Parsha Halacha

Parshat Toldot

Public Modesty Between Couples

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The Torah portion of Toldot tells about Yitzchak and Rivkah’s sojourn in the land of the Philistines. When they arrived there, Yitzchak announced that Rivkah was his sister, similar to what Avraham said about Sarah when they came to Egypt and (later) when they came to the land of the Philistines (see Gen. 12 and 20). Both Avraham and Yitzchak feared that if they would say they were married, the local officials would kill them and take their wives.
The verse (Gen. 26:8) says, “And it came to pass, when he had been there for many days, that Avimelech, king of the Philistines looked out of the window and saw… וְהִנֵּה יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק אֵת רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ Yitzchak was jesting with his wife Rivkah.”
Let us examine the exact meaning of this verse:
“Many Days”
What is the significance of the “many days” that led to the incident described in the verse?
  • No Danger
Rashi and the Rashbam explain that since Yitzchak and Rivkah were there for a long time and no one had threatened Rivkah, they decided it was no longer necessary for them to pretend to be siblings.
  • Staying Single
According to the Yeri’ot Shlomo (by the Maharshal of Poland, 1510 – 1573), when Avimelech realized that a long time had passed and the (supposed) siblings Yitzchak and Rivkah were not marrying anyone, he began to suspect that they were married to each other. He started paying attention to their behavior in order to confirm his suspicion.
  • After the Mourning
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 64:5) says that the verse is referring to the fact that the mourning period after the passing of Avraham was over. (This seems to be referring to Yitzchok’s personal mourning period rather than the halachic mourning period which is only seven days. See Pirush Maharzu on the Midrash.)

As far as what the word מְצַחֵק/metzachek means , the commentaries have different opinions:
  • Showing Affection
The Ohr HaChaim (first interpretation) writes that they were being affectionate in a manner that indicated they were married.
  • Playing
The Chizkuni explains that the word מְצַחֵק is not referring to the act of intimacy but rather to the affection usually shown before intimacy. He cites the verse in Gen. 39:14to prove his point. There it says רְאוּ הֵבִיא לָנוּ אִישׁ עִבְרִי לְצַחֶק בָּנוּ בָּא אֵלַי לִשְׁכַּב עִמִּי וָאֶקְרָא בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל. The word לְצַחֶק can mean to show (improper) affection. (I.e. The wife of Potiphar was saying that her husband had brought Yosef who was now behaving inappropriately by assaulting her.)
.While לִשְׁכַּב עִמִּי is referring to forbidden relations. He writes that the word מְצַחֵק cannot be referring to actual intimacy since Yitzchak and Rivkah would not be intimate in a situation where they could be seen by others.
  • Intimacy
Rashi (based on the Bereishit Rabbah ibid) says that they were engaged in marital intimacy. This opinion needs further explanation for several reasons, as explained below:

During the Day
The event described in the verse seems to have happened during the daytime hours since Avimelech was able to see them through a window. As such, we need to understand how Yitzchak and Rivkah could be intimate during the day when this is forbidden according to the halacha (see O.C. 240:11). (Please note that this is only a question according to Rashi who translates מְצַחֵק as intimacy but not according to the Ohr HaChaim and Chizkuni who translate it as “being affectionate.”)
The commentaries offer several explanations:
  • As a Torah scholar, it was permissible for Yitzchak to be intimate with his wife even during the day, under certain circumstances (Ohr HaChaim, see Ketubot 65a and O.C. ibid).
  • The room in which Yitzchak and Rivkah were located was completely dark. In such a situation it is permissible for a couple to be intimate even during the day (see ibid). The verse which says that Avimelech looked through the window should be understood to mean that Avimelech noticed Yitzchak closing the window of his room and understood that he was doing so in order to be intimate with Rivkah (Riva – Isaac ben Asher HeLevi, a student of Rashi).

The commentaries also wonder how Yitzchak could have been intimate in a manner which could be seen in public as this seems inappropriate. Several explanations are given:
  • Closed Window
Some say (see above) that the window was closed and that Avimelech realized what was going on when he saw Yitzchak close the window.
  • Sorcery
Others say that when it says, “Avimelech looked through the window,” it means that he looked through a special window which he would use to gaze around the world with his powers of sorcery. Through this window he perceived a male and female demon which he took as a sign that Yitzchak and Rivkah were married (Tzror HaMor by Rabbi Avraham Saba of Spain and Morocco 1440–1508).

