One of the most fundamental aspects of Jewish tradition -which also may be going the way of other Victorian virtues- is the great significance attached to virginity. It appears in Judaism as early as the verse in Genesis, referring to Eliezer’s encounter with Rebekah: ‘And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her’ (Genesis 24:16) and is a recurring theme throughout the Bible, especially with regard to the laws governing betrothal, marriage and divorce.
Virginity was so essential a quality in a woman that a man had an automatic right to divorce his wife if he found her to be otherwise. On the other hand, to suggest that a woman was not a virgin without adequate proof was the vilest calumny that a man could perpetrate against his bride.
The ‘tokens of virginity’ were the blood-stained sheets that the bride presumably handed over to her parents after her first night of marriage. Among the Jews of North Africa, the elders of the congregation waited outside the bridal chamber until the groom emerged with the sheets. A similar custom existed among the Jews of Kurdistan, but in Persia, the female relatives waited about the chamber, until invited inside to examine the bridal bed. The sheet was then passed around for closer inspection and finally deposited with the bride’s parents. This was no empty ritual: a woman other than a virgin (unless widowed or a divorcee) was not thought to be a fit member of a Jewish household. There is a natural male instinct to explore new worlds and unknown lands, and marrying a virgin is about man’s only hope of doing so. That is why almost every society, especially those dominated by men, has laid particular stress on female chastity.
Virginity has had its defenders also on plain social grounds. It was believed to strengthen marriage and establish a sense of mutual respect that formed the basis of family life. A virgin, it was suggested, often falls in love with the first man she sleeps with, and her virginity thus establishes an emotional bond that might not otherwise exist.
The tradition of premarital chastity, moreover, gave to marriage an intense sense of liberation, the sudden freeing of yearnings long suppressed. One possible reason for pre-arranged marriages having worked out so well was the complete innocence for both and their mutual discovery formed a firm bond. Premarital chastity was regarded as one of the elements basic to marital bliss.