Ok hear me out first. If Betulah really means virgin, my question is why does Genesis 24:16 which uses this word to describe Rebekah, feels the need to also say "no man had known her" וְאִ֖ישׁ לֹ֣א יְדָעָ֑הּ?

  • 1
    See my answer here: judaism.stackexchange.com/a/118459/22152
    – Dov
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 20:04
  • @Dov From my understanding וְאִ֖ישׁ לֹ֣א יְדָעָ֑הּ generally speaking refers to not having a sexual encounter with any man which is why I think is redundant if betulah means virgin so either betulah doesn't really imply virginity or that phrase means something else. I don't really find the suggested translation satisfying. {"No man had known" means that no one had even asked for her.} Pretty sure asking for someone is not the same as knowing someone. Don't you agree? The literal translation seems to be, "no man had had his hand on her." That seems to speak of intimacy not just asking for it!
    – Mordecai
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 20:21
  • @MartínMills You may have better luck asking on Biblical Hermeneutics
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 20:26
  • @MartínMills - there were two other reasons that were given??
    – Dov
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 20:46
  • @Dov I don't quite understand the other two. But again when I look at the literal translation meaning no man had his hand on her, that seems to speak of sexual intimacy to me. What do you think of Joel 1:8? Can we really say that Betulah there is a virgin? I guess we can but it's not 100% clear since she's had a husband in her youth.
    – Mordecai
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 20:52

4 Answers 4


Betulah specifically means a woman whose hymen is intact. The hebrew word for a woman's hymen is בְּתוּלִים (betulim), from the same root. This is borne out of a careful read of the following verses.

First, note that the passage in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 about a man who defames his wife, hinges on the woman having had a hymen. The man comes and says "אֶת־הָאִשָּׁ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לָקַ֔חְתִּי וָאֶקְרַ֣ב אֵלֶ֔יהָ וְלֹא־מָצָ֥אתִי לָ֖הּ בְּתוּלִֽים." This means that he slept with her after their wedding and found that she did not have betulim, an intact hymen, and therefore must have cheated on him. Her parents then respond by וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֶת־בְּתוּלֵי הַֽנַּעֲרָה (lit. bring out the betulim of the young woman) bringing out evidence in the form of a bloody sheet that she was a virgin on their wedding night. This determines the meaning of בתולים betulim as the hymen.

Next, note the Kohen Gadol is commanded to marry only a specific kind of woman, described twice in the passage: first in Leviticus 21:13 as אִשָּׁה בִבְתוּלֶיהָ יִקָּח which literally means "and a women with her betulim he should take", and then in the next verse the requirement is repeated as "כִּ֛י אִם־בְּתוּלָ֥ה מֵעַמָּ֖יו יִקַּ֥ח אִשָּֽׁה a betulah from his people as a wife". The parallel structure indicates that בתולה betulah is equivalent to אשה בבתוליה a woman with her hymen.

There remains your question about Genesis 24:16 (or other places where the word "betulah" isn't used to indicate virginity, such as Leviticus 21:3 or Numbers 31:17-18). Rashi on your verse explains that betulah only means having an intact hymen, whereas וְאִ֖ישׁ לֹ֣א יְדָעָ֑הּ "and no man had known her" comes to exclude other types of sexual interaction that don't involve breaking the hymen. Rebekah had not engaged in any such activity.

  • Is there a place where I can message the editor to discuss the edits made without it being public? Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 3:35
  • There are no private messaging systems here by design (except for use in certain moderator functions). Editing by others is also by design. You are welcome of course to further edit the post to improve it, or if you aren't sure about something to discuss further in Mi Yodeya Chat.
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 13:22
  • 1
    @DoubleAA, given the nature of the subject, I can understand someone wanting to discuss the topic with a little hatznei lekhes im Elokekha. Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 15:46
  • @Micah no disagreement from me there
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 16:33

Тhere is a difference here between the language of the Torah (the Pentateuch) and the language of the Sages.

