Peninei Halakha

01. The Importance of the Mitzva

A complete person is one who lives in a joyful and loving marriage. A man is not complete without his wife, and a woman is not complete without her husband. The essence of their union is expressed through the mitzva of ona (marital sexual relations), through which they become completely united, in body and spirit, making their marriage whole. The mitzva must be fulfilled with passion and ecstasy, the husband trying to bring his wife as much joy and pleasure as possible, and the wife trying to bring her husband as much joy and pleasure as possible (below, 2:1-5). For this reason, the mitzva is referred to as simḥat ona, the joy of marital sexual relations. There is no greater joy in this world; it is a foretaste of the euphoria of the World to Come (below, 1:7-8).

Through the framework of marriage, a person can achieve the ultimate fulfillment of the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), which R. Akiva calls “a major principle of the Torah” (Sifra ad loc.). It is only between spouses that love is expressed in all aspects of life, spiritual and physical alike. Thus, when a married couple lives together lovingly, each loving the other no less than they love themselves and desiring to bring joy to the other no less than they want for themselves, they fulfill the entire Torah in a concentrated form (Arizal, Sefer Ha-likutim, Ekev).

So powerful is the mitzva of ona that its fulfillment brings the Shekhina (Divine Presence) to dwell with the couple. As R. Akiva expounds: “If husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhina is with them; if they are not, fire consumes them” (Sota 17a).[1] Moreover, it is through this sacred mitzva that the couple can fulfill the mitzva of procreation (pru u-revu), which makes them God’s partners in the creation of a new life. As the Sages said, “There are three partners in the creation of a person: God, the father, and the mother” (Nidda 31a).

When a marriage founders because the husband suspects the wife of infidelity, the Torah prescribes (Bamidbar 5:11-31) the “sota” procedure, which includes writing God’s name on parchment and placing it in a potion that is administered to the wife. Under normal circumstances, erasing God’s name is a grave transgression, yet God commands us to erase His sacred name in order to repair and bring peace to a marriage (Nedarim 66b). Indeed, erasing the written name of God allows His name to inhere in their marital life.

Marriage is so paramount that the Sages say, “Any man without a wife is not considered a man” (Yevamot 63a); and “Any man without a wife lives without joy, without blessing, without goodness, without Torah, without fortification, and without peace” (ibid. 62b). A woman without a husband lacks all these as well. And since the mitzva of ona is the fundamental expression of a marriage, all of these advantages are thus directly connected to this mitzva (below, 4:8).

Since the foundation of the relationship between husband and wife is so important, the drive associated with it is likewise exceptionally powerful. God has given people freedom of choice: when a person directs the sex drive positively, toward the proper fulfillment of the mitzva of ona, there is nothing greater; when it is channeled negatively, there is nothing worse (below, 3:1-2).

[1]. The Hebrew word for man or husband, “ish,” is made up of the letters alef and shin – the word for fire, “esh” – plus the letter yud. The Hebrew word for woman or wife, “isha,” is made up of the letters alef and shin plus the letter hei. The two letters yud and hei form the name of God. Thus, if God is removed from ish and isha, only fire remains. They couple also reveals God’s holy four-letter name (yud-hei-vav-hei; the Tetragrammaton) thereby, for in addition to the revelation of yud through the man and hei through the woman, and the last two letters are revealed through their children – vav through a son and hei through a daughter (Zohar, Ra’aya Mehemna III 34b).

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Editor: Nechama Unterman