ervah (עֶרְוָה) = genitals, private parts; shameful places; vulnerable places.
In this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, God forbids any Israelite man from uncovering the ervah of the following relatives: his father, his mother, his stepmother, his sister, his half-sister, his granddaughter, his stepsister, his aunt, his uncle, his daughter-in-law, his wife’s daughter, or his wife’s sister (during the lifetime of his wife).1
The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) and King James Version (KJV) translations both use the word “nakedness” to translate ervah in each forbidden relationship, and the reader understands that uncovering someone’s “nakedness” means sexual intercourse.
But in English, “naked” refers to the nudity of the whole body, not just the genitals. The Biblical Hebrew word for being nude or undressed is arom. Unlike arom, the word ervah refers specifically to the genitals.2
Why is it bad for a man to uncover the ervah of one of the forbidden sexual partners listed in the portion Acharei Mot and again in Kedoshim in Leviticus?3
The Torah is not concerned about inbreeding. Although the prohibitions in Acharei Mot and Kedoshim are often called incest laws, some of the forbidden relationships would be considered odd or unsavory, but not incestuous today.4 On the other hand, the Torah does not forbid marriage between a man and his niece—a sexual relationship that some countries today deem incestuous because a quarter of their genes would be shared.
But there are other problems when a man uncovers the wrong ervah. His deed is shameful; it takes advantage of a vulnerability; and it trespasses on private property.
The word ervah first appears in the Torah after the Flood, when Noah gets drunk and lies down naked inside his tent.
And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the ervah of his father, and he told his two brothers outside. Then Sheim and Yafet took the cloak and put it over both their shoulders, and they walked backward, and they covered the ervah of their father; and their faces were turned so they did not see the ervah of their father. (Genesis 9:22-23)
The implication is that it would be shameful to see one’s father’s genitals (although later in Genesis, Abraham asks his steward to swear an oath by placing his hand under his master’s genitals5). In addition, Cham might have done more than just look. Noah is so outraged when he learns what happened while he was sleeping off his wine, he utters a curse making Cham’s descendants, the Canaanites, slaves to Sheim and Yafet’s descendants. Either way, in this story the word ervah is associated with shame.
When King Saul loses his temper and insults his son Jonathan, he says:
“Don’t I know that your favorite is the son of Jesse—to your shame and to the shame of the ervah of your mother!” (1 Samuel 20:30)
Shame is also an issue when the book of Lamentations compares Jerusalem’s worship of other gods to an unfaithful woman who exposes her own ervah to multiple lovers.6
Jerusalem was a sinful sinner;
Therefore she became an object of head-shaking.
Everyone who had honored her despised her
Because they saw her ervah. (Lamentations/Eychah 1:8)
What about when a man uncovers the ervah of someone on the list of forbidden sexual partners? At the end of the list, Acharei Mot mentions several other forbidden acts, from sex with a neighbor’s wife to sex with a non-human animal, and then concludes:
You must observe my decrees and my laws, and you must not do any of these abominations … Because everyone who does any of these abominations, their souls shall be cut off from being near their people. (Leviticus 18:26, 29)
In other words, uncovering the ervah of the wrong person, along with several other acts, is so shameful the perpetrator cannot be tolerated in society.
The word ervah can also be a metaphor for vulnerability, since a human’s most vulnerable place is a tender genital organ. Joseph, as the viceroy of Egypt, falsely accuses his older brothers by saying:
“You are spies! You have come to see the ervah of the land!” (Genesis 42:9)
The ervah of the land consists of the country’s most vulnerable places: the towns that lack garrisons or defensive walls.
Most of the people a man is forbidden to uncover in this week’s Torah portion are women, who had less power and were therefore more vulnerable in an ancient Israelite household. In ancient Israel, one man was the head of a household of family members and slaves living around a common courtyard. Maimonides7 wrote that since any man in a household could have access to any of the women, the rules in Leviticus protected women and girls from unwanted advances.
One euphemism for the genitals in English is “private parts”. In the book of Exodus, God considers it inappropriate to see a man’s private parts when he is conducting public worship. Before the institution of priests, God allows people to make offerings at many altars, but warns:
And you must not walk up steps to climb onto my altar, so that your ervah will not be uncovered upon it. (Exodus/Shemot 20:23)
Later in Exodus, God decides that priests descended from Aaron will lead all public worship, and orders a different solution to prevent exposure:
And you shall make them linen underpants to cover the flesh of their ervah; from the waist to the upper thighs they shall be. (Exodus 28:42)
Male genitals are personal and private; offering slaughtered animals to God is a public religious act.
“Private” also means restricted to the use of a particular individual, and free from unauthorized intrusion.
A female in ancient Israelite society was always the personal property of a man, unless she was a prostitute. An unmarried girl or woman belonged to her father, a married woman belonged to her husband, a widow belonged to her son, and a female slave belonged ultimately to her master.
This week’s Torah portion makes it clear that only a woman’s own husband or master is authorized to uncover her private parts.
In the 14th century C.E., Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi explained that the prohibitions in this week’s Torah portion prevent violence between men living in the same household, since without these rules the men would quarrel over ownership of the women.
On the other hand, the rules grant every Israelite woman a physical right to privacy that no one but her husband is allowed to violate.
Some sexual ethics from the world of the bible should still apply today. It should still be shameful for someone to force sexual exposure on another person. We should still consider human genital areas vulnerable and worthy of protection. And we should still view our private parts as personal property that no unauthorized person may trespass upon.
The difference is that modern culture grants autonomy to every individual, regardless of gender. All individuals have the right to decide who may or may not encroach upon their private parts.
May we all come to respect each other as individuals with the right to choose for ourselves what to uncover, and what to keep private.
- Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) pointed out that the prohibition against sex with both a woman and her daughter bans a man from sex with his own daughter.
- And once to the anus, in Deuteronomy 23:14-15.
- Leviticus 18:6-19 and 20:11-21.
- For example, a single man in our society is free to marry the wife of any blood relative after that relative is dead or divorced. And Woody Allen married his ex-wife’s adopted daughter without committing incest.
- Genesis 24:2, 24:9. The Hebrew word yareich (יָרֵךְ) means upper thigh or buttock, but it is also one of several biblical euphemisms for the human genitals.
- Isaiah 57:8; Ezekiel 16:37, 23:10, and 23:18; Hosea 2:12; and Nahum 3:5 express this theme using the same word for “uncover” as in Acharei Mot (piel forms of galah, גָּלָה), without including the more charged word ervah.
- Maimonides is 12th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also called Rambam.