Peninei Halakha

Close this search box.
Peninei Halakha > Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato > 02 – The Laws of Ona

02 – The Laws of Ona

01. The Parameters of the Mitzva – The Pinnacle of Pleasure

The mitzva of ona is for a man to bring pleasure and joy to his wife as best he can and to achieve complete sexual union with her, lovingly and with abundant joy (as explained in 1:2 above). Every man must fulfill this mitzva as frequently as his physical stamina and professional demands allow. For most, this means twice a week (as explained further in section 7 below). A woman, too, has a mitzva to couple with her husband and to enjoy him. The more she enjoys their sexual relations, the greater the mitzva. Their sexual union must be very joyful and pleasurable. Accordingly, the mitzva is called simḥat ona, the joy of marital sexual union. Abstaining from it is deemed a type of torment (Pesaḥim 72b; Avoda Zara 5a; 1:3 above).

The mitzva of ona is independent of the mitzva of procreation. It is fulfilled through marital sexual relations even when they cannot lead to pregnancy, such as when the wife is pregnant or nursing, or when she is after menopause (above, 1:4).

The central element of this mitzva is for the husband to bring complete joy to his wife, to the point where her joy and pleasure climax in orgasm. Short of this, their sexual relations may result in frustration, for the lead-up to orgasm builds up physical and psychological tension that is blissfully released upon orgasm. If she does not experience orgasm, her tensions and frustration will generally remain.

The wife has a mitzva to be responsive and to actively participate in the mitzva as best she can, for without her desire and efforts to increase their mutual pleasure, it is impossible to fulfill the mitzva. However, if she is so exhausted or tense that it will be difficult for her to achieve orgasm, she may choose to forgo it and suffice with sexual union that brings sweet pleasure but not complete bliss. This, too, is a fulfillment of the mitzva. Nevertheless, it is best to try to ensure that it does not happen too frequently (see below, section 12 and note 12.)

The more a husband and wife give and receive pleasure at the set times (onot) of this mitzva, the better. This is also mandated by the mitzva of “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), which entails a spouse looking out for the good of the other to the best of their ability. Since the greatest physical and emotional pleasure is that shared by husband and wife, if a man deprives his wife of this enjoyable pleasure, he is being oppressive, since there is no other man who can provide her with this joy. Likewise, a woman who deprives her husband of this enjoyable pleasure is being oppressive, since there is no one else in the world who can fill his void.

The mitzva is also called derekh eretz, “the way of the world,” since every healthy person yearns for pleasurable sexual union, the greatest palpable physical pleasure that a person can experience in this world. It is thus clear that when the Torah commanded the mitzva of ona, it means reaching orgasm, the peak of pleasure that people yearn for. If a husband or wife does not feel that yearning, they must try to heal themselves, so that their sexual union will be joyful for both of them.[1]

The kabbalists said that one who does not experience sexual longing is worse than a donkey and will never be able to love God (Reishit Ḥokhma, Sha’ar Ha-ahava, end of ch. 4), for it is only through healthy human nature, itself created by God, that one can progress in one’s love for God. Anyone who is detached from the lifegiving impulse is far from faith and sanctity, and cannot act to repair the world.

[1]. The central element of this mitzva is for the woman to reach orgasm, just as the man reaches orgasm when he ejaculates. This is what is meant by the talmudic statement “If the wife brings forth seed first, she will give birth to a male; if the husband brings forth seed first, she will give birth to a female” (Nidda 31a). The Sages explain that men prolong sexual relations so that their wives will “bring forth seed” – that is, achieve orgasm – first: “They hold themselves back in the womb so that their wives bring forth seed first, so that their children will be male” (ibid. 31b). Likewise, the Talmud explains (ibid. 71a) that this is what is meant by the phrase “the reward of progeny (lit. ‘fruit of the womb’)” (Tehilim 127:3). There are other interpretations of the phrase “brings forth seed,” but the interpretation given here is the primary one.

If the woman’s ultimate pleasure were not the essence of the mitzva, it would be difficult to understand why the Talmud assumes that the wife of an ordinary laborer would not agree to his making a lifestyle change, even one that would improve their financial situation, if the frequency of her ona would subsequently decrease (see Ketubot 62b and section 7 below). Additionally, if a woman usually derives real pleasure from sexual intimacy but does not reach orgasm, she will remain frustrated afterwards. Where is the joy in that? And if she does not even get this lesser pleasure, then her sexual relations with her husband are joyless; how then can we refer to this mitzva as simḥat ona? Moreover, it is the husband’s duty to provide for his wife’s needs. Just as he must follow social norms when providing food and clothing, so too for ona. And since orgasm is considered the primary joy of sexual relations, it is, perforce, what the mitzva requires. Not only is it the central element of the mitzva for the husband to pleasure his wife until she has an orgasm, but the more pleasure he brings her at the set times for their sexual relations, the more commendable it is, just as when one welcomes a guest, the tastier and more diverse the offerings and the better he makes the guest feel, the greater his mitzva. Therefore, when the wife is capable of reaching multiple consecutive orgasms, it enhances the mitzva. Nevertheless, couples often to not have the stamina or the desire for more than one orgasm, in which case this enhancement of the mitzva should be reserved for special occasions.

Below, in section 12, we explain that it is possible to fulfill the onot at the be-di’avad level (such as when the woman derives pleasure from intimacy but not true bliss), or under pressing circumstances when there is no pleasure. In any case, as long as the couple remains married, they may not forgo sexual relations without full, mutual consent, since sexual relations are an expression of their marital union and prevent them from sin. We have already seen (1:2) that refusing sexual union is the principal grounds for divorce.

02. The Man’s Duty and the Woman’s Mitzva

The obligation of ona is incumbent upon the man, as the verse states, “He shall not withhold she’erah, kesutah, or onatah” (Shemot 21:10). Ramban explains that she’erah refers to flesh-to-flesh contact during intimacy, kesutah refers to the bed and bedding used by the couple during intimacy, and onatah as referring to the conjugal act itself (Ketubot 48a; see above, 1:3). If a husband does not fulfill this mitzva and thereby causes his wife pain, he is in violation of a Torah prohibition (above, 1:2). Of course, if she does not respond joyfully to her husband, the mitzva is worthless; thus, fulfillment of the mitzva depends on both of them. Nevertheless, the primary duty is the man’s, just as the mitzva to marry is incumbent upon the man, making him responsible to court his future spouse, gain her consent to marry, and then marry her.

To understand the difference between men and women, it must be made clear that if a man does not verbally articulate his love for his wife and does not increase her pleasure by embracing and caressing her while gradually advancing toward her erogenous zones, it stands to reason that he will not manage to make her climax. One of the wonderful characteristics of women is that spirit, mind, and body are more integrated in them than they are in men. Therefore, under normal circumstances, it is only when all of these elements are brought together in love and pleasure that a woman can reach orgasm. This process is complex and takes time.

In contrast, it is the nature of men to bifurcate different realms. A man can satisfy his physical lust even without an emotional or spiritual connection. This trait can be very valuable when he needs to ignore everything going on around him and focus his energy on a single goal. It is what enables a young man to energetically court his future wife, overcome obstacles, and persist until she agrees to marry him. This is also why it is the man who performs the act of kiddushin that effects their marriage. This trait is also valuable for a soldier in battle.

On the other hand, after achieving his goal of getting married, men can sometimes lose interest in having a wholesome emotional relationship. They were so focused on getting married that they neglected to properly prepare themselves for all the challenges of married life. Because of this, a new husband is commanded not to serve in the army or take business trips during his first year of marriage, as the verse states: “He shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married” (Devarim 24:5). This allows newlyweds to build a strong foundation for their married life.

