Why is sex allowed on Shabbat?

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer gives an Orthodox perspective, and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain a Progressive one, on problems in Jewish life


Question: On Shabbat we are not allowed to put on a light or drive a car because they are regarded as acts of creation. So how can intimacy between husband and wife be encouraged on Friday night if that can lead to creating new life?(Question)

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

It’s a great question although your premise is somewhat flawed. It is true that Jewish law forbids certain acts of creation on Shabbat but the prohibition only extends to acts of creative labour that can be traced back to the construction of the biblical tabernacle.

The Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2) enumerates thirty nine principal forms of such creative labour, which give rise to multiple derivative forms of labour.

As society and technology develop, so too does the possibility of discovering new derivatives that can be linked back to the ancient principal forms of labour. For example, turning on the ignition of a car is a derivative of the biblical prohibition against starting a fire; opening an umbrella can be linked to erecting a shelter. The creation of a foetus, however, had no place in the construction of the tabernacle and it is therefore not proscribed on Shabbat.

Furthermore, intimacy is encouraged on Shabbat not so much as a means to procreate as it is to create a bond between husband and wife. There are two separate mitzvot in the Torah that involve sexual relations. One is to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis1:28.) The lesser-known mitzvah is for the husband to ensure he sexually satisfies his wife (Exodus 21:10). This second mitzvah is totally independent from the first and so the obligation to make love to one’s wife applies to couples regardless as to whether they wish to, or are capable of conceiving.

The very notion that sexual pleasure can itself — provided it is experienced in the right context — be a mitzvah, underscores the unique Jewish attitude to life. Judaism, on the whole, frowns upon asceticism. It sees the material world not in conflict with sanctity but rather as capable of being sanctified. Nowhere is this more evident than on Shabbat where the sacred is celebrated through the physical. This holy day is observed not just through prayer and song but also through eating, socialising, relaxing and — for married couples — sexual intimacy. Shabbat illustrates the harmony that can be achieved between the spiritual and the physical.

Throughout the week we live fragmented lives lurching between high ideals and practical realities; on Shabbat we attain a sense of wholeness, where the disparate and often opposing forces in our lives meld together in celebration of this special day of rest.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

It is the negative attitude to the Sabbath that gives it a bad name. The problem lies with the Bible telling us not to work but without defining what that means (Exodus 20.8). Rabbinic literature declares that as another reference to it is alongside details of the tabernacle (Exodus 35.4), therefore the type of work involved in making the latter is what is forbidden on the Sabbath — the 39 categories; it then derives further rules from them (such as the ban on making a building is extended to completing an electrical circuit and thus not turning on a light switch).

It is very doubtful whether the Bible meant to ban electric lights — which give brightness and enhance the Sabbath — and despite their logic, the extensions have departed far away from the spirit of the original command: not to be worn down by regular chores. There is also a time problem: travelling may have been laborious and dangerous in the biblical period, but is easy and comfortable now.

There is no need for modern Jews to act as if they live in an ancient era, and no objection to driving to synagogue if that facilitates communal involvement. There is also a subjective element to work: some people hate gardening, but for the person who is a salesman travelling the motorways all week, or stuck in front of a computer screen all day, then getting outside, doing physical exercise and appreciating God’s world is the perfect way to refresh one’s spirit and make the Sabbath special.

This highlights the fact that Sabbath observance is not just abstaining from unpleasant tasks but also finding time for enjoyable ones. They include prayer, study, spending time with family or community, and finding space for one’s own interests. It is also the sexual and emotional relationship between a husband and wife, which can often suffer from the time pressures and stress levels that arise during the week.

Friday night, when they step back from the tsunami of pressures that overwhelm them, is an ideal time to reconnect, both personally and physically. Few would define sex as hard work, while it is not just about procreation, and is enjoyed as much by those who are past the age of menopause.

The key to a successful Shabbat is that you emerge revitalised, personally and Jewishly, and are better able to face another week.

Last updated: 12:34pm, June 8 2012