06. The Importance of the Sexual Union of Husband and Wife

The sexual union and unification of husband and wife is so marvelous that it serves as a metaphor for the supernal union of God and the Jewish people, as we read: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Yeshayahu 62:5). Similarly, R. Akiva says, “No other day was as precious as the day the Jews were given Shir Ha-shirim. For all of the Writings are holy, but Shir Ha-shirim is the holy of holies” (Tanḥuma Tetzaveh §5). We see that the love between a husband and wife is so transcendent and sublime that it is compared to and a manifestation of the sacred connection between God and His people. In fact, the relationship between husband and wife who achieve union with each other in holiness and love (below, 3:15) is an extension of the relationship between God and His people. This, in turn, influences the relationship between God and His world, bringing life, blessing, and peace to all creation.

The Talmud tells us that the keruvim (cherubim) on top of the holy ark in the Holy of Holies were in the shape of a woman and man fulfilling the mitzva of ona. The Sages relate, “When the Jews ascended to the Temple in Jerusalem for the festivals, the kohanim would roll back the curtain so everyone could see the intertwined keruvim, and would say to them, ‘Look! The love between you and God is like the love between a male and a female’” (Yoma 54a). When Israel stopped acting in accordance with the divine will, the keruvim separated from one another and turned toward the wall (Bava Batra 99a).

Since the essence of marriage is sacred and transcendent, during Temple times Yom Kippur was one of the two holidays on which people would occupy themselves with matchmaking (m. Ta’anit 4:8). A wedding is about a bride and a groom, two individuals who are uniting and starting a new life together. It is a mitzva to joyfully celebrate this. The Sages (Berakhot 6b) tell us that anyone who makes a groom and bride happy will merit acquiring (knowledge of) the Torah and is considered as if he had brought a thanksgiving offering and had rebuilt one of Jerusalem’s ruins (see Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael ch. 30).

We likewise find that when Israel reached the highest expression of its union with the Holy One, when King Shlomo stabilized the Kingdom of Israel and built the Temple, he declared a weeklong celebration for all of Israel, which he later extended for an additional week. “On the eighth day he let the people go. They bade the king goodbye and went to their homes, joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the Lord had shown to His servant David and His people Israel” (1 Melakhim 8:66). The Sages expound: “‘And went to their homes’ – [the husbands] went and found their wives in a state of purity. ‘Joyful’ – they delighted in the radiance of the Divine Presence. ‘And glad of heart’ – each and every woman conceived a boy. ‘Over all the goodness’ – a heavenly voice proclaimed to them, ‘You are all guaranteed a place in the World to Come’” (Mo’ed Katan 9a). In other words, when the Temple was built in Jerusalem, God was as happy with His people as a groom is happy with his bride, and that general sanctity spread to each individual Israelite home. Thus, the husbands returned home to find their wives pure, so they could fulfill the mitzva of ona joyfully.

Earlier, when Israel received the Torah, God commanded Moshe, “Go say to them: ‘Return to your tents’” (Devarim 5:27). The Sages explain this to mean that they were told to return to “the joy of ona” (Avoda Zara 5a). One who does not appreciate the value of this mitzva might think it was inappropriate to be involved in such things following the sublime experience of receiving the Torah. Nevertheless, God instructed otherwise: “Return to the joy of ona!” This makes clear that, on the contrary, it was specifically after absorbing the holiness revealed at the giving of the Torah that it was appropriate to joyfully fulfill the mitzva of ona. In fact, there is a parallel between the giving of the Torah and ona. The giving of the Torah was akin to a wedding between God and Israel, as the Sages expound on Shir Ha-shirim 3:11: “‘His wedding day’ refers to the giving of the Torah, while ‘His day of bliss’ refers to the building of the Temple” (Ta’anit 26b). The love and joy of this glorious wedding spilled over into every family in Israel.

This runs counter to the view of many savants of the gentile world. In their opinion, physical pleasures are rooted in the material and in sin, and are entirely detached from sacred spiritual matters. However, the unique role of Israel is to reveal the true monotheistic faith, namely, that God is the Ruler of both heaven and earth. Therefore, when husband and wife achieve union in the proper way, it discloses something of the divine. This is the meaning of the rabbinical exposition on the verse “Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud (rova) of Israel?” (Bamidbar 23:10). The Sages explain:

This teaches that God sits and counts the matings (revi’oteihem) of Israel, awaiting the arrival of the drop from which a righteous person will be formed. The wicked Bilam was blinded because of this; he said, “Would the One Who is pure and holy, and Whose servants are pure and holy, look at such a thing?!” Right away, he lost vision in one eye. (Nidda 31a)

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