Too Sexy for Yom Kippur

Sixteen forbidden sexual relationships (arayot) are hardly what one would expect at the climax of Judaism’s holiest day, but that’s what we read from the Torah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur: Leviticus 18, the final chapter of the portion of Acharei Mot.

Now, the first chapter of Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16, describes the special service of Yom Kippur, including the scapegoat, so we can understand why the Talmud (Megilla 31a) tells us to read that on the morning of the Day of Atonement, but why conclude with a laundry list of forbidden sex (with a dollop of Moloch)?

No, not that one.
No, not that one.

The medieval commentators offer a number of explanations. Maimonides (Laws of Prayer 13:11) explains that “anyone who has violated one of these sins will remember, become embarrassed, and repent;” similarly, Rashi (ad loc.) writes that “the arayot are a common sin, because a person lusts after them and his passion compels him.” The idea seems to be that it takes all of Yom Kippur to work up the courage and determination to repent for these sins.

However, Tosafot ha-Rosh point to a different source, an intriguing passage in the Talmudic tractate which deals with Yom Kippur, Yoma (19b):

Some of the worthiest of Jerusalem did not go to sleep all the night in order that the high priest might hear the reverberating noise, so that sleep should not overcome him suddenly. It has been taught: Abba Saul said: Also in the country they used to do so in memory of the Temple, but they used to commit sin. Abaye, or, as some say, R. Nahman b. Isaac, interpreted that to refer to Nehardea. For Elijah said to Rab Judah, the brother of R. Sila the Pious: Did you ask me why the Messiah has not come? Now today is the Day of Atonement, and yet how many virgins have been deflowered in Nehardea!

Day of Atonement, Sabbath of Sabbaths, Fast of the Tenth and… Deflowering Day? Now, we mentioned the special service of Yom Kippur, which had to be performed by the Kohen Gadol (usually translated “high priest,” although “great minister” is a better rendering). Not only did he spend the whole day of Yom Kippur running around (of course, while fasting), he was not allowed to sleep the night before (Yoma 1:6-7). Jerusalem’s nightlife assisted in this endeavor, and this was a custom which spread far and wide after the Second Temple’s destruction. However, as Abba Saul testifies (one generation later), the holy origins of this custom were soon forgotten, especially by the young people who had never seen the Temple. Yom Kippur in Nehardea, then the capital of Diaspora Jewry in Babylonia, started looking like a Vegas bachelor party.

Perhaps this explains the custom described in the end of Taanit by Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, two generations after the Destruction, that on Tu beAv and Yom Kippur “the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments… and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose…” We discussed the origins of Tu beAv earlier this summer, but why would Yom Kippur be an appropriate time to do this? Considering the Nehardean alternative, we can understand why this might be a more positive way to channel the sexual energies of the youth. For our issue, we can understand why it is at this time that we read the passage of the arayot.

Regardless of which explanation we choose, what is clear is that this reading represents Judaism’s mandate to confront the realities of human existence. We don’t endorse celibacy; we don’t condemn divorce; we don’t refer to those born out of wedlock as bastards. Sex is a part of human life, a powerful force for good and evil, and even on the day when we most try to emulate the angels (Pirkei de-R. Eliezer 45), we recognize that we are inescapably human.

That is why it so disturbed me today to learn that state religious (dati) schools in Israel are planning to essentially eliminate human reproduction from the curriculum. (You can see the full story here.)

Let’s look at one of the shockingly prurient illustrations which the religious authorities are trying to eliminate (please send any children out of the room):


Gracious me, I feel the vapors coming on. It’s almost as bad as that clip with the Emergency Coaching Hologram.

Is this really the path we want to head down? Remember, these are the supposedly moderate and modern religious schools. Will eliminating these subjects make male-female contact more unlikely? In America, the states which employ abstinence-only educational methods tend to have the highest rates of teen pregnancies. True, Halakha has strict standards for contact between the sexes, but that did not help the virgins of Nehardea.

More importantly, what of the “good” kids? Do we want them heading into marriage with an understanding of sex gleaned from the Internet and pop culture, rather than hard science? Even from a Torah-education point of view, a basic understanding of reproductive biology is necessary for understanding huge swaths of Talmudic literature.

If we can read about the arayot on Yom Kippur in our synagogues, surely we need not fear reading about the beauty, majesty and holiness of human reproduction in our schools. Is this truly the subject we want to leave to independent study?

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.