[Milton-L] PL and the sabbath, etc.

Jeffrey Shoulson jshoulson at miami.edu
Wed Dec 22 09:42:59 EST 2004

Dan Knauss wrote:

> Fascinating stuff. Are there any theories as to why this sort of 
> thinking
> didn't translate into Christianity--but quite the reverse?

Needless to say, it's far too complicated a matter to address fully in 
this forum.  In part, I think, the answers lies in the origins of 
rabbinic Judaism (ca. 2nd-6th cent. CE) as it sought to distinguish 
itself from the rise of Christianity (these were, after all, 
coeval--rabbinic Judaism is as different from biblical "Judaism" as 
Christianity is).  As the Church Fathers incorporated a dualistic 
ontology owing its origins to Platonic philosophy (among other things) 
that inevitably denigrated the value of the body--and by extension, the 
importance of bodily pleasure--the rabbis responded by (re-)asserting 
the importance of carnality in all its aspects.  I'm summarizing here a 
far more complex analysis that is indebted, in particular, to Daniel 
Boyarin's study of rabbinic Judaism (see, for instance, his Carnal 
Israel).  If you're really interested, I can humbly suggest that you 
take a look at my book, Milton and the Rabbis, for a longer version of 
this argument.
With the Reformation, one actually does see, in some few instances, an 
attempt at (re-)incorporating these more "Jewish" views of the body 
(and marriage, etc.) into Christianity.  Selden is probably the most 
prominent English example.  His Uxor Ebraica shows astonishing 
erudition in Jewish texts and, as Jason Rosenblatt has argued in his 
Torah and Law in PL, it was especially influential for Milton as he 
developed his own arguments about marriage and divorce as revealed in 
the divorce tracts and in the pre-lapsarian books of PL.
That's an attempt--on one foot, as the rabbis would say--to begin an 
answer to the "why."
Best wishes,
Jeffrey Shoulson

> -----Original Message-----
> From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
> [mailto:milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of
> Jeffrey Shoulson
> Sent: Tuesday, December 21, 2004 9:11 AM
> To: John Milton Discussion List
> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] PL and the sabbath, etc.
> On Dec 21, 2004, at 12:47 AM, Dan Knauss wrote:
>> I can't remember where I heard this, but supposedly sex on
> the Sabbath
>> was/is encouraged among Jews.
> What Dan Knauss is having trouble remembering is slightly
> more complex
> than this:
> In the talmudic discussion of marital obligations in Tractate
> Ketuboth
> (the tractate that deals with the marriage contract), the
> rabbis state
> that a husband is required to provide three things to his wife:
> sustenance (she'er), shelter (k'suth--both clothing and a home), and
> sexual satisfaction ('onah).
> Not content with this simple formulation, the rabbis then go
> on to try
> to quantify all three of these items.  In their analysis of sexual
> satisfaction (presumably since the rabbis were all men and didn't
> consult with any women!) they chose to delineate the obligation in
> terms of quantity, rather than quality, reducing the question to how
> many times a husband should have sexual relations with his
> wife. Again, not content with a single simple answer, the
> rabbis concluded
> that this number varied by the husband's profession.  The
> following are
> some of the minima.  A sailor, who could be expected to be away from
> home for months at a time, was obliged only once every six months.  A
> man of wealth and leisure who didn't work for a living was obligated
> every day (except, of course, when his wife was deemed
> ritually impure
> because of her menstrual cycle).  Rabbis were obligated to have sex
> with their wives once a week; and since the Sabbath was the day of
> rest, the most appropriate evening in which to fulfill this
> obligation
> was deemed to be Friday night.
> Rabbinic literature and Jewish liturgy often speak of "oneg Shabbat,"
> the delight or pleasure of the Sabbath.  A good meal, a good nap,
> and--ahem--a good lay are all elements of this delight.
> Thanks, by the way, to Professors Herman and Di Cesare for their very
> important comments about the impossibility of polarizing the biblical
> and the classical in Milton's writings.  This is an aspect of
> Milton's
> poetry from the very beginning.  The Nativity Ode may insist on a
> silencing of the pagan oracles and a banishing of the pagan gods with
> the birth of Christ, but inevitably they return "in order
> serviceable,"
> there to do the bidding of a poet more than willing to mine Egyptian
> gold.
> Jeffrey Shoulson

Jeffrey S. Shoulson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of English
Director, Program in Judaic Studies
Fellow, Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies
University of Miami
5202 University Drive
105 Merrick Building, Rm. 109
Coral Gables, FL 33124

o: 305.284.8180
f: 305.284.8190
m: 305.742.6973


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exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for 
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the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the 
hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to 
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