Something similar can happen during the buildup to sexual relations. A man might be very passionate beforehand, but as soon as he ejaculates, he is liable to lose interest in his wife. And since men are physiologically capable of reaching the climax of physical pleasure within minutes, without providing their wives with any joy – the mitzva of ona is incumbent upon the man, and its primary element is to bring as much joy and pleasure to his wife as he can. The Sages thus caution: “A husband may not compel his wife to fulfill the mitzva…. Any man who compels his wife to perform this mitzva will have indecent children” (Eruvin 100b).

Thus, even though marital sexual relations are a mitzva, if their purpose is to satisfy only the man’s urges, without him trying to bring his wife pleasure, there is no mitzva. Thus, because of women’s nature, the husband has to make sure to express his love for his wife. This will give their sexual union greater depth and wholesomeness.

Conversely, when a woman does not desire to be intimate with her husband, is not responsive to his advances, and does not experience joy with him, she actively countermands the mitzva. The mitzva is to bring her joy, so when she is not happy, the mitzva is completely undermined. If this situation persists, she will destroy their home. As we learned, if a woman claims that she finds her husband repulsive, he must divorce her, but she forfeits her ketuba (Ketubot 63b). He must divorce her because it is impossible to maintain a marriage without the joy of sexual relations, but she forfeits her ketuba because she breached the most basic essence of marriage.[2]

[2]. According to Rambam (MT, Laws of Marriage 14:8), a beit din compels the husband to divorce his wife, “because she is not like a captive who is forced to have relations with someone she hates. But she leaves without any of her ketuba.” According to most poskim, even though he is halakhically required to divorce her, he is not compelled to do so (SA EH 77:2). (Perhaps we may deduce that these poskim are discussing a case where the wife is considered to be at fault in the divorce because after she agreed to marry him she became repulsed by him. He may therefore claim compensation for his suffering before he agrees to divorce her.)

Likewise, when a man does not keep to the frequency required of him, or when he is not willing to please his wife in the accepted ways – for example, if he is not willing to have sexual relations unless he is clothed – the woman can sue for divorce, and her husband is obligated to divorce her and pay the ketuba in full (SA EH 76:13).

03. The Man’s Mitzva

A few hours before having sexual relations, a husband should express his love for his wife and his eager anticipation of their upcoming intimacy. Doing so will correspondingly arouse his wife, filling her with love and desire. They should both take care during these hours not to broach subjects likely to lead to an argument, or subjects that are a source of stress for either one of them, so as not to derogate from the joy of the mitzva. The Sages state that whoever raises a subject that could ruin the joy of the mitzva will have to answer for it in the future. Thus, commenting upon the verse, “For behold, He forms mountains and creates winds; He reveals his words (siḥo) to a person” (Amos 4:13), the Talmud informs us that God holds us responsible even for “excess words (siḥa) between husband and wife” (Ḥagiga 5a, following the interpretation of Raavad; Baḥ, OḤ 280:2).

As the couple becomes intimate, it is a mitzva for the husband to tell his wife how much he loves her. He should not hold back any compliment – about her beauty, her character, and whatever else he knows will bring her joy (Zohar I 49b; Tikkunei Zohar 57:1). This does not mean he should make things up; rather, after thinking about how deeply he loves his wife, he should offer truthful compliments. One may stretch the truth a bit, however, for it is only due to our own shortcomings that we fail to see that our hyperboles are closer to the truth than we realize (see Ketubot 17a).

Included in the mitzva are embracing, kissing, and caressing anywhere that is pleasurable, and in any way that is enjoyable. The mitzva is to proceed gradually, from areas where touch is pleasant to the erogenous zones, until finally reaching the clitoris, where touch produces the most arousal and pleasure. Every woman should know her body so that, if necessary, she can teach her husband how to bring her pleasure. Since every person is different, part of the mitzva is for the couple to openly discuss what gives them pleasure; the husband should ask his wife how he can increase her joy, and she will respond and open up to him. And having aroused her to a state of intense pleasure, they proceed to the consummation of their sexual union.

For most couples, it is best for the husband to try to enable his wife to reach orgasm before him, for otherwise, there is concern that he will be drained of desire and unable to bring her joy as he should. It should be noted that in the past, apparently, in most circumstances, women could achieve orgasm during coitus itself, whereas nowadays, for various reasons, many women do not reach orgasm during coitus, only through manual stimulation of the clitoris. In that case, this is how to perform the mitzva, and from this they proceed to the consummation of their sexual union.

It has always been a virtue of Torah scholars and Torah-oriented Jews that they bring joy to their wives, as is proper. For that reason, the Sages admonish fathers not to marry off their daughters to coarse ignoramuses (amei ha-aretz): “If one marries his daughter to an am ha’aretz, it is as if he has left her tied up in front of a lion. Just like a lion attacks and devours its prey with no shame, so, too, an am ha’aretz beats and penetrates his wife shamelessly” (Pesaḥim 49b). In other words, just as a lion devours its prey and begins eating while it is still alive, so an am ha’aretz penetrates his wife in order to satisfy his own urges and does not delay so that his wife can experience pleasure and joy as well.[3]

[3]. Zohar (I 49b) addresses the issue of compliments: “A man who wishes to be intimate with his wife must ask her permission and speak to her in a way that makes her happy. If he does not, he should not sleep with her. This is to ensure that their desire is mutual and there is no coercion…. He should show her affection and draw her toward his desire, becoming aroused with her lovingly…in order to show her that they are united and that nothing comes between them. After that, he should praise her, telling her that there is no other woman like her, and that she is the glory of the home…as it says, ‘Many women have done well, but you surpass them all’ (Mishlei 31:29).” Tikkunei Zohar (§21, 57a) presents this approach as well, adding that on Shabbat, additional compliments should be given on account of the sanctity of the day. Elsewhere Zohar (II 259b) states that “there are two aspects of intimacy – kissing and the act of intimacy itself, one above and one below. The one above is to add an abundance of spirituality above, and the one below is to add an abundance of life below, each according to what is appropriate for it.” Elsewhere Tikkunei Zohar (§10, 25b) points out that kissing involves four lips, corresponding to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, and embracing involves four arms, corresponding to the four letters of the name Adonai (alef-dalet-nun-yud; Lord).

Among the advice that R. Ḥisda gives his daughters in Shabbat 140b is the following: “[Your husband will want to] hold the pearl in one hand and the basket in the other. Show them the pearl, but not the basket, until he aches. Only then should you show it to him.” Rashi explains: “When your husband caresses you to arouse desire for intercourse, he will fondle your breasts with one hand and ‘that place’ (the vagina) with the other. Offer him your breasts, so that his passion will intensify, but do not rush to offer the place of penetration, so that his passion and affection build and he aches. Then offer it to him.” R. Elazar of Worms writes similarly: “They should embrace and kiss…. He should engage in foreplay by fondling and with all kinds of embrace, to fulfill his desire and hers” (Sefer Ha-roke’aḥ, Hilkhot Teshuva 14). Other Rishonim and Aḥaronim write similarly.

The notion that some men must fulfill the mitzva by manual stimulation, even for ten minutes and beyond, is not mentioned in the halakhic literature. There are two apparent reasons for this. a) It stands to reason that during an era when people slept about ten hours each night (see Rambam, MT, Laws of Dispositions 4:4) and lived with less stress and tension, almost all women reached orgasm and the peak of joy during the conjugal act itself. Similarly, we learn that in the past all women sensed their uteruses open at the onset of menstruation, to the extent that Shulḥan Arukh mentions this as something well known (YD 183:1). Nowadays, most women do not experience this sensation (see Harḥavot). b) Since the mitzva is for a man to give his wife as much pleasure as he can, it is self-evident that if manual stimulation of the erogenous zone gives her greater pleasure, then that is the mitzva. There was no reason to write this down because the couple must naturally learn how to fulfill the mitzva. This is why it is called “derekh eretz” – the way of the world (as explained in the next section). In other words, the mitzva is for husband and wife to be open and honest with one another and for giving each other as much pleasure as they can. It can be assumed that within a relatively short time, they will become familiar with the woman’s erogenous zones and take pleasure from it. If they find that this brings the wife to orgasm, they will understand that this is what the mitzva entails for them.

