When the present volume, Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato, was first published in Hebrew five years ago, it posed a dilemma that we had not faced before. On one hand, it is very much a part of the Peninei Halakha series in terms of its style and its general approach to Jewish law. On the other hand, it treats topics that, due to considerations of modesty, are not usually addressed in public. At the time, we decided to publish it as a stand-alone volume and not include it in Hebrew sets of Peninei Halakha. God willing, when there are enough English volumes of Peninei Halakha to release as a set, we will have to decide whether to include this volume therein.
The book is titled “Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato” (“The Joy and Blessing of the Home”) because it explains the mitzva of ona – marital intimacy and its attendant rights and duties – and the essence of the mitzva is simḥa – joy – as the Sages refer to it as “simḥat ona” (Pesaḥim 72b; Avoda Zara 5a). “Bayit”, “the home”, refers to the family, while “Birkhato”, “blessing”, refers to the mitzva to procreate, a mitzva that this book treats extensively. These two mitzvot, ona and procreation, are linked to one another, as one is fulfilled by means of the other.
Originally, I thought that if I ever had the privilege to write about these issues, I would do so in my old age, with the hope that I would be less bashful about it. However, over the last few years, my wife and I have become aware of the lack of proper guidance available to engaged couples and newlyweds. The absence of proper guidance leads to needless pain and frustration precisely where there should be joy and love. Pre-wedding classes spend a great deal of time on the details of the laws of nidda and their precautionary distancing measures (harḥakot) while giving very short shrift to the mitzva of ona.
My wife likes to illustrate the problem with the following comparison. Imagine that a young woman approaches an older woman and asks to be taught how to cook for Shabbat. The older woman agrees and teaches her how to sift flour, how to check vegetables and legumes for bugs, and how to check eggs for bloodspots. She explains that the laws of meat and milk have relevance not only to cooking but even to cutting onions. She goes over the laws concerning bishul akum, ḥalav akum, and gelatin. She concludes with advice about buying food that meets the highest kosher standards. She leaves out only one thing: how to cook tasty food that makes Shabbat enjoyable. Moreover, she mistakenly believes that keeping kosher (which, of course, is very important) automatically results in enjoying Shabbat. That the food is undercooked and bland is no problem at all for her, for she believes that our purpose in life is to suffer to sanctify God’s name.
Similarly, there are pre-wedding teachers who tell brides- and grooms-to-be that keeping the laws of family purity in all their complexity results automatically in a holy home. It is true that the laws of family purity are a prerequisite for the mitzva of ona, but it is the intimate connection and joy associated with the mitzva of ona that give expression to life’s holiness.
The problem we have described leads to a terrible disconnection between holiness and life, truth and goodness, duty and joy. This breach was meant to be mended through the general mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself” as well as the specific mitzva of ona. So in the winter of 5774 (2013-2014), I found the necessary courage to write about the laws of ona and the reasons behind them. This naturally led me to clarify the laws pertaining to procreation as well. This book was thus written first and foremost for rabbis and teachers of pre-wedding classes to brides- and grooms-to-be, though it is also for couples who want their family lives to be illuminated by the guidance, happiness, and light of the Torah.
I freely admit that some of my teachers and friends advised me to forgo writing and publishing this material, or at least make it less explicit. Most of them were worried about the fallout for me, and a few felt that it is inappropriate to elaborate in writing about intimate topics. But there is much misunderstanding and misinformation circulating among the general public, which casts our holy Torah in a negative light, as if its goal is to minimize the joy of ona. Therefore, I felt it necessary to present the position of our holy Torah clearly, in accordance with the Sages and poskim. Doing so will protect our holy Torah from this slander, and will also protect our dear couples, men and women, from the pain and inadequacy caused by the misinformation. It is worth noting that the distortions of our Torah result from misunderstanding our Sages, Zohar, and kabbalists. These misunderstandings can be traced to the influence of views, espoused by classic Christianity, that consider celibacy an ideal.
