12. Women Who Have Difficulty Fulfilling the Mitzva

As we learned (section 1 above), the essence of the mitzva is for a husband to pleasure his wife and give her as much joy as he can, until she reaches orgasm. However, this is not in the hands of the husband alone; sometimes, despite his best efforts, his wife will not reach orgasm. There can be various reasons which may account for this. As we already learned (section 2), a woman’s spiritual, psychological, and physical selves are more integrated than a man’s, so when a woman is preoccupied or exhausted, or if she does not recognize the value of the mitzva, it is possible that all attempts will fail to bring her to orgasm. On the contrary, the effort may well leave her frustrated and sad, because as pleasure builds toward its climax, it produces a great physical and psychological yearning to reach orgasm and the release that accompanies it. When that has not been fulfilled, it leaves profound frustration. If a woman repeatedly experiences this frustration, she might prefer to forgo the attempt to have an orgasm altogether, in order to avoid the despondency that follows failure.

Therefore, when a woman knows that it will be difficult for her to reach orgasm, she can forgo the attempt and still enjoy the pleasant gratification that accompanies the conjugal act itself. To that end, her husband must pleasure her gently, and she should be responsive to him and receive him lovingly. This way they can fulfill the mitzva on a be-di’avad level. As long as they usually succeed in fulfilling the mitzva le-khatḥila, wherein the wife reaches orgasm, and only occasionally rely on what is permitted be-di’avad, this is natural and normal, and they should not feel bad about it at all. But they should make every effort to ensure that this does not happen often.

When the situation is not as good, and the wife usually does not reach orgasm, the couple must figure out the reason and find a solution. Sometimes the problem stems from exhaustion or stress, in which case they must adjust their lifestyles so that they are more balanced: reducing stress, getting more sleep, or at least making sure to get enough sleep in anticipation of intimacy. Sometimes, the problem occurs early in married life, when a couple has not yet learned how to bring the wife to orgasm, in which case they must learn how to fulfill the mitzva properly. They should not neglect the problem, since this mitzva is no less holy than the other mitzvot. Of course, if the wife knows that something specific will be more enjoyable for her, she should not be embarrassed to tell her husband.

If, despite all efforts, a husband is unsuccessful in pleasuring his wife and bringing her to orgasm, it is a mitzva for him to consult a rabbi or specialist, or for her to consult a rabbanit or a specialist. Sometimes simple suggestions can solve the problem, in which case a rabbi or rabbanit can help. Sometimes it is necessary to delve deeper into the internal barriers to their union, and sometimes the barrier is the result of a medical condition, in which case it is necessary to consult a specialist. In any case, the couple has an obligation to treat the problem so that they can fulfill the mitzva properly.

In the meantime, while they are trying to resolve the problems, they must make sure to keep to the regular frequency of ona. As long as the wife gains some pleasure from intercourse itself or from the associated embraces and caresses, then even though their situation is be-di’avad, they are still fulfilling the mitzva. But if the wife does not experience even this pleasure, the situation is grave. They must continue to have intercourse on a regular basis, thereby upholding the covenant of their marriage, but they are fulfilling only the bare minimum of the mitzva, as when a mitzva is fulfilled under extenuating circumstances. However, as we have said, this must not suffice for them; they are obligated to seek help and to consult with experts so that they can fulfill the mitzva le-khatḥila. For when the wife does not enjoy the mitzva, she is left feeling empty, and it is also very hurtful to her husband, as he, too, is prevented from experiencing the most profound joy. Instead of his desire to be intimate with his wife being received joyfully and leading to a wholesome and noble union, he is left lonely and miserable; his sexual desire seems like a contemptible lust that forces him to have sex with his wife in order to satisfy his urges and avoid sin.

