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Suppose you have two married couples who are extremely close friends with each other. They all four agree to swap wives for the night due to the tight emotional bond the foursome have. Nobody has any regrets the morning after, and both marriages and all friendships remain intact.

The reason I pose this situation is wife swapping in the modern age can sometimes occur under these conditions and therefore the situation is relevant to whatever standards of the Law might govern it.

What I'm precisely asking is this: Is adultery defined as the breaking of trust between husband and wife by a third party acting upon either, or is adultery defined by the mere physical interaction between a spouse and a third party even when the other spouse gives permission?

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Yes, it is still adultery by definition, and the Bible describes it as a capital offense (Sh'mos 20:12; Vayikra 20:10; Sanhedrin 52b; Chinuch § 35). If a married woman has sexual relations with a man other than her husband, both parties (i.e. the wife and the other man) have engaged in adultery regardless of the husband's opinion on the matter. –  Fred Nov 14 '13 at 7:11
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and both wives are forbidden to their husband and also to the other guy forever –  ray Nov 14 '13 at 7:26
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@Fred: please post your commment as an answer. –  Chanoch Nov 14 '13 at 12:28
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Also related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/23061/… . I have an answer there that gives some explanation of the basic wrongness of prohibited sexual relations. –  Isaac Moses Nov 14 '13 at 16:46

2 Answers 2

The latter. If it's called "marriage", it's beyond just what we want. Religion is about things greater than ourselves.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein has, for many years, taught a high school course on Jewish sexual ethics. A few years ago he asked his students how they felt about "spouse swapping", and they assumed that if no one was hurt and all were in agreement, what was the problem? Rabbi Lookstein therefore retooled his course to put more stress on the concept of sanctity and things beyond ourselves.

Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 62b:

(עמוס ו)

השוכבים על מטות שן וסרוחים על ערשותם ... היינו דכתיב (עמוס ו) לכן עתה יגלו בראש גולים ... א"ר אבהו אלו בני אדם שהיו אוכלים ושותים זה עם זה ודובקין מטותיהן זו בזו ומחליפין נשותיהן זה עם זה ומסריחין ערסותם בשכבת זרע שאינו שלהן

The prophet Amos writes [6:4--7] of "those who lie on ivory beds, disgustingly sprawled on their couches ... therefore they shall be the first to be exiled." What sin is this? Said Rabbi Avahu -- those people who dine together, put their beds together, and trade their wives with one another, thus making their beds disgusting with bodily fluids that aren't their own.

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The first stage of a Jewish marriage ceremony is called Kiddushin.

The act of kiddushin, designates the woman for her husband and makes her forbidden to all other men, as the talmud says: What does the term kidushin connote? That he [the groom] makes her forbidden to all [men] [miKuDeSHet] like something that is heKDeSH (property consecrated to the holy temple). (Kiddushin 2a-2b)

BTW, It is not a coincidence that the talmud uses the term Hekdesh. There are strong parallels between marital relations and temple service. See the book Waters of Eden (section: The Holiness of Sex) for amazing words. excerpt of beginning of book here. From what I remember, the relations between man and wife are compared to that of the kohen gadol entering the holy of holies. This is why a woman must first immerse from impurity before she can have relations with her husband, just like the Kohen must be pure before entering the temple. Both carry the same penalty of Karet, and likewise, idolatry is compared to adultery all over the Tanach. Ex. "..for with their idols they have committed adultery" (Yechezkel 23:37). A woman who deliberately has relations with anyone other than her husband also becomes tamei (impure) Bamidbar 5:19 and he must divorce her.

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