Rav Yosef, the Persians and the 15th of Av
There is a statement found in the Babylonian Talmud which has always interested me
תני רב יוסף: שארה – זו קרוב בשר שלא ינהג בה מנהג פרסיים, שמשמשין מטותיהן בלבושיהן. מסייע ליה לרב הונא: האומר אי אפשי אלא אני בבגדי והיא בבגדה יוציא ונותן כתובה
R. Yosef recited [the following tannaitic text]: “Her flesh” (Exodus 21:10) [ordinarily taken to refer to the husband's duty to support his wife, but here taken to refer to marital intercourse]-that he not treat her in the manner of the Persians who have marital intercourse in their clothes. This provides support [for the ruling of] R. Huna: [A husband] who says: I cannot [perform my marital duties] except ‘I in my clothes and she in hers’-he must divorce her and give her ketubah [marriage settlement]. (Ketubbot 48a)
Was R. Yosef referring to actual Persian practice or maybe what was perceived to be Persian custom? His statement is even more interesting considering that another place in the Talmud praises Persian bedroom custom,
תניא: אמר רבן גמליאל: בשלשה דברים אוהב אני את הפרסיים: הן צנועין באכילתן, וצנועין בבית הכסא, וצנועין בדבר אחר
It was taught: Said Rabban Gamliel: I love the Persians for three things: They are modest in their eating, modest in the privy, and modest in ‘another thing’ (=marital relations). (Berachot 8a)
For Tu B’av, the 15th of Av, I decided to try and find out a little bit more about the issue. I tried here, what seemed a fine collection of Persian texts in tranlsation. No such luck, possibly due to me not knowing precisely where to look. My search ended when I found an article by Yaakov Elman, someone who does know a lot about Persian and Zorastrian literature. His conclusion, “But in the end, then, we have no clear support from Middle Persian sources for R. Yosef’s report of Persian practice.” It was a good try, and I learned a bit about Persian literature in the process.
Just so you don’t think that this isn’t relevant, it seems that some modern Islamic legal scholars are grappling with this very question (via Andrew Sullivan, although I would reject his “idiocy” and “dumb” labels).
Yaakov Elman, “‘He is in His Cloak and She in Her Cloak:’ Conflicting Images of Sexuality in Sasanian Mesopotamia” in Discussing Cultural Influences, ed. Rivka Ulmer. The two translations from the Talmud are Prof. Elman’s.