Sisterhood Blog

Why Rabbis Must Talk to Orthodox Boys About Masturbation

By Betzalel Z. Gellberg

  • Print
  • Share Share


Orthodox Jews often make poor decisions when talking about sex with young people, particularly regarding discussing (or not discussing) nocturnal emissions and masturbation with boys.

I recently attended a question and answer session at an Orthodox institution in which a rabbi was asked how and when, if at all, a Jewish father should talk to his sons about those two subjects. Before he could answer, a rebbetzin warned “There are children here!” (The youngest person in the room was two months shy of his bar mitzvah. I can think of no person who needs such information more urgently than a 12-year-old boy.) Then the rabbi said he didn’t know and would probably ask his own rabbi when his children grew older.

The event’s attendees included a few dozen unmarried Orthodox yeshiva guys. Nearly all — or perhaps all — have struggled with pornography and/or masturbation at some point in their lives, no doubt including recently. But yeshivas almost never address these matters. And when prompted, the young rabbi literally had nothing to say.

Several years ago, I asked a rabbi I’m close with whether he had discussed wet dreams with his son then experiencing puberty. He said, “Not yet.” I asked again a few years later, after the young man had physically matured, and he said, “No, it just never came up.” Giving a boy zero information about why his sheets are sometimes sticky is a prescription for confusion, shame and guilt. It is cruel to keep truths about human biology a secret from our youth just because we feel uncomfortable.

Silence by my fellow Orthodox Jews about these matters only increases the suffering of boys and men who struggle with them. Secrecy implies that these challenges affect few people, that they can be easily overcome through willpower, and that turning to a teacher, parent, or rabbi for guidance would result in ostracism rather than empathy.

Talking about wet dreams should be relatively easy, since no deliberate sin is intended, and our tradition prescribes specific measures after a nocturnal emission: visiting a mikvah and reciting prayers called “tikkunim.”

Discussing masturbation is trickier, because Orthodox young men have no licit sexual outlet precisely when their hormones are running wild. Ignoring the subject or simply mentioning that it’s prohibited are inadequate strategies that border on cruelty. The conversation, whether it comes from a rebbe, a father, or a big brother, must be compassionate and open. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches us that someone who conquers his urges is a “gibor” — a hero. It’s not reasonable to expect heroic conduct from every Jew 100% of the time.

If it were up to me, the Orthodox message to boys going through puberty (and older unmarried males) would be:

“Deliberately spilling seed outside of marital intimacy is forbidden by halacha (Jewish law). Our sources treat it as one of the worst things a man can do. Jewish law takes a similar attitude toward lashon hara (gossip). Both are considered akin to murder. But virtually everyone speaks lashon hara, and virtually every young man masturbates sometimes. Both are problematic, and one should strive to do each as infrequently as possible. After a slip, teshuvah (repentance) is necessary. However, nobody who’s at an age or in a situation where one of these violations is very hard to avoid should beat himself up or suffer shame for not always overcoming one of the biggest challenges a person can face.”

I’m certainly not suggesting that Orthodox high schools and yeshivas offer “how to” sessions about masturbation. But why not a “how not to” discussion? If our community takes both our texts and our young people’s well-being seriously, we must listen to our teenage boys and answer their inevitable questions with patience, understanding and respect — as well as fidelity to halacha.

Some of the approaches of contemporary rabbis are highly problematic. One of my fellow yeshiva teachers said the mesora (tradition) is to handle the topics in a one-on-one way. But does that ever happen? Do teachers approach their young male students and ask, “Hey, are you struggling with sexual desires?” Do parents sit with their 12-year-old sons and say, “Let’s talk about the biological, psychological and halachic aspects of masturbation?” Ever? Instead, they wait for the boys to bring it up themselves, which nearly never happens.

Another example: a rabbi I know who works at an organization so frum it doesn’t have a Web site told me it’s best for Orthodox youth to learn about sex unguided from “the street” and the Internet (?!?), rather than from their parents and rabbis.

Though some adults feel they just can’t address these subjects, each could still provide information to young men about Orthodox therapists who can discuss sexuality in a frank, frum manner.

This topic has become more pressing with the vastly increased availability and sophistication of pornography. The later age of marriage by many Orthodox men further exacerbates the problem. So the Jewish community needs ways to demystify the subject and alleviate strain on our youth.

The gedolim (our generation’s greatest rabbis) could provide counsel on how and when fathers should approach their sons for “sex talks.” Jewish publishers might put out books or pamphlets containing thoughtful and compassionate halachic and practical advice on what to do when refraining from all sexual arousal is just not realistic. And Jewish secondary schools and yeshivas should find time for general or specific conversations about challenges young men face in living up to halachic demands that are extremely hard to heed.

In the section of Genesis read in synagogues worldwide every Rosh Hashanah, God heard the voice of Ishmael in the desert “Ba’asher Hu Sham” — precisely where he was. On sexual matters, we shouldn’t ignore the struggles of our sons or approach them where we’d hope they are. We need to address them where they actually are, with loyalty to our tradition, but also understanding and love.

Betzalel Z. Gellberg teaches at an Orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn. Find him on Facebook or reach him at

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: masturbation, boys, Orthodox, Jewish

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.