Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THE precepts of the fourteenth class are those which we enumerated in the Section on Women, the Laws concerning forbidden sexual intercourse, and
cross-breeding of cattle (Sefer nashim, Hilkot issure biah ve-kaleë behemah). The law concerning circumcision belongs also to this class. The general purpose of these precepts has already been described by us. We will now proceed to explain them singly.
It is well known that man requires friends all his lifetime. Aristotle explains this in the ninth book of his Nikomachean Ethics. When man is in good health and prosperous, he enjoys the company of his friends; in time of trouble he is in need of them; in old age, when his body is weak, he is assisted by them. This love is more frequent and more intense between parents and children, and among [other] relations. Perfect love, brotherhood, and mutual assistance is only found among those near to each other by relationship. The members of a family united by common descent from the same grandfather, or even from some more distant ancestor, have towards each other a certain feeling of love, help each other, and sympathize with each other. To effect this is one of the chief purposes of the Law. Professional harlots were therefore not tolerated in Israel (Deut. xxiii. 18), because their existence would disturb the above relationship between man and man. Their children are strangers to everybody; no one knows to what family they belong; nor does any person recognize them as relatives. And this is the greatest misfortune that can befall any child or father. Another important object in prohibiting prostitution is to restrain excessive and continual lust; for lust increases with the variety of its objects. The sight of that to which a person has been accustomed for a long time does not produce such an ardent desire for its enjoyment as is produced by objects new in form and character. Another effect of this prohibition is the removal of a cause for strife; for if the prohibition did not exist, several persons might by chance come to one woman, and would naturally quarrel with each other; they would in many cases kill one another, or they would kill the woman. This is known to have occurred in days of old, "And they assembled themselves by troops in a harlot's house" (Jer. v. 7). In order to prevent these great evils, and to effect the great boon that all men should know their relationship to each other, prostitutes (Deut. xxiii. 17) were not tolerated, and sexual intercourse was only permitted when man has chosen a certain female, and married her openly; for if it sufficed merely to choose her, many a person would bring a prostitute into his house at a certain time agreed upon between them, and say that she was his wife. Therefore it is commanded to perform the act of engagement by which he declares that he has chosen her to take her for his wife, and then to go through the public ceremony of marriage. Comp. "And Boaz took ten men," etc. (Ruth iv. 2). It may happen that husband and wife do not agree, live without love and peace, and do not enjoy the benefit of a home; in that case he is permitted to send her away. If he had been allowed to divorce her by a mere word, or by turning her out of his house, the wife would wait for some negligence [on the part of the husband], and then come out and say that she was divorced; or having committed adultery, she and the adulterer would contend that she had then been divorced. Therefore the law is that divorce can only take place by means of a document which can serve as evidence, "He shall write her a bill of divorcement" (Deut. xxiv. 1). There are frequently occasions for suspicion of adultery and doubts concerning the conduct of the wife. Laws
concerning a wife suspected of adultery (sotah) are therefore prescribed (Num. v.); the effect of which is that the wife, out of fear of the "bitter waters," is most careful to prevent any ill-feeling on the part of her husband against her. Even of those that felt quite innocent and safe most were rather willing to lose all their property than to submit to the prescribed treatment; even death was preferred to the public disgrace of uncovering the head, undoing the hair, rending the garments and exposing the heart, and being led round through the Sanctuary in the presence of all, of women and men, and also in the presence of the members of the Synhedrion. The fear of this trial keeps away great diseases that ruin the home comfort.
As every maiden expects to be married, her seducer therefore is only ordered to marry her; for he is undoubtedly the fittest husband for her. He will better heal her wound and redeem her character than any other husband. If, however, he is rejected by her or her father, he must give the dowry (Exod. xxii. 15). If he uses violence he has to submit to the additional punishment, "he may not put her away all his days" (Deut. xxii. 29).
