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This "legend" is derived from a one of several conflicting interpretations of what was said about Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanos in Nedarim 20a,b. It runs as follws:
"Ima Shalom [R. Eliezer's wife] was asked why her children were so very good-looking. She told them " ` ... and when he speaks to [Rashi: copulates with] me, he uncovers a handsbreadth and covers a handsbreadth and he seems to be coerced by a demon."
The conflicting interpretations are as follows:
Rashi (ad loc.). Handsbreadth: of her clothing. Seems to be coerced by a demon: Comes upon her powerfully, as if a demon were coercing him. However, some say that he covers himself completely [and only uncovers as much of himself as necessary], as if he were afraid of a demon.
Ra"N [R. Nissim bar Ya`kov] (ad loc.). Handsbreadth: [citing Berakhot 23B] a woman is permitted to uncover two handsbreadths when she urinates. He uncovered only one handbreath, leaving the second one covered. Seems to be driven by a demon: He would hurry [through the act] like a man coerced by a demon, but would [literally] speak to her during intercourse.
Ro'Sh [R. Asher ben Ye`hiel] (ad loc). Handsbreadth: [An obscure reason not easily figured out] or perhaps in order not to enjoy direct body contact, as in [intercourse] through a sheet (Yerushalmi Yebamot 1,1) [This reference to Rabbi Jose ben Halafta's behavior, while he was levir to his brother's widow, may be the origin of the urban legend about the "hole in the sheet"].
Hameiri (ad loc). ...he should uncover a handsbreadth of her clothing and cover that handsbreadth with his own ...
Rambam (Hilkhot De`ot 5,4). ... he should speak to her and sport with her a bit until she relaxes, and then couple with her modestly and not brutally ...
Not much of a consensus, as you can see. Choose whatever interpretation you like. Rashi's first explanation has the ring of truth: It was R. Eliezer's way of building up sexual excitement by foreplay. As supporting evidence, we continue to read the text: "I (Ima Shalom) asked him `Why do you do this?' He aswered `So that I should not look [with desire] at any other woman'".
Note that the Talmud in Ketubot 48 states that the proper way for a man and woman to have sex is for both to be nude; in fact it goes on to state that if one insists on wearing clothes during the act, that can be considered grounds for divorce. This was later codified in the Shulkhan Arukh (16th century), Even ha-Ezer 76:13
For a detailed and sensitive discussion of Jewish views towards sex and sexuality, see "Does God Belong in the Bedroom?" by Rabbi Michael Gold (published by JPS), and "Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy" by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (published by Doubleday).
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Daniel P. Faigin <firstname.lastname@example.org>