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Peninei Halakha > Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato > 01 – The Mitzva of Marital Sexual Relations

01 – The Mitzva of Marital Sexual Relations

01. The Importance of the Mitzva

A complete person is one who lives in a joyful and loving marriage. A man is not complete without his wife, and a woman is not complete without her husband. The essence of their union is expressed through the mitzva of ona (marital sexual relations), through which they become completely united, in body and spirit, making their marriage whole. The mitzva must be fulfilled with passion and ecstasy, the husband trying to bring his wife as much joy and pleasure as possible, and the wife trying to bring her husband as much joy and pleasure as possible (below, 2:1-5). For this reason, the mitzva is referred to as simḥat ona, the joy of marital sexual relations. There is no greater joy in this world; it is a foretaste of the euphoria of the World to Come (below, 1:7-8).

Through the framework of marriage, a person can achieve the ultimate fulfillment of the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), which R. Akiva calls “a major principle of the Torah” (Sifra ad loc.). It is only between spouses that love is expressed in all aspects of life, spiritual and physical alike. Thus, when a married couple lives together lovingly, each loving the other no less than they love themselves and desiring to bring joy to the other no less than they want for themselves, they fulfill the entire Torah in a concentrated form (Arizal, Sefer Ha-likutim, Ekev).

So powerful is the mitzva of ona that its fulfillment brings the Shekhina (Divine Presence) to dwell with the couple. As R. Akiva expounds: “If husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhina is with them; if they are not, fire consumes them” (Sota 17a).[1] Moreover, it is through this sacred mitzva that the couple can fulfill the mitzva of procreation (pru u-revu), which makes them God’s partners in the creation of a new life. As the Sages said, “There are three partners in the creation of a person: God, the father, and the mother” (Nidda 31a).

When a marriage founders because the husband suspects the wife of infidelity, the Torah prescribes (Bamidbar 5:11-31) the “sota” procedure, which includes writing God’s name on parchment and placing it in a potion that is administered to the wife. Under normal circumstances, erasing God’s name is a grave transgression, yet God commands us to erase His sacred name in order to repair and bring peace to a marriage (Nedarim 66b). Indeed, erasing the written name of God allows His name to inhere in their marital life.

Marriage is so paramount that the Sages say, “Any man without a wife is not considered a man” (Yevamot 63a); and “Any man without a wife lives without joy, without blessing, without goodness, without Torah, without fortification, and without peace” (ibid. 62b). A woman without a husband lacks all these as well. And since the mitzva of ona is the fundamental expression of a marriage, all of these advantages are thus directly connected to this mitzva (below, 4:8).

Since the foundation of the relationship between husband and wife is so important, the drive associated with it is likewise exceptionally powerful. God has given people freedom of choice: when a person directs the sex drive positively, toward the proper fulfillment of the mitzva of ona, there is nothing greater; when it is channeled negatively, there is nothing worse (below, 3:1-2).

[1]. The Hebrew word for man or husband, “ish,” is made up of the letters alef and shin – the word for fire, “esh” – plus the letter yud. The Hebrew word for woman or wife, “isha,” is made up of the letters alef and shin plus the letter hei. The two letters yud and hei form the name of God. Thus, if God is removed from ish and isha, only fire remains. They couple also reveals God’s holy four-letter name (yud-hei-vav-hei; the Tetragrammaton) thereby, for in addition to the revelation of yud through the man and hei through the woman, and the last two letters are revealed through their children – vav through a son and hei through a daughter (Zohar, Ra’aya Mehemna III 34b).

02. Principles of the Mitzva of Ona

The mitzva of ona is for the husband to couple with his wife, in an atmosphere of love and ecstasy, and to pleasure her as best he can, until her ecstasy climaxes in orgasm; he remains coupled with her until he ejaculates inside her vagina (see also below, 2:1). This is the meaning of the verse “He shall not withhold her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights” (Shemot 21:10). Since the husband’s physical capacity is limited, the frequency of the mitzva is determined by what his physical capacity and professional responsibilities make possible. Those who are in good health and who live comfortably without having to exert themselves too much must fulfill the mitzva of ona daily. Ordinary laborers are obligated twice a week. Men whose work requires them to leave home are required to fulfill this mitzva once a week. In addition, if either spouse desires intimacy, the other spouse must be responsive (below, 2:7-8).