The reason of the law concerning marrying the deceased brother's wife is stated in the Bible (Deut. xxv. 5). It was a custom in force before the Law was given, and the Law perpetuated it. The ceremony of haliẓah (ibid. 6, seq.), "taking off the shoe," has been introduced, because in those days it was considered disgraceful to go through that ceremony, and in order to avoid the disgrace, a person might perhaps be induced to marry his deceased brother's wife. This is evident from the words of the Law: "So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother's house. And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed" (Deut. xxv. 9). In the action of Judah we may perhaps notice an example of a noble conduct, and uprightness in judgment. He said: "Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her" (Gen. xxxviii. 23). For before the Lawgiving, the intercourse with a harlot was as lawful as cohabitation of husband and wife since the Lawgiving; it was perfectly permitted, nobody considered it wrong. The hire which was in those days paid to the harlot in accordance with a previous agreement, corresponds to the ketubah which in our days the husband pays to his wife when he divorces her. It is a just claim on the part of the wife, and the husband is bound to pay it. The words of Judah, "Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed," etc., show that conversation about sexual intercourse, even of that which is permitted, brings shame upon us; it is proper to be silent about it, to keep it secret, even if the silence would lead to loss of money. In this sense Judah said: It is better for us to lose property, and to let her keep what she has, than to make our affair public by inquiring after her, and bring still more shame upon us. This is the lesson, as regards conduct, to be derived from this incident. As to the uprightness to be learned therefrom, it is contained in the words of Judah when he wanted to show that he had not robbed her, that he has not in the least departed from his agreement with her. For he said, "Behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her." The kid was probably very good, therefore he points to it, saying, "this kid." This is the uprightness which he had inherited from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: that man must not depart from his given word, nor deviate from what he agreed upon; but he must give to others all that
is due to them. It makes no difference whether he holds a portion of his neighbour's property as a loan or a trust, or whether he is in any other way his neighbour's debtor, owing him wages or the like.
The sum which the husband settles upon his wife (ketubah) is to be treated in the same way as the wages of a hired servant. There is no difference whether a master withholds the wages of a hired servant, or deprives his wife of that which is due to her; whether a master wrongs a hired servant, and brings charges against him with the intention to send him away without payment, or a husband treats his wife in a manner that would enable him to send her away without the payment of the promised sum.
The equity of the statutes and judgments of the Law in this regard may be noticed in the treatment of a person accused of spreading an evil report about his wife (Deut. xxii. 13, seq.). There is no doubt that the man that did this is bad, does not love his wife, and is not pleased with her. If he desired to divorce her in a regular manner, there is nothing to prevent him, but he would be bound to give her what is due unto her; but instead of this, "he gives occasion of speech against her" (ibid. xxii. 14), in order to get rid of his wife without paying anything; he slanders her, and utters falsehood in order to keep in his possession the fifty shekels of silver, the dowry fixed in the Law for maidens, which he is obliged to pay unto her. He is therefore sentenced to pay one hundred shekels of silver, in accordance with the principle, "Whom the judges shall condemn, he shall pay double unto his neighbour" (Exod. xxii. 9). The Law is also analogous to that about false witnesses, which we have explained above (chap. xli. p. 195). For he intended to cheat her of her fifty shekels of silver, he must therefore [add fifty, and] pay her a hundred shekels. This is his punishment for withholding from her her due, and endeavouring to keep it. But in so far as he degraded her, and spread the rumour that she was guilty of misconduct, he was also degraded, and received stripes, as is implied in the words, "and they shall chastise him" (Deut. xxii. 15). But he sinned besides in clinging to lust, and seeking only that which gave pleasure to him: he was therefore punished by being compelled to keep his wife always, "he may not put her away all his days" (ibid. 19); for he has been brought to all this only because he may have found her ugly. Thus are these bad habits cured when they are treated according to the divine Law; the ways of equity are never lost sight of; they are obvious and discernible in every precept of the Law by those who consider it well. See how, according to the Law, the slanderer of his wife, who only intended to withhold from her what he is bound to give her, is treated in the same manner as a thief who has stolen the property of his neighbour; and the false witness (Deut. xix. 16, seq.) who schemes to injure, although the injury was in reality not inflicted, is punished like those who have actually caused injury and wrong, viz., like the thief and the slanderer. The three kinds of sinners are tried and judged by one and the same law. See how wonderful are the divine laws, and admire His wonderful deeds. Scripture says: "The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are judgment" (Deut. xxxii. 4), i.e., as His works are most perfect, so are His laws most equitable; but our mind is too limited to comprehend the perfection of all His works, or the equity of all His laws; and as we are able to comprehend some of His wonderful works in the organs of living
beings and the motions of the spheres, so we understand also the equity of some of His laws; that which is unknown to us of both of them is far more than that which is known to us. I will now return to the theme of the present chapter.
