10. Levels of Holiness and Mindfulness

Let us review some essentials: The mitzva of ona is unique in that its sanctity is revealed in material reality. Moreover, even physical passion and desire, which are generally inclined toward the evil impulse, are transformed by it into a mitzva and sanctified. This is an especially powerful corrective; through ona we discover that no area of life is disconnected from the divine, that the Lord is God of earth as well as heaven, and that even physical urges can connect with the sacred and even strengthen it. The mitzva of ona is similar in this way to the mitzva of living in Eretz Yisrael; through both, holiness is revealed in the world (1:5 above).

Nonetheless, since the mitzva of ona is fulfilled by means of a person’s most physical elements, where lusts and urges loom large, one is prone to being overly attracted to them, to the point that one might forget the mitzva and think only about himself instead of about his wife. This is the impurity that lurks here, the flipside of this sacred mitzva. This is not meant to discourage a person from performing the mitzva, but to encourage him to refine his intentions when fulfilling it. The Sages thus encouraged one who wishes to become holier and more pious to sanctify himself through the mitzva of ona, that is, that he should be mindful of bringing his wife as much joy as possible. Ezra the Scribe, the same person who ordained that one must immerse after sexual relations, also made two enactments to increase the love between husband and wife: that they should eat garlic, an aphrodisiac, on Friday nights, thus increasing the passion of their sexual union, and that peddlers may sell perfume and jewelry everywhere, so that wives are enticing to their husbands (Bava Kama 82a-b; 2:5 above).

It is worth considering an extraordinary idea underlying interpersonal commandments, which transforms routine aspects of life into mitzvot. When a person prepares tasty food for himself, he does not fulfill any mitzva; he is simply tending to his needs. However, when he cooks tasty food for a guest, he fulfills a mitzva. This is even truer of a couple’s intimate relationship – when they give each other pleasure, they become imbued with the sanctity of the mitzva of ona, and the Shekhina dwells with them.

As we explained above (section 3), there are two primary levels of holiness within marriage. The basic level of holiness is the upholding of a halakhic marriage, avoiding sexual transgressions and observing the laws of nidda. The higher level of holiness increases the couple’s love and unity, which brings out the depth of eternal life inherent in their relationship.

Thus far, we have taken the mainstream approach, namely, that the more a couple enjoys and gives pleasure to one another, the greater their mitzva and the holier their union. However, we must note that there are two additional approaches to the holiness of ona: Rambam’s approach and the approach of ascetic sanctity. Since there is truth in each approach, it is worth studying them. This study will also allow us to explain the primary approach in a more comprehensive and balanced way.

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