This mitzva is the essence and foundation of marriage. A man who does not perform this mitzva in order to cause his wife pain is in violation of the Torah prohibition, “He shall not withhold…her conjugal rights.” If he does not perform it out of simple negligence, but does not intend to hurt his wife, he violates a rabbinic prohibition. Some say that even in such a case, he violates a Torah prohibition.[2]

Moreover, through the mitzva of ona, husband and wife fulfill the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself” in its most perfect form: each of them looks out for the other’s well-being as best they can. And since the greatest pleasure that people can experience in this world is connected to the mitzva of ona, a man who deprives his wife of this joy and pleasure oppresses her, since no one but him can bring her this joy. Likewise, a woman who deprives her husband of this joy and pleasure oppresses him, for no one else can fill this void for him (2:1 below).

Dereliction of this mitzva is the principal grounds for divorce. If a husband declares that his wife repulses him and that he has no interest in sexual relations with her and bringing her pleasure as often as duty requires, she is entitled to file for divorce and to receive the compensation specified in her ketuba (marriage contract). Even if the husband is willing to couple with her but adds, “I cannot unless we are both clothed,” he must divorce her and pay the ketuba, since he is unwilling to couple with her lovingly, with no barrier between them. Similarly, if a wife does not consent to sexual relations with her husband at the frequency specified, or is only willing if she remains clothed, he has the right to divorce her without paying her ketuba (Ketubot 48a; SA EH 76:13). Spouses who refuse to keep to the specified frequencies are called “rebellious,” for they are rebelling against the sacred duty they accepted on themselves when they married (Ketubot 63a; SA EH 77; see below ch. 2, sections 7-8, 11-12, and n. 6).

[2]. A man who does not perform the mitzva of ona violates a negative commandment (MT, Laws of Marriage 14:7 and 15; SA EH 76:11). If he does not intend to cause his wife pain, he does not violate a negative commandment (Rambam, Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh §262; Mabit 3:131). However, he is in violation of a rabbinic prohibition (Rav Kook, as cited in Teḥumin 1, p. 9). Others maintain that even if he does not intend to cause his wife pain, he still violates a negative prohibition (Responsa Maharam Alshikh §50). According to R. Sa’adia Gaon (Sefer Ha-mitzvot §72), Sefer Ha-eshkol (27:20), Rashba, and Ohel Mo’ed, there is also a positive commandment to have marital sexual relations. R. Yeruḥam Perla explains that this is based on the preceding verse, which states that one who designates a maidservant for marriage to his son, he must provide for her “as is the practice with free maidens (ke-mishpat ha-banot)” (Shemot 21:9). Thus, although the verse that lists she’er, kesut, and ona is formulated in the negative (“he shall not withhold”), the prior verse describes the same duties in the positive.

Others say that we can derive from an additional verse, “He will give happiness to the woman he has married” (Devarim 24:5), that a husband must bring his wife pleasure through the mitzva of ona. Although this verse refers only to his exemption from military service during their first year of marriage, we nevertheless can infer that whenever they are together, he has a mitzva to bring his wife joy and pleasure through the mitzva of ona (Smak §285; Ohel Mo’ed, Sha’ar Isur Ve-heter, derekh 11, netiv 2; and Sefer Ḥaredim 20:8). Commenting on Pesaḥim 72b, Rabbeinu Ḥananel agrees that there is a positive commandment of ona, but he derives it from yet another verse: “Return to your tents” (Devarim 5:27; see section 6 below).

A corollary of this mitzva is that a husband should sleep in the same room with his wife even when she is a nidda (Eruvin 63b). We will explain below (2:2) why this mitzva is formulated as the husband’s obligation. In any case, it is a mitzva and a duty for the wife to respond to her husband with joy for the fulfillment of this mitzva.

03. The Meaning of the Word “Ona

The Torah states, “He shall not withhold she’erah, kesutah, or onatah” (Shemot 21:10). Ramban (ad loc.), following one view in Ketubot (48a), interprets she’erah to refer to flesh-to-flesh contact during intimacy, kesutah to refer to the bed and bedding used by the couple during intimacy, and onatah to refer to the conjugal act itself. Rashi (ad loc.), following a different view in Ketubot (loc. cit.), interprets she’erah as “her food,” kesutah as “her clothing,” and onatah as the conjugal act. We see that all agree that the mitzva of ona is the essence of marriage, as it gives expression to the couple’s complete love for one another.