In case you think this is the plain meaning, see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Forbidden Intercourse, Ch.17:

מצות עשה על כוהן גדול, שיישא נערה בתולה; ומשתבגור, תיאסר עליו: שנאמר "והוא, אישה בבתוליה ייקח" (ויקרא כא,יג)--"אישה", לא קטנה; "בבתוליה", לא בוגרת.
  • well, looking at the RAMBAM chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/960665/jewish/… he does interpret betulah Lev 21:13 there as young woman that is not a minor.. (which I see is what you're saying), but I would also think though that maybe he implicitly thought it meant virgin too.. since maybe the RAMBAM wouldn't have thought it necessary to point out that she'd be a virgin, having stated she's a young woman and not a minor., taken as a wife. So the RAMBAM may have thought that Torah usage of betulah implies virgin too.
    – barlop
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 4:20
  • and it's all very interpretative, 'cos bear in mind that in that passage e wasn't intending to define the word betulah.. either in a rabbinic sense or torah sense.
    – barlop
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 4:22
  • Dear @barlop, I do not know what RAMBAM implicitly thought. Since he is a posek, we trust him to define things explicitly.
    – uk-ny
    Commented Dec 18, 2022 at 16:07

Rashi explains that that phrase was added to praise Rivka. It was no novelty that she had her hymen intact, as even her neighbors protected their’s. However to not have known a man at all, even through the untraditional means was praiseworthy and therefore added.

  • Welcome to MiYodeya Kugelman and thanks for this first answer. Since MY is different from other sites you might be used to, see here for a guide which might help understand the site. Great to have you learn with us!
    – mbloch
    Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 10:56

The primary meaning of בתולה/betulah is "a young maiden." It does not necessarily carry the meaning of virgin without additional qualifying language to add that aspect to it.

The Akkadian cognate batultu is discussed in J. J. Finkelstein, "Sex Offences in Sumerian Laws," JOAS 86 355:72, affirming that the related word in that Semitic language "denotes primarily an age group." This is also true of the other Semitic languages, e.g. Sumerian, Ugaritic, Aramaic....

In the Semitic languages, there is no lone word that connotes a virgin; rather, that quality is conveyed by the phrase "who has not known a man" or, as in Bereshit (Genesis) 24:16, "no man has known her." Such qualifiers also occur in Vayyiqra (Leviticus) 21:2-3 and Shofetim (Judges) 21:12. These qualifiers, as your question implies, would be superfluous if the word on its own means "virgin."

There are certainly Scriptural instances where a meaning of virgin cannot be in view, e.g. Yoel (Joel) 1:8, where the betulah is lamenting over the death of her husband or in Esther 2:17, where the betulot referenced are King Achashverosh's concubines.

  • 1
    Oh wow thank you so much for this detailed response esp. the last part!
    – Mordecai
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 20:44
  • 3
    Joel 1:8 and Esther 2:17 can (and I believe do) mean virgin as well. In ancient times, they would get married in 2 steps. The Kiddushin and Nisuin. Joel is describing a woman who had Kiddushin (when they are bound legally but don't live together) but never had Nisuin because her husband died. Esther 2:17 is referring to virgins that were presented to them (they were virgins at the time). Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 21:57
  • 1
    @conceptualinertia Would such an unfortunate bride really be the prime example of mourning? She didn't even know the guy! (Esther 2:17 I agree is a bad proof since the בתולת may have only started as בתולת when they showed up for the pageant.)
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 22:55
  • 1
    @DoubleAA it's a prime example of mourning in the tochacha and the prewar speech
    – Heshy
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 23:47
  • 1
    @DoubleAA the context in Yoel is of a nation that invades a country and eats its produce while it it still on the vine before the Israelites have had a chance to harvest it. The Israelites will mourn this like the bride that lost her husband before they even got to be together. Look at the Malbim on that verse. See also the mourning of the daughter of Yiftach for a similar, but slightly different idea. Commented Oct 15, 2021 at 5:06

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .