Things We Did Not Learn in Ulpana

On Facebook, Tiferet Shaham wrote an open letter about sexuality for graduates of religious high schools in Israel. She hopes it will be beneficial to both men and women, secular and religious.

Below is my summary in English.

Open Letter to Young Girls and Women on Positive Sexuality, or How to Feel Good about Ourselves and Our Bodies. Things We Did Not Learn at Ulpana.

Written in Hebrew by Tiferet Shaham. English summary by Hannah Katsman of A Mother in Israel

  1. You can be comfortable with your sexuality without being sexually active. People are interested in sex at different ages and to different degrees, and all that is normal.
  2. Feeling guilty about sexual feelings and sexuality can be harmful and counter-productive. Find someone you feel comfortable speaking with on these topics.
  3. If you do go “too far” (whatever that is) it doesn’t mean that you aren’t religious anymore and should drop Sabbath observance. You can say, “I did something that I don’t feel comfortable with, and I won’t do it again.” Don’t let others judge your religious observance.
  4. Your body is yours. If you find yourself in a new situation where you will meet members of the opposite sex, you need to decide on your boundaries. You may have different boundaries for different settings, and it’s okay to change your approach if it’s not working for you.
  5. “Sometimes a girl who observes negiah [does not touch members of the opposite sex] will put herself in a situation where she does not have full control (like getting drunk) so she won’t feel guilty afterward. Instead, think about what you want or don’t want, out of awareness and responsibility, and there won’t be room for guilt.”
  6. You are in control of your body. Women in all sectors of society can be naive. Don’t let anyone take advantage of you. You have the right to say no, even to your partner. If you are raped or molested, report it. There are hotlines and websites for this purpose.
  7. You are a person, not an object. You do not exist to satisfy the needs of others. Be aware of the needs of others, and have them be aware of your own needs.

And what if I do have sex?

  • Be prepared. Know what to expect. It’s more than just penetration. Think about what you want: physically, emotionally and halachically (according to Jewish law).
  • Think about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). It’s true that a condom is problematic in Jewish law, but if you have gotten to this point at least you will be protected.
  • Sex is an important step. You should know what to expect and discuss it in advance with your partner, including pregnancy, STD’s, and the fact that it should not hurt. Come from a place of maturity and mutual agreement.
  • Let’s say you had sex and don’t want to do so again. You don’t have to explain your reasons. Always listen to your gut feelings.
  • Halachically, your status has not changed. Having sex does not mean you must get married to your partner.

The Tomato

One day the teacher brought a tomato to class to explain the point of waiting for marriage. She said that a tomato in the market has been poked and prodded and squeezed so many times, it has lost its smooth texture and juiciness. She explained that no one wants to eat that tomato.

Girls, you are not tomatoes! You are not waiting for someone to choose you or buy you. “Losing your virginity” has no significance except that you may feel closer to your partner, and if you both know what you are doing, you will feel physically and spiritually good.

There are many very good reasons for keeping negiah. But the claim that you are worthless if you have touched a man before your wedding is BS.

Dressing under the blanket

Did you ever learn that halacha (Jewish law)? [HK: I never heard of it.] I don’t want to denigrate Jewish law, but I have met too many girls who are disgusted by their bodies, by their menstrual cycles, or who have no idea what to do with a tampon.

We are all created in the image of God. Our bodies are amazing, special and perfect. Maybe there is value in dressing under the blanket. I know that there is also value in locking the door and posing alone in front of the mirror, dancing in underwear to good music and saying, “Wow, I’m terrific.”

Comments may be sent to the author, Tiferet Shaham, at

I asked my 19-year-old daughter for her response to Tiferet’s comments. She said that while her teachers never compared girls to tomatoes, the system did not prepare her for working in a secular environment with members of both sexes. Neither the school, nor the many workshops before and during national service, discussed how to deal with co-workers who offer non-kosher food or men who greet you with a hug. Her unit have a good program on sexual harassment that dealt mainly with dating.

In general she says, “They acted like we were going to be staying in the same bubble we have been in all our lives. Actually, they act as if they hope we will be so traumatized by life outside the bubble, we will run back inside.”

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  1. The source is Kitzur Shulhan Aruch Part 3.

    Thank you for the support 🙂

    • The Kitzur Shulhan Aruch is known for having many obscure and extreme halachot, many of which are not commonly accepted. In school my kids generally used Kitzur Shulhan Aruch Mekor Hayim by Rabbi Hayim David Halevi, former chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.

      • This halacha is not one of them.

        The thing is that the reason for discretion in dress has nothing to do with being “disgusted with your body”. It’s also not just for women.

    • Charlie Hall says

      Actually the source is NOT the Kitzer Shulchan Aruch, it is the REAL Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Yosef Karo. It is Orach Chaim, Chapter 2, Halachot 1-2. And the halachah applies equally to men and to women.

      • Point taken. Shaham’s point is that this halacha is being taught to teenage girls even though it is probably more directed at men. Perhaps it is being taught to boys as well.
        To what degree do you believe that this halacha is generally observed today? Even in the times of the gemara, men saw each other naked in the bathhouse. There are discussions about family members sleeping undressed together in a room.

        • I can’t talk about generalities, but it’s something that my husband and sons are careful about in a very matter of fact way.

  2. vardi jacobs says

    Tiferet, thank you for your open article addressing (young) women’s sexuality. It was so refreshing to read that having sexual feelings does not translate into being sexually active. Too often young (and other) women misinterpret the two. Being a woman, a religious woman can still include the enjoyment and love of one’s body. Remembering that we are created in the image of Hashem should give us comfort in accepting our bodies, whatever our height, size or shape. Hopefully in the very near future, machar, girls will be encouraged to have open discussions about such issues at their Ulpana or sems. Mothers are to encourage such conversations among their peers, in order to be comfortable to have such dialogues with their daughters.

  3. I just read an article in an old New Yorker about Elizabeth Smart, the young woman who was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City when she was 14 and held captive for months, during which she was repeatedly raped. She grew up Mormon and also heard her teacher teach that girls and women are tomatoes, or rather a version of it that also involves produce. She once gave a talk and said that was a horrible thing to teach girls and that it truly affected her and made it very difficult for her to think that she was still a person of worth after the first time she was raped.

  4. it was wrong and irresponsible to print the following lines:
    “Losing your virginity” has no significance except that you may feel closer to your partner, and if you both know what you are doing, you will feel physically and spiritually good.

    halachically , emotionally and psychologically wrong and irresponsible

    • Actually what is halachically, emotionally and psychologically wrong is promoting sexual repression, guilt and anxiety. It’s time to stop this nonsense.

      • this is not about repression, guilt, or anxiety- anyone who learns Sifrei Kodesh about the importance, beauty and value of the physical relationship, and the way a man is supposed to treat his wife- with sensitivity, respect, and warmth- knows that what this person is referring to is lehavdil puritan nonsense, not Torah wisdom.
        But sexual activity outside the context of marriage is destructive. and brings no real happiness.The Woodstock generation bears sad testimony to that.

        • If you read my original article you will see that I repeat over and over again that I am not dismissing Halacha. My words are purely about the way these Halachot are taught and talked about. I myself am Shomer Negiah and believe it is the way to go. That does not give me the right, however, to make someone who chooses another path feel that she is worthless. The relationship one has with g-d is between them and g-d. By all means, these Halachot should be taught in schools. What I am suggesting is that they be done in a positive and non destructive way. Yes, in school we had a class or two on “the importance, beauty and value of the physical relationship, and the way a man is supposed to treat his wife- with sensitivity, respect, and warmth”, but that simply does not match up to 6, or even 12, formative years of harmful remarks and negative undertones. If the schools aren’t ready to change their attitude, maybe some families will.
          I don’t know who you are or where you went to school, and how long ago. But if I can tell you as a 20 year old girl who lived here all her life and went to known religious schools, that most of the girls I met have big issues with these subjects (and might not even know it), something is wrong.
          The Torah and Halacha are beautiful. Let us not be scared to teach them properly.


    • I don’t think we should be afraid of our children learning that sex is pleasurable.

      • Yes, but that’s not the same as saying that having sex for the first time changes nothing. Or that premarital sex won’t affect your chances of finding a good marriage partner in the Orthodox community. Or that it create only positive feelings. I don’t endorse the tomato analogy but I think young people should understand that their actions have consequences. The reality is that in frum society as well as in halacha there are negative consequences to the decision to become sexually active outside of marriage. To teach high school girls otherwise is to do them a disservice.

        • Shoshana: I don’t think the fact that frum society shuns people for having been sexually active (or having fooled around a little) is a positive consequence. It is possible to teach children/teens that there is a standard of behavior you expect but also to have an understanding that not every one will meet these expectations and they are not irretrievably damaged if that have not met the standards. And to Karen: I know we will disagree but I think it is wrong and irresponsible to tell our daughters that one act damages them forever. I am really confused by why some of the commenters don’t accept that people can do teshuva for various transgressions but think that there is one act that changes everything.

          • Agreed. I never advocated for shunning or teaching people they are irretrievably damaged. I do think the Orthodox schools should teach halacha honestly and apologetically. That precludes encouraging Orthodox teens to learn as much as possible about foreplay and decide together with their boyfriends/girlfriends whether they want to be sexually intimate. For a young woman, deciding to have premarital sex in the Orthodox world will limit the available pool of Orthodox men who will see her as a potential marriage partner. That’s not necessarily “shunning”, it’s human nature for people to want to marry someone they share values with. There may be halachic issues as well. She may decide she doesn’t care, but it should be an informed decision.

          • Shoshanna, I’m glad to see that we have so much common ground. I guess my confusion is still that I think the frum community can teach girls that there are many good reasons to hold off on sex and also at the same time understand that if a girl does “lose her virginity,” she can later repent. People used to laugh at some Christian fundamentalists who would “revirginize” themselves–that is, commit to celibacy even though they had earlier lost their virginity. But I have to say that I sympathize with that approach when we teach our children. I think it’s dangerous to say that there is one sin that you can’t atone for. Would having eaten a cheeseburger and later embracing kashrut hurt someone on the shidduch market?

          • The issue is, they’re not the same thing. If you go off the derech and eat cheeseburgers, then yes, it would hurt you on the shidduch market. If you are a baal teshuva, then not necessarily.
            However, from girls and boys who are born religious, we have different expectations. We expect them to keep to the standards that they were taught. And if they don’t – well, then yes, it will hurt them, because they have decided that they do not care about our values and we see them that way – as people who do not care about our values.

          • This was a reply to miriami…not sure why it didn’t appear that way.

        • Actually, to teach frum girls otherwise will create happier and more successful marriages by limiting or doing away with sexual guilt and repression. That’s the sad fact that’s the sad fact that all the naysayers on this thread can’t deal with.

          • Remember, we’re talking about premarital sex. Teaching frum girls to enjoy premarital sex with their boyfriends will create happier and more successful marriages? I think it will create a generation of women who think that waiting for marriage is for frierim.

  5. A new book on the subject of sex and the OJ world was just released recently, here is a link –

    I have not read it, but it looks good and seems like good quality material.

  6. I have a question about sex,. I am previously engaged and my fiance is the only man that i ever slept with. There is one thing that is troubling me, is that every time i have sex with him is that i feel so many emotions running through my heart, and mind. I feel on the one hand love and on the other taken advantage of on some weird level. Its hard to explain really. In other words many conflicting emotions happening all at once. I don’t really understand why i’m going through these emotions at all! I apologize if this is too much for a post.

    • Chayah Gittel bas Reuven says

      Anonymous, you wrote, ” every time i have sex with him is that i feel so many emotions running through my heart, and mind. I feel on the one hand love and on the other taken advantage of on some weird level.”

