11. Men Who Have Difficulty Fulfilling the Mitzva

Everything we have learned regarding the man’s duty of ona relates to healthy men, who transgress a Torah prohibition if they subtract from the set frequency for ona. If this behavior continues, it is obvious grounds for divorce, and the wife receives her ketuba payment in full (1:2 above). However, if a man’s difficulty in fulfilling the mitzva at the set times is attributable to a health problem, his only obligation is to do what the doctors deem him capable of (SA EH 76:3). Since problems often stem from specific hormone deficiencies or other medical conditions, and most of these issues are now treatable, he is obligated to consult with doctors. Occasionally, psychological or emotional problems are what cause him to forgo onot or to not make his wife as happy as he should. He must seek treatment for these issues as well. If it is a minor issue, consulting a rabbi is usually effective. If the problem is serious, he must seek the help of a God-fearing therapist who specializes in that area. If the husband neglects to deal with the problem appropriately, he negates a Torah commandment. Because he is not properly fulfilling the times of ona, his wife may file for divorce, and he must pay her ketuba in full.

If the husband has done his best to correct the problem by consulting with doctors and therapists, yet is still unable to fulfill the mitzva of ona on a regular basis, then as long as he manages to consummate their relationship at least once every six months, thus meeting the least frequent requirement for ona, namely, the practice of sailors (section 7 above), it is not grounds for divorce and payment of the ketuba. If he cannot meet even this minimum threshold, his wife can decide how to proceed. If she is willing to live with him in this state, she is permitted to do so, and if she wants to divorce, her husband must divorce her and pay her ketuba in full (SA EH 76:11). It goes without saying that even a man who cannot fully consummate their relationship must still please his wife and gladden her with kisses, embraces, and caresses that bring her to orgasm. In general, if a husband does this, even though he cannot engage in intercourse, his wife will not want to divorce him.[10]

If one’s wife is truly willing to forgo ona, her relinquishment is valid as long as her husband has already fulfilled the mitzva of procreation. However, if he has not yet fulfilled this mitzva, he is required to fulfill all the set times of ona during which there is a chance that she will get pregnant. If he is unable to fulfill his conjugal duties, he must heed the instruction of doctors to fulfill his mitzva (SA EH 76:6).

Even when the husband has already fulfilled the mitzva of procreation and the wife is willing to forgo ona, he should preferably not give up on this mitzva. Rather, he should get medical advice about what might allow him to fulfill ona properly, since that is the proper and healthy way to live. A person should try to fulfill all the mitzvot even when there is no absolute obligation to do so (such as wearing tzitzit or undertaking acts of kindness). Similarly, he should make every effort to fulfill this precious and holy mitzva, which is responsible for the Shekhina dwelling in the world in general and with the couple in particular.[11]


[10]. One of the ten ordinances instituted by Ezra the Scribe was for men to eat garlic on Friday night to help them fulfill the mitzva of ona, as garlic was considered a potency-enhancing aphrodisiac (Bava Kamma 82a). Regarding the set times of ona, SA EH 76:3 states: “The obligation of someone who is unhealthy is only what they deem him capable of.” This assessment is made by experts, meaning doctors. Today, thank God, medicinal solutions have been discovered for most such conditions. For example, sometimes a man feels no desire to be intimate with his wife because his testosterone levels are abnormally low. This can be diagnosed with a simple blood test, therefore the husband must take a testosterone supplement in order to fulfill the mitzva. Sometimes difficulties stem from blood flow problems, and there are medications for this as well. Thus, a man who cannot properly fulfill the mitzva of ona properly must see a doctor to find a cure for his condition, and if he does not do so, he neglects a Torah commandment, just as if he does not recite Shema or put on tefilin. The same applies to a woman who feels that she cannot fulfill this mitzva joyfully, as is proper.

If a man cannot fulfill even one ona every six months, his wife may file for divorce and receive payment of her ketuba in full, even if it is likely that a cure will be discovered within a few years (this emerges from Rambam, Shulḥan Arukh, and most poskim). Some say that if the doctors estimate that there is a good chance that he will become healthy in the next few years, she may not demand a divorce (Or Zaru’a; Ḥelkat Meḥokek, EH 76:18; Beit Shmuel ad loc. 17).

If the couple are elderly or even just adults who have had a good relationship for years, then even if there is no chance that the husband’s condition will improve, the beit din tries to persuade the wife to remain with her husband. However, if she still insists on a divorce, her husband is required to divorce her (Responsa Maharalbaḥ §§29-30).

Some ask whether it is permissible to use a vibrator to facilitate the wife’s orgasm when conventional methods are unsuccessful. The answer is that if on a regular basis the couple’s efforts do not succeed in bringing her to orgasm, it is a mitzva to use this device. As long as her husband is the one giving her pleasure, even if it is with the help of an external device, he is fulfilling the Torah’s commandment. Even if they can reach orgasm without using a vibrator, they are permitted to use it as they see fit. The more a man pleasures his wife, the greater his mitzva. However, it is forbidden for a man or woman to masturbate, whether manually or using devices, because sexual pleasure must be reserved for their lovemaking, and only thus is the mitzva fulfilled. When it is in the context of an individual’s urges, it is considered a sin (as explained below, 4:1 and 4:10 with n. 15).

If a man is so sensitive that he ejaculates prematurely during foreplay, he is not considered to be wasting his seed, as we learn that several Rishonim permit anal intercourse (section 18 below). In their opinion, intercourse with other parts of the body, that is, ejaculation that occurs through embracing and touching between a man and a woman, is permitted as well. This is the opinion of Orḥot Ḥayim (Hilkhot Ketubot §7); Rabbeinu Yona (Sanhedrin 58b); Tur, EH 25:2; and Rema ad loc. Even those who forbid this would agree that when it is not intentional, such as in the case of premature ejaculation, there is no prohibition. As we learn with respect to Shabbat (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat, vol. 1, 9:5), when one does not intend to so something and it is not a foregone conclusion that it will be done, there is no transgression (Rabbi Yehuda Aszod, Yehuda Ya’aleh vol. 1, YD 238; Imrei Bina vol. 4, EH 8; Imrei Esh, YD 69). However, often a man with this tendency does not manage to bring his wife pleasure properly, so he must consult with a God-fearing specialist about how to prevent this from happening.

[11]. SAH 280:2, states that if a wife is willing to forgo ona on Friday night, it is permissible to skip it, but adds that “even so, it is good to uphold it.” The Talmud recounts that R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi asked R. Shimon b.Ḥalafta why he did not come to visit during the holiday. He answered sorrowfully that old age had crept up on him: “The rocks seem higher; what had been close is now far; two have become three (meaning he now needed a cane to function as a third leg); and that which promoted peace in the home has ceased” (Shabbat 152a). Rashi explains “that which promoted peace in the home” to refer to the male sexual organ. R. Nissim Gaon says, “It refers to sexual desire, which nurtures peace between husband and wife.” See above, 1:4-6. Rav Kook writes (Mitzvat Re’aya, EH §1) that if an elderly man finds it difficult to have sexual relations, and his wife is willing to forgo ona, he must still engage in relations at least once every six months (the ona of sailors, which is the least frequent; see section 7 above).

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The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman