Peninei Halakha

03. The Man’s Mitzva

A few hours before having sexual relations, a husband should express his love for his wife and his eager anticipation of their upcoming intimacy. Doing so will correspondingly arouse his wife, filling her with love and desire. They should both take care during these hours not to broach subjects likely to lead to an argument, or subjects that are a source of stress for either one of them, so as not to derogate from the joy of the mitzva. The Sages state that whoever raises a subject that could ruin the joy of the mitzva will have to answer for it in the future. Thus, commenting upon the verse, “For behold, He forms mountains and creates winds; He reveals his words (siḥo) to a person” (Amos 4:13), the Talmud informs us that God holds us responsible even for “excess words (siḥa) between husband and wife” (Ḥagiga 5a, following the interpretation of Raavad; Baḥ, OḤ 280:2).

As the couple becomes intimate, it is a mitzva for the husband to tell his wife how much he loves her. He should not hold back any compliment – about her beauty, her character, and whatever else he knows will bring her joy (Zohar I 49b; Tikkunei Zohar 57:1). This does not mean he should make things up; rather, after thinking about how deeply he loves his wife, he should offer truthful compliments. One may stretch the truth a bit, however, for it is only due to our own shortcomings that we fail to see that our hyperboles are closer to the truth than we realize (see Ketubot 17a).

Included in the mitzva are embracing, kissing, and caressing anywhere that is pleasurable, and in any way that is enjoyable. The mitzva is to proceed gradually, from areas where touch is pleasant to the erogenous zones, until finally reaching the clitoris, where touch produces the most arousal and pleasure. Every woman should know her body so that, if necessary, she can teach her husband how to bring her pleasure. Since every person is different, part of the mitzva is for the couple to openly discuss what gives them pleasure; the husband should ask his wife how he can increase her joy, and she will respond and open up to him. And having aroused her to a state of intense pleasure, they proceed to the consummation of their sexual union.

For most couples, it is best for the husband to try to enable his wife to reach orgasm before him, for otherwise, there is concern that he will be drained of desire and unable to bring her joy as he should. It should be noted that in the past, apparently, in most circumstances, women could achieve orgasm during coitus itself, whereas nowadays, for various reasons, many women do not reach orgasm during coitus, only through manual stimulation of the clitoris. In that case, this is how to perform the mitzva, and from this they proceed to the consummation of their sexual union.

It has always been a virtue of Torah scholars and Torah-oriented Jews that they bring joy to their wives, as is proper. For that reason, the Sages admonish fathers not to marry off their daughters to coarse ignoramuses (amei ha-aretz): “If one marries his daughter to an am ha’aretz, it is as if he has left her tied up in front of a lion. Just like a lion attacks and devours its prey with no shame, so, too, an am ha’aretz beats and penetrates his wife shamelessly” (Pesaḥim 49b). In other words, just as a lion devours its prey and begins eating while it is still alive, so an am ha’aretz penetrates his wife in order to satisfy his own urges and does not delay so that his wife can experience pleasure and joy as well.[3]

[3]. Zohar (I 49b) addresses the issue of compliments: “A man who wishes to be intimate with his wife must ask her permission and speak to her in a way that makes her happy. If he does not, he should not sleep with her. This is to ensure that their desire is mutual and there is no coercion…. He should show her affection and draw her toward his desire, becoming aroused with her lovingly…in order to show her that they are united and that nothing comes between them. After that, he should praise her, telling her that there is no other woman like her, and that she is the glory of the home…as it says, ‘Many women have done well, but you surpass them all’ (Mishlei 31:29).” Tikkunei Zohar (§21, 57a) presents this approach as well, adding that on Shabbat, additional compliments should be given on account of the sanctity of the day. Elsewhere Zohar (II 259b) states that “there are two aspects of intimacy – kissing and the act of intimacy itself, one above and one below. The one above is to add an abundance of spirituality above, and the one below is to add an abundance of life below, each according to what is appropriate for it.” Elsewhere Tikkunei Zohar (§10, 25b) points out that kissing involves four lips, corresponding to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, and embracing involves four arms, corresponding to the four letters of the name Adonai (alef-dalet-nun-yud; Lord).

Among the advice that R. Ḥisda gives his daughters in Shabbat 140b is the following: “[Your husband will want to] hold the pearl in one hand and the basket in the other. Show them the pearl, but not the basket, until he aches. Only then should you show it to him.” Rashi explains: “When your husband caresses you to arouse desire for intercourse, he will fondle your breasts with one hand and ‘that place’ (the vagina) with the other. Offer him your breasts, so that his passion will intensify, but do not rush to offer the place of penetration, so that his passion and affection build and he aches. Then offer it to him.” R. Elazar of Worms writes similarly: “They should embrace and kiss…. He should engage in foreplay by fondling and with all kinds of embrace, to fulfill his desire and hers” (Sefer Ha-roke’aḥ, Hilkhot Teshuva 14). Other Rishonim and Aḥaronim write similarly.

The notion that some men must fulfill the mitzva by manual stimulation, even for ten minutes and beyond, is not mentioned in the halakhic literature. There are two apparent reasons for this. a) It stands to reason that during an era when people slept about ten hours each night (see Rambam, MT, Laws of Dispositions 4:4) and lived with less stress and tension, almost all women reached orgasm and the peak of joy during the conjugal act itself. Similarly, we learn that in the past all women sensed their uteruses open at the onset of menstruation, to the extent that Shulḥan Arukh mentions this as something well known (YD 183:1). Nowadays, most women do not experience this sensation (see Harḥavot). b) Since the mitzva is for a man to give his wife as much pleasure as he can, it is self-evident that if manual stimulation of the erogenous zone gives her greater pleasure, then that is the mitzva. There was no reason to write this down because the couple must naturally learn how to fulfill the mitzva. This is why it is called “derekh eretz” – the way of the world (as explained in the next section). In other words, the mitzva is for husband and wife to be open and honest with one another and for giving each other as much pleasure as they can. It can be assumed that within a relatively short time, they will become familiar with the woman’s erogenous zones and take pleasure from it. If they find that this brings the wife to orgasm, they will understand that this is what the mitzva entails for them.

As we saw earlier, R. Ḥisda discussed the subject with his daughters. It is evident from this that people spoke about these matters more openly in the past. (See below, 3:12 and 3:15, where we explain that asceticism and withdrawal increased as a result of the Temple’s destruction and the prolonged exile. It is important to clarify that when Zohar and kabbalistic writings speak of the importance of kissing, embracing, and having sexual relations, their purpose is not to serve as a practical guide to fulfilling the mitzva, which is a relatively simple matter, but to teach us that such actions correspond to profound and sublime notions, and sexual relations are a readily available allegory for teaching about the sublime.)

During foreplay, typically the husband will likely experience a small discharge of fluid. This is not considered a “waste of seed.” Although some are stringent about this based on Kabbala (Pri Etz Ḥayim, Sha’ar Keri’at Shema al Ha-mita ch. 11; Ben Ish Ḥai, Pekudei §13), the primary concern, according to Kabbala, is that the husband must not withdraw from sexual union until he has finished ejaculating every last drop of semen (Sha’ar Ha-kavanot, Inyan Derushei Ha-layla; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 240:6; Darkhei Tahara 22:11). Even this is technically not prohibited, as evident from the view of most Rishonim that after the first time a couple has marital sexual relations, he may withdraw while still erect (SA YD 193:1; Sho’el Ve-nishal 3:424; see Olat Yitzḥak 2:242). With regard to premature ejaculation even before intercourse, see the end of n. 10 below.

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