To dispel these distortions of the Torah, it seems that I have to disregard the advice of my friends and publish the material. Yet I remain concerned that what I write might be understood only partially and superficially by those who are not familiar with the world of Torah and halakha. My primary goal is for this book to be studied within batei midrash and within holy and modest Jewish homes. Through the relief and joy that will enter these homes thanks to the Torah’s guidance, the holy light of the Jewish people will burst through like the dawn. With God’s help, the book will circulate, and its ideas will spread slowly but steadily, bringing healing and joy to the whole world.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Rav Maor Cayam, who teaches in Yeshivat Har Bracha, and who was involved and supportive throughout. With his talents and diligence, he greatly expanded the scope of the sources, which helped clarify various topics and served as a basis for many of the central ideas of the book. He also worked very hard preparing the supplemental volume (Harḥavot), which provides further sources and explanations of the material. I would also like to thank R. Bar’el Shevach, who helped to clarify many issues.
I am grateful to the following rabbis, who kindly agreed to review the first chapters and added their comments. Rav Yoel Katan, who was my adviser in my youth, and his wife, Dr. Hanna Katan, who is a gynecologist, are experts in the subjects of this book and contributed to it. Rav Yehoshua Shapira, head of the hesder yeshiva in Ramat Gan, contributed as well. He and his wife together guide couples in the paths of holiness and happiness, helping them to cope with the range of difficulties that may arise. Rav Yehuda Brandes made enlightening and edifying comments to the first chapters. He also encouraged me by reminding me what the Sages say about King Solomon: Shlomo wrote Shir Ha-shirim when he was young, Mishlei when he was middle-aged, and Kohelet when he was old (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 1:10); evidently, the Sages did not feel that it was necessary to delay writing about sexual matters until one is old. I especially want to thank my brother, Rav Yisrael Melamed. In addition to his educational work, he is also a couples’ therapist and helps couples with difficulties related to fulfilling the mitzva of ona. His enlightening, insightful, and in-depth comments on the first four chapters were extremely helpful.
I thank all the teachers of the yeshiva. In addition to reviewing and commenting upon these chapters, they also came with years of experience teaching students and alumni in preparation for their weddings. This experience helped clarify in depth many topics dealt with in this book. Thanks to Rav Ido Elba for his comments on the chapters dealing with the mitzva of procreation. Thanks to Rav Shmuel Ariel as well.
Special thanks to Rav Yonadav Zar, who studied the halakhot in depth and copy-edited the entire book. Thanks to R. Maor Horowitz, who clarified sources and was responsible for the final editing and preparing the book for publication. Thanks to R. Netanel Rosenstein for writing the index. I am also grateful to R. Yaakov Weinberger, the yeshiva’s administrator, and his predecessors R. Yaakov Katz (Ketzaleh) and R. Dudu Sa’ada. Thanks, too, to Keren Fogel and Yohanan Lisha, who were responsible for printing and marketing the book.
It is not easy to translate halakha with precision and clarity, and the difficulty is compounded when writing about sensitive issues. As such, Atira Ote’s initial translation went through no less than four layers of editing, by Dr. Yocheved Cohen, Rav Elli Fischer, Nechama Unterman, and Rav Maor Cayam. I am grateful to all of them for producing the work before you.
Last but not least, I thank the residents of Har Bracha and the alumni of the yeshiva, with whom my wife and I have studied this material. Their questions and insights helped us clarify many issues addressed in the book. “I learned much from my rabbis, even more from my friends, and most of all from my students” (Ta’anit 7a).
The relationship between God and the Jewish people is compared to that of a bride and groom (1:5-6 below). The anguish associated with the destruction of the Temple cast a shadow over the joy of marital intimacy (3:15 below). Now, though, we are experiencing the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael. Alongside this process of the ingathering of exiles and upbuilding of Eretz Yisrael, we are privileged to witness the opening of the gates of peace, happiness, and blessing before the precious couples who are building their homes with holiness.
May it be God’s will that we merit the realization of the words of the prophet:
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)
The mitzva of ona will then reach its perfect fulfillment:
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), 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)
It is my sincere hope that this little book will add much joy and blessing into couples’ lives.