God created man and woman to yearn for one another naturally. This sexual attraction is a good thing; indeed it is the foundation of the mitzva of ona. The Sages declare: “The way of the world (derekh eretz) preceded the Torah” (Tanna De-vei Eliyahu Rabba 1). That is, God commanded human beings to give full expression to their natural desires within the sacred framework of marriage. If people stifled their natural desires, they would not be able to fulfill the mitzva properly, nor would they be able to fulfill other mitzvot fully.
- Yoḥanan states, “Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat (which defecates in private and covers its excrement), honesty from the ant (which does not steal food from other ants), fidelity from the dove (which has monogamous relationships), and derekh eretz from the rooster, which first soothes and only then mates” (Eruvin 100b). By “soothes” R. Yoḥanan means that the rooster courts, coaxes, and seduces the hen before mating with her.
This means that there are moral principles that a person must grasp simply, through his heart and his conscience, as dictated by the natural morality that God implanted in all creatures and that even wild beasts follow. The Torah adds layers of fastidiousness, consistency, and sanctity upon this healthy natural foundation, but if a person does not instinctively grasp these values, he is lacking something basic.
The Sages tell us that it is possible to learn how to fulfill the mitzva of ona from the rooster, an animal known for its prodigious mating habits and for its expertise in the art of courtship and seduction. It is no coincidence that one of the Hebrew words for rooster is “gever,” which also means “man”. The Sages go on to interpret the rooster’s actions anthropomorphically: When he flaps his wings up and down in a broad arc, he is, as it were, promising the hen that after they mate, he will buy her a long beautiful coat that reaches the ground. After he finishes mating, he bows its head and lowers its crest in a humble pose, as if to apologize for lacking the money to buy her the coat he promised. It looks like he is swearing on the life of his glorious crest that it should be cut off should he come into money yet not buy her the coat (Eruvin 100b).
The Sages wish to teach us here that a husband should not hold back when it comes to praising and complimenting his wife for her beauty, her character, and all the good things she says and does. It is even appropriate to stretch the truth a bit, like the rooster who makes a promise that it knows it cannot keep but thereby acknowledges his love and esteem for her, saying that this is what she truly deserves. Moreover, after marital sexual relations, a man should not act like those husbands who lose interest in their wives, turn their backs, and fall asleep. Rather, he should apologize to his wife for his limitations, which do not allow him to adequately express the love and affection she deserves.
Another principle of derekh eretz that can be learned from the natural world is that it is generally the man who must initiate intimacy, as his desire is more external and obvious, and becomes apparent relatively quickly and easily. Through his passionate arousal, his wife will respond in kind and become aroused by him. These are only general guidelines, and every couple must consummate their union however their joy is maximized (n. 4 below), yet even when one spouse is disappointed by the process of courtship and seduction, they may not abrogate the set times of ona (sections 7-8 below).
It is also important to mention in the context of derekh eretz that sexual relations are often compared to a banquet (Nedarim 20b), to teach us that just as the table is set for a banquet with a nice tablecloth, a full complement of silverware and dishes, and glasses for both wine and other beverages, and just as a banquet has appetizers, desserts, and courses in between, so too we must invest this much and more in preparing for marital sexual relations, which are a mitzva of the Torah. We must proceed patiently and gradually so that the union is consummated in complete joy. Just as it is good for banquets to vary the menu from time to time, because even the most delicious food can get boring if served too often, so too the compliments that the husband pays his wife and the ways he brings joy and pleasure to his wife should be varied. Everything must be in accordance with her desires; some people are more adventurous when it comes to trying new items on the menu, and others prefer the familiar, set menu.
It should go without saying that derekh eretz includes maintaining personal hygiene and removing anything unsightly or likely to be off-putting. Getting rid of things which are off-putting is obligatory, while going above and beyond is admirable. This applies equally to both women and men. R. Ḥisda instructed his daughters before they got married to avoid foods that would give them bad breath or upset their stomachs (Shabbat 140b). Proper hygiene is so important that neglecting it is considered grounds for divorce. (See SA EH 154:1-2.) There are many guidelines and laws for specific cases, but the general rule is that since people differ, both husband and wife must be attentive and sensitive to what may bother the other. This is even truer when it comes to things which are generally viewed as disgusting.