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Wikipedia outlines the attitudes of various cultures towards virginity including:


In Judaism, sex is not considered to be sinful. Though premarital sex is disapproved, there is no requirement for a female to be a virgin at her marriage, and a child born to an unmarried female is not regarded as illegitimate (mamzer) or subject to any social or religious disabilities.

Sex within marriage is considered a virtue (mitzvah, literally a 'commandment'). Jewish law contains rules related to protecting female virgins and dealing with consensual and non-consensual pre-marital sex. The thrust of Jewish law's guidance on sex is effectively that it should not be rejected, but should be lived as a wholesome part of life.

Frankly, this doesn't sound at all like the attitude toward virginity that I glean from reading the Tanakh. While the description seems to be technically accurate, it also uses weaselly language ("disapproved", "no requirement", "not regarded", etc.) to give the impression that virginity is no big deal.

Does the quoted text reflect the modern, Jewish attitude toward premarital sex? If it doesn't, how should this section be phrased to not mislead a non-Jew such as myself?

An example of a Torah passage that leads me to think virginity is a virtue would be:

[The priest who is exalted above his fellows] may marry only a woman who is a virgin. A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is degraded by harlotry—such he may not marry. Only a virgin of his own kin may he take to wife—that he may not profane his offspring among his kin, for I the Lord have sanctified him.—Leviticus 21:13-15 (NJPS)

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I'm not sure what you mean by "virtue", especially because I don't see why one of your quotes has the parenthetical of "mitzvah" right after the word virtue while the two are not related. Virginity is a status. – Danno May 4 '12 at 1:12
@Dan, I'm guessing that the author of that Wikipedia text meant "virtue" in the sense of "meritorious act" (you're obligated to satisfy your wife). I think Jon is asking if virginity conveys elevated status -- Jon, do I understand you correctly? – Monica Cellio May 4 '12 at 2:54
@Monica: Yes, that sounds like what I'm asking. The way Wikipedia puts it (in the article introduction) is that virginity is often "associated with notions of personal purity, honor and worth." Do any (or all) of these apply? – Jon Ericson May 4 '12 at 4:47
Not a virtue per se. I would be more inclined to say that Judaism treats promiscuity as a vice. Priests have a higher degree of consecration, which may explain the prescription that the Kohen Gadol marry a virgin; not necessarily that it is a /virtue/. – yitznewton May 4 '12 at 11:59
Jon, thanks for linking to the Tagged Tanakh, a project I hadn't known about. It looks like they have some of the same goals and issues that we do here. I get the sense, though, that they have some work to do before it gathers the productive community they want it to generate. – Isaac Moses May 4 '12 at 16:49
up vote 15 down vote accepted

The Wikipedia passage you quoted is accurate but could do with some elaboration. Their use of the word "virtue" may have misled you because other religions see sex more negatively. While not encouraging promiscuity, Judaism also doesn't call for asceticism. Procreation is an outcome of sex but not the only motivation.

Within marriage, a certain level of sexual attention is a woman's right (but she can always decline). I wouldn't use the word "virtue" for this any more than I would for the financial support a husband owes his wife. It's just part of the deal; the ketubah specifies that sex is one of the three things he specifically owes her (the others are food and clothing), and this is also noted in Ex. 21:10 (h/t Double AA). For more on sex within marriage see this Judaism 101 page.

Virginity is not a requirement for marriage, but the financial arrangements are slightly different for virgins and non-virgins. A non-virgin receives a smaller ketubah (divorce settlement), though if she was previously married then she presumably was due either another ketubah or an inheritance, so this doesn't strike me as punative. A convert also receives the same lower ketubah, yet we welcome converts. For much more on the financial impact of virginity (or its loss), see legal-religious status of the virgin, which also discusses the financial penalties for having premarital relations with a virgin.

The torah passage you quoted is specifically about the kohein gadol, the high priest. Other kohanim (descendants through the male line of Aharon the high priest) may marry virgins or widows, but not divorced women or converts. The position of kohein gadol carries both restrictions and privileges not present elsewhere, so I wouldn't generalize too much from that.

