While it seems to me obvious that our halakhic tradition has always understood the penetration to be anal I take up the challenge to substantiate my claim that our sages throughout the ages have understood those two biblical verses as prohibiting anal penetration of one male by another. This is not as simple as it seems since the sages almost invariably use euphemisms whose meaning they assume everyone understands.

In many places [for example, Kiddushin 22b and very many other passages; see also Sifra Kedoshim 10:9] the Talmud points out that in these verses the essential Hebrew word for copulation is in the plural; the Hebrew term משכבי אשה mishkevei ishah (literally "copulations of a woman") is explained as indicating that there are two ways that heterosexual copulation may take place. These two ways are called by the sages כדרכה ושלא כדרכה. We can translate this phrase as "normally or not normally". Obviously, "normal" heterosexual sex refers to penetration per vaginam. Is it justified to assume that what the sages mean by "not normal sex" is penetration of the woman per anum, as is generally assumed? (For example, in his explanations on Nedarim 20a Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz automatically assumes that the term שלא כדרכה which we have understood to be "not normal sex" refers to anal penetration of the wife by the husband.)

Jeremiah 3:13 is part of an extended metaphor which sees Israel as a wife who has given herself up to promiscuity. The verse reads as follows:

אך דעי עונך כי בה' אלהיך פשעת ותפזרי את-דרכיך לזרים תחת כל-עץ רענן ובקולי לא-שמעתם נאם-ה'

Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the Lord your God, and have scattered your ways to the strangers under every green tree, and you have not obeyed my voice, says the Lord.

Rashi explains the enigmatic phrase "scattered your ways" as "promiscuity; opening wide your legs as in משכבי אשה" - "copulations with a woman". Here, Rashi's graphic description of the phrase mishkevei ishah rules out any possibility of the phrase indicating penetration of the mouth! That leaves only two other possible orifices. Is it justified to assume that the phrase means penetration per anum?

In tractate Nedarim 20a the Gemara describes calamities that could befall married couples who engage in sexual obscenities. Most of the phrases are, of course, euphemistic. One of them describes a married couple as "turning the tables". Rashi explains this euphemism as meaning "face to back: they mount their wives not normally". While it is reasonable to assume that what is indicated here is that "not normal sex" indicates anal penetration (and almost certainly does not refer to penetration of the mouth!) we must allow for the remote possibility that it means to indicate vaginal penetration from the rear.

Several of the Rishonim [see Tosafot on Yevamot 34a s.v. מתוך; Rambam Issurei Bi'ah 21:9; Tur (and Rema) in Even ha-Ezer 25:2] state that a husband should not copulate with his wife "not normally" since he would not thus deposit his seed "in the right place". This proves that the term mishkevei ishah must indicate anal and not vaginal penetration.

However, I think that I can conclusively substantiate the claim that mishkav zakhur was understood by our classical authorities by reference to a responsum of Maharshadam [Rabbi Shemu'el di Modena (1506-1590), Even ha-Ezer #3]. This responsum was concerned with a case that came before a Bet Din concerning a shoĥet (ritual slaughterer) whose morals were being impugned. Maharshadam reports part of the evidence as follows:

עוד בא דוד בר נסים והעיד איך בזה הקיץ שעבר היה הולך בכפר אחד הוא ותוגר אחד עמו והטו עצמם מגדר הפרדס כדי לקרוא לבעלת הפרדס למכור להם פירות וראו שם למושקו זה עם בחור אחר שהיה נרבע עמו במשכב זכור וכשראו אותם ברחו ונתפרדו איש מעל רעהו וברחו עם המכנסים בלתי קשורים...

Then David ben-Nissim came and testified [before the Bet Din] how that same summer he and a Turk had been walking in a certain village. They leaned over the orchard's fence in order to call to the woman who owned the orchard to sell them some fruit. There they saw this Moshico with another lad who was comitting sodomy with him as mishkav zakhur. When they saw them they ran away in separate directions with their trousers unhitched...

The Hebrew term here used by Maharshadam, נרבע, can only indicate anal penetration and it is specifically associated by him with mishkav zakhur.

Having established this fact we can return to our interrupted discussion. [Click here to return to "Dear David".]