Fifty Shades of … Talmud?

Image: Book cover. 

I’m currently reading Maggie Anton’s Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What. It’s absolutely as much fun as it sounds.

Maggie Anton is best known for her wonderful trio of historical novels about Rashi’s Daughters. As I understand it, those books grew out of her study of Talmud, as does this nonfiction work.

The skeptical reader might think, “Oh, this sounds so frivolous! Is this a joke book?” Ms. Anton recounts fifty texts from the Talmud that deal with the subject of sex, and embellishes them with pithy sayings, jokes, cartoons, and nerdy clues to understanding the sages. It is not a pious book, but a joyful exploration of the rabbis’ conceptions and misconceptions about sexuality.

The book opens with a chapter giving the 101 on Talmud: what it is and where it comes from. At the top of that chapter it carries a warning:

(WARNING! This section contains historical details that may cause boredom, listlessness, or lethargy.)

However, what follows is the best “Talmud 101” that you will find anywhere. It’s good enough, and the material that follows is entertaining enough, that I’m considering making it a textbook for my “Israel and Texts” class.

Judaism is a sex-positive tradition. Sex-positive within boundaries, true, but there is a fundamental understanding that God gave us genitals and intended that we should enjoy them as well as use them to be fruitful and multiply. Accordingly, the rabbis delved into the subject with enthusiasm.

I considered giving examples, but that would ruin your fun in discovering this book for yourself. If you are curious about the early rabbis’ attitudes about sex, if you are curious about rabbinic literature, I recommend this little book. It is definitely not for children, and not for those given to pompous piety.

As with all good texts about Talmud, there are notes (end notes in this case) to lead you to the texts themselves should you want to delve more deeply. This is NOT a scholarly work, more a labor of affection, but it is nice to have the tools to go farther if the reader wishes.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

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