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Is it a sin for a man to watch a naked woman?

In 2 Shmuel 11:2 David watched a naked woman, was that a sin?

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    Doesn't say that she was naked. It says that she was bathing (רחצת) - but people have been known to bathe with clothes on. (Also, it doesn't say that he watched her, just that he saw her (וירא); he might well have immediately turned away.)
    – Meir
    Aug 29, 2021 at 22:26
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    sefaria.org.il/… Aug 31, 2021 at 12:49
  • @Meir Who bathes with cloths? Come on. It clearly says David watched her and invited her to his room. He was watching a naked woman and lusted. Nothing more.
    – Turk Hill
    Sep 13, 2021 at 20:20
  • @TurkHill some people bathe with clothes on. But if she was bathing with clothes on I find it surprising David would still use his authority to have her brought to him and rape her with the power imbalance despite her being married.
    – Aaron
    Sep 30, 2021 at 19:37

4 Answers 4

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General case for men looking at women

There are 3 types of looking for our purposes1:

  1. Looking lustfully.
  2. Looking to enjoy beauty.
  3. Looking without either of the above.

The answer to your question is, yes, one is not allowed to even glance (3) at the normally-covered parts of a woman's body (which is the halachic definition of "erva"/"nakedness", and includes also the hair of a married/widowed/divorced woman), even if one isn't trying to derive enjoyment from the glance2.

If the looking is "gazing" (1 or 2) i.e. deliberate watching/staring, and the woman is forbidden to him, then it is forbidden even if she is appropriately dressed (if he knows her, then even if one isn't looking at her, but just looking at her clothes!)3.

With regards to all of this, known as "shemirat enayim" (guarding one's eyes), the consensus is it is d'oraita4. See the Sefer HaMitzvot Negative Mitzvah 475. All the more so if she is inappropriately dressed.

It is based off of Bamidbar 15:39:

ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם אשר אתם זונים אחריהם

Do not follow your heart and eyes after which you are going astray.

Rambam says in Hilchot Teshuva 4:4:

Someone who looks at forbidden women will think that there is no problem, since he will say: “Did I have intercourse or draw close to her?” But he does not know that looking is a great sin.


Exceptions

  • It is permissible to look (3) at a woman when talking to her, if he does not do so for the purposes of enjoying her appearance2. Following the advice of Rabbeinu Yonah in Sefer HaYira (starting from Vayetze mibeit hakneset), as a precaution one should minimise the looking to avoid improper thoughts coming against one's will.
  • It is permissible for a male doctor to look (3) at a female patient, even her normally covered parts, as part of his examination and treatment - he is totally absorbed in his work and therefore the authorities permitted it6.
  • We are less strict about gazing (2) at one's mother, daughter and sister, as well as any Jewish girl under the age of 11, although of course lustful thoughts are completely forbidden even here7.
  • A man looking to marry may look at (2) and intentionally examine the beauty of his suitors, in order to determine if he finds them attractive. This is not only permitted, but fitting, as one is not allowed to marry someone he is not attracted to. Once this is determined he may continue looking at her while they continue to meet before marriage, but he must avoid deriving pleasure from her beauty8.
  • One may look at one's wife (2) during the time of Niddah9, as she will become permissible to him soon so we are not worried about anything improper. However, he may not look at her nakedness i.e. parts that are normally covered, including her hair.

David's Looking at Bat Sheva

Tractate Soferim 9:10 and others (e.g. Or HaChaim on Vayikra 18:2, 11, Rashi on Tehillim 17:3, 2) hold it against David.

Sanhedrin 107a describes it as a deliberate test, and David saw her by accident (Satan tricked him). The sin came as a result.

Malbim blames him - once he accidentally saw, he didn't look away from the evil, however Malbim writes much to defend David overall in Shmuel Bet 11, against Abarbanel on the same.


There are commentaries that discuss also how David didn't really sin with Bat Sheva, at least not in the way that is commonly understood10. We don't like to venerate adulterers, so many feel the need to find a deeper more Divine message in the story of David and Bat Sheva.

There is a concept whereby holiness must be concealed in order that we should have free will11. God is recreating the whole world every instant, and at the very time He is creating me, I am able to not see Him and one might even deny Him (chas veshalom). In Kabbalah and Chassidus, the claim is made that the most holy needs to be the most concealed (see shiur quoted below, I can look up ma'amarim on this if anyone is interested); in order to conceal a lamp, one needs nothing but a piece of thick paper, but in order to conceal the sun, one has to build a building. When something is so holy that it would take away our free will in an instant, it must be buried in the darkest of places.

