Sharing Torah Insights

Forbidden Relationships

Posted on ט׳ באייר ה׳תש״ע (April 23, 2010) | in Acharei Mot, Kedoshim | by

This Shabbat is the 25th day of the Omer. We are exactly half way from Pesach to Shavuot.

Acharei Mot, the first part of today’s double feature, is a “bloody” Parsha. It instructs Aaron on the use of blood in the sacrificial rituals, as a pathway to purity and atonement. At the same time it places an absolute prohibition on eating blood (Lev 17:10): “I (G-d) will direct my anger against the person who eats blood and cut him off from among his people.” The Torah considers eating nonkosher meat to be bloodshed, and in fact the provision of kosher meat does serve to connect people to the Jewish community – it is the one part of a kosher diet we simply cannot grow on our own.

Finally, the Parsha prohibits incestuous marriages and relationships between certain blood relatives. Vayikra (Leviticus) chapter 18 lists many forbidden matings, and the Oral Torah supplies an additional secondary list as a fence around the Torah.

One of the prohibited relationships is with a woman who is married (to someone else!). However, even a woman who is single, divorced or widowed may be a forbidden relative. If she is married, then the man who has an affair with her is guilty on both counts. Further, this Parsha forbids homosexual relationships, and then specifies an additional offense if one has this relationship with one’s own father or uncle.

Among others, a man may not marry or even make a sexual advance to his mother or stepmother (even after his father’s death), his daughter or daughter-in-law, his sister, half-sister or sister-in-law (even after his brother’s death – except in the special case where his brother died childless, in which case he may have to marry her or perform the ceremony of chalitza to release her). A man may not marry a sister of his ex-wife while his first wife is still alive, and he may not ever marry the daughter or mother of his first wife

Verse 6 of chapter 18 begins with a repeated word, Ish ish (literally, a man, a man – or, any man), followed by a plural verb, tikrevu. The plural teaches us that women and men are equally obligated to observe these prohibitions. The repetition of Ish indicates that the mitzvah is commanded to all humans, and is included among the mitzvahs of Noah. Bereishit (Genesis) chapter 5, with all its “begats,” shows that the early generations knew who the father of a child was. This marital morality later broke down, provoking G-d to bring the Flood.

In today’s reading, the Torah describes itself as a way of life (Lev 18:5): “Observe my statutes and judgments by which a person who observes them may live.” On Yom Kippur, when we “reset” our spiritual compass, the service includes both the sacrifices (during Musaf) and the forbidden unions (during the Mincha Torah reading). This highlights the importance of both types of mitzvot in a Jewish lifestyle: “bein Adam laMakom” (between man and the Omnipresent) and “bein Adam lechavero” (between man and his fellow) – or perhaps this week, “bein Adam lechaverato” (between a man and his girl-friend)!

Why are unions between close relatives off-limits? Some may believe it is to prevent genetic disorders caused by inbreeding. However, a study of the details shows this is clearly not the reason. Genetic risks are not increased when marrying a stepmother, a sister-in-law, or the wife of one’s uncle, whom the Torah defines as an aunt (dodah). Also, the Torah prohibits a marriage of an aunt and nephew but not an uncle and niece, although these are genetically equivalent.

Ramban suggests that the forbidden relatives are so close in kinship that they will probably often be present in the family home. We are instructed to conduct ourselves in a way that contains our impulses, protects the family and preserves boundaries. The honor a man shows to his aunt or stepmother should be that of an elder, not that of a wife.

Besides avoiding a kinship relationship between a man and woman in a couple, the Torah apparently also wants to avoid kinship connections between two people who will share one partner. The rivalry of two sisters who have had the same husband may interfere with their sisterly love. A woman who has been married to two brothers or a father and son, and a man who has married both a mother and a daughter, may be tempted to compare them because of their resemblance to each other.

One reason the Torah states for observing these mitzvahs is simply, “I am G-d.” As G-d’s chosen people (chosen to receive the Torah), we are under contract to strive for kedusha (holiness).

The text itself advises us not to imitate the Egyptians and Canaanites who commonly indulged in all the forbidden practices listed, but Rashi explains that being different is not the purpose of the mitzvah. We are expected to avoid specifically those of their practices considered by G-d to be an abomination.

While on the subject of abominations, the Torah interrupts the list of forbidden matings to warn us against child sacrifice as practiced by followers of the idol Molech. This abomination combines two of the three cardinal sins – murder and idolatry; sexual transgressions are the third cardinal sin. Idolatry is also seen as a metaphor for marital infidelity – like “having an affair” with a false god.

Another reason the Torah states for these mitzvahs, appropriate for us to remember in this week of Yom Ha’atzmaut, is that the forbidden acts of perversion defile the Land of Israel, and interfere with our duty to the Land. We are taught that the Promised Land itself has kedusha, and will vomit us out if we commit these sins, as it vomited out the Canaanites before us because of their immorality.

In the haftarah, Ezekiel 22:1-19, the prophet chastises us for the same sins mentioned in the Torah portion, warning that our days in the Land will be numbered if we continue to sin. Just four years later, the prophecy came true, the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled to Babylon. The haftorah ends on a hopeful note, assuring us that eventually, “I (G-d) will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem.” The haftarah blessings ask G-d to help us give joy or nachas to the Land, m’sameach Zion b’vaneha.

Footnote: Some “Points of Pronunciation” from this week’s reading (Ref: The Ohs and Ahs of Torah Reading, by Rivka Sherman-Gold,

Vayikra 16:1, be-kor-va-tam and yo-o-mad-chai. 16:12, chof-nav. 17:4, kor-ban. 17:14, kol-och-lav. 18:20 and 18:23, she-chov-te-cha and le-tom-ah-va (mispronouncing this word changes the meaning). 19:6, oo-mi-mo-cho-rat. 19:20, ve-hof-dei. 19:23, or-la-to. 19:31, le-tom-ah. 20:3, kod-shi. 20:1, she-chov-to.

Ezekiel 22:4, le-tom-ah. 22:6 and 9 and 12, she-foch-dam. 22:8, ko-da-shai (opinions vary for this word).

Prepared in 2004 for the EDOS parsha project in Denver.

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