As we saw earlier, R. Ḥisda discussed the subject with his daughters. It is evident from this that people spoke about these matters more openly in the past. (See below, 3:12 and 3:15, where we explain that asceticism and withdrawal increased as a result of the Temple’s destruction and the prolonged exile. It is important to clarify that when Zohar and kabbalistic writings speak of the importance of kissing, embracing, and having sexual relations, their purpose is not to serve as a practical guide to fulfilling the mitzva, which is a relatively simple matter, but to teach us that such actions correspond to profound and sublime notions, and sexual relations are a readily available allegory for teaching about the sublime.)

During foreplay, typically the husband will likely experience a small discharge of fluid. This is not considered a “waste of seed.” Although some are stringent about this based on Kabbala (Pri Etz Ḥayim, Sha’ar Keri’at Shema al Ha-mita ch. 11; Ben Ish Ḥai, Pekudei §13), the primary concern, according to Kabbala, is that the husband must not withdraw from sexual union until he has finished ejaculating every last drop of semen (Sha’ar Ha-kavanot, Inyan Derushei Ha-layla; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 240:6; Darkhei Tahara 22:11). Even this is technically not prohibited, as evident from the view of most Rishonim that after the first time a couple has marital sexual relations, he may withdraw while still erect (SA YD 193:1; Sho’el Ve-nishal 3:424; see Olat Yitzḥak 2:242). With regard to premature ejaculation even before intercourse, see the end of n. 10 below.

04. Derekh Eretz

God created man and woman to yearn for one another naturally. This sexual attraction is a good thing; indeed it is the foundation of the mitzva of ona. The Sages declare: “The way of the world (derekh eretz) preceded the Torah” (Tanna De-vei Eliyahu Rabba 1). That is, God commanded human beings to give full expression to their natural desires within the sacred framework of marriage. If people stifled their natural desires, they would not be able to fulfill the mitzva properly, nor would they be able to fulfill other mitzvot fully.

  1. Yoḥanan states, “Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat (which defecates in private and covers its excrement), honesty from the ant (which does not steal food from other ants), fidelity from the dove (which has monogamous relationships), and derekh eretz from the rooster, which first soothes and only then mates” (Eruvin 100b). By “soothes” R. Yoḥanan means that the rooster courts, coaxes, and seduces the hen before mating with her.

This means that there are moral principles that a person must grasp simply, through his heart and his conscience, as dictated by the natural morality that God implanted in all creatures and that even wild beasts follow. The Torah adds layers of fastidiousness, consistency, and sanctity upon this healthy natural foundation, but if a person does not instinctively grasp these values, he is lacking something basic.

The Sages tell us that it is possible to learn how to fulfill the mitzva of ona from the rooster, an animal known for its prodigious mating habits and for its expertise in the art of courtship and seduction. It is no coincidence that one of the Hebrew words for rooster is “gever,” which also means “man”. The Sages go on to interpret the rooster’s actions anthropomorphically: When he flaps his wings up and down in a broad arc, he is, as it were, promising the hen that after they mate, he will buy her a long beautiful coat that reaches the ground. After he finishes mating, he bows its head and lowers its crest in a humble pose, as if to apologize for lacking the money to buy her the coat he promised. It looks like he is swearing on the life of his glorious crest that it should be cut off should he come into money yet not buy her the coat (Eruvin 100b).

The Sages wish to teach us here that a husband should not hold back when it comes to praising and complimenting his wife for her beauty, her character, and all the good things she says and does. It is even appropriate to stretch the truth a bit, like the rooster who makes a promise that it knows it cannot keep but thereby acknowledges his love and esteem for her, saying that this is what she truly deserves. Moreover, after marital sexual relations, a man should not act like those husbands who lose interest in their wives, turn their backs, and fall asleep. Rather, he should apologize to his wife for his limitations, which do not allow him to adequately express the love and affection she deserves.

Another principle of derekh eretz that can be learned from the natural world is that it is generally the man who must initiate intimacy, as his desire is more external and obvious, and becomes apparent relatively quickly and easily. Through his passionate arousal, his wife will respond in kind and become aroused by him. These are only general guidelines, and every couple must consummate their union however their joy is maximized (n. 4 below), yet even when one spouse is disappointed by the process of courtship and seduction, they may not abrogate the set times of ona (sections 7-8 below).

It is also important to mention in the context of derekh eretz that sexual relations are often compared to a banquet (Nedarim 20b), to teach us that just as the table is set for a banquet with a nice tablecloth, a full complement of silverware and dishes, and glasses for both wine and other beverages, and just as a banquet has appetizers, desserts, and courses in between, so too we must invest this much and more in preparing for marital sexual relations, which are a mitzva of the Torah. We must proceed patiently and gradually so that the union is consummated in complete joy. Just as it is good for banquets to vary the menu from time to time, because even the most delicious food can get boring if served too often, so too the compliments that the husband pays his wife and the ways he brings joy and pleasure to his wife should be varied. Everything must be in accordance with her desires; some people are more adventurous when it comes to trying new items on the menu, and others prefer the familiar, set menu.

It should go without saying that derekh eretz includes maintaining personal hygiene and removing anything unsightly or likely to be off-putting. Getting rid of things which are off-putting is obligatory, while going above and beyond is admirable. This applies equally to both women and men. R. Ḥisda instructed his daughters before they got married to avoid foods that would give them bad breath or upset their stomachs (Shabbat 140b). Proper hygiene is so important that neglecting it is considered grounds for divorce. (See SA EH 154:1-2.) There are many guidelines and laws for specific cases, but the general rule is that since people differ, both husband and wife must be attentive and sensitive to what may bother the other. This is even truer when it comes to things which are generally viewed as disgusting.

05. The Woman’s Mitzva

As we saw in section 2, even though the mitzvot of marriage and ona devolve upon men, women are equal partners in the fulfillment of the mitzva. Without her responsiveness to her husband, the mitzva is emptied of all its meaning. Therefore, just as it is a mitzva for a man to express his love and desire for his wife, so too, it is a mitzva for a woman to express such feelings to her husband. Indeed, this is perfectly natural, as the Sages say: “A woman’s desire is only for her husband, as the Torah states (Bereishit 3:16), ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’” (Bereishit Rabba 20:7). This desire is sacred; through it, the love between the couple is revealed and the name of God dwells with them (above, 1:1). Moreover, the mutual desire of husband and wife serves as an allegory to express the relationship between God and Israel: “I am my beloved’s, and His desire is for me” (Shir Ha-shirim 7:11).

As we have seen, the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), which R. Akiva calls “a major principle of the Torah” (Sifra ad loc.), reaches its ultimate fulfillment in marriage (Arizal, Sefer Ha-likutim, Ekev). Therefore, a woman, too, must bring her husband joy through whatever she knows will give him pleasure; the more she does so, the greater her mitzva.

The stronger the couple’s love and desire for each other, the more complete their union will be, and in this merit, their children will be even more wonderful (above, 1:4 and n. 4). Maharal writes that when a woman feels intense desire for her husband, she connects to the root of life and unity, and in this merit, she has children of the utmost refinement, who are deserving of redemption and liberty (Gevurot Hashem, ch. 43). This is what the Sages mean when they say, “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt” (Sota 11b). By virtue of their desire for their husbands, and their expression of this desire through the mitzva of ona, despite all the hardships of servitude, they gave birth to the generation of redemption (above, 1:8).

In order to increase love, wives often adorn themselves in jewelry for their husbands. Ezra the Scribe even allowed peddlers to sell perfumes and jewelry, over any objections of the townspeople, “so that the women would not become undesirable to their husbands” (Bava Kamma 82b). According to tradition, God beautified Ḥava and braided her hair so that Adam would love her more (Eruvin 18a). The main purpose of a woman’s accessories is to arouse her husband’s desire for her (Tanḥuma Vayishlaḥ §12; Shir Ha-shirim 1:2). R. Hai Gaon writes, “May a curse befall a woman who is married but does not adorn herself for her husband, and may a curse befall a woman who is not married, yet adorns herself” (Sha’arei Teshuva §84). It would seem that he is referring specifically to the type of adornments that men find arousing, and this teaches us the main purpose of perfume, jewelry, and beautiful clothing is to increase the love of husband and wife.

