Wisdom on Friendship
Jewish literature offers many insights into the nature of friendship,
the rewards it offers, and the efforts one should make to sustain
The following selections represent contributions
to the understanding and appreciation of friendship. They are taken
from a medieval midrash, a Hasidic tale, and the writing of a contemporary
There were two close friends who had been parted
by war so that they lived in different kingdoms. Once one of them
came to visit his friend, and because he came from the city of the
king's enemy, he was imprisoned and sentenced to be executed as
No amount of pleas would save him, so he begged
the king for one kindness.
"Your Majesty," he said, "let me
have just one month to return to my land and put my affairs in order
so my family will be cared for after my death. At the end of the
month I will return to pay the penalty."
"How can I believe you will return?"
answered the king. "What security can you offer?"
"My friend will be my security," said
the man. "He will pay for my life with his if I do not return."
The king called in the man's friend, and to his
amazement, the friend agreed to the conditions.
On the last day of the month, the sun was setting,
and the man had not yet returned. The king ordered his friend killed
in his stead. As the sword was about to descend, the man returned
and quickly placed the sword on his own neck. But his friend stopped
"Let me die for you," he pleaded.
The king was deeply moved. He ordered the sword
taken away and pardoned them both.
"Since there is such great love and friendship
between the two of you," he said, "I entreat you to let
me join you as a third." And from that day on they became the
And it was in this spirit that our sages of blessed
memory said, "Get yourself a companion" [Mishnah Avot
-- This translation of a legend, from the collection
of minor midrashic works, Bet ha-midrash, assembled by the Viennese
scholar Adolf Jellinek (1820-1893), appears in Francine Klagsbrun,
of Wisdom (Pantheon Books).
Learning to Love a Fellow
Rabbi Moshe Leib [of Sassov, a late 18th-century
Ukrainian Hasidic master] told this story:
"How to love men [i.e., other persons] is
something I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn with
other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all
the rest, but when he was moved by wine, he asked one of the men
seated beside him, 'Tell me, do you love me or don't you love me?'
"The other peasant replied, 'I love you very
"But the first peasant replied, 'You say that
you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved
me, you would know.'
"The other had not a word to say to this,
and the peasant who had put the question fell silent again.
"But I understood. To know the needs of men
and to bear the burden of their sorrow--that is the true love of
-- Martin Buber (1878-1965), a prolific author
and influential Jewish thinker, was Professor of Social Philosophy
at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Reprinted from Tales
of the Hasidim, vol. 2: The Later Masters (Schocken Books).
Only Our Relationships
I was sitting on a beach one summer day, watching
two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand. They were hard
at work building an elaborate sandcastle by the water's edge, with
gates and towers and moats and internal passages. Just when they
had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and knocked
it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand.
I expected the children to burst into tears, devastated
by what had happened to all their hard work. But they surprised
me. Instead, they ran up the shore away from the water, laughing
and holding hands, and sat down to build another castle.
I realized that they had taught me an important
lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures
we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Only
our relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave
will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build
up. When that happens, only the person who has somebody's hand to
hold will be able to laugh.
-- Rabbi Harold Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of
Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, and author of To
Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking (Little, Brown
& Co.) and Living
a Life that Matters (Anchor Books). Reprinted from When
All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough (Summit Books).
Judaism and Sexuality
Judaism considers sex natural and holy, though
not without boundaries. In the famous words of the Iggeret HaKodesh
(The Holy Letter), a 13th-century treatise on sexuality often ascribed
to Nahmanides, “One should know that sexual union is holy
and pure when it is done as it should be, at the time it should
be, and with proper intent.”
Traditionally, Judaism only approves of sex between
a husband and wife. The first commandment in the Torah is “Be
fruitful and multiply,” and procreation is one of the reasons
that sex is considered holy. Contraception is problematic because
it interferes with the religious obligation to procreate; nonetheless,
it is not absolutely prohibited. Traditional sources on sex tend
to address men only, and the Talmud understands the commandment
to procreate as a legal obligation specifically for men. Thus Jewish
authorities are more lenient with female contraception, like the
birth control pill.
Judaism recognizes the importance of sexual pleasure
and companionship for its own sake as well. The Torah requires that
a husband fulfill his wife’s need for intimacy. Exodus 21:10
lists marital intimacy as one of three basic things that a husband
must provide to his wife (the other two are food and clothing).
Laws governing sexual relationships are detailed in the Talmud.
In fact, one of the most extensive of the six sections of the Talmud,
Nashim (literally, “women”) is devoted to explicating
the laws of sex and marriage, often with incredible detail. For
example, the Talmud provides a detailed schedule for men’s
conjugal duties, organized by profession. While a man of independent
means is obliged to sleep with his wife every day, a camel driver
is only obligated once in thirty days, and a sailor once in six
months. That being said, a woman is allowed to reject her husband’s
sexual advances, and Judaism forbids a man from pressuring his wife
There are, however, traditional restrictions on
marital sex. Jewish law prohibits sex during menstruation. Though
the Torah only prohibits intercourse during this time, later rabbinic
authorities prohibited all physical contact. These restrictions
apply for the seven days following a woman’s period and extend
until she has immersed in a mikveh, a ritual bath. This category
of laws is often referred to as Taharat HaMishpacha, or “family
purity,” and though they have fallen out of favor with most
contemporary Jews, many women—both liberal and traditional—are
rediscovering and reinterpreting these laws to suit modern sensibilities.
The prohibition against having intercourse with
a menstruating woman (known as a niddah) is stated in Leviticus
18. This chapter contains an extensive list of other inappropriate
sexual relationships, including incest and bestiality. Adultery,
of course, is one of the Ten Commandments listed both in Exodus
20 and Deuteronomy 5. Rape is treated in the Torah and later rabbinic
writings as a monetary offense, perpetrated as much against the
father of a rape victim (who ultimately will receive less of a dowry)
as it is for the woman herself.
Despite the holiness of sex, rabbinic tradition
often associates the sexual drive with the yetzer hara, the evil
inclination. Paradoxically, however, the evil inclination isn’t
all that bad; it can be harnessed for productivity and holiness.
Indeed, according to a famous midrash, “Were it not for the
yetzer hara, no man would build a house, marry a wife, or beget
The sexual imagery found in the Kabbalah, medieval
Jewish mysticism, is also worth noting. As Arthur Green wrote in
the Second Jewish Catalog, “Kabbalists see the very origins
of the universe as a never-ceasing process of arousal, coupling,
gestation, and birth within the life of a God who is both male and
female, and proclaim this complex inner flow of divinity, described
in the most graphic of sexual terms, to be the highest of mysteries.”
In contrast, many of the medieval philosophers were far less appreciative
of sex. In the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides wrote, “The
law about forbidden sexual intercourse seeks in all its parts to
inculcate the lesson that we ought to limit sexual intercourse altogether,
hold it in contempt, and only desire it very rarely.”