Peninei Halakha

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12. Ascetic Sanctity and Sublime Love

There is another approach as well. It agrees that there is sanctity in the sexual union of husband and wife, which causes the Shekhina to dwell with them and thereby reveals divine unity in the world, unites heaven and earth, and spreads an abundance of blessing through all the worlds. However, according to this approach, these ideas are so sublime and exalted that one must take care to fulfill the mitzva of ona out of deep love and intense longing. Ideally the mitzva should be fulfilled at the most suitable time – Friday night after midnight. For on the holy Shabbat, peace is revealed in all the worlds, making it the best time for a couple to add an abundance of blessing through their sexual union (see Zohar I 50a, 112a1; III 49b).

This approach does not minimize the value of love; rather, love is exalted and transformed into a something transcendent and yearned for. The more sublime it is, the more we yearn for it, but with a yearning that is filled with awe, respect, and refinement. The husband is like a responsible king whose every action affects the entire world, and the wife like a beautiful and noble queen, refined and sensitive, whose every good deed that she does and beautiful emotion that she feels uplifts the whole world. All the battles he fights and the heroic deeds he performs are for her; all her beauty and good deeds are for him. They are willing to give their lives to remain faithful to each other. Due to their longings and mutual respect, their spiritual union stirs them to the depths of the soul and spirit, but it need not climax in physical orgasm.

The Talmud tells of R. Eliezer:

They asked [R.Eliezer’s wife] Ima Shalom: “Why are your children so beautiful?” She said to them, “[R. Eliezer] does not talk [that is, have sexual relations] with me at the beginning of the night or the end of the night, but only at midnight. When he talks [has sexual relations] he reveals a tefaḥ and covers a tefaḥ, and it seems as though he is compelled by a demon [i.e., by fear and trepidation]. I asked him, ‘What is the reason for this?’ He answered, ‘So that I do not look at another woman, which would render my children mamzerim.’” (Nedarim 20b)

It as if R. Eliezer was saying, “If I lose my special reverence and respect for you, there would be no difference between you and another woman. Our union would not be complete, and it would damage our children, for this is a kind of spiritual adultery and mamzerut.”

Regarding the phrase “reveals a tefaḥ and covers a tefaḥ,” the commentators explain: “He would not thrust his penis during sexual relations, in order to minimize his pleasure” (Raavad; SA 240:8). This implies that his technique limited his own pleasure, but it is possible that it increased his wife’s pleasure. Another explanation of the phrase is that he would not expose too much of his skin or her skin. However, later poskim and kabbalists reject this explanation, as it goes against halakha as well as kabbalistic notions according to which a couple must be naked during intercourse (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 240:61).

The advantage of this approach is that those who follow it are not swept away by their physical urges, and their longing and yearning for union preserve their love. The disadvantage is that many desires remain unrequited and they lose the opportunity for experiences that they can sanctify through the mitzva of ona. Another serious drawback is that many people who follow this path delude themselves into believing that they are becoming holy, when in reality, they are repressing their desires, which may then find expression through unseemly thoughts and sexual transgressions. The pressure can also damage their mental health and warp the spirit.

Therefore, rabbis and educators caution young couples that even if they wish to follow this approach, they should not do so during the first years of marriage. Rather, they should behave normally and enjoy themselves naturally, in accordance with halakha. Later on, they can cautiously explore whether the ascetic approach is right for them. We must add that the destruction of the Temple and the pain of exile were key components in the formation of this approach, as we will explain below, in section 15; indeed, during the generation after the Temple’s destruction, like the post-Holocaust generation, stringencies and restrictions on the mitzva of ona proliferated.[8]

[8]. See section 15 below, where we explain that after the destruction of the Temple, the union between husband and wife was impaired, and ascetic practices proliferated. Indeed, R. Eliezer (who, as we just saw, exemplified ascetic sanctity) lived at the time of the Temple’s destruction and, together with R. Yehoshua, helped R. Yoḥanan b. Zakkai escape from Jerusalem before the destruction (Gittin 56a). Nevertheless, R. Eliezer’s opinion on this matter is rejected. This explains why the Talmud says that he acted like someone who was being compelled by a demon; the phrase implies that it was an improper way to act, as there are only negative associations with the demonic. Rather, the halakha follows R. Yehoshua, who objected to ascetic customs (Bava Batra 60b, cited below in section 15).
Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin suggests that R. Eliezer’s approach stemmed from his attribute of reverence, which is more connected to this world, thus explaining why his children were beautiful. R. Yehoshua’s approach stemmed from his inclination toward love, which is more closely linked to the next world, thus explaining why he was ugly (Ta’anit 7a). On the surface, he seemed more disconnected from sanctity (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §146). In the generation following the Holocaust, we likewise find that some rabbis and Ḥasidic rebbes practiced stringencies and added restrictions beyond what had been practiced beforehand, presumably patterning themselves on the laws applicable during times of crisis (above, 2:14).

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

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Editor: Nechama Unterman