The Torah states, “He shall not withhold she’erah, kesutah, or onatah” (Shemot 21:10). Ramban (ad loc.), following one view in Ketubot (48a), interprets she’erah to refer to flesh-to-flesh contact during intimacy, kesutah to refer to the bed and bedding used by the couple during intimacy, and onatah to refer to the conjugal act itself. Rashi (ad loc.), following a different view in Ketubot (loc. cit.), interprets she’erah as “her food,” kesutah as “her clothing,” and onatah as the conjugal act. We see that all agree that the mitzva of ona is the essence of marriage, as it gives expression to the couple’s complete love for one another.
While all agree that the husband is obligated on a Torah level to provide for his wife sexually, there is disagreement about his obligation to provide her with food and clothing. According to one view, this obligation is not stated explicitly in the Torah, but the Sages ordained so, because without these basic needs a couple cannot truly enjoy the mitzva of ona. Moreover, a key component of true love for one’s spouse is a very deep-rooted feeling of responsibility for their well-being and best interest. Thus, it is inconceivable that a husband who truly loves his wife would not make sure to feed and clothe her; if he does not do so, clearly there is no real love in their sexual relations. According to the other view, the Torah itself explicitly mandates that the husband see to his wife’s food and clothing. Even though the mitzva of ona is the most profound expression of a marriage, a wholesome relationship must, by definition, include his full responsibility for her food and clothing.
The word ona has three meanings:
- Time or season: This mitzva is fulfilled at intervals dictated by the husband’s stamina and the demands of his job (Ramban and Ibn Ezra on Shemot 21:10).
- Torment (inui), and its opposite, responsiveness and reciprocity (hei’anut): When a man separates from his wife, he torments her. As Lavan said to Yaakov, “…if you torment (te’aneh) my daughters” (Bereishit 31:50), which the Sages interpret to mean, “If you separate from them and do not provide them with ona.” This also explains why on Yom Kippur, when we are commanded to afflict ourselves (lehitanot), we must refrain from sexual relations (Yoma 77b and Rosh ad loc.; Ketubot 47b and Tosafot and Ritva ad loc.). Similarly, the rape of a woman by a man is called inui, as we read, “Shechem the son of Ḥamor the Ḥivite, chief of the country, saw her and took her; he slept with her and tormented her (va–ye’aneha)” (Bereishit 34:2). In stark contrast to inui, the mitzva of ona is to couple with joy and pleasure, each responding to the other. Ona thus means responsiveness (hei’anut) and the prevention of torment (inui).
Both of these interpretations have halakhic significance. First, a husband is obligated to have relations with his wife at fixed intervals that depend on his job and stamina. Second, their sexual union should be a joy-filled responsiveness that expresses their passionate love.
- Home: The Rishonim further wrote that the word ona is related to ma’on, a dwelling or home, meaning that the husband must provide his wife with a place to live (Menaḥem b. Saruk, as cited by Ibn Ezra and Ḥizkuni on Shemot 21:10). This interpretation also has deep significance for the mitzva of ona: when husband and wife unite sexually, the husband arrives at his domicile, his home. Similarly, when the verse instructs “Rejoice – you and your house” (Devarim 14:26), the Sages explain that this means “you and your wife.” Rabbi Yosi likewise stated: “Never in my life have I referred to my wife as ‘my wife’; rather, I refer to her as ‘my home’” (Shabbat 118b).
The Sages refer to this mitzva as “derekh eretz,” the “way of the world,” since every man should naturally love his wife, desire to make love to her, and bring her as much joy and pleasure as he can. Likewise, every woman should naturally love her husband, yearn for him to make love to her, and bring him joy and pleasure as much as she can. God created humans to want this by nature. One who does not feel this yearning is physically or psychologically unhealthy. The goal of the mitzva is to channel, sublimate, and sanctify nature, not to negate the spontaneous feelings through which the mitzva is fulfilled (below, 2:4). The frequency of the mitzva is likewise determined by the “way of the world,” that is, by the reality of the couple’s circumstances (as explained in 2:6-7).
We should note that in the past, when making a living depended mainly on capacity for physical labor, it was difficult for women to support themselves without help from a father or husband. This is why halakha obligated men to provide their wives with food and clothing. However, this is not the essence of marriage, and it is therefore permissible to stipulate before getting married that the husband is not required to feed and clothe his wife if, for instance, the wife has her own income. In contrast, they cannot stipulate that they will get married with the understanding that the husband will not fulfill the mitzva of ona. Negating the mitzva of ona negates the entire marriage (Ramban to Bava Batra 126b; SA EH 38:5). Nevertheless, when a husband is unable to fulfill the mitzva of ona due to circumstances beyond his control, for example if he is a seris ḥama (“castrated by the sun”; i.e., impotent from birth), then the couple may base their marriage on a nonsexual emotional union (below, 6:2, n. 2). It stands to reason that a seris ḥama still has a mitzva to bring his wife physical pleasure according to his ability (below, ch. 2, n. 3).
. It is important to note how the Torah expresses the mitzva of ona: It is stated with regard to a case where a man decides to marry his Jewish maidservant. The Torah commands him to make sure to relate to her in the best possible way. Even if he takes a second wife from his own social class, he should not discriminate against the maidservant whom he made his wife. In the Torah’s words, “If he marries another, he must not withhold (from this one) her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment” (Shemot 21:10-11). From this context we can infer that a normal couple does not need to be commanded, for every reasonable person understands naturally that this is his moral obligation – “the way of the world” in the sense of “proper conduct.” The novelty here is that even though a man is doing a favor for his maidservant by marrying her, since she is now his wife, he may not deprive her of sexual pleasure. (See Sefer Ha-ḥinukh §46.) Similarly, the Torah tells us that when it comes to returning lost items to their owner (hashavat aveida), “You cannot ignore it” (Devarim 22:3). Beyond the requirement of returning the item, a person should feel that he simply cannot ignore the lost item that he saw.