Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | September 17, 2010

Sex: A Question of Halacha

Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, begins tonight at sundown. Yom Kippur is a day of prayer, fasting, and repentance.

One of the things that’s so cool about Judaism, though, is its recognition that we are but human beings. Therefore every rule — and I mean every rule — has been discussed and deliberated upon over the centuries, to account for our humanness. For example, what if it would be dangerous for a particular individual to fast for 25 hours? The answer is clear, based on Judaism’s most important tenet, its reverence for life: if fasting would be bad for your health, you are forbidden to fast. That one’s easy.

What about work? Yom Kippur is like Shabbat — a super Shabbat, actually — during which all the Shabbat prohibitions against work in any form apply. However the rabbinic store of tales for sermonizing is also replete with stories about when work on Yom Kippur is permissible, such as when Levi Yitzhak famously fails to show up for services on the holiest night of the year because he stops to tend to some animals he sees suffering as he makes his way to shul. It’s the same principle: life comes first, above and beyond all else.

One difference between Shabbat and Yom Kippur, though, is that in addition to refraining from all conceivable forms of work, we are also supposed to abstain from all “worldly pleasures”; ie, no shtupping (which is not only encouraged on Shabbat, but considered a mitzvah).

Here’s my question: What if you are desperately trying to conceive, either on your own or through various assisted reproductive technologies, and it turns out that the key moment when conception is most likely happens to fall during the 25 hours during which abstinence is required. Is it permitted to have sexual intercourse on Yom Kippur under these circumstances?

Is it a matter of degree? Do you have to have been trying for a certain amount of time? Do the specific circumstances of assisted reproductive technology make a difference? What about artificial insemination? (Sounds too much like work to me.) Is that preferred to the act of coitus?

I wonder if Pirke Avot, literally “the Words of the Fathers”, has already weighed in on this topic. Darling Spouse’s contention is that they would probably say “No”, because all the exceptions to the Yom Kippur privations are about sustaining life, as opposed to creating it. My response would be that “Be fruitful and multiply” was the very first commandment.

Whatever they say, I can only imagine them being completely drowned out by the loud and emphatic Words of the Mothers, “Anything for grandchildren!”

And so I throw the question out to you, oh great and mighty internet, source of all porn knowledge. Or at least a reasonable compendium of such. Is it permissible to have sexual intercourse on Yom Kippur if that is the only way to get pregnant?

By the way: Wishing an easy fast to my celebrating family and friends, and a healthy and happy New Year to everyone.


  1. Well, in Israel, it’s not so much a problem because the infertility clinics/labs/participating hospitals take about a month’s break beginning before Rosh Hashanah, so couples in treatment take a month off, too. And it’s amazing how many spontaneous pregnancies we see after everyone resumes.

    Gmar hatimah tovah, Dinosaur. I really like reading your blog — I’m a CNM in Jerusalem, btw.

  2. Good luck finding a ‘Torah observing’ rabbi to give a ‘heter’, or permission to violate a Yom Kippur precept, as you outlined. Can’t even ‘conceive’ of the possibility. I hope you have completed the necessary repentance. There’s still time. Wish you all the best.

  3. That’s easy. Have intercourse, but don’t enjoy it. This should be trivial, assuming you’re having intercourse with your spouse.

  4. Interesting question –
    I think I agree with your husband’s answer. Then again…Have an easy fast, if you do.

  5. Well, as long as it’s quick – it’s a fast, after all!


  6. Well, there is the whole ‘God’s Will’ issue (sorry, can’t remember the Hebrew word for it) going on here. The couple is, in a sense, pressuring God to give them progeny, so maybe it would be good to kiss up a little…that is, obey the laws. Trust in God, and all that. I’d say abstain.

  7. Thank you for this morning’s beverage spit-take, Doc. Not being Jewish myself, but having grown up in a Jewish neighborhood I tend to agree with the image of mothers and grandmothers shouting, “anything for grandchildren!”