During a Famine
Another question brought up by the commentaries is that it is forbidden to have marital intimacy during the time of a famine (Ta’anit 11a). Rashi (on Gen. 41:50) mentions that, for this reason, during the famine in Egypt, Yosef was not intimate with his wife. As such, how were Yitzchak and Rivkah intimate when there was a famine in the land? (See Rashi on verse 12 that there was a famine in Gerar as well as in Israel.)
Several explanations are offered:
  • Not a Jewish Issue
Yitzchak and Rivkah were the only Jewish family in the world, and since they were not lacking in food, it was not a famine that affected the “Jewish people” and as such they did not have to refrain from intimacy (Tur).
  • Procreation
The halacha states that a couple that has not yet fulfilled the mitzvah of Pru URvu (Be fruitful and multiply) may be intimate during the time of a famine (O.C. 574:4). As such, since Yitzchak and Rivkah did not yet have a daughter and had not yet fulfilled this mitzvah (see Even Ha’Ezer 1:5), they were allowed to be intimate (Bartenura).
  • Local Famine
The famine in the time of Yitzchak only affected that immediate area as opposed to the famine during the time of Yosef which affected the entire world. It is only necessary to refrain from intimacy (according to this opinion) during a global famine (Riva).
The rest of this article will discuss the matter of a husband and wife showing physical affection to each other in public:

Rav Bena’ah, the Grave Marker
The Talmud (Bava Batra 58a) recounts how Rav Bena’ah was marking graves so that people could refrain from becoming tameh (ritually impure) by walking over them. When he came to the Me’arat HaMachpeila (the burial spot of Avraham and Sarah), Eliezer the servant of Avraham, came out to greet him. (Eliezer is one of the righteous people who lives forever [Rashbam].)
Rav Bena’ah asked what Avraham and Sarah were doing at that time. Eliezer answered that Avraham was lying in Sarah’s lap and she was examining his head. So Rav Bena’ah asked him to tell them that Rav Bena’ach wishes to enter. Eliezer told him that he may enter, because it is known that there is no evil inclination in the next world, so it is not considered inappropriate for him to see Avraham and Sarah in this position.
The Nimukei Yosef says that we see from this story that under normal circumstances it is not appropriate for a married couple to display physical affection in public.
This ruling is codified in halacha by the Rama who writes (Even Ha’Ezer 21:5), “Some say that one should not do affectionate things even with his wife, such as to inspect her head for lice, in front of others.” The Taz explains that there are two reasons for this prohibition. One is that it is simply immodest for a couple to show any type of intimacy in public. And secondly, that such behaviour can lead others to thoughts of a sexual nature.

Dancing with One’s Spouse
Rabbi Menashe Klein was asked about an event where there was mixed dancing but that it was (mostly) married couples dancing with their spouses (Mishne Halachot 4:71). He explained that mixed dancing with other women is strictly forbidden by Torah law and even dancing with one’s wife improper for the following three reasons:
  1. It might lead to dancing with one’s wife even when she is a Niddah.
  2. It could lead to other people dancing with women who are not their wives.
  3. It is not proper for other men to see one’s wife dancing as this can lead to improper thoughts.
In connection to this last point, he cites the Talmud in Avodah Zarah 18a where it recounts how the daughter of Rabbi Chaninah ben Tradyon was once walking before the nobles of Rome. They said to each other, “How pleasant are the steps of this young woman.” Upon hearing this, she immediately took care to keep walking in such a fashion that her steps would continue to be pleasing to them. Eventually she was taken into captivity and was sold to a brothel. This was considered to be a punishment for that incident. (See the Talmud there that her brother- in-law, Rabbi Meir, rescued her from the brothel.)
As such, we see that a woman should not publicly engage in an activity which might cause men to gaze at her in a lustful manner.
Let us conclude with the words that Rabbi Klein writes at the end of his responsa:

May we merit to sanctify and purify ourselves as wherever one finds sexual purity, one finds holiness. May we merit to serve G-d with a pure heart.
Wishing you a Chodesh Tov and a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

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