The biblical betulah (בתולה) usually rendered "virgin," is in fact an ambiguous term which in nonlegal contexts may denote an age of life rather than a physical state. Cognate Akkadian batultu (masculine, batūlu) and Ugaritic btlt refer to "an adolescent, nubile, girl." That the woman who is so called need not necessarily be a virgo intacta is shown by the graphic account in a Ugaritic myth of the sexual relations of Baal with the goddess Anath, who bears the honorific epithet btlt (see Pritchard, Texts, 142). Moreover, in an Aramaic incantation text from Nippur there is a reference to a betulta ʾ (בתולתא) who is "pregnant but cannot bear" (Montgomery, in bibl. 13:9, p. 178). The male counterpart to betulah in the Bible is often baḥur (בָּחוּר), "young man," e.g., Jeremiah 31:12  and Amos 8:13 (cf. Joel 1:8, where a betulah moans for her bridegroom); and the word betulah interchanges with the somewhat synonymous age term ʿ almah (עַלְמָה), which also describes a young woman. Thus, in Genesis 24:16, 43, Rebekah
In the Laws
Virginity in a woman was an asset of financial as well as moral significance: a "bride price for virgins" (mohar betulot, מֹהַר בְּתוּלוֹת), clearly higher than for non-virgins, was payable to her father for the privilege of marrying her. Biblical laws deal with litigation that may arise over the financial and moral stakes of virginity:
(a) Exodus 22:15–16: A man who seduces a virgin who has not been betrothed must marry her by the payment of a bride price. If the father is unwilling to permit his daughter to marry her seducer, he must still pay her father "in accordance with the bride price for virgins." In either case the father is compensated for his monetary loss. (A similar law pertaining to the seduction of an unmarried girl is found in the Middle Assyrian Laws, A, 56 (in: Pritchard, Texts, 185), where the equivalent of the Hebrew mohar betulot, in Akkadian, sīm batulti, "price for virgins," must be paid by the seducer. There, too, the father is not bound to give his daughter in marriage to the seducer. The law contains an additional clause which is absent from its biblical counterpart: "The father shall treat his daughter as he wishes," i.e., he may punish her in any way he sees fit.)
(b) Deuteronomy 22:28–29: A man who rapes a virgin who has not been betrothed must pay 50 shekels of silver (later understood as the price of a virgin), is forced to marry her, and is deprived of all future rights of divorce. (Similarly, in the Middle Assyrian Laws, A, 55 (in: Pritchard, Texts, 185), after describing the physical status of the young woman and the various places where the offense might have occurred, the law requires the culprit, if unmarried, to pay the price for virgins, marry the girl, and forfeit rights of divorce. The father in this case, having received the monetary compensation, still has the right to marry her off to whomever he pleases. If the culprit is married, the father may choose to give his daughter in marriage to him, but it is further stipulated that the father shall take the wife of the culprit to be raped in turn!)
(c) Deuteronomy 22:23–27: In the case of a man who violated a virgin who was betrothed, the place of the offense is the criterion of whether she was coerced or willingly consented (cf. Middle Assyrian Laws, A, 55 (above) and Hittite Laws, 197–8, in: Pritchard, Texts, 196). If the offense took place in town, both are stoned to death, "the girl because she did not cry for help in the town, and the man because he violated his neighbor's wife." If, however, it took place in open country, it is considered rape and the man alone is put to death. It is to be noted that as regards inviolability, a betrothed virgin is like a married woman: violation of either is a capital offense. (The Laws of Eshnunna, 26 (in: Pritchard, Texts, 162) and the Laws of Hammurapi, 130 (Pritchard, Texts, 171) may be compared; both prescribe the death penalty for the rape of virgins who are legally married.)