This concept is applied to anything related to the development and process of the coming of Moshiach, a very great light. David HaMelech, and Shlomo HaMelech are the grandfathers of Moshiach, and thus the birth of Shlomo was concealed by a great darkness - the apparent adultery of his father (see also story of Yehuda and Tamar, Ruth etc).

These facts are less commonly known about the story:

  • All husbands would divorce their wives when going to war12, so Bat Sheva was not married.
  • Her husband, Uriah, had committed an act of treason (insulted the King) and the punishment was death. David had actually forgone that and instead sent him out to the front lines of war.

So this is not technically a sin. However David cried for the rest of his life asking for forgiveness for the way things look, which he regretted - the birth of his son through which Moshiach would come was buried under the ugliest of darkness, so the Godliness of what was going on should go unnoticed.

So what's really going on here? Bat Sheva was destined for David from the day the world was created13, even Uriah knew this14. David knew who she was15, and through through Ruach Hakodesh16 knew the Moshiach would come with his union with her. This combination of factors, including the explanations17 that David's subsequent passion after seeing her were not his fault - he had no Yeitzer Hara at this point - lead to us being don lechaf zechut that David didn't sin, although no doubt it certainly looks like he did, for the sake of distraction and confusion, for the reasons mentioned above (and more, see the quoted Malbim for many other facets).

To echo Rav Neventzal's closing line16, "in the merit of our seeing others in a favourable light, may Hashem judge us in a favourable light."

Here is a good down to earth explanation of the above, and here is an interesting discussion of the secrets of the story. See here and here for further reading.


1 - Following Lift Up Your Eyes - R' S. Wagshal
2 - במ״ב סי׳ ע״ה ס״ק ז. See footnote 7 pp. 17 of Lift Up Your Eyes for full explanation and discussion.
3 - See Sefer Chareidim 2:4, Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 21:1. Be'er Hetev there brings Rabbeinu Yonah citing this is d'oraita, and Rambam as an example saying it is d'rabbanan. Note Rambam and others apparently derive it from Ketubot 46a, and Devarim 23:10 וְּנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע. See Issurei Beiah 21:21
4 - Ritva and a few others hold it is d'rabbanan. Either way it is completely forbidden.
5 - Also, there are additional laws about not reciting berachot and studying Torah in front of nudity, even if one isn't looking (but is facing the nudity), which are completely off topic here but be aware they exist and look them up!
6 - See Shach on SH Y'D 195 s'k 20
7 - See footnote 13 of pp.22 in Lift Up Your Eyes for full discussion and explanation.
8 - SH E'H 21:3
9 - SH Y'D 195:7
10 - Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani in the name of Rabbi Yonatan; Rebbi - Shabbat 56a
11 - See Likutei Halachot, Birkat Hodaah 4:45
12 - Ketuvot 9b, Tosafot there)
13 - Sanhedrin 107a
14 - Zohar
15 - Radak Shmuel Bet 11:3
16 - Rav Neventzal's sichot Bereshit, sichah 36, quoted here.
17 - Avoda Zara 4b-5a

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  • What are the parameters of 'nakedness' for the d'oraysa prohibition?
    – user9806
    Mar 8, 2023 at 4:10
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    Rambam is talking about any gaze, nothing specific to nudity — that's not mentioned at all in your answer. Also, I didn't find it: where in the Ritva does he mention nudity?
    – magicker72
    Mar 8, 2023 at 4:58
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    @magicker72 I have included all the relevant halachot now, I think. Thanks for your constructive feedback, feel free to let me know anything else you feel should go there, and also feel free to clear up the comments if satisfactory
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Mar 9, 2023 at 11:53
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    @user9806 I believe all your questions asked thusfar have now been answered. Let me know if there's anything else
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Mar 9, 2023 at 11:54
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    @Rabbi Kaii sh'koyekh for the continual work on this!
    – magicker72
    Mar 9, 2023 at 12:07
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Yes, it is, we can't get away from it.

However, if you look at a broader context, you will realize that in the Biblical narrative, prohibited sexual relations are frequently considered a measure to "save the world" especially for the Davidic (Messianic) line, for example:

  • Ruth, David's grandma, came from Moav, which is the result of Lot sleeping with his two daughters (technically not a sin, but still)
  • David's father came from Peretz, who came from Yehuda in an embarrassing encounter with his daughter-in-law.