The law about forbidden sexual intercourse seeks in all its parts to inculcate the lesson that we ought to limit sexual intercourse altogether, hold it in contempt, and only desire it very rarely. The prohibition of pederasty (Lev. xviii. 22) and carnal intercourse with beasts (ibid. 73) is very clear. If in the natural way the act is too base to be performed except when needed, how much more base is it if performed in an unnatural manner, and only for the sake of pleasure.
The female relatives whom a man may not marry are alike in this respect--that as a rule they are constantly together with him in his house: they would easily listen to him, and do what he desires; they are near at hand, and he would have no difficulty in procuring them. No judge could blame him if found in their company. If to these relatives the same law applied as to all other unmarried women, if we were allowed to marry any of them, and were only precluded from sexual intercourse with them without marriage, most people would constantly have become guilty of misconduct with them. But as they are entirely forbidden to us, and sexual intercourse with them is most emphatically denounced unto us as a capital crime, or a sin punishable with extinction (karet), and as there is no means of ever legalizing such intercourse, there is reason to expect that people will not seek it, and win not think of it. That the persons included in that prohibition are, as we have stated, at hand and easily accessible, is evident. For as a rule, the mother of the wife, the grandmother, the daughter, the granddaughter, and the sister-in-law, are mostly with her; the husband meets them always when he goes out, when he comes in, and when he is at his work. The wife stays also frequently in the house of her husband's brother, father, or son. It is also well known that we are often in the company of our sisters, our aunts, and the wife of our uncle, and are frequently brought up together with them. These are all the relatives which we must not marry. This is one of the reasons why intermarriage with a near relative is forbidden. But according to my opinion the prohibition serves another object, namely, to inculcate chastity into our hearts. Licence between the root and the branch, between a man and his mother, or his daughter, is outrageous. The intercourse between root and branch is forbidden, and it makes no difference whether the male element is the root or the branch, or both root and branch combine in the intercourse with a third person, so that the same individual cohabits with the root and with the branch. On this account it is prohibited to marry a woman and her mother, the wife of the father or of the son; for in all these cases there is the intercourse between one and the same person on the one side and root and branch on the other.
The law concerning brothers is like the law concerning root and branch. The sister is forbidden, and so is also the sister of the wife and the wife of the brother; because in the latter cases two persons who are considered like root and branch, cohabit with the same person. But in these prohibitions brothers and sisters are partly considered as root and branch and partly as one body; the sister of the mother is therefore like the mother, and the
sister of the father like the father, and both are prohibited: and since the daughter of the parent's brother or sister is not included in the number of prohibited relatives, so may we also marry the daughter of the brother or the sister. The apparent anomaly, that the brother of the father may marry a woman that has been the wife of his brother's son, whilst the nephew must not marry a woman that has been the wife of his father's brother, can be explained according to the above-mentioned first reason. For the nephew is frequently in the house of his uncle, and his conduct towards the wife of his uncle is the same as that towards his brother's wife. The uncle, however, is not so frequent in the house of his nephew, and he is consequently less intimate with the wife of his nephew; whilst in the case of father and son, the familiarity of the father with his daughter-in-law is the same as that of the son with the wife of his father, and therefore the law and punishment is the same for both [father and son]. The reason why it is prohibited to cohabit with a menstruous woman (Lev. xviii. 19) or with another man's wife (ibid. 20), is obvious, and requires no further explanation.
