There are two levels in the sanctity of marriage. The basic level is when a couple upholds their marriage vows, remaining faithful and not betraying each other. The higher level is when a couple also tries to deepen their love, makes efforts to please and satisfy each other to the best of their ability, and intend to have children and raising them for a life of Torah and mitzvot. The more mindful and intentional they are, the higher they rise through the levels of sanctity.
Raavad writes that there are four types of intention one can have for the mitzva of ona, three of which are commendable, and one which is a lesser form of intention, though the mitzva is still fulfilled. The motivations are: 1) to bring joy and satisfaction to one’s spouse through sexual intimacy; 2) to fulfill the mitzva of procreation; 3) during pregnancy, to intend for the loving and joyful sexual union to make the unborn child healthy, energetic, and good-natured (Nidda 31a; see also 1:4 above). The fourth motivation is less admirable, but it still involves fulfilling the mitzva of ona and receiving reward for it: a man has sexual relations with his wife because he senses his sexual drive overpowering him, so that he does not lust after other women (Raavad, Ba’alei Ha-nefesh, Sha’ar Ha-kedusha; Tur §240). This type of intention is the most basic level of marital sanctity, whereas the first three belong to the higher level, as we will explain.
The basic level of sanctity is the faithful preservation of the marital covenant. Even if each spouse is more interested in satisfying their own drives than giving their spouse pleasure, as long as they do not betray one another, there is sanctity in their marriage. As the Sages said, “If husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhina is with them; if they are not, fire consumes them” (Sota 17a). Rashi explains: “‘If they are worthy’ – they walk the straight and narrow; neither he nor she commits adultery.”
Accordingly, the marital bond between husband and wife is called “kiddushin,” which is related to the word “kadosh,” sacred. The wording of the berakha recited upon kiddushin is as follows:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot, and has commanded us concerning forbidden unions, forbidding betrothed women to us and permitting to us the women to whom we are wedded by means of ḥuppa and kiddushin. Blessed are You, Lord, Who sanctifies His people Israel by means of ḥuppa and kiddushin.
Moreover, even if someone initially got married to gratify his desires, if he adheres to the framework of a halakhic marriage, over time he will progress toward a deeper love. It stands to reason that he will undergo a crisis when his initial passion wanes, but his loyalty to halakha and his marriage vows will save him from being unfaithful. He will therefore be able to deepen his relationship with his wife, connecting to her with love and great joy, and ascending to the second level of sanctity in marriage.
The higher level of sanctity is that of those who achieve unity through true love. In the case of a husband, the more he thinks about his wife’s well-being, the higher he ascends in this sanctity. In order for him to want to pleasure his wife, their sexual union must be enjoyable for him, too (section 14 below), though his primary goal remains bringing his wife pleasure. Should a conflict arise between his own desires and what his wife enjoys, he prioritizes her enjoyment over satisfying his desire. The same applies to the wife; the more she considers the well-being of her husband and brings him joy through her passion, the higher she ascends in sanctity.
The two levels of marriage reflect the two meanings of the word “kadosh” (“sacred”): a) separate and distinct, and b) transcendent, eternal, and divine. When a marriage is at the basic level, the husband and wife separate themselves from all the other men and women in the world. When a marriage is at the higher level, the couple’s intimate connection reveals the spark that is divine, eternal, and transcendent.