      This is very understandable from the mind-body perspective that I discuss in my book, “The Chossen’s Guide.” Sexual affection causes you to release a hormone, oxytocin, which elicits feelings of bonding and love. However, your rational mind is telling you that you are not comfortable with the situation.
      The brain has a specific section, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, which analyzes thoughts and emotions together and weighs the total result. If your feelings and thoughts came to the same conclusion, you would be comfortable. Since your feelings and thoughts are coming to different conclusions, your ACC is giving you an uneasy message (kind of like an “Error” message from your computer). This is a signal to you to change the situation in a way that brings your feelings and thoughts into alignment so you will feel comfortable again. Think about this carefully (perhaps consult a trusted adviser who can keep confidentiality) to decide what is truly best for you before discussing this with your fiance. He will probably resist to some extent because he is getting all the benefits with none of the potential downsides. (You have a lot of potential downsides which is why you feel taken advantage of.) It’s up to you to find the strength and wisdom to bring this situation back into balance. One obvious solution is to get married soon. If he keeps delaying…well, that’s an important signal.

  7. We have unfortunately seen the emotional trauma and brutal affect sexual guilt can exact in all its devastating manifestations. I applaud the author for her courage in publishing this open letter and initiating a very timely and important conversation. I would have only modified the title to: Things We Did Not Learn in Ulpana, Our American Yeshiva High School, Our Post High School Yeshiva/Seminary or at home!

  8. Chayah Gittel bas Reuven says

    Thank you for your excellent article. Please look at my new book “The Chossen’s Guide, A Manual of Jewish Intimacy,” which teaches both men and women how to create marital bonding and satisfaction by blending halacha and cuttin-edge science in a friendly, approachable style. Both men and women, young and mature, will find the information they need to create love and shalom bayit.

    Please feel free to e-mail me so I can send you the entire book for your comments.

  9. With all the chatter about this, I wanted to say how I applaud Tiferet Shaham for emphasizing not only the need to be positive about sexuality (that go a lot of positive feedback so I didn’t feel the need to reinforce) but also the message that as much as every one makes a big deal of it, sex is only one thing. When I was in college, it was inevitable that some people would discover sex and then drop all of their religious connection. I always felt it was because so much emphasis had been placed on sex in their high schools. I get why people focus on sex with teenagers and I get that lots of hormones are running rampant–but I like the common sense approach that Tiferet Shaham espouses.

  10. Dear Anonymous,
    The question you appear to be asking, is if it is normal to feel mixed emotions about sex. On one hand, you feel love and bonding, and “good” about being intimate, yet, there is a part of you that feels “taken advantage of” Having sex meets us on so many levels. There is the feeling side, which is emotional as well as sensory, and there is the cognitive side, what we are thinking about, (often values and judgments) and of course, what the meaning is for us.
    If you have a weird feeling of being “taken advantage of, “ then I would want to explore that further. What is it that you think might be leaving you feeling that way, and perhaps to do so, you can ask yourself a number of questions. What are the motivations for you to engage in sex?Do you initiate sex sometimes, or is it always your fianace?Does he approach you because he “needs” to have sex, for physical or mental release?Do you get enjoyment, pleasure, satisfaction and fulfillment for yourself?Do you feel comfortable saying no, when you don\’t feel like having sex?Are you concerned that saying no will disappoint him, or make him feel rejected?
    Contemplating these questions may help you gain some insight in to your sexual experience and what it is like for you. I would absolutely discuss your feelings with your fiancé. Too many couples engage in sex, but do not necessarily communicate about their sexual desires, what they would like to try, or what does and doesn\’t feel OK to them. By opening up the lines of communication, you can help to resolve some of the internal conflicts you are experiencing.
    Talli Y. Rosenbaum, sex therapist

  11. Not related to this post – I just popped over and saw a materna ad on the right side, just above your picture.
    Thought you might like to know.

  12. The problem really starts with having a boyfriend. People are not made of wood, so it is pretty difficult not to give expression to one’s physical needs. I have read that it is much easier for boys to get back onto the ‘ derech ‘ – for girls it is much more challenging and few get back onto the derech. Girls need to helped in finding a suitable shidduch and realizing that it is not easy – so refusing to accept ‘ dates’ that parents may suggest or their friends have suggested , just makes things tougher.