Peninei Halakha

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07. Mental and Spiritual Health

It is important to add that joyful fulfillment of the mitzva of ona improves one’s mental health and well-being. God created human beings with different drives, with the sex drive prominent among them. While not everyone is the same with regard to this drive – some experience it more intensely, and some less – everyone has it. Someone who does not feel it at all suffers from an emotional handicap. For most people, the sex drive is the strongest drive of all. Repressing it can distort and pervert the psyche, making it hard for that person to fulfill their purpose as a human being. This is what the Sages meant when they said, “Any man without a wife is not a man (adam), as it states (Bereishit 5:2), ‘Male and female He created them. He blessed them and called them Adam’” (Yevamot 63a). Since the sex drive is so powerful, it is difficult to resist. This is why the Torah had to give us so many mitzvot aimed at regulating and channeling it.

Some men and women mistakenly believe that by suppressing this inclination and minimizing their onot, they will become holier and more spiritual. However, this may very well backfire, for sometimes if a person does not allow this drive to be expressed within the framework of halakha, and instead adds limitations that the Torah does not require, it can result in severe sins of sexual transgressions. Therefore, if a man naturally needs more times of ona than those set by the Sages, he should not try to suppress his needs and behave like everyone else. Similarly, if a woman senses that her husband requires more ona times, she should encourage him to add more, since that is appropriate and good for him, and allows him to retain his holiness. But, if he suppresses his needs and ignores what is right for him, his evil inclination is likely to urge him to get involved with other women or even young girls. It is known that men who commit adultery and rape minors are often undergoing an extended period of time without regular, healthy sexual relations.[4]

At the higher level of sanctity, this drive is channeled into the sacred framework of marriage so that it increases love and joy. The couple can thus connect with the very root of life; when they fulfill the mitzva of ona, they draw down a divine spark and reveal it to the world. As R. Akiva said, “If husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhina is with them” (Sota 17a; see also Zohar Ra’aya Mehemna III 34a). This explains what the kabbalists meant when they wrote that one who does not feel this urge is inferior to a donkey because he lacks the ability to fully understand anything, and he can never truly love God (Reishit Ḥokhma, Sha’ar Ha-ahava, end of ch. 4).

We have learned (1:5 above) that the foundation of the Jewish faith is discovering the world’s ultimate unity, and that the mitzva of ona, when fulfilled with an abundance of love and desire, reveals unity within the world. It is through this passion that two completely distinct individuals become one. Body and soul take part in the mitzva together. Even the evil inclination is transformed for the better and unites with the good inclination to enhance the couple’s joy and love. The result is that they are able to connect to the Source of life, refine their faith, and actively work for the perfection and redemption of the world. Something within them unites with the divine spark, from which new life is brought forth. Thus, they become God’s partners in bringing a new soul to the world (Nidda 31a).

[4]. Of those men who cheat on their wives and commit adultery, many start after an extended period of time in which they did not observe the times of ona regularly, such as during pregnancy and after birth, and when their wives canceled the set times of ona on account of minor health issues. Even the crimes of adultery, incest, and rape of minors can sometimes be prevented by regular sexual relations. This is another reason why it is important to observe the mitzva of ona in accordance with halakha – the set times of ona as well as any additional times when one spouse wishes to be intimate (see above, 2:7-8). Only if both husband and wife wholeheartedly agree to forgo one or more times of ona, is it not deemed sinful. Even then, they are missing out on a mitzva.

At first glance, we learn something that indicates the opposite, that repression of the sex drive is what enables one to overcome it: “R. Yoḥanan said: Man has a small limb (i.e., the penis). When he starves it, it is satisfied; when he feeds it, it is hungry” (Sukka 52b). Along the same lines, Raavad asks (Sha’ar Ha-kedusha, cited by Tur, EH §25): When discussing human sexual desire, how could the Sages say (in Sota 47a) that one should draw the sexual impulse close with the right hand and push it away with the left hand? The Sages themselves established obligatory times of ona. How then can we reduce their frequency, pushing them away with our left hand? Raavad answers that the Sages’ statement refers only to the set ona for tayalim, namely, every night (see 2:7 above); in this context the Sages recommend a small reduction in frequency, by mutual consent, so that the couple does not have sexual relations every night. Rather, it is better “to stand up to one’s inclination, and not gratify every urge; he should reject it with one hand and welcome it with the other. He should not reject it completely lest his battle to overcome his impulses cause him to neglect his conjugal duties.” Raavad offers a second explanation as well: The Sages’ statement refers to someone who wants to have relations more frequently than dictated by the mitzva of ona – such a person is to welcome his desire with the right hand and reject it with the left, so that he does not gratify his every urge. As explained in Tosafot on Sukka 52b, “When he feeds it” refers to someone who indulges his sexual urges frequently, day and night. This would not leave him satisfied, but hungry for more, as he becomes addicted to the stimulation. Like a drug addict, a sex addict cannot function without a fix. Furthermore, to continue experiencing satisfaction, the addict must occasionally increase the dosage. This type of sexual intercourse is no longer an expression of love, merely an attempt to satisfy an insatiable addiction. This is what the Sages meant when they said, “When he starves it, it is satisfied; when he feeds it, it is hungry.” However, it is forbidden to “starve it” in a way that undermines the Torah commandment of ona – at the set frequency as well as any additional times when one spouse is particularly aroused.

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