It is well known that we must not indulge in any sensual enjoyment whatever with the persons included in the above prohibitions: we must not even look at them if we intend to derive pleasure therefrom. We have explained this in "the laws about forbidden sexual intercourse" (Hilkot issure bïah, xxi. 1-2), and shown that according to the Law we must not even engage our thoughts with the act of cohabitation (ibid. 19) or irritate the organ of generation; and when we find ourselves unintentionally in a state of irritation, we must turn our mind to other thoughts, and reflect on some other thing till we are relieved. Our Sages (B. T. Kidd 30b), in their moral lessons, which give perfection to the virtuous, say as follows: "My son, if that monster meets you, drag it to the house of study. It will melt if it is of iron; it will break in pieces if it is of stone: as is said in Scripture, 'Is not my word like a fire? saith the Lord, and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?'" (Jer. xxiii. 29). The author of this saying thus exhorts his son to go to the house of study when he finds his organ of generation in an irritated state. By reading, disputing, asking, and listening to questions, the irritation win certainly cease. See how properly the term monster is employed, for that irritation is indeed like a monster. Not only religion teaches this lesson, the philosophers teach the same. I have already quoted verbatim the words of Aristotle. He says: "The sense of touch which is a disgrace to us, leads us to indulge in eating and sensuality," etc. He calls people degraded who seek carnal pleasures and devote themselves to gastronomy: he denounces in extenso their low and objectionable conduct, and ridicules them. This passage occurs in his Ethics and in his Rhetoric.
In accordance with this excellent principle, which we ought strictly to follow, our Sages teach us that we ought not to look at beasts or birds in the moment of their copulation. According to my opinion, this is the reason why the cross-breeding of cattle is prohibited (Lev. xix. 19). It is a fact that animals of different species do not copulate together, unless by force. It is well known that the low class of breeders of mules are regularly engaged in this work. Our Law objected to it that any Israelite should degrade himself by doing these things, which require so much vulgarity and indecency, and doing that which religion forbids us even to mention, how
much more to witness or to practise, except when necessary. Crossbreeding, however, is not necessary. I think that the prohibition to bring together two species in any kind of work, as included in the words, "Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together" (Deut. xxii. 10), is only a preventive against the intercourse of two species. For if it were allowed to join such together in any work, we might sometimes also cause their intercourse. That this is the reason of the commandment is proved by the fact that it applies to other animals besides ox and ass; it is prohibited to plow not only with ox and ass together, but with any two kinds. But Scripture mentions as an instance that which is of regular occurrence.
As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate. Some people believe that circumcision is to remove a defect in man's formation; but every one can easily reply: How can products of nature be deficient so as to require external completion, especially as the use of the fore-skin to that organ is evident. This commandment has not been enjoined as a complement to a deficient physical creation, but as a means for perfecting man's moral shortcomings. The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired; it does not interrupt any vital function, nor does it destroy the power of generation. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment: the organ necessarily becomes weak when it loses blood and is deprived of its covering from the beginning. Our Sages (Beresh. Rabba, c. 80) say distinctly: It is hard for a woman, with whom an uncircumcised had sexual intercourse, to separate from him. This is, as I believe, the best reason for the commandment concerning circumcision. And who was the first to perform this commandment? Abraham, our father! of whom it is well known how he feared sin; it is described by our Sages in reference to the words, "Behold, now I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon" (Gen. xii. 11).
There is, however, another important object in this commandment. It gives to all members of the same faith, i.e., to all believers in the Unity of God, a common bodily sign, so that it is impossible for any one that is a stranger, to say that he belongs to them. For sometimes people say so for the purpose of obtaining some advantage, or in order to make some attack upon the Jews. No one, however, should circumcise himself or his son for any other reason but pure faith; for circumcision is not like an incision on the leg, or a burning in the arm, but a very difficult operation. It is also a fact that there is much mutual love and assistance among people that are united by the same sign when they consider it as [the symbol of] a covenant. Circumcision is likewise the [symbol of the] covenant which Abraham made in connexion with the belief in God's Unity. So also every one that is circumcised enters the covenant of Abraham to believe in the unity of God, in accordance with the words of the Law, "To be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee" (Gen. xvii. 7). This purpose of the circumcision is as important as the first, and perhaps more important.
