind them today. Thus, a field which is irrigated by rain is called sedeh ba'al (a field of ba'al) in the language of our sages (Mishnah Baba Batra 3,1). This epithet has its source in Canaanite where Ba'al was said to be responsible for rainfall, or in the sense that the field was impregnated by the masculine rains (be'ula). It is for this reason that rains were called reviah (literally "mating", "impregnating"): "Why was it called reviah? because it impregnates the land" (Tosefta Ta'anit 1,4). Further, "Rabbi Levi said: The waters above are masculine, the ones below, feminine, therefore it is written: "Let the earth open and bring forth salvation" (Isaiah 46:8) like a female who opens herself before the male" (Yalkut Shimoni to Prophets, 462).


[1] R. Patai, Adam Veadamah -- Mechkar Beminhagim, Emunot Ve'agadot etzel Yisrael Ve'umot Ha'olam, vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1943, p.136; E.M. Yamauchi, "Cultic Prostitution" Alter Orient and Altes Testament, 22, pp. 213-222.

[2] For a different opinion, according to which no proof exists in these verses for cultic prostitution see: M. Gruber, "Hakedeshah, Mah Tafkidah?" Beer-Sheva 3, (1988), pp.45-51; M Gruber, "Hakedesh Besefer Melachim U'bemekorot Acherim", Tarbitz 52 (1983), pp. 167-176.

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