When a woman does not love her husband, does not long to be with him, and does not enjoy sexual relations with him, she can drain the joy from his life. The Sages said of this: “There is no end to the goodness of a good wife, and there is no end to the badness of a bad wife” (Midrash Tehilim §59). Making a similar point, the Talmud (Yevamot 63a) relates that R. Ḥiya gave the following blessing to Rav, his disciple: “God should save you from a fate worse than death,” referring to a bad wife, as it says (Kohelet 7:26), “I find woman more bitter than death.” (See also section 12 below regarding women who have difficulty fulfilling this mitzva.)

06. Women and the Virtue of Nonverbal Cues

The Sages say, “Any woman who propositions her husband to fulfill the mitzva [of ona] will have children the like of whom did not exist even in the generation of Moshe” (Eruvin 100b). This is what our matriarch Leah did: “When Yaakov came home from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, ‘Come to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ And he lay with her that night” (Bereishit 30:16). It was on that night that Leah conceived Yissachar, whose descendants were Torah scholars and leaders, as we read: “Of the Yissacharites, men who knew how to interpret the signs of the times, to determine how Israel should act: their chiefs were 200, and all their kinsmen followed them” (2 Divrei Ha-yamim 12:33).

The Talmud then questions this conclusion in light of the Sages’ dictum: “A woman propositions in her heart, while a man propositions verbally; this is an admirable trait in women.” If so, how could Leah have verbalized her proposition? Furthermore, how could she have been rewarded with a tribe of wise descendants? The Talmud explains that it is commendable for a woman to “make herself pleasing to him” – showing him signs of her affection and adorning herself for him to arouse his desire. That is, she propositions him “in her heart,” by means of nonverbal cues. This is what Leah did when she said, “Come to me.” She was expressing her love for Yaakov and her wish for him to come to her tent so they could sleep in the same bed and be close to one another. She did not explicitly request that they have sexual relations.

The reason that it is improper for her to verbally proposition him is that a man’s stamina is limited, and he is not always capable of fulfilling the mitzva of ona, which requires him to be pleasantly stimulated and aroused to the point that he can have intercourse with his wife. The mitzva of ona thus depends on the man and what his physical stamina and workload permit (as explained in the next section). A woman, by contrast, can achieve orgasm every night, and even multiple times in one night. Even when she is tense, making it difficult for her to achieve orgasm, she can be responsive to her husband’s advances and take pleasure in his joy. If she were to proposition him explicitly and verbally when he is in a state that would make it difficult for him to consummate their union, he might find it humiliating. Instead of eagerly anticipating sexual relations and finding it intensely pleasurable and enjoyable, he might start dreading it, fearing that he will be unable to do his duty. Sometimes this anxiety can cause impotence. Therefore, a woman should be coy and not proposition her husband verbally. Rather, she should use nonverbal cues that come from her heart, so that when he is not sure of his ability to fulfill the mitzva, he can respond affectionately but without the humiliation of being unable to reciprocate fully.

Additionally, when a man is so depressed and powerless that he actually feels impotent, devoid of his vitality and virility, and it seems to him that even if he wanted to, he does not possess the strength to stimulate an erection strong enough for sexual relations with his wife, then if he is fortunate, and his wife expresses her love and desire through nonverbal hints and cues, like with a warm embrace, it can revive him. It can awaken within him the desire and ability to fulfill the mitzva and consummate their union. Thus, she adds joy and light to his life (see 1:8 above).[4]

[4]. As we learned, nonverbal cues are meant to preserve the husband’s self-respect. However, as the couple’s relationship becomes stronger and more secure, the wife should do whatever will make her husband happy. Some men prefer that their wives talk openly. Some prefer that their wives take more initiative, finding that it arouses them to pleasure their wives. When a woman knows that her husband prefers it, then this is what she should do. This is not immodest; rather, it is a mitzva, as she is doing this to bring him joy.

07. The Times of Ona

The mitzva of ona depends on a husband’s stamina as well as his profession, as the Sages say in the Mishna: “The ona of which the Torah speaks is daily for tayalim (see below for a definition), twice a week for laborers, once a week for donkey drivers, once in thirty days for camel drivers, and once every six months for sailors” (m. Ketubot 5:6, 61b).

Some say that tayalim were healthy people whose jobs were easy and stress-free, for whom, therefore, the mitzva was each night. R. Shmuel bar Shilat is cited as an example. He taught schoolchildren near his home, his income was so modest that the king’s tax collectors left him alone, and his life was tranquil and secure (Rif and Rosh). Others say that tayalim were people who were so secure financially that they did not need to work at all, aside from some occasional management of their economic affairs that did not disturb their peace of mind (Rambam, Ri’az, Rabbeinu Yeruḥam, and Smag).[5]

Laborers who worked locally had the mitzva of ona twice a week. Laborers who did not work locally, even if they returned home every night, had the mitzva once a week, since traveling is very draining. Donkey drivers, who transported produce from villages to markets, were generally away from home six days of the week, so their mitzva was only once a week. Camel drivers, who generally transported merchandise across long distances, would usually only return home once a month, so their mitzva of ona was once a month. Sailors, who would be at sea for half a year, had the mitzva of ona once every six months (Ketubot 62a-b; SA EH 76:5). Torah scholars, whose Torah study exhausts them, had a mitzva of ona on the eves of Shabbat, Yom Tov, and Rosh Ḥodesh (SA ad loc; MA 240:3). Some of the greatest Aḥaronim write that it is better for Torah scholars to fulfill the mitzva of ona twice a week (Me’il Tzedaka §51; Pitḥei Teshuva, EH 76:3; BHL 240:1).

A married tayal could not become a laborer without his wife’s agreement, even if his new job would improve their financial situation. Since she married him with the understanding that he was a tayal, he could not reduce the ona to which she was entitled without her consent. Similarly, a laborer whose obligation of ona was twice a week could not become a donkey driver whose obligation was once a week without his wife’s consent. Likewise, a donkey driver who wanted to become a camel driver or a camel driver who wanted to become a sailor had to ask his wife’s permission. However, a tayal who wanted to become a Torah scholar could do so due to the greatness of the mitzva of studying Torah; his wife could not protest, even though he would be reducing her ona (Ketubot 62b; SA EH 76:5; Beit Shmuel ad loc. 8).

These rulings were formulated in an age that was very different from the one we live in today. On one hand, most men work fewer hours than in the past, doing jobs that are less physically demanding. In this sense, they are most similar to tayalim. Even those who commute to work do so by car, bus, or train and are akin to local laborers, and perhaps even tayalim, as long as their commute is not terribly exhausting. On the other hand, life has become more stressful due to the competitive labor market and increased interest in news reports, sources of information, and communications media. As a result, people sleep less, which reduces their natural desire to fulfill the mitzva.

Therefore, it seems that the obligation of ona for most men is twice a week, perhaps a bit more frequent for younger people. Those whose work is particularly taxing, whether physically or emotionally, are obligated only once a week. In contrast, men who work in exceptionally easy professions are obligated more than twice a week, and perhaps even daily, like tayalim.

[5]. Even though tayalim have a mitzva every night, a tayal who wishes to act piously and ascetically can ask his wife’s permission to limit his ona to four or five times a week. If she consents, he may do so. This does not detract from the mitzva, as the Raavad applies to tayalim’s set times the Sages’ advice about how to respond to the evil inclination: “The left hand should push it away, while the right hand should draw it close” (Sanhedrin 107b). Tur records Raavad’s view as halakha (240, EH 25). Me’il Tzedaka §43 takes this approach as well. However, a laborer, whose set time of ona is twice a week, should not reduce his mitzva even if his wife agrees. The Talmud in Ketubot 62a also discusses a related issue: according to Rava, married students who study in yeshivot near their homes are considered tayalim, with a daily mitzva of ona. Abaye rejects Rava’s opinion on the grounds that yeshiva students need to invest heavily in their studies in terms of both time and effort, so they are not similar to tayalim. However, if they study Torah only part of the day without exerting great effort, they have the status of tayalim (see Igrot Moshe, EH 3:28).

08. Beyond the Set Times

In addition to the set obligation of the mitzva of ona, which for most men is twice a week, it is a mitzva for every husband to have sexual relations with his wife when she desires him, as long as he has the strength for it, i.e., that he is capable of consummating the union.

Thus, the Torah’s commandment of ona has two parts. First, there are set times based on what the husband’s health and workload permit; these times provide a regular expression for the couple’s bond and mutual desire. It is precisely this regularity that gives expression to the stability of their loving relationship. It is also why the Torah refers to this mitzva as “ona,” “time,” when it mentions a man’s conjugal duties (Shemot 21:10).

Second, there is another part of the mitzva, which applies when the wife’s desire is aroused. The Torah commands the man to be responsive and to consummate their union with abundant joy. It is likewise a mitzva and a duty for the wife to be responsive to her husband, if he wishes to have sexual relations with her more often than required.[6]

In light of the second component of the mitzva, a question arises regarding the first one: Why must the Torah establish set times for a couple to express their love for each other? Why not leave the frequency of the mitzva up to them? After all, according to the second component, if one spouse is in the mood, the other has a mitzva and an obligation to respond, even if this takes place daily. Conversely, if, over the course of several weeks, neither husband nor wife initiates intimacy, why must they be instructed to have sexual relations at set times?

There are three answers to this question. First, it often happens that as the years go by, life’s demands grow. Since sexual relations are no longer new and special as at first, the couple are liable to push it off, one time because of exhaustion, another time because of a preoccupation, the next time for a headache, and the time after that an upset stomach. Even though each time they both agree to forgo the mitzva, in fact their loving relationship is weakened. Deep in their hearts, each one is hurt that the other does not yearn for more intimacy, and when one does not initiate, the other also loses interest, deepening their sense of insult and the growing distance between them. Therefore, the mitzva of ona is there to instruct them to fulfill the onot on a regular basis. Only on rare occasions, when they are especially tense, may they forgo the mitzva by mutual consent.

Second, if the mitzva were always dependent on one spouse expressing desire, there would be concern that the spouse who is more often in the mood would become ashamed to always be the one to initiate. In contrast, when both husband and wife know that they have a mitzva to have sexual relations twice a week, they will fulfill the mitzva on a regular basis, and the need to indicate the desire for additional intimacy can be reserved for when one of them is feeling particularly amorous.

Third, as we mentioned above (section 4), the mitzva must be done with full attentiveness, with attention to tiny detail, much like an elaborate banquet. The Sages assessed how frequently a couple can fulfill the mitzva of ona in a wholesome manner, and this is consequently the mitzva of the Torah. If the man goes too far beyond this frequency, there is concern that it will become superficial for him, something he does just to satisfy his urges, without bringing proper pleasure to his wife. The unique joy of the mitzva would wane. To avoid that, and to ensure that the mitzva can be fulfilled properly, the Sages set a fixed frequency. Nevertheless, this is a general guideline; when a woman yearns for more, it is a mitzva for her husband to be responsive if he is able. Likewise, when a man yearns for more and feels that he can properly pleasure his wife, this, too, fulfills a mitzva.[7]

[6]. The Mishna (Ketubot 5:6) refers to “the ona that is stated in the Torah.” This means that the onot that the Sages established are the framework for the fulfillment of the Torah commandment. It is for this reason that the mitzva is called “ona,” to indicate that it has set times (Pnei Yehoshua on Ketubot 61b). Above and beyond those onot, Rava asserts that a man has a duty to bring his wife joy even outside the set times (Pesaḥim 72b). Rashi explains that this is “if he sees that she desires him.” Shulḥan Arukh rules accordingly (240:1). Some Aḥaronim maintain that even though both of these types of ona are Torah commandments, the second type is more important, since the essence of the mitzva is to respond to his wife’s yearning. (Section 8 below elaborates on this.) This is the opinion of Ḥida; Ḥokhmat Adam 128:19; and Igrot Moshe, EH 3:28. However, when the husband does not have the strength (meaning, he cannot sustain an erection), he is exempt, because the circumstances are beyond his control (ones).

Likewise, if a man wishes to have sexual relations with his wife more often than required, she must be responsive. Since nothing comparable to sustaining an erection is required of her, she may not refuse without a compelling reason (see the beginning of n. 12 below).

In both cases, even though the one who denies their spouse is violating a Torah commandment, he or she is not considered “rebellious” (“mored/et”), which would be grounds for divorce, since this is about sexual relations beyond the set times. In contrast, if one spouse avoids sexual relations at one of the times set in accordance with the husband’s health and workload, that spouse is considered rebellious and loses their ketuba rights (Responsa Rashba 1:693; Tashbetz 2:259; Ḥelkat Meḥokek 76:20; Maḥaneh Ḥayim 2:41, cited in Otzar Ha-poskim 77:1. See also MT, Laws of Marriage 15:18; Ba’er Heitev, EH 77:7; Meshiv Davar 4:35; and Igrot Moshe 4:75). Obviously, even at the set times of ona, a husband may not rape his wife if she refuses him. Rather, the only option available to him is to initiate divorce and cause her to lose her ketuba.

[7]. People naturally differ. Some men naturally need sexual relations more frequently than the onot established by the Sages for the general population, based on their physical stamina and workload. Even when his wife cannot reach orgasm more than twice a week, because to do so she would need to get more sleep and be more relaxed, the couple should make sure that twice a week they fulfill the mitzva of ona completely. At other times when the husband is in the mood, they can fulfill the mitzva of ona pleasurably but without trying for the wife to have an orgasm. See below, 3:3 and 3:5, where we discuss Raavad’s fourth reason for being intimate at set times – to prevent people from sinful thoughts. Although this is less positive than the other reasons, there is still a mitzva to have relations for this reason. (See ch. 3 n. 4, where we explain when one should minimize the manifestation of one’s urges, and when it is forbidden to minimize them.)

As explained in the previous note, a wife may refuse to be intimate only when she has a compelling reason to do so. Pregnancy, nursing, or minor aches are not considered a compelling reason (below, n. 12).

09. Mikveh Night and the Night Before Traveling

It is a mitzva for a man to have sexual relations with his wife on the night she immerses in the mikveh (SA EH 76:4). If he does not do so, he has neglected a mitzva of the Torah and violated the severe transgression of causing his wife pain, for it is extremely insulting for a woman to immerse and purify herself only for her husband to have no desire to be intimate with her. This night is considered a set time of ona; if their mitzva is twice a week, then this is considered their first time for that week.

A man about to travel has a mitzva to have sexual relations with his wife the night before his departure (Yevamot 62b; SA EH 76:4), because their yearning to be together is especially strong then, as it is written: “You will know that all is well (shalom) in your tent; when you visit your wife, you will never sin” (Iyov 5:24). In fulfilling this mitzva before traveling, the husband takes leave of his wife with love, joy, and peace (shalom). They will not sin or betray each other while apart, neither in thought nor in deed. However, if the purpose of the journey is to fulfill a mitzva, and if having sexual relations will interfere with that mitzva, then ona is not obligatory (Rashi; Nimukei Yosef).[8]

The mitzva of ona applies before any trip that evokes feelings of separation and longing, which may differ from person to person. Still, minimally, it refers to a trip that involves at least one night away from home. It is also obvious that if the trip will last long enough that they will have to forgo one set ona time, then even without feelings of longing, there is a mitzva for the couple to have sexual relations on the night before departure.

The same law applies when the wife must travel away from home. If her trip prompts feelings of longing or if it causes a set time of ona to be missed, there is a mitzva for her and her husband to have sexual relations the night before she leaves.

When a trip is planned for the day before mikveh night, it is a mitzva to postpone the trip until after the wife immerses and they fulfill the mitzva of ona (Rema, YD 184:10).

Some authorities maintain that there is also a mitzva for a couple to have sexual relations when one of them returns from such a trip (Zohar I 50a; Rashba; Ba’er Heitev 240:19). Certainly, if either spouse wishes to be intimate at this point, all agree that the mitzva of ona applies. It speaks well for their relationship if, after one of them has been away, they wish to be intimate with each other and joyfully fulfill this mitzva.

[8]. The Talmud states (Yevamot 62b):

  1. Yehoshua b. Levi says, “A man is obligated to have sexual relations with his wife when he departs on a trip, as it says, ‘You will know that all is well in your tent.’” Is the law derived from here? Is it not derived from the verse, “Your desire shall be for your husband,” which teaches that a woman yearns for her husband when he leaves for a trip? R. Yosef answers: “This [extra verse] is not necessary except [to teach us that the obligation applies] near the expected onset of her period.” How close? Rava answers, “A span of twelve hours.” This all applies to [a husband traveling] for something voluntary, but for a mitzva, he is preoccupied.

Many understand the Talmud to mean that since ona is a Torah commandment, even during the time of the month when normally the couple must refrain from sexual relations because she is near the onset of her period, before a trip it is a mitzva for them to have relations, as long as she has not seen blood (Rashi, Raavad, Rashba, Rabbeinu Yeruḥam, Raavan, and SA YD 184:10). Others have a different text of R. Yosef’s statement. Instead of “This [extra verse] is not necessary except [to teach us that the obligation applies] near the expected onset of her period,” the text reads, “This [extra verse] is not necessary except [to teach us that the obligation applies] when his wife is a nidda.” The meaning in that case would be that he should take leave of his wife with words of affection and love (Rabbeinu Tam, R. Zeraḥya Halevi, Rosh, Or Zaru’a, and Smak). Since, according to these poskim, there is no obligation to have sexual relations prior to embarking on a trip, doing so is not permitted near the expected onset of her period. Nevertheless, if she is not expecting her period, and either the husband or wife yearns for intimacy prior to a trip, clearly even these poskim would agree that it is obligatory.

10. Friday Night

The Sages say that the habit of Torah scholars is to fulfill the mitzva of ona on Friday night (Ketubot 62b), and of them it is written, “That yields its fruit in its season” (Tehilim 1:3). Halakhic authorities add that it is a mitzva for Torah scholars to fulfill the mitzva of ona on the nights of Yom Tov and Rosh Ḥodesh (MA 240:3). There are several reasons for this. First, by fulfilling the mitzva of ona, the couple also fulfills the mitzva of oneg Shabbat (making Shabbat a delight), and it is likewise proper to be extra joyful on Yom Tov and Rosh Ḥodesh. Moreover, holy days are fitting times to fulfill the mitzva of ona, as we find that after the giving of the Torah and the dedication of the Temple, Israel fulfilled the mitzva of ona (1:6 above). In addition, on these days, Torah scholars study less Torah than usual, and therefore they are more available to fulfill the mitzva of ona in the most complete way.

The mitzva to have sexual relations on Shabbat is not limited to Torah scholars. Rather, it is a mitzva for all couples, as a fulfillment of oneg Shabbat. In the words of Shulḥan Arukh: “Marital intimacy is one of the pleasures of Shabbat” (280:1).

However, sometimes it is difficult or uncomfortable to be intimate on Friday night. People are often tired then, whether from working all week long or from Shabbat preparations, and exhaustion makes it difficult to fulfill the mitzva in the ideal way. Since the essence of the Torah commandment is for their union to be joyful, if either spouse is so tired on Friday night that they will find it difficult to truly enjoy themselves, it is preferable for them to fulfill the mitzva of ona on Saturday night or on a different night when they are not tired. Although Zohar speaks of the great value of fulfilling the mitzva of ona on Shabbat, since the essence of the mitzva is for it to be joyful, when fulfilling it on Shabbat will detract from the joy, waiting until Saturday night is preferable.[9]

[9]. It is good to shower or bathe after sexual relations, because of Ezra’s decree (below, 3:9). See Peninei Halakha: Shabbat, vol. 1, 14:8 for the laws of bathing on Shabbat. When one spouse is tired on Friday night, the couple can be intimate on Shabbat day by darkening the room, as explained below in section 15. According to Zohar (III 81b and Tikkunei Zohar §21, 57a), there is great value in fulfilling the mitzva on Friday night specifically. Some couples are stringent and refrain from relations during the week, especially when the wife is likely to get pregnant, based on the kabbalistic idea that Friday night is the best time for sexual intimacy and for drawing down holy souls to this world. This is the practice of those who follow the path of ascetic sanctity (see 3:12 below, and Harḥavot here). Nevertheless, even according to them, it is clear that when such abstinence might cause sinful thoughts, it is preferable to have relations during the week in order to avoid such thoughts (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 240:2, 8). In any case, in practice, the essence of the Torah commandment of ona is that it be fulfilled joyfully, and we do not allow pious practices based on Kabbala to uproot the essence of the mitzva. Additionally, as we said in section 7, the mainstream approach is that Torah scholars should be intimate with their wives twice a week (see also below, 3:13-14.)

11. Men Who Have Difficulty Fulfilling the Mitzva

Everything we have learned regarding the man’s duty of ona relates to healthy men, who transgress a Torah prohibition if they subtract from the set frequency for ona. If this behavior continues, it is obvious grounds for divorce, and the wife receives her ketuba payment in full (1:2 above). However, if a man’s difficulty in fulfilling the mitzva at the set times is attributable to a health problem, his only obligation is to do what the doctors deem him capable of (SA EH 76:3). Since problems often stem from specific hormone deficiencies or other medical conditions, and most of these issues are now treatable, he is obligated to consult with doctors. Occasionally, psychological or emotional problems are what cause him to forgo onot or to not make his wife as happy as he should. He must seek treatment for these issues as well. If it is a minor issue, consulting a rabbi is usually effective. If the problem is serious, he must seek the help of a God-fearing therapist who specializes in that area. If the husband neglects to deal with the problem appropriately, he negates a Torah commandment. Because he is not properly fulfilling the times of ona, his wife may file for divorce, and he must pay her ketuba in full.

If the husband has done his best to correct the problem by consulting with doctors and therapists, yet is still unable to fulfill the mitzva of ona on a regular basis, then as long as he manages to consummate their relationship at least once every six months, thus meeting the least frequent requirement for ona, namely, the practice of sailors (section 7 above), it is not grounds for divorce and payment of the ketuba. If he cannot meet even this minimum threshold, his wife can decide how to proceed. If she is willing to live with him in this state, she is permitted to do so, and if she wants to divorce, her husband must divorce her and pay her ketuba in full (SA EH 76:11). It goes without saying that even a man who cannot fully consummate their relationship must still please his wife and gladden her with kisses, embraces, and caresses that bring her to orgasm. In general, if a husband does this, even though he cannot engage in intercourse, his wife will not want to divorce him.[10]

If one’s wife is truly willing to forgo ona, her relinquishment is valid as long as her husband has already fulfilled the mitzva of procreation. However, if he has not yet fulfilled this mitzva, he is required to fulfill all the set times of ona during which there is a chance that she will get pregnant. If he is unable to fulfill his conjugal duties, he must heed the instruction of doctors to fulfill his mitzva (SA EH 76:6).