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[citations needed], but I don't think I'll be able to address that before Shabbat. – Monica Cellio May 4 '12 at 14:52
What about male virginity? – Daniel Jun 19 '13 at 19:24
@Daniel, y'know, that's a good question, and off hand I don't know of sources that talk about that. Hmm. – Monica Cellio Jun 19 '13 at 19:39
What do you mean "(but she can always decline)." – hazoriz Jan 14 at 20:38
@hazoriz Note the halacha (Rambam and gemoro in I think nedarim but not sure) if she says never and takes an oath to that effect then she is a "rebellious wife" and loses the kesuvah. However the Rambam explicitly says that she can say no on any individual night. Also the gemoro implies that an unmarried person would not engage in sex. Thus, a never married person would be a virgin in any case. Also the current custom for women is that they do not go to the mikvah until just before they marry. Thus all unmarried women nowadays are in a state of nidah and cannot have sexual contact – sabbahillel Jan 14 at 21:43

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 22b) points out that a woman tends to be more emotionally involved with the man with whom she first had relations. (I think that there are modern studies that say much the same thing.) Furthermore, to a certain degree - this part is true of men as well - a person tends to at least subconsciously compare their current partner with previous ones; and such thoughts during intimacy have a spiritual effect on any children born therefrom (Talmud, Nedarim 20b).

On that basis, Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 272 - sourced in the verses you cited) suggests that since the high priest is the highest-level servant of G-d among the Jewish people, G-d wanted to ensure that his relationship with his wife is as emotionally and mentally intimate as possible, and thus also that their children - one of whom will, hopefully, succeed his father in this position - will be conceived from a union in which no one else but the two of them (and G-d) are involved.

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...and therefore, virginity is considered to be a virtue for a woman who is getting married. However, in and of itself, it has no intrinsic value. Correct? – HodofHod May 6 '12 at 4:00
This argument would be a lot more convincing if the high priest himself had to be married for the first time (thus, "no one else but the two of them..."). However, we know that the high priest specifically does not have this requirement, and may in fact have taken a second wife before the Day of Atonement rituals, which would presumably be putting him in a more complex place, spiritually, again according to this argument. – Avi May 6 '12 at 5:13
@HodofHod: indeed. – Alex May 6 '12 at 14:55
@Avi: true, but for the kohen gadol there is the countervailing principle that "it is not good for a man to be alone" and therefore, even if his first wife died or he divorced her, it is important for him to be married. (As for Yom Kippur - only R. Yehudah says that he has to have a second wife in case his first one dies; this is not the halachah - plus, too, from the discussion in the Gemara there (13a-b) it seems that R. Yehudah would have him only perform kiddushin with this second wife, not actually consummate the marriage.) – Alex May 6 '12 at 14:59
@Jon In my understanding, the virginity, in and of itself, doesn't have value. But for the reasons stated by Alex above, it is considered valuable to a husband, and therefore he is required to guarantee her a larger sum in the event of death/divorce. However, I am not aware of any cases where virginity itself is considered virtuous and its maintenance spiritually desirable. Of course, there are prohibitions that may prevent a woman/man from losing it prior to marriage, etc. but nothing (again, that I know of) that says it's a spiritually good thing. – HodofHod May 7 '12 at 20:21

Your question is

Does the quoted text reflect the modern, Jewish attitude toward premarital sex?

but its title is

Does Judaism consider virginity to be a virtue?

and there, I think, lies the confusion. Yes, premarital relations are disallowed. But once they're undergone, they're undergone, and don't constitute a barrier to marriage. (The other answers elaborate on the extent to which they do constitute such a barrier, but you see there that it's minimal.) One must distinguish between being a virgin and performing the act that leads one to not be a virgin: the former is no big deal, whereas the latter is forbidden (outside, of course, of marriage).

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Doesn't constitute a barrier doesn't mean that it's ideal or that the opposite wouldn't be virtuous. – Double AA Jun 22 '14 at 5:31

protected by Isaac Moses May 25 '12 at 11:18

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