This law can only be kept and perpetuated in its perfection, if circumcision is performed when the child is very young, and this for three good reasons. First, if the operation were postponed till the boy had grown up,
he would perhaps not submit to it. Secondly, the young child has not much pain, because the skin is tender, and the imagination weak; for grown-up persons are in dread and fear of things which they imagine as coming, some time before these actually occur. Thirdly, when a child is very young, the parents do not think much of him; because the image of the child, that leads the parents to love him, has not yet taken a firm root in their minds. That image becomes stronger by the continual sight; it grows with the development of the child, and later on the image begins again to decrease and to vanish. The parents' love for a new-born child is not so great as it is when the child is one year old; and when one year old, it is less loved by them than when six years old. The feeling and love of the father for the child would have led him to neglect the law if he were allowed to wait two or three years, whilst shortly after birth the image is very weak in the mind of the parent, especially of the father who is responsible for the execution of this commandment. The circumcision must take place on the eighth day (Lev. xii. 3), because all living beings are after birth, within the first seven days, very weak and exceedingly tender, as if they were still in the womb of their mother; not until the eighth day can they be counted among those that enjoy the light of the world. That this is also the case with beasts may be inferred from the words of Scripture: "Seven days shall it be under the dam" (Lev. xxii. 27), as if it had no vitality before the end of that period. In the same manner man is circumcised after the completion of seven days. The period has been fixed, and has not been left to everybody's judgment.
The precepts of this class include also the lesson that we must not injure in any way the organs of generation in living beings (ibid. xxii. 24). The lesson is based on the principle of "righteous statutes and judgments" (Deut. iv. 8); we must keep in everything the golden mean; we must not be excessive in love, but must not suppress it entirely; for the Law commands, "Be fruitful, and multiply" (Gen. i. 22). The organ is weakened by circumcision, but not destroyed by the operation. The natural faculty is left in full force, but is guarded against excess. It is prohibited for an Israelite "that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off" (Deut. xxiii. 2), to marry an Israelitish woman; because the sexual intercourse is of no use and of no purpose; and that marriage would be a source of ruin to her, and to him who would claim her. This is very clear.
In order to create a horror of illicit marriages, a bastard was not allowed to marry an Israelitish woman (ibid. xxiii. 3); the adulterer and the adulteress were thus taught that by their act they bring upon their seed irreparable injury. In every language and in every nation the issue of licentious conduct has a bad name; the Law therefore raises the name of the Israelites by keeping them free from the admixture of bastards. The priests, who have a higher sanctity, are not allowed to marry a harlot, or a woman that is divorced from her husband, or that is profane (Lev. xxi 7); the high-priest, the noblest of the priests, must not marry even a widow, or a woman that has had sexual intercourse of any kind (ibid. xxi. 14). Of all these laws the reason is obvious. If bastards were prohibited to marry any member of the congregation of the Lord, how much more rigidly had slaves and handmaids to be excluded. The reason of the prohibition of inter-marriage
with other nations is stated in the Law: "And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods" (Exod. xxxiv. 16).
Most of the "statutes" (ḥukkim), the reason of which is unknown to us serve as a fence against idolatry. That I cannot explain some details of the above laws or show their use is owing to the fact that what we hear from others is not so clear as that which we see with our own eyes. Thus my knowledge of the Sabean doctrines, which I derived from books, is not as complete as the knowledge of those who have witnessed the public practice of those idolatrous customs, especially as they have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws, the object of which I am unable to state. I have no doubt that all these laws served to blot out wrong principles from man's heart, and to exterminate the practices which are useless, and merely a waste of time in vain and purposeless things. Those principles have turned the mind of the people away from intellectual research and useful actions. Our prophets therefore describe the ways of the idolaters as follows: "(They go) after vain things which cannot profit nor deliver; for they are vain" (1 Sam. xii. 21); "Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity and things wherein there is no profit" (Jer. xvi. 19). Consider how great the evil consequences of idolatry are, and say whether we ought with all our power to oppose it or not! Most of the precepts serve, as has been stated by us, as a mere fence against those doctrines [of idolatry], and relieve man from the great and heavy burdens, from the pains and inflictions which formed part of the worship of idols. Every positive or negative precept, the reason of which is unknown to thee, take as a remedy against some of those diseases with which we are unacquainted at present, thank God. This should be the belief of educated men who know the true meaning of the following divine dictum: "I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek me in vain" (Isa. xlv. 19).
I have now mentioned all the commandments of these fourteen classes one by one, and pointed out the reason of each of them, with the exception of a few for which I was unable to give the reason, and of some details of less importance; but implicitly we have given the reason even of these, and every intelligent reader will easily find it.
The reasons of the Precepts are now complete.