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Encyclopedia Judaica:
Celibacy


Jewish Ethics: Table of Contents | Adultery | Civil Marriage


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The deliberate renunciation of marriage is all but completely alien to Judaism. Scarcely any references to celibates are to be found in the Bible or in the Talmud, and no medieval rabbi is known to have lived as a celibate (see L. Loew , Gesammelte Schriften, 2 (1890), 112; 3 (1893), 29ff.). The demands of celibacy were included neither among the acts of self-denial imposed upon the Nazirite (Num. 6:1–21), nor among the special restrictions incumbent upon the priesthood (Lev. 21:1–15). Celibacy among Jews was a strictly sectarian practice; Josephus ascribes it to some of the *Essenes (Wars 2:120–21). Equally exceptional is the one solitary case of the talmudist Simeon ben *Azzai who explained his celibacy with the words: "My soul is fond of the Law; the world will be perpetuated by others" (Yev. 63b).

The norm of Jewish law, thought, and life is represented rather by the opening clause in the matrimonial code of the Shulḥan Arukh: "Every man is obliged to marry in order to fulfill the duty of procreation, and whoever is not engaged in propagating the race is as if he shed blood, diminishing the Divine image and causing His Presence to depart from Israel" (Sh. Ar., EH 1:1). The law even provides for the courts to compel a man to marry if he is still single after passing the age of 20 (ibid., 1:3). Since the late Middle Ages, however, such authority has not been exercised (Isserles, ad loc.). Only if a person "cleaves to the study of the Torah like Simeon b. Azzai" can his refusal to marry be condoned, provided he can control his sexual lust (ibid. 4).

The Jewish opposition to celibacy is founded first on the positive precept to "be fruitful and multiply" as a cardinal duty to perpetuate life, a duty which also underlies the attitude of Judaism toward *birth control. Second, celibacy is incompatible with the Jewish scheme of creation in which a man is regarded as half a human being unless he be married, and in which "he who is without a wife lives without joy, without blessing,… without peace" (Yev. 62b, based on Gen. 5:2). Third, far from regarding celibacy as a means to the attainment of holiness, Judaism views it as an impediment to personal sanctification. This is strikingly illustrated by the rabbinic use of the term kiddushin ("sanctification") for marriage and by the insistence that the high priest be married (Lev. 21:13), especially at the time when he officiates in the Holy of Holies on the holiest day of the year (Yoma 1:1, based on Lev. 16:6, 11, and 17). For similar reasons, unmarried people are also debarred from holding certain public and religious offices, notably as judges in capital cases (Sanh. 36b) and as synagogue readers (Sof. 14:17; cf. OḤ 53:9). Jewish moralists in all ages have advocated severe self-control and occasionally even a measure of asceticism, but they did not encourage celibacy or any form of monasticism (although exceptionally there was a note of sympathy, cf. Baḥya's Ḥovot ha-Levavot 193, Abraham b. Ḥiyya's Meditation of the Sad Soul 133, and Abraham Maimonides' Highways of Perfection 249, 265, 279). Their writings and teachings reveal no trace of the condemnation of marriage as a compromise with evil, a concept already found in the New Testament (Mat. 19:12; I Cor. 7:9; Luke 20:27–36). The notion that there was something immoral in marriage was refuted in a special tract by *Naḥmanides as early as the 13th century (Graetz, Gesch, 7 (19083), 41).

[Immanuel Jakobovits]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

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