(d) Deuteronomy 22:13–22: If a bridegroom accuses his wife of not being a virgin at the time of marriage, the girl's parents must produce evidence of their daughter's virginity before the elders at the town gate. If he has falsely defamed his wife, he is flogged, fined 100 shekels, and is deprived of all rights of divorce. The large fine befits the gravity of his accusation, which would have resulted in the execution of his bride by stoning if his charge were proven correct, i.e., if she did transgress while yet in her father's house. (For cuneiform analogues to the accusation of adultery, cf. Laws of Hammurapi, 131, 132 (Pritchard, Texts, 171), and Middle Assyrian Laws, A, 17 (Pritchard, Texts, 181).)
Esteem of the unsullied purity of the virgin is reflected in the rule of Leviticus 21:13ff. that a high priest may marry only a virgin of his clan (cf. Rashbam). Ezekiel 44:22 obliges all priests to marry virgins (or a priest's widow), but they need only be Israelites.
In Nonlegal Literature
That virgins were particularly desired and sexually provocative comes out in several passages. Lot tries to appease the frenzy of the Sodomites by offering them his daughters, whose virginity he specially mentions (Gen. 19:8; cf. Judg. 19:24). In massacres, virgins alone might be spared, to be taken as slaves or wives (Num. 31:18; Judg. 21:12). Expanding on II Samuel 13:18, Josephus writes that "in ancient times virgins wore long-sleeved tunics reaching to the ankle in order not to be exposed" (Ant., 7:171).
As a figure of purity and moral worth, betulah, "maid," is used to personify countries and peoples in poetry (often construed with bat, "daughter," "woman"); e.g., Lamentations 2:13, betulat bat Ẓiyyon, "fair maiden Zion" – the genitives being explicative (as in nehar Perat, "River Euphrates").
[Shalom M. Paul]
In the Talmud and Halakhah
In halakhah a virgin is not necessarily a maiden whose hymen is intact. She can be legally regarded both as a virgin with a ruptured hymen and as a non-virgin when it is intact. The former applies when she can claim, according to Rabban Gamaliel and R. Eliezer, or prove, according to R. Joshua b. Hananiah, that the rupture was caused by an injury (mukkat eẓ, literally, "injured by a piece of wood"; Ket. 1:7). On the other hand, although a maiden divorced or widowed after *betrothal only has the legal status of a virgin, if she was divorced or widowed
The Mishnah states that the marriage of a virgin used to take place on Wednesdays so that, should she be found to be a non-virgin, the aggrieved bridegroom could immediately make application to the bet din, which sat regularly on Thursdays (Ket. 1:1). However, the custom arose to anticipate it and have it take place on Tuesdays in order to foil the custom of jus primae noctis exercised by the local governor (cf. Rabinowitz in bibl. for other examples).
Proof that on her wedding day she "went forth to her marriage in a hinnuma" (either "in a litter" or "under a veil" – (Ket. 17b)), or accompanied with ὑμέναιος ("the bridal song"), or with her hair unbound, or that "roasted corn was distributed" at her wedding, was sufficient to establish the fact that she was a virgin when she married (Ket. 2:1), since these ceremonies and customs were carried out only with regard to a virgin. Unnatural intercourse does not affect her status as a virgin (Kid. 9b; cf. Rashi, ad loc.; and Maim. Yad, Issurei Bi'ah, 3:6.
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
J.A. Montgomery, Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur (1913); E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws (1944), index, S.V., signa virginitatis; F. Zimmerman, in: JBL, 73 (1954), 98, n. 4; J.J. Finkelstein, in: JAOS, 86 (1966), 355–72; B. Landsberger, in: Symbolae iuridicae et historicae Mortino David dedicatae, 2 (1968), 41–105. IN THE TALMUD AND HALAKHAH: ET, 5 (1953), 4–7; J. Preuss, Biblisch-talmudische Medizin (19233), 558–61; idem, in: Allgemeine medizinische Zentral-Zeitung (1905), no. 5ff.; L.M. Epstein, Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Talmud (1942), index; L. Rabinowitz, in: JQR, 58 (1967/68), 152–60.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.