While all agree that the husband is obligated on a Torah level to provide for his wife sexually, there is disagreement about his obligation to provide her with food and clothing. According to one view, this obligation is not stated explicitly in the Torah, but the Sages ordained so, because without these basic needs a couple cannot truly enjoy the mitzva of ona. Moreover, a key component of true love for one’s spouse is a very deep-rooted feeling of responsibility for their well-being and best interest. Thus, it is inconceivable that a husband who truly loves his wife would not make sure to feed and clothe her; if he does not do so, clearly there is no real love in their sexual relations. According to the other view, the Torah itself explicitly mandates that the husband see to his wife’s food and clothing. Even though the mitzva of ona is the most profound expression of a marriage, a wholesome relationship must, by definition, include his full responsibility for her food and clothing.[3]

The word ona has three meanings:

  1. Time or season: This mitzva is fulfilled at intervals dictated by the husband’s stamina and the demands of his job (Ramban and Ibn Ezra on Shemot 21:10).
  2. Torment (inui), and its opposite, responsiveness and reciprocity (hei’anut): When a man separates from his wife, he torments her. As Lavan said to Yaakov, “…if you torment (te’aneh) my daughters” (Bereishit 31:50), which the Sages interpret to mean, “If you separate from them and do not provide them with ona.” This also explains why on Yom Kippur, when we are commanded to afflict ourselves (lehitanot), we must refrain from sexual relations (Yoma 77b and Rosh ad loc.; Ketubot 47b and Tosafot and Ritva ad loc.). Similarly, the rape of a woman by a man is called inui, as we read, “Shechem the son of Ḥamor the Ḥivite, chief of the country, saw her and took her; he slept with her and tormented her (vaye’aneha)” (Bereishit 34:2). In stark contrast to inui, the mitzva of ona is to couple with joy and pleasure, each responding to the other. Ona thus means responsiveness (hei’anut) and the prevention of torment (inui).

Both of these interpretations have halakhic significance. First, a husband is obligated to have relations with his wife at fixed intervals that depend on his job and stamina. Second, their sexual union should be a joy-filled responsiveness that expresses their passionate love.

  1. Home: The Rishonim further wrote that the word ona is related to ma’on, a dwelling or home, meaning that the husband must provide his wife with a place to live (Menaḥem b. Saruk, as cited by Ibn Ezra and Ḥizkuni on Shemot 21:10). This interpretation also has deep significance for the mitzva of ona: when husband and wife unite sexually, the husband arrives at his domicile, his home. Similarly, when the verse instructs “Rejoice – you and your house” (Devarim 14:26), the Sages explain that this means “you and your wife.” Rabbi Yosi likewise stated: “Never in my life have I referred to my wife as ‘my wife’; rather, I refer to her as ‘my home’” (Shabbat 118b).

The Sages refer to this mitzva as “derekh eretz,” the “way of the world,” since every man should naturally love his wife, desire to make love to her, and bring her as much joy and pleasure as he can. Likewise, every woman should naturally love her husband, yearn for him to make love to her, and bring him joy and pleasure as much as she can. God created humans to want this by nature. One who does not feel this yearning is physically or psychologically unhealthy. The goal of the mitzva is to channel, sublimate, and sanctify nature, not to negate the spontaneous feelings through which the mitzva is fulfilled (below, 2:4). The frequency of the mitzva is likewise determined by the “way of the world,” that is, by the reality of the couple’s circumstances (as explained in 2:6-7).[4]

[3]. Tanna’im and Amora’im disagree concerning the meaning of the obligation in the words “she’erah, kesutah, and onatah” (Shemot 21:10). See Mekhilta de-Rashbi and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael ad loc., as well as Ketubot 47b and y. Ketubot 5:7. In any case, all agree that the mitzva of ona is the foundation of marriage according to the Torah, and the disagreement is about the husband’s duty to provide food for his wife. According to Rambam (MT, Laws of Marriage 12:2), Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona, Maharam of Rothenberg, and Rashba, this obligation is biblical, while She’iltot, Rif, Ramban, Rosh, and Ran maintain that it is rabbinic. Everyone agrees that a husband cannot possibly fulfill the mitzva of ona properly without making sure that his wife has food and clothing, as a complete and loving marital union includes his taking proper care of his wife and ensuring that she does not lack food or clothing. Without these, surely the couple will be unable to lovingly enjoy sexual relations together. The question is whether the Torah itself requires the husband to support his wife in order to make their pleasure complete, or the Torah commands a man to love his wife completely, and the primary expression of this love is by making her supremely content through the mitzva of ona. The Sages then explained that this requires him to provide her food and clothing.

We should note that in the past, when making a living depended mainly on capacity for physical labor, it was difficult for women to support themselves without help from a father or husband. This is why halakha obligated men to provide their wives with food and clothing. However, this is not the essence of marriage, and it is therefore permissible to stipulate before getting married that the husband is not required to feed and clothe his wife if, for instance, the wife has her own income. In contrast, they cannot stipulate that they will get married with the understanding that the husband will not fulfill the mitzva of ona. Negating the mitzva of ona negates the entire marriage (Ramban to Bava Batra 126b; SA EH 38:5). Nevertheless, when a husband is unable to fulfill the mitzva of ona due to circumstances beyond his control, for example if he is a seris ḥama (“castrated by the sun”; i.e., impotent from birth), then the couple may base their marriage on a nonsexual emotional union (below, 6:2, n. 2). It stands to reason that a seris ḥama still has a mitzva to bring his wife physical pleasure according to his ability (below, ch. 2, n. 3).

[4]. It is important to note how the Torah expresses the mitzva of ona: It is stated with regard to a case where a man decides to marry his Jewish maidservant. The Torah commands him to make sure to relate to her in the best possible way. Even if he takes a second wife from his own social class, he should not discriminate against the maidservant whom he made his wife. In the Torah’s words, “If he marries another, he must not withhold (from this one) her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment” (Shemot 21:10-11). From this context we can infer that a normal couple does not need to be commanded, for every reasonable person understands naturally that this is his moral obligation – “the way of the world” in the sense of “proper conduct.” The novelty here is that even though a man is doing a favor for his maidservant by marrying her, since she is now his wife, he may not deprive her of sexual pleasure. (See Sefer Ha-ḥinukh §46.) Similarly, the Torah tells us that when it comes to returning lost items to their owner (hashavat aveida), “You cannot ignore it” (Devarim 22:3). Beyond the requirement of returning the item, a person should feel that he simply cannot ignore the lost item that he saw.

04. The Mitzva of Ona Is Independent of Procreation

Another mitzva, the mitzva of procreation (pru u-revu) is fulfilled by means of the mitzva of ona. This, too, demonstrates the greatness of the mitzva of ona, as through it a man and woman become privileged to partner with God in creating a new human being. Nevertheless, the mitzva of ona is not dependent upon the mitzva of pru u-revu. Ona applies even when there is no chance that the sexual union will lead to pregnancy, such as when the woman is already pregnant or nursing, has reached menopause, or is infertile.

The Sages say that the greater the joy accompanying the mitzva of ona, the finer the character of the future children (Eruvin 100b; below, 2:5). In contrast, if the couple’s sexual union lacks devotion and love, imperfections may manifest in the resulting children (Nedarim 20b, explained below in 2:13).

Similarly, R. Yitzḥak Aboab writes: “When husband and wife love each other, have intercourse when at peace with each other, and have intent to produce worthy offspring, God grants their wish and gives them worthy children” (Menorat Ha-ma’or, ner 3, klal 6, ḥelek 2).

The sages of the Jewish mystical tradition said that every act of marital sexual union undertaken in sanctity and love infuses the world with more life and blessing. R. Yeshayahu Horowitz writes in his classic Shnei Luḥot Ha-brit (Shlah, Sha’ar Ha-otiyot, Kedushat Ha-zivug §402):

Each and every act of intercourse, when undertaken in sanctity, will have a positive impact. Even if the wife does not conceive…[the husband] is not wasting seed; rather, a holy soul comes into existence as a result…. For a soul comes into being with every act of intercourse, and the offspring of others are then endowed with these souls…. This is why Avraham could sleep with Sarah even though she was barren. It was not, God forbid, a waste.