So traditionally, the Jewish Messianic line seemingly purposefully relies on all kinds of Unkosher relations. While it IS considered a sin for laymen, for the leaders of the nation it is a deep understanding of genuine divine will camouflaged as a sin.

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    While I agree that sometimes God indeed does use sinful encounters to produce positive outcomes, it doesn’t detract from the sin and it does not mean those involved are immediately aware of the outcome.
    – ezra
    Sep 30, 2021 at 18:35
  • @ezra Sorry, I didn't understand the last part. I did say that it is a sin. If you claim that they weren't aware of the positive outcome, that makes them automatically sinners, not pious. The tradition prefers to present them as prophets, who knew the positive consequences apriori, and that what allowed them to transgress.
    – Al Berko
    Oct 1, 2021 at 8:01
  • So your answer is basically "Yes, it's a sin, but some people are allowed to do it", followed by two examples of things that aren't sins (one of which you admit yourself is not a sin)? Oct 1, 2021 at 18:00
  • @Salmononius2 This is called the "Euthyphro dilemma" - is this really a sin if God seemingly allows and supports it? So we run into a problem of the definition of sin - is the breaking of the Luchos a sin if the Torah explicitly prohibits damaging holy scriptures, but God endorses?
    – Al Berko
    Oct 3, 2021 at 17:24
  • This doesn't answer the question
    – Dude
    Mar 8, 2023 at 2:50
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I don't believe it's inherently sinful to watch a naked woman. But I am drawing a distinct difference between sin and forbidden by halakhah. Halakha forbids a man from even walking by the door of a prostitute or a promiscuous woman, but if he did walk by I doubt God would mark that as a sin against him. But walking past the door is halakhically forbidden because it's so easy for a sin to arise that it's best to avoid the situation. The same applies with seeing a naked man or woman.

Adam and Eve saw each other naked in the beginning, and there was no sin mentioned. In fact God seems more concerned about Adam and Eve being concerned than about them being naked. But once sin and potentially lust entered the narrative, things changed. Adam and Eve were embarassed from their nakedness, and this embarassment is inherently linked to nudity and sin later. There's also the concept of desire which is separate from nudity. Consider that some people can lust after a woman who has nearly her entire body covered.

" If one gazes even at the little finger of a woman with the intent to have pleasure from it, it is as though he gazed at her shameful place." Source: Shulchan Aruch/Even ha-Ezer/21

Most of us can look at a woman's pinky without lusting after her, so most of us don't sin by looking at a woman's hand to look at her ring for example. But when it comes to naked bodies most of us are only capable at looking at our direct family members or children without lust and even then some people struggle. And then there's the concept of embarassment, once someone becomes aware of their nakedness it can become improper to see them naked afterward. What was once not a sin becomes so close to sin that we need to separate from it.

"A father is permitted to hug his daughter, kiss her, and sleep next to her [naked] with flesh touching, and so too a mother with her son, as long as they are minors....If the daughter is embarrassed to stand before her father naked, or she is betrothed, and likewise if the mother is embarrassed to stand before her son naked – even if they are minors, when they reach the point of being embarrassed, they may not sleep together except clothed." Source: ibid

But even if it may not be inherently sinful to look at someone who is naked, one must realize that almost all of us will sin when seeing someone naked. Recall that our king Dawid was far from sin most of his life, but one day he saw a naked woman and he could/would not stop himself from doing many sins. First he saw her, then he inquired of her, then he ignored the fact that she was married, then he had her brought to him by royal guards, then he impregnated her, then he killed her husband to hide the fact that he impregnated her. If he wouldn't have seen her naked, I doubt that the sins that followed would have happened.

Conclusion: Just like looking at a pinky finger may not inherently be sinful, looking at a naked women may not be inherently sinful. But don't let that distract you from the reality that even the greatest of us when seeing a naked women or a naked person of the opposite gender will immediately have sinful thoughts or be emboldened to do even worse sins such as the case with Dawid after seeing Bathsheba naked. Therefore it is halakhically forbidden to look at a naked woman and one should refrain from doing so.

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  • Breaking halacha = sin
    – Dude
    Mar 8, 2023 at 2:51
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Likely not in the law but it’s considered sinful as it leads to sin. Like having many wives is considered bad yet it’s not a sin.

But this is my opinion

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