The general state of the Jewish people affects the joy of the mitzva of ona because the sacred bond between every Jewish husband and wife parallels the bond between God and the Jewish people. The Sages explain in the Mishna that the momentous occasions on which the Jewish people became connected to God are referred to as “His wedding day” and “His day of bliss” (Shir Ha-shirim 3:11). “‘His wedding day’ refers to the giving of the Torah, and ‘His day of bliss’ refers to the building of the Temple” (Ta’anit 26b). We also find that immediately after the Jews received the Torah at Sinai, they were commanded to return to their tents, “to the joy of ona” (Avoda Zara 5a). And directly following the dedication of the Temple, the husbands returned home, joyful and in excellent spirits, and found their wives in a state of purity. They then fulfilled the mitzva of ona with tremendous joy (Mo’ed Katan 9a; above, 1:6).
In contrast, when the Jewish people distance themselves from God, the pleasure of this mitzva is diminished as well. As the Sages said, “Since the destruction of the Temple, sexual pleasure has been taken away and given to sinners” (Sanhedrin 75a). As a result of the distance between God and the Jewish people, rifts permeate all the worlds. The earth is not responsive to heaven and does not express holy values; heaven is not responsive to the earth and does not bestow life and blessing upon it. Global anguish permeates individual homes. As a result, men cannot be fully responsive to their wives’ desire, and women cannot be fully responsive to their husbands’ desire. Those people who have understood the profundity of the crisis and the anguish, and who have truly identified with the pain and tears of both God and the Jewish nation, have at times found it difficult to joyfully fulfill the mitzva of ona.
The Talmud cites R. Yishmael b. Elisha as saying that from the day that the Temple was destroyed, by rights we should have decreed upon ourselves not to eat meat or drink wine, and the day that the evil (Roman) empire conquered us and imposed on us evil and harsh measures, depriving us of Torah and mitzvot and forbidding us from celebrating circumcisions, by rights we should have decreed upon ourselves not to marry or to have children. Avraham’s line would have come to an end by itself. However, R. Yishmael concluded, the Jews should be left alone; it is better that they sin unwittingly and not willfully, as they would not be able to endure such a harsh decree (Bava Batra 60b).
The Talmud continues that after the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a proliferation in the number of Jews who abstained from eating meat or drinking wine in mourning over the cessation of the sacrifices and libations. R. Yehoshua challenged them: “So should we not eat bread, because the meal offerings have been eliminated? Should we not eat fruit, because there are no more bikkurim (first fruit offerings)? Should we not drink water, since the water libation has ceased?!” Rather, he counseled: “My children, it is impossible to avoid mourning completely, for the sentence has been decreed. But it is also impossible to mourn excessively, because we do not impose a decree on the community unless the majority can endure it” (ibid.). Thus, the Sages instituted only mourning customs that are appropriate and suitable for the community.
Therefore, even in exile, the halakhot of the mitzva of ona did not budge, for the essence of the mitzva is that it must be fulfilled joyfully, and the greater the couple’s love and joy grows, the more virtuous they are. Furthermore, the fulfillment of this mitzva ameliorates the exile somewhat, for through it a couple establish their home as a mini-Temple, as the Shekhina dwells with them when they properly fulfill this mitzva (Sota 17a). This accords with the statement of the Sages, “Wherever the Jewish people were exiled, the Shekhina, as it were, went into exile with them” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, §14). The Sages further said that by fulfilling the mitzva of procreation, people draw the redemption closer: “The (messianic) son of David will not arrive until all the souls of the body have been finished” (Yevamot 62a), that is, until all the Jewish souls in the heavenly storehouse have been born.
Thus, it is through our efforts to fulfill the mitzva of ona in accordance with halakha that we bring the redemption closer and arouse pining and yearning for the restoration of the special relationship between the Lover and the beloved, that is, between the Holy One and the congregation of Israel (Knesset Yisrael). As it is written:
For the sake of Zion I will not be silent, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still, until her righteousness emerges resplendent, and her salvation blazes like a torch…. No longer will you be called “Azuva” (“Forsaken”) nor shall your land be called “Shemama” (“Desolate”). Rather, you shall be called “Ḥeftzi-bah” (“I-delight-in-her”) and your land “Be’ula” (“Espoused”). For the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be espoused. As a youth espouses a maiden, your sons will espouse you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. (Yeshayahu 62:1, 4-5)
But those righteous ascetics, whose hearts were so filled with anguish over the Temple’s destruction, could not make do with the mini-Temple which remained to the Jewish people. In their sorrow, they could not fulfill the mitzva of ona with the appropriate joy (see 2:14 above). Therefore, even as they scrupulously fulfilled the mitzva – aware of its value and importance, and aware that through it they were bringing the redemption closer – they reduced its frequency to the necessary minimum, just enough to uphold the sanctity of marriage and fulfill the mitzva of procreation. Occasionally, their customs are cited by the poskim.
Nevertheless, as explained in the Talmud and halakhic literature, the general directive stands. The way to fulfill the mitzva of ona halakhically is with great joy. The more pleasure a husband and wife give each other in this mitzva, the more praiseworthy they are. At the same time, it is natural that despite the wish to fulfill the mitzva in the most complete way, the global pain caused by the exile of the Jews and the Shekhina clouds the joy of the mitzva. Yet the more we merit seeing the Jewish people return to their land, the more the joy of this mitzva is restored, as it is written:
And the Lord’s redeemed shall return, and come with shouting to Zion, crowned with joy everlasting. They shall attain joy and gladness, while sorrow and sighing flee. (Yeshayahu 35:10)
May it be God’s will that we all together merit seeing the ingathering of all exiles and the rebuilding of entire breadth and width of the land. May our eyes behold the return of God to Zion, the restoration of the Davidic dynasty to its rightful place, and the rebuilding of the Temple. Heaven and earth will unite, as will duty and desire, truth and joy, vision and reality, body and soul. “And on that day, declares the Lord, you will call Me ‘Ishi’; you will no longer call Me ‘Ba’ali’” (Hoshea 2:18). Knesset Yisrael will call the Holy One “Ishi” instead of “Ba’ali,” by the term for husband that means “man” instead of “master,” thus emphasizing love that has no element of compulsion. God’s continues, through His prophet:
I will betroth you forever; I will betroth you with righteousness and in justice, and with goodness and mercy. And I will betroth you with faithfulness; then you shall know the Lord. On that day I will respond (e’eneh – from the same root as ona), declares the Lord, I will respond (e’eneh) to the heavens, and they shall respond (ya’anu) to the earth. And the earth shall respond (ta’aneh) with new grain and wine and oil, and they shall respond (ya’anu) to Jezreel. I will seed her in the land as My own; and I shall have compassion on Lo-Ruḥama (No-Compassion); and I will say to Lo-Ami (Not-My-People), ‘You are My people,’ and he will respond, ‘My God.’” (Hoshea 2:18-25)
God will rejoice over us as a groom rejoices over his bride, and the joy of the mitzva of ona will be restored in all its glory.
Zohar III 118a, states:
For happiness exists only when Israel is in the Holy Land, for there the wife achieves union with her Husband, which is a joy to all, joy above and below. When Israel is not in the Holy Land, one is forbidden to be or appear happy, as it says, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad in her, all who love her” (Yeshayahu 66:10). It is specifically with her that you may be glad.
It is important to add that after the Temple was destroyed and the laws of ritual purity rendered moot, all the immersions related to the Temple were eliminated. The only circumstance where purification of the human body remains relevant is the immersion of a nidda to purify herself so she can resume sexual intimacy with her husband. Thus, to some extent, a Jewish home is a mini-Temple.