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Peninei Halakha > Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato > 02 – The Laws of Ona > 01. The Parameters of the Mitzva – The Pinnacle of Pleasure

01. The Parameters of the Mitzva – The Pinnacle of Pleasure

The mitzva of ona is for a man to bring pleasure and joy to his wife as best he can and to achieve complete sexual union with her, lovingly and with abundant joy (as explained in 1:2 above). Every man must fulfill this mitzva as frequently as his physical stamina and professional demands allow. For most, this means twice a week (as explained further in section 7 below). A woman, too, has a mitzva to couple with her husband and to enjoy him. The more she enjoys their sexual relations, the greater the mitzva. Their sexual union must be very joyful and pleasurable. Accordingly, the mitzva is called simḥat ona, the joy of marital sexual union. Abstaining from it is deemed a type of torment (Pesaḥim 72b; Avoda Zara 5a; 1:3 above).

The mitzva of ona is independent of the mitzva of procreation. It is fulfilled through marital sexual relations even when they cannot lead to pregnancy, such as when the wife is pregnant or nursing, or when she is after menopause (above, 1:4).

The central element of this mitzva is for the husband to bring complete joy to his wife, to the point where her joy and pleasure climax in orgasm. Short of this, their sexual relations may result in frustration, for the lead-up to orgasm builds up physical and psychological tension that is blissfully released upon orgasm. If she does not experience orgasm, her tensions and frustration will generally remain.

The wife has a mitzva to be responsive and to actively participate in the mitzva as best she can, for without her desire and efforts to increase their mutual pleasure, it is impossible to fulfill the mitzva. However, if she is so exhausted or tense that it will be difficult for her to achieve orgasm, she may choose to forgo it and suffice with sexual union that brings sweet pleasure but not complete bliss. This, too, is a fulfillment of the mitzva. Nevertheless, it is best to try to ensure that it does not happen too frequently (see below, section 12 and note 12.)

The more a husband and wife give and receive pleasure at the set times (onot) of this mitzva, the better. This is also mandated by the mitzva of “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), which entails a spouse looking out for the good of the other to the best of their ability. Since the greatest physical and emotional pleasure is that shared by husband and wife, if a man deprives his wife of this enjoyable pleasure, he is being oppressive, since there is no other man who can provide her with this joy. Likewise, a woman who deprives her husband of this enjoyable pleasure is being oppressive, since there is no one else in the world who can fill his void.

The mitzva is also called derekh eretz, “the way of the world,” since every healthy person yearns for pleasurable sexual union, the greatest palpable physical pleasure that a person can experience in this world. It is thus clear that when the Torah commanded the mitzva of ona, it means reaching orgasm, the peak of pleasure that people yearn for. If a husband or wife does not feel that yearning, they must try to heal themselves, so that their sexual union will be joyful for both of them.[1]

The kabbalists said that one who does not experience sexual longing is worse than a donkey and will never be able to love God (Reishit Ḥokhma, Sha’ar Ha-ahava, end of ch. 4), for it is only through healthy human nature, itself created by God, that one can progress in one’s love for God. Anyone who is detached from the lifegiving impulse is far from faith and sanctity, and cannot act to repair the world.

[1]. The central element of this mitzva is for the woman to reach orgasm, just as the man reaches orgasm when he ejaculates. This is what is meant by the talmudic statement “If the wife brings forth seed first, she will give birth to a male; if the husband brings forth seed first, she will give birth to a female” (Nidda 31a). The Sages explain that men prolong sexual relations so that their wives will “bring forth seed” – that is, achieve orgasm – first: “They hold themselves back in the womb so that their wives bring forth seed first, so that their children will be male” (ibid. 31b). Likewise, the Talmud explains (ibid. 71a) that this is what is meant by the phrase “the reward of progeny (lit. ‘fruit of the womb’)” (Tehilim 127:3). There are other interpretations of the phrase “brings forth seed,” but the interpretation given here is the primary one.

If the woman’s ultimate pleasure were not the essence of the mitzva, it would be difficult to understand why the Talmud assumes that the wife of an ordinary laborer would not agree to his making a lifestyle change, even one that would improve their financial situation, if the frequency of her ona would subsequently decrease (see Ketubot 62b and section 7 below). Additionally, if a woman usually derives real pleasure from sexual intimacy but does not reach orgasm, she will remain frustrated afterwards. Where is the joy in that? And if she does not even get this lesser pleasure, then her sexual relations with her husband are joyless; how then can we refer to this mitzva as simḥat ona? Moreover, it is the husband’s duty to provide for his wife’s needs. Just as he must follow social norms when providing food and clothing, so too for ona. And since orgasm is considered the primary joy of sexual relations, it is, perforce, what the mitzva requires. Not only is it the central element of the mitzva for the husband to pleasure his wife until she has an orgasm, but the more pleasure he brings her at the set times for their sexual relations, the more commendable it is, just as when one welcomes a guest, the tastier and more diverse the offerings and the better he makes the guest feel, the greater his mitzva. Therefore, when the wife is capable of reaching multiple consecutive orgasms, it enhances the mitzva. Nevertheless, couples often to not have the stamina or the desire for more than one orgasm, in which case this enhancement of the mitzva should be reserved for special occasions.

Below, in section 12, we explain that it is possible to fulfill the onot at the be-di’avad level (such as when the woman derives pleasure from intimacy but not true bliss), or under pressing circumstances when there is no pleasure. In any case, as long as the couple remains married, they may not forgo sexual relations without full, mutual consent, since sexual relations are an expression of their marital union and prevent them from sin. We have already seen (1:2) that refusing sexual union is the principal grounds for divorce.

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Editor: Nechama Unterman