Zohar explains that the perfect love and devotion that infused the intimate relations of these two righteous people, Avraham and Sarah, led to the creation of souls in the supernal realms, which then descended to this world, and with which children of various families were endowed. When those children grew up, they were drawn to Avraham and Sarah, who converted them to faith in God. These are the souls referred to in the verse (Bereishit 12:5): “The souls they created in Ḥaran” (Zohar III 168a).

Thus, even if a couple has not been blessed with children, when they lovingly and devotedly have sexual relations they become partners in bringing the souls of children into this world. To understand this, we must bear in mind that the process by which souls descend into the world is complicated by many phases and various aspects, which means that several couples can have a part in drawing a single soul into the world (see below, 8:6.)

It is also worth adding that even after a couple has finished having children, by lovingly and joyfully having sexual relations they add life and blessing to all worlds, especially those that are connected to the deepest root of their souls. Thus, any sexual union undertaken in sanctity and passion draws greater illumination and blessing into the souls of their children.[5]

Another important point: A widower who has children and for whom it will be difficult to remarry a woman who is still fertile has a mitzva to marry a woman who will not bear children, for being married is the most wholesome human state. Moreover, he will thus be able to fulfill the mitzva of ona and refrain from sinful thoughts (Yevamot 61b; below, 4:8).

[5]. The mitzva of ona is always linked to the mitzva of procreation, sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly. It is worth citing Shlah in full on this:

Each and every act of intercourse, when undertaken in sanctity, will have a positive impact. Even if the wife does not conceive, it still has an effect on high and produces a soul. The kabbalists elaborate that this is why it is permissible for a husband to have sexual relations with his wife even when she is pregnant, nursing, menopausal, or infertile. He is not wasting his seed; rather, a holy soul comes into existence as a result…. This is why Avraham could sleep with Sarah even though she was barren. It was not, God forbid, a waste…. For a soul comes into being with every act of intercourse, and the offspring of others are then endowed with these souls. This is the meaning of conversion to Judaism…that is, through the power of the holy thoughts of Avraham during intercourse, the male souls were emanated, and the power of the holy thoughts of Sarah during intercourse emanated female souls. The verse (Bereishit 12:5) that mentions “The souls they [Avraham and Sarah] created in Ḥaran” can now be understood: they literally created them with the power of their intercourse. (Shlah, Sha’ar Ha-otiyot, Kedushat Ha-zivug §402).

This is all because their sexual union was infused with passion and devotion; in the words of Zohar (III 168a), “the passionate cleaving of these two righteous people.” According to Arizal:

Regarding sexual union during the months of pregnancy and nursing, a husband is certainly obligated to fulfill the mitzva of ona at these times. One should not, God forbid, take the position that, on the contrary, this seems like a waste of seed. The idea is this: We know that in the supernal world there are two types of sexual union. The first creates souls, and this not constant. The second, which is constant and unceasing, is to sustain and give life to all the worlds. (Arizal, Sha’ar Ha-mitzvot, Bereishit, p. 7)

  1. Yosef Ḥayim of Baghdad writes similarly:

The phrase “which yields its fruit in season” (Tehilim 1:3)… is followed by “whose foliage never fades,” meaning that even if a man has sexual relations [with his wife] while she is pregnant and nursing, he “never fades,” [his seed] is not wasted. And whatever sexual activity he continues when his wife is old, after menopause, will find success, for if it does not create souls, it will help sustain and bring life to the worlds, as (Arizal) writes in Sha’ar Ta’amei Ha-mitzvot. (Ben Yehoyada on Ketubot 62b)

Similarly, the Sages said that sexual intercourse during the last trimester is “beneficial for both the woman and the fetus, for as a result the fetus emerges healthy and energetic” (Nidda 31a).​

05. Revealing the Ultimate Unity

In order to more fully understand the sanctity of this mitzva, we must first explain that God wished to benefit humanity. He created the world incomplete, to provide people with the opportunity to perfect it and make it a better, happier place, and thereby to merit becoming God’s partner in everything good in the world and experiencing complete happiness in it.

The greatest shortcoming in all of creation is detachment. The one God indeed created everything, but because He concealed His light, all creatures are detached from Him, and consequently from one another. Each creature looks out only for itself, thus leading to all the world’s strife, discord, conflict, and war. It is for this reason that this world is called “the world of detachment” and “the world of deception.” The unity at the root of all goes unacknowledged, thus leading to all the evil in the world. The fundamental principle of the Jewish faith is therefore belief in God’s unity, that there is one God and no other.

This is also why the mitzva of settling in Eretz Yisrael, which links heaven and earth, is so important. The most fundamental detachment is that between heaven and earth, as expressed in the detachment between the spirit and matter, between vision and reality, between Creator and creation. Through the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael, it becomes revealed that God reigns over both heaven and earth, and that all earthly matters are connected to holiness. The Sages therefore say: “Anyone who lives in Eretz Yisrael is likened to one who has a God, while anyone who lives outside of Eretz Yisrael is likened to one who has no God…and who worships idols” (Ketubot 110b; see below, 3:15).

The value of unity also underlies the extraordinary significance of the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), which R. Akiva calls “a major principle of the Torah” (Sifra ad loc.).

We are now in position to understand the great importance of the mitzva of sexual union between husband and wife, as it is the most perfect fulfillment of the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself,” and it expresses the greatest possible unity, the complete union of two different individuals. The unity is achieved on two levels: it unites husband and wife, and it unites body and soul. Often, the body and the soul are in conflict. The soul longs for good, and the body is drawn to evil; the soul desires eternity, while the body focuses on the fleeting present. The mitzva of ona brings body and soul together, transforming even the evil inclination to good. Through this mitzva, the sublime ideas of faithfulness and unity combine with the greatest physical pleasure. The moral value of absolute devotion combines with the greatest joy (see Zohar I 49a; III 81a-b; Bereishit Rabba 9:7, below, 3:13; Maharal, Gevurot Hashem ch. 43).

06. The Importance of the Sexual Union of Husband and Wife

The sexual union and unification of husband and wife is so marvelous that it serves as a metaphor for the supernal union of God and the Jewish people, as we read: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Yeshayahu 62:5). Similarly, R. Akiva says, “No other day was as precious as the day the Jews were given Shir Ha-shirim. For all of the Writings are holy, but Shir Ha-shirim is the holy of holies” (Tanḥuma Tetzaveh §5). We see that the love between a husband and wife is so transcendent and sublime that it is compared to and a manifestation of the sacred connection between God and His people. In fact, the relationship between husband and wife who achieve union with each other in holiness and love (below, 3:15) is an extension of the relationship between God and His people. This, in turn, influences the relationship between God and His world, bringing life, blessing, and peace to all creation.

The Talmud tells us that the keruvim (cherubim) on top of the holy ark in the Holy of Holies were in the shape of a woman and man fulfilling the mitzva of ona. The Sages relate, “When the Jews ascended to the Temple in Jerusalem for the festivals, the kohanim would roll back the curtain so everyone could see the intertwined keruvim, and would say to them, ‘Look! The love between you and God is like the love between a male and a female’” (Yoma 54a). When Israel stopped acting in accordance with the divine will, the keruvim separated from one another and turned toward the wall (Bava Batra 99a).

Since the essence of marriage is sacred and transcendent, during Temple times Yom Kippur was one of the two holidays on which people would occupy themselves with matchmaking (m. Ta’anit 4:8). A wedding is about a bride and a groom, two individuals who are uniting and starting a new life together. It is a mitzva to joyfully celebrate this. The Sages (Berakhot 6b) tell us that anyone who makes a groom and bride happy will merit acquiring (knowledge of) the Torah and is considered as if he had brought a thanksgiving offering and had rebuilt one of Jerusalem’s ruins (see Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael ch. 30).

We likewise find that when Israel reached the highest expression of its union with the Holy One, when King Shlomo stabilized the Kingdom of Israel and built the Temple, he declared a weeklong celebration for all of Israel, which he later extended for an additional week. “On the eighth day he let the people go. They bade the king goodbye and went to their homes, joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the Lord had shown to His servant David and His people Israel” (1 Melakhim 8:66). The Sages expound: “‘And went to their homes’ – [the husbands] went and found their wives in a state of purity. ‘Joyful’ – they delighted in the radiance of the Divine Presence. ‘And glad of heart’ – each and every woman conceived a boy. ‘Over all the goodness’ – a heavenly voice proclaimed to them, ‘You are all guaranteed a place in the World to Come’” (Mo’ed Katan 9a). In other words, when the Temple was built in Jerusalem, God was as happy with His people as a groom is happy with his bride, and that general sanctity spread to each individual Israelite home. Thus, the husbands returned home to find their wives pure, so they could fulfill the mitzva of ona joyfully.

Earlier, when Israel received the Torah, God commanded Moshe, “Go say to them: ‘Return to your tents’” (Devarim 5:27). The Sages explain this to mean that they were told to return to “the joy of ona” (Avoda Zara 5a). One who does not appreciate the value of this mitzva might think it was inappropriate to be involved in such things following the sublime experience of receiving the Torah. Nevertheless, God instructed otherwise: “Return to the joy of ona!” This makes clear that, on the contrary, it was specifically after absorbing the holiness revealed at the giving of the Torah that it was appropriate to joyfully fulfill the mitzva of ona. In fact, there is a parallel between the giving of the Torah and ona. The giving of the Torah was akin to a wedding between God and Israel, as the Sages expound on Shir Ha-shirim 3:11: “‘His wedding day’ refers to the giving of the Torah, while ‘His day of bliss’ refers to the building of the Temple” (Ta’anit 26b). The love and joy of this glorious wedding spilled over into every family in Israel.

This runs counter to the view of many savants of the gentile world. In their opinion, physical pleasures are rooted in the material and in sin, and are entirely detached from sacred spiritual matters. However, the unique role of Israel is to reveal the true monotheistic faith, namely, that God is the Ruler of both heaven and earth. Therefore, when husband and wife achieve union in the proper way, it discloses something of the divine. This is the meaning of the rabbinical exposition on the verse “Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud (rova) of Israel?” (Bamidbar 23:10). The Sages explain:

This teaches that God sits and counts the matings (revi’oteihem) of Israel, awaiting the arrival of the drop from which a righteous person will be formed. The wicked Bilam was blinded because of this; he said, “Would the One Who is pure and holy, and Whose servants are pure and holy, look at such a thing?!” Right away, he lost vision in one eye. (Nidda 31a)

07. The Joy of Ona

Under normal circumstances, each person must look out for himself, for if he does not take care of himself, who else will? This sad reality can be obscured by shallow friendships and frivolous entertainment, but in moments of clarity, when a person becomes aware of his loneliness, he feels terrible sorrow. This is the existential pain that accompanies a person through life, the pall of death that casts a shadow during life. In moments of acute sobriety, the pain is even greater. Loneliness leads to egotism, to caring only for oneself. One thus becomes morally empty and is left without meaning in life, which only makes the loneliness worse.

The solution to this can be found in the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself.” When people understand that there is sacred value to their friendships, they become better and more moral. They truly connect to one another and assuage the pain of their loneliness. As we learned, the most complete fulfillment of “love your fellow as yourself” is in a spousal relationship, which can truly make a person complete. Through this true love, one can successfully break through egotistical boundaries, loving his spouse and looking out for her, in the same way that he loves and looks out for himself.

The most salient manifestation of this love is the mitzva of sexual relations, in which, thanks to their great love and pleasure, each spouse is able to transcend personal boundaries. The husband reaches out to his wife, and she reaches out to him, and in their union they are redeemed from their loneliness. Then they can experience true, incomparable joy. Life pulses within them, connecting them with all living things, and ascending upwards to the Source of life.

Accordingly, the mitzva is called simḥat ona, the joy of marital sexual relations (Pesaḥim 72b; Avoda Zara 5a). In this joy, the divine is revealed. Maharal explains:

Do not say that sexual union is a physical act, akin to that of all other animals. This is incorrect. It was God Who gave man and woman the ability to achieve union…for His name, Ya-h, takes part along with them (Sota 17a, cited above in 1:1). That is, God brings a couple together and makes them one, so His name is within them. (Be’er Ha-gola 5:4)

This mitzva is a foretaste of the World to Come. It is like a ray of light from higher, better realms to this dark world whose screens and barriers prevent light from reaching it. The Sages even commented that our world is like night (Ḥagiga 12b).

All mitzvot should gladden a person greatly, for through them one connects to the Source of life and takes part in adding life to this world. Unfortunately, because of the barriers and screens that conceal the divine light and life, we barely sense this. True, we feel the satisfaction of doing the right thing, but we do not experience palpable, bodily pleasure in the performance of the mitzva itself. Accordingly, the Sages state: “This world is like an antechamber of the next world. Prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you may enter the main hall” (Avot 4:16). The next world is where we receive the bulk of the reward for doing the right thing.

Only in the marvelous mitzva of ona can one experience the wonderful pleasure that we should sense when fulfilling any mitzva. It is in this sense that the mitzva of ona (like the mitzva of Shabbat) is a foretaste of the next world. It is a gateway through which a person gets a privileged glimpse of the next world even while still living in this one. By properly fulfilling this mitzva, one can even experience the pleasure that is a foretaste of the next world when fulfilling other mitzvot as well (Zohar II, 259a).

In contrast, those who sin sexually – who are promiscuous, commit incest and adultery, who do not observe the laws of nidda – misdirect their passions. Instead of breaking through the barriers of egotism, creating souls, and connecting to God, they breach (portzim), in their transgressions, the good and moral framework; they are therefore called licentious (prutzim). They lose their place in this world, for they do not have the privilege of experiencing true love. They also lose their place in the next world for they do not connect to eternal, true life; instead, they inherit the abyss.

08. Redemption from Slavery Was in the Merit of This Mitzva

When our ancestors were slaves, the Egyptians wanted to prevent the men from reproducing, in order to wipe Israel out. To that end, they weighed them down with backbreaking labor from dawn to dusk and forced them to sleep in the fields instead of returning home. To the men of Israel, the situation seemed hopeless; their wives would give up on them and instead cling to their Egyptian masters. How could a husband look his wife in the eye? He was supposed to shelter her, to protect her from tyrants and oppressors, to support her and defend her honor, to be a role model for their children. Instead, he was a lowly slave under the heel of his master. In order to spare himself further humiliation, he preferred not to attempt to approach his wife. He stifled his will to live. He did not want children, because he could not provide them with a decent future. When his wife approached him, he backed away, because he was afraid that she would want to leave him soon anyway. Under such circumstances, most women would feel slighted and would try to become the second wives of their Egyptian masters. And the people of Israel would have faced extinction.

Something else took place instead. The Sages recount:

In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt. When the women went to draw water, the Holy One arranged for small fish to enter their pitchers, so they drew up pitchers half-full of water and half-full of fish. They then set two pots on the fire, one for hot water and the other for the fish. Then they carried these to their husbands in the fields, where they bathed them, massaged them with oil, and gave them food and drink. Then they coupled with them among the sheepfolds. (Sota 11b)

It was as if each woman said to her husband, “Although you are a contemptible slave in the eyes of the Egyptians, in my eyes you are precious and important. Just as I would greet you happily if you returned home from a respectable job, so I happily greet you now. I have come to the field to wash your feet, aching after a hard day’s work, and to massage your body, bruised from beatings, because you are my husband and my love.” A midrash relates similarly:

While they ate and drank, the women held up mirrors and looked into them together with their husbands. She would say, “I am more beautiful than you,” and he would respond, “I am better looking than you.” This stimulated their desire, and they would procreate; the Holy One would ensure immediate conception…. “The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly” (Shemot 1:7)…. And all this proliferation was thanks to the mirrors. (Tanḥuma Pekudei §9).

“Once they became pregnant, they went home. When it was time for them to give birth, they went to the fields” (Sota 11b).

After the Jewish people left Egypt, received the Torah, and were commanded to erect the Mishkan, every Jew donated gold, silver, copper, expensive fabrics, and precious gems for its construction. The same women who had given birth in the fields asked themselves, “Do we have anything to contribute toward the building of the Mishkan?” They went home and returned carrying the same mirrors they had used to beautify themselves. Even though they treasured these mirrors, they volunteered to donate them out of their intense passion for sanctity. But Moshe was disgusted, because he felt that the whole point of mirrors was to arouse the evil inclination. Some say that he even became angry, telling the people around him in exaggerated fashion that these women deserve to have their legs broken with sticks for their audacity in bringing these mirrors for divine service. God responded to Moshe, “You disdain these mirrors?! These mirrors produced these multitudes in Egypt! Accept them, because they are more beloved to Me than all other donations. Take them and use them to make the copper laver and its base, with which the kohanim will sanctify themselves for divine service” (Tanḥuma Pekudei §9; Rashi on Shemot 38:8).

From this story we learn something wonderful: that there is nothing more pure and holy than unconditional, life-giving love. That is why it was specifically these mirrors that were used to make the laver from which the kohanim purified and sanctified themselves in preparation for Temple service.

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