Adultery in Judaism


The prohibition against committing adultery is well known as one of the “Ten Utterances” cited in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 4:17. Given that biblical law—and rabbinic law in its wake—permits polygyny, at least in theory, men were not expected to limit themselves to a single sexual partner, and adultery is defined in Jewish tradition as the act of a married woman having sexual contact with a man other than her husband. A man may commit adultery against another man—by having sexual intercourse with that man’s wife—rather than against his own wife. Adultery is also considered a sin against God, and therefore in biblical literature the severity of this sin is such that it defiles those who commit it; moreover, they will be “cast out” of the Land of Israel (Leviticus 18:20 and 24-30). Offenders should be put to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). A man who suspects his wife of adultery, but has no proof, may subject her to a trial by ordeal (Numbers 5:11-31), the only trial by ordeal found in biblical law.

In rabbinic and later Jewish law, adultery is grounds for a man to divorce his wife—and even obligates him to do so (Shulhan Aruch, Even Ha-ezer 115:6-9). The adulterous woman is forbidden sexually and maritally thereafter both to her original husband and to her partner in adultery (Mishnah Sotah 5:1; Shulhan Aruch, Even Ha-ezer 11:1): “what she wanted is not given to her, and what she had in her hand is taken from her” (Tosefta Sotah 4:5). The child born of an adulterous union is stigmatized as a mamzer and is prohibited from marrying a Jew of unimpaired lineage (Mishnah Yevamot 5:13 (see also 10:1); Kiddushin 3:12). The rabbis also clarified that sexual contact must be consensual on the wife’s part to be considered adultery; rape is not treated as adultery (Sifre Naso Piska 7; Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 56b, Ketubot 51b, and others). Nonetheless, adultery and other forms of sexual sin such as incest are considered as one of the three sins— the other two being idolatry and bloodshed— for which a Jew must accept martyrdom rather than transgress (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a).

Adultery also serves important metaphorical functions in biblical and later Jewish thought. Repeatedly in the topic of Proverbs, the adulterous woman serves as a metaphor for the lure of sin and the temptation to stray from God’s teaching. Because the covenant between God and Israel is described in many Jewish texts as a marriage—God as husband, Israel as wife—adultery also becomes a metaphor for idolatry and worship of other gods. This theme is particularly prominent in several prophetic works, notably Hosea 1-3; Jeremiah 3, in which God’s response is to consider “divorce” of Israel and Judah; and Ezekiel 16 and 23.

This theme is taken up in later exegetical and homiletic contexts as well, as in a teaching attributed to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai: “Why was Israel exiled to Babylonia rather than any other nation? Because the family of their father Abraham came from there. A parable: what is the matter like? Like a woman who was unfaithful to her husband—where is she sent? To her father’s house” (Tosefta Bava Kama 7:3).

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