    But a friend of mine who became Orthodox in college would probably disagree. This is after two miscarriages and two successful pregnancies. I’d call and ask her, but I know she doesn’t answer the phone on Fridays at all since she’s out running errands before sundown.

  8. Blessings on the Holy Days from a Catholic!

    (Nevertheless, my Catholic grandson does attend the finest Hebrew School in all of Washington, DC, along with his generically Christian Mom, who works there as a teacher!)

    I would say no, simply because I have a greater respect for relgious law as I age. When I thought I was going to be childless three decades ago, I had some real issues with the Church’s prohibition on any reproductive technology that did not involve intercourse between husband and wife. It took out many option, and of course there are MANY more now that in 1980…

    I have come to see the wisdom of this, after all these years of seeing what an unholy mess can result from more than one parent each.

    I would also add as an old OB nurse that sperm live for two to five days. Therfore, sex the day before and the day after should put enough little smimmers in the operative area during the 24 hours that an ova lives.

  9. Since sperm and the egg hang around the reproductive tract for more than a day, I don’t see it as an issue. Have sex just before sundown, then fast, After sundown, have sex again, and you’ll be fine. But take a few minutes to eat first, you’ll need the energy.

    Shana Tova, Dino.

  10. Patti: I read your last line as “…should put enough little sinners in the operative area…”

    Which I thought quite apropos.

  11. […] Sex: A Question of Halacha […]

  12. I cannot answer the question, but you capture the spirit of Talmudic argument beautifully.

  13. I know that Catholicism has the “No Nookie Clause” built in around Easter…

  14. As a lifelong Catholic, the no nookie deal around Easter (if it existed, it would probably be Good Friday) is a new one on me. Pretty sure that Canon Law is vague on that. If it were on the books my mother would for SURE have told me!!!

    Mostly, it is like an old Irish priest’s reponse to whether or not it was ok to have sex on Sunday mornings before Mass

    “…as long as you’re married and don’t block the aisles……”

  15. This is an interesting one. I’m on the atheist end of the agnostic spectrum, but I went to an evangelical christian high school. I think the christian approach to this problem would be twofold.

    1) Trust in god’s plan. If god wants you to have a baby, then you will have a baby. If god doesn’t want you to have a baby, you are better off staying close to god by obeying all the rules. Yes, the [no-nookie-on-Yom-Kippur or whatever else] rules apply to you just like anyone else.

    2) You’re human. You might succumb to temptation. No worries. God will not only forgive you, god will help you patch together a good outcome from the mess you got yourself into by disobeying the rules.

    I know jewish reasoning is different — less fatalistic? — so I saved this post to check for profound talmudic insights. I think the practical “Look, it’s not that big a deal” answer is probably it.


  16. If you really want an answer, I can get one for you (from Jerusalem, I can ask my friend who is an OBGYN resident at one of the religious hospitals).

    If it’s facetious, well, never mind.

    My guess would be that they do artificial insemination. There are haredim who refuse to whack it in a cup for fertility tests, so to get around that, they have sex, the doctor retrieves the sample from the wife. Some are so crazy, they demand that after the doctor does the count, that they return the drop of semen.

    That’s what I remember from my med school rotation in OB GYN’s days in the fertility clinic (yes, that was mandatory). And everyone acted like doing all these things around halacha was totally normal. I know that patients pick their fertility specialist a lot of the time based on their reputation for following halacha.

  17. Would a Shabbos goy work here?

  18. Heeee he heee! I laughed so hard. So…facetious. Clever. Snicker.

  19. Schtup now, ask for forgiveness next year

  20. Few years after your question, I am in the same situation that you were. I visited my doctor and they told me to have intercourse tonight (yom kippur, and can’t do it before the fast starts – hubby saves lives at work) and to abstain tomorrow, so I can have an IUI on sunday. I’m researching this to see if I should follow doctors advise or rabbies advice and your entry is the only thing I found. Did you find an answer? Can you tell me, please? We’ve been trying for almost 3 yrs, 2 miscarriages and this is going to be my 3rd shot at IUI and I’ll probably do it once more before IVF (which I’m terrified about). Thank you so much for your help!

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