Nevertheless, if they made every effort but did not manage to find a remedy for their condition, they should still make sure to have sexual relations on a regular basis, fulfilling the mitzva under these extenuating circumstances. The kindness and compassion that they have for one another and their fulfillment of their moral obligations toward one another, as the Torah commands, will sanctify their marriage covenant.[12]


[12]. There are three levels in the fulfillment of this mitzva: a) The primary mitzva, wherein the husband pleasures his wife until she reaches orgasm; b) be-di’avad, when the woman enjoys sexual relations but does not climax; for those who practice ascetic sanctity, when the wife is in complete agreement, this, too, is considered le-khatḥila (3:12 below); c) under extenuating circumstances, when the woman derives no pleasure, but she and her husband have sexual relations in order to fulfill their marital covenant and in order to prevent the husband from sinning, which is the lowest purpose for fulfilling the mitzva (3:3 below), although there is still holiness (3:5 below). As long as they are married, husband and wife may not forgo a set ona time unless there is full mutual consent, because the onot give expression to their marital union. We have already seen (1:2) that refusing intimacy is the principal grounds for divorce, for it goes against the very reason for marrying. Only if a woman has a very compelling reason may she, with rabbinic consent, forgo one of the set times of ona (see note 6 above). Pregnancy and nursing are not considered compelling reasons, unless a doctor has given special instructions in her particular case. It must be emphasized that one should avoid going to doctors who make light of the mitzva of ona, and who irresponsibly instruct their patients to refrain from intercourse, or who do not make efforts to find remedies for women whose excessive bleeding renders them prohibited to their husbands. The Sages tell us that King David was so pious that he was willing to forgo the honor due a king, sullying his hands with blood from the amniotic sac and the placenta in order to be able to render a woman pure and permitted to her husband (Berakhot 4a). In contrast, these doctors, whose job this is, cavalierly separate husbands and wives. Therefore, even when a couple receive medical instruction to abstain from sexual relations, the couple should consult with a respected rabbi regarding how to proceed. Sometimes it is necessary to switch doctors, and sometimes, when the doctor is God-fearing and reliable, they must consider whether it would be proper to have anal sexual relations (see section 18 below; Rema, EH 25:2). Often, affairs and betrayals begin when a couple is not having sexual relations regularly, such as while the wife is pregnant or nursing (3:7 below, and n. 4).

Some women suffer from fear of intercourse (genophobia) or conditions like vaginismus and vestibulodynia, which make them unable to have sexual intercourse or make it painful, with varying degrees of pain, even if technically possible. These issues have become more common in recent times, affecting up to ten percent of women. It seems to stem, in part, from the tension between permissiveness and natural bashfulness, such that a traumatic experience, in which a woman is pressured by prevailing norms into overcoming her sense of privacy, can generate or exacerbate such problems.

According to halakha, when a woman cannot have sexual relations with her husband, it is grounds for divorce, and her husband is exempt from paying her ketuba and its supplements, since the basic premise of marriage is not being fulfilled (see SA EH 117:2; Piskei Din Rabbaniyim vol. 4, p. 325). If a woman allows her husband to have sexual relations with her at the set times but suffers from them, then since he cannot be happy with her as is accepted and appropriate, he has the right to divorce her, but he must pay her ketuba (see Beit Shmuel, EH 117:9). However, this need not lead to divorce, since it is almost always possible to solve the problem so that she can reach orgasm normally. Unfortunately, many women who suffer from these conditions do not understand the severity of the problem. It seems that their physical difficulty combines with an emotional obstruction, to the extent that they think that physical intimacy is not important. To their thinking, if their husbands have a hard time with that, they must overcome their urges and not hound their wives. They do not realize that had their husbands known about this issue from the start, they probably would have called off the wedding. These wives are also oblivious to the fact that if the problem persists, the chances are that sooner or later, it will lead to divorce. In mild cases, realizing the importance of the mitzva and acknowledging the deleterious effect that the problem has on the marriage enables the woman to overcome the problem without outside intervention. In more severe cases, this awareness allows her to understand the importance of seeking treatment and gives her the courage to follow the instructions of doctors and therapists until the root of the problem is found and it is then resolved.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

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