Even when the husband has already fulfilled the mitzva of procreation and the wife is willing to forgo ona, he should preferably not give up on this mitzva. Rather, he should get medical advice about what might allow him to fulfill ona properly, since that is the proper and healthy way to live. A person should try to fulfill all the mitzvot even when there is no absolute obligation to do so (such as wearing tzitzit or undertaking acts of kindness). Similarly, he should make every effort to fulfill this precious and holy mitzva, which is responsible for the Shekhina dwelling in the world in general and with the couple in particular.[11]

[10]. One of the ten ordinances instituted by Ezra the Scribe was for men to eat garlic on Friday night to help them fulfill the mitzva of ona, as garlic was considered a potency-enhancing aphrodisiac (Bava Kamma 82a). Regarding the set times of ona, SA EH 76:3 states: “The obligation of someone who is unhealthy is only what they deem him capable of.” This assessment is made by experts, meaning doctors. Today, thank God, medicinal solutions have been discovered for most such conditions. For example, sometimes a man feels no desire to be intimate with his wife because his testosterone levels are abnormally low. This can be diagnosed with a simple blood test, therefore the husband must take a testosterone supplement in order to fulfill the mitzva. Sometimes difficulties stem from blood flow problems, and there are medications for this as well. Thus, a man who cannot properly fulfill the mitzva of ona properly must see a doctor to find a cure for his condition, and if he does not do so, he neglects a Torah commandment, just as if he does not recite Shema or put on tefilin. The same applies to a woman who feels that she cannot fulfill this mitzva joyfully, as is proper.

If a man cannot fulfill even one ona every six months, his wife may file for divorce and receive payment of her ketuba in full, even if it is likely that a cure will be discovered within a few years (this emerges from Rambam, Shulḥan Arukh, and most poskim). Some say that if the doctors estimate that there is a good chance that he will become healthy in the next few years, she may not demand a divorce (Or Zaru’a; Ḥelkat Meḥokek, EH 76:18; Beit Shmuel ad loc. 17).

If the couple are elderly or even just adults who have had a good relationship for years, then even if there is no chance that the husband’s condition will improve, the beit din tries to persuade the wife to remain with her husband. However, if she still insists on a divorce, her husband is required to divorce her (Responsa Maharalbaḥ §§29-30).

Some ask whether it is permissible to use a vibrator to facilitate the wife’s orgasm when conventional methods are unsuccessful. The answer is that if on a regular basis the couple’s efforts do not succeed in bringing her to orgasm, it is a mitzva to use this device. As long as her husband is the one giving her pleasure, even if it is with the help of an external device, he is fulfilling the Torah’s commandment. Even if they can reach orgasm without using a vibrator, they are permitted to use it as they see fit. The more a man pleasures his wife, the greater his mitzva. However, it is forbidden for a man or woman to masturbate, whether manually or using devices, because sexual pleasure must be reserved for their lovemaking, and only thus is the mitzva fulfilled. When it is in the context of an individual’s urges, it is considered a sin (as explained below, 4:1 and 4:10 with n. 15).

If a man is so sensitive that he ejaculates prematurely during foreplay, he is not considered to be wasting his seed, as we learn that several Rishonim permit anal intercourse (section 18 below). In their opinion, intercourse with other parts of the body, that is, ejaculation that occurs through embracing and touching between a man and a woman, is permitted as well. This is the opinion of Orḥot Ḥayim (Hilkhot Ketubot §7); Rabbeinu Yona (Sanhedrin 58b); Tur, EH 25:2; and Rema ad loc. Even those who forbid this would agree that when it is not intentional, such as in the case of premature ejaculation, there is no prohibition. As we learn with respect to Shabbat (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat, vol. 1, 9:5), when one does not intend to so something and it is not a foregone conclusion that it will be done, there is no transgression (Rabbi Yehuda Aszod, Yehuda Ya’aleh vol. 1, YD 238; Imrei Bina vol. 4, EH 8; Imrei Esh, YD 69). However, often a man with this tendency does not manage to bring his wife pleasure properly, so he must consult with a God-fearing specialist about how to prevent this from happening.

[11]. SAH 280:2, states that if a wife is willing to forgo ona on Friday night, it is permissible to skip it, but adds that “even so, it is good to uphold it.” The Talmud recounts that R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi asked R. Shimon b.Ḥalafta why he did not come to visit during the holiday. He answered sorrowfully that old age had crept up on him: “The rocks seem higher; what had been close is now far; two have become three (meaning he now needed a cane to function as a third leg); and that which promoted peace in the home has ceased” (Shabbat 152a). Rashi explains “that which promoted peace in the home” to refer to the male sexual organ. R. Nissim Gaon says, “It refers to sexual desire, which nurtures peace between husband and wife.” See above, 1:4-6. Rav Kook writes (Mitzvat Re’aya, EH §1) that if an elderly man finds it difficult to have sexual relations, and his wife is willing to forgo ona, he must still engage in relations at least once every six months (the ona of sailors, which is the least frequent; see section 7 above).

12. Women Who Have Difficulty Fulfilling the Mitzva

As we learned (section 1 above), the essence of the mitzva is for a husband to pleasure his wife and give her as much joy as he can, until she reaches orgasm. However, this is not in the hands of the husband alone; sometimes, despite his best efforts, his wife will not reach orgasm. There can be various reasons which may account for this. As we already learned (section 2), a woman’s spiritual, psychological, and physical selves are more integrated than a man’s, so when a woman is preoccupied or exhausted, or if she does not recognize the value of the mitzva, it is possible that all attempts will fail to bring her to orgasm. On the contrary, the effort may well leave her frustrated and sad, because as pleasure builds toward its climax, it produces a great physical and psychological yearning to reach orgasm and the release that accompanies it. When that has not been fulfilled, it leaves profound frustration. If a woman repeatedly experiences this frustration, she might prefer to forgo the attempt to have an orgasm altogether, in order to avoid the despondency that follows failure.

Therefore, when a woman knows that it will be difficult for her to reach orgasm, she can forgo the attempt and still enjoy the pleasant gratification that accompanies the conjugal act itself. To that end, her husband must pleasure her gently, and she should be responsive to him and receive him lovingly. This way they can fulfill the mitzva on a be-di’avad level. As long as they usually succeed in fulfilling the mitzva le-khatḥila, wherein the wife reaches orgasm, and only occasionally rely on what is permitted be-di’avad, this is natural and normal, and they should not feel bad about it at all. But they should make every effort to ensure that this does not happen often.

When the situation is not as good, and the wife usually does not reach orgasm, the couple must figure out the reason and find a solution. Sometimes the problem stems from exhaustion or stress, in which case they must adjust their lifestyles so that they are more balanced: reducing stress, getting more sleep, or at least making sure to get enough sleep in anticipation of intimacy. Sometimes, the problem occurs early in married life, when a couple has not yet learned how to bring the wife to orgasm, in which case they must learn how to fulfill the mitzva properly. They should not neglect the problem, since this mitzva is no less holy than the other mitzvot. Of course, if the wife knows that something specific will be more enjoyable for her, she should not be embarrassed to tell her husband.

If, despite all efforts, a husband is unsuccessful in pleasuring his wife and bringing her to orgasm, it is a mitzva for him to consult a rabbi or specialist, or for her to consult a rabbanit or a specialist. Sometimes simple suggestions can solve the problem, in which case a rabbi or rabbanit can help. Sometimes it is necessary to delve deeper into the internal barriers to their union, and sometimes the barrier is the result of a medical condition, in which case it is necessary to consult a specialist. In any case, the couple has an obligation to treat the problem so that they can fulfill the mitzva properly.

In the meantime, while they are trying to resolve the problems, they must make sure to keep to the regular frequency of ona. As long as the wife gains some pleasure from intercourse itself or from the associated embraces and caresses, then even though their situation is be-di’avad, they are still fulfilling the mitzva. But if the wife does not experience even this pleasure, the situation is grave. They must continue to have intercourse on a regular basis, thereby upholding the covenant of their marriage, but they are fulfilling only the bare minimum of the mitzva, as when a mitzva is fulfilled under extenuating circumstances. However, as we have said, this must not suffice for them; they are obligated to seek help and to consult with experts so that they can fulfill the mitzva le-khatḥila. For when the wife does not enjoy the mitzva, she is left feeling empty, and it is also very hurtful to her husband, as he, too, is prevented from experiencing the most profound joy. Instead of his desire to be intimate with his wife being received joyfully and leading to a wholesome and noble union, he is left lonely and miserable; his sexual desire seems like a contemptible lust that forces him to have sex with his wife in order to satisfy his urges and avoid sin.

Nevertheless, if they made every effort but did not manage to find a remedy for their condition, they should still make sure to have sexual relations on a regular basis, fulfilling the mitzva under these extenuating circumstances. The kindness and compassion that they have for one another and their fulfillment of their moral obligations toward one another, as the Torah commands, will sanctify their marriage covenant.[12]

[12]. There are three levels in the fulfillment of this mitzva: a) The primary mitzva, wherein the husband pleasures his wife until she reaches orgasm; b) be-di’avad, when the woman enjoys sexual relations but does not climax; for those who practice ascetic sanctity, when the wife is in complete agreement, this, too, is considered le-khatḥila (3:12 below); c) under extenuating circumstances, when the woman derives no pleasure, but she and her husband have sexual relations in order to fulfill their marital covenant and in order to prevent the husband from sinning, which is the lowest purpose for fulfilling the mitzva (3:3 below), although there is still holiness (3:5 below). As long as they are married, husband and wife may not forgo a set ona time unless there is full mutual consent, because the onot give expression to their marital union. We have already seen (1:2) that refusing intimacy is the principal grounds for divorce, for it goes against the very reason for marrying. Only if a woman has a very compelling reason may she, with rabbinic consent, forgo one of the set times of ona (see note 6 above). Pregnancy and nursing are not considered compelling reasons, unless a doctor has given special instructions in her particular case. It must be emphasized that one should avoid going to doctors who make light of the mitzva of ona, and who irresponsibly instruct their patients to refrain from intercourse, or who do not make efforts to find remedies for women whose excessive bleeding renders them prohibited to their husbands. The Sages tell us that King David was so pious that he was willing to forgo the honor due a king, sullying his hands with blood from the amniotic sac and the placenta in order to be able to render a woman pure and permitted to her husband (Berakhot 4a). In contrast, these doctors, whose job this is, cavalierly separate husbands and wives. Therefore, even when a couple receive medical instruction to abstain from sexual relations, the couple should consult with a respected rabbi regarding how to proceed. Sometimes it is necessary to switch doctors, and sometimes, when the doctor is God-fearing and reliable, they must consider whether it would be proper to have anal sexual relations (see section 18 below; Rema, EH 25:2). Often, affairs and betrayals begin when a couple is not having sexual relations regularly, such as while the wife is pregnant or nursing (3:7 below, and n. 4).

Some women suffer from fear of intercourse (genophobia) or conditions like vaginismus and vestibulodynia, which make them unable to have sexual intercourse or make it painful, with varying degrees of pain, even if technically possible. These issues have become more common in recent times, affecting up to ten percent of women. It seems to stem, in part, from the tension between permissiveness and natural bashfulness, such that a traumatic experience, in which a woman is pressured by prevailing norms into overcoming her sense of privacy, can generate or exacerbate such problems.

According to halakha, when a woman cannot have sexual relations with her husband, it is grounds for divorce, and her husband is exempt from paying her ketuba and its supplements, since the basic premise of marriage is not being fulfilled (see SA EH 117:2; Piskei Din Rabbaniyim vol. 4, p. 325). If a woman allows her husband to have sexual relations with her at the set times but suffers from them, then since he cannot be happy with her as is accepted and appropriate, he has the right to divorce her, but he must pay her ketuba (see Beit Shmuel, EH 117:9). However, this need not lead to divorce, since it is almost always possible to solve the problem so that she can reach orgasm normally. Unfortunately, many women who suffer from these conditions do not understand the severity of the problem. It seems that their physical difficulty combines with an emotional obstruction, to the extent that they think that physical intimacy is not important. To their thinking, if their husbands have a hard time with that, they must overcome their urges and not hound their wives. They do not realize that had their husbands known about this issue from the start, they probably would have called off the wedding. These wives are also oblivious to the fact that if the problem persists, the chances are that sooner or later, it will lead to divorce. In mild cases, realizing the importance of the mitzva and acknowledging the deleterious effect that the problem has on the marriage enables the woman to overcome the problem without outside intervention. In more severe cases, this awareness allows her to understand the importance of seeking treatment and gives her the courage to follow the instructions of doctors and therapists until the root of the problem is found and it is then resolved.

13. Flawed Sexual Union and the Resulting Children

The Sages commend those who sanctify themselves during marital sexual relations, stating that they will merit having good children (Shevu’ot 18b). This “sanctity” entails the couple concentrating solely on their wholehearted love for one another. The greater their love, and the greater their wish for good and righteous children, the holier their sexual union, through which they merit having such children (above, 1:4 and 2:5-6; below, 3:3).

In contrast, the less love and devotion they have toward one another, the more flawed their sexual union, and the greater the likelihood of imperfections within their children. The Talmud lists nine types of flaws in marital sexual relations as well as the resulting imperfections in children conceived through such unions: “Children of fear and rape; children of antipathy; children of ostracism; children of exchange; children of strife; children of drunkenness; children of estrangement; children of entanglement; and children of brazenness” (Nedarim 20b):[13]

  1. Children of fear and rape: The husband threatens his wife and coerces her into having sexual relations, or the wife forces her husband to have sexual relations with her with coercion or intimidation.
  2. Children of antipathy: The husband despises his wife and has sex with her only to satisfy his urges, or the wife despises her husband and has sex with him only to satisfy her urges.
  3. Children of ostracism: The couple has sexual relations when one of them has been excommunicated. Although a person who is excommunicated is not prohibited from having sexual relations (Shakh, YD 334:12), nevertheless, since the rest of the community must distance themselves from such people until they repair their actions, sexual intimacy with them does not have the proper devotion and joy.
  4. Children of exchange: During sexual intercourse, the husband is thinking about another woman or the wife about another man.
  5. Children of strife: The couple is in the middle of an argument and they have sexual relations before making up. Their quarrel does not permit them to forgo their ona, but they have a duty to make up before having sexual relations.
  6. Children of drunkenness: If a couple has sexual relations while one of them is drunk, their union lacks the complete focus on their love and unity.
  7. Children of estrangement: When one of the couple wants to divorce, even if they still have love for each other, their union is incomplete.
  8. Children of entanglement: A woman divorces and remarries someone else within three months (leading to confusion about paternity).
  9. Children of brazenness: When a woman demands sex from her husband in a brazen, coarse, or foul-mouthed manner, or a husband from his wife, such a union contains no love, only the satisfying of lust.
  10. Masekhet Kalla (1:16) introduces a tenth category, children of sleeping: When a man has sexual relations with his wife while she is sleeping, such a union lacks mutual love.

It is said of people conceived under these nine circumstances that since their souls are drawn down to this world by means of a union devoid of love and unity, they are flawed, making it difficult for them to connect to the sacred or to overcome their evil impulses. In addition, when parents lack love and understanding, their feelings of distance and alienation negatively impact the children, who need an environment of love, friendship, stability, and emotional warmth in order to thrive.

Of course, children conceived under these circumstances have free will like everyone else, and if they choose to do what is right, their reward will be even greater, for they will have overcome their evil impulse as well as the poor role models they witnessed at home. However, if they do not make the effort to improve themselves, their tendency toward wickedness will prevail.

When peaceful harmony between husband and wife is compromised throughout the Jewish people, and many children are conceived from flawed unions, it causes a rift between God and the Jewish people, leading to the exile of the people from their land. The purpose of the travails of exile is to purge Israel of its sinners and rebels, born of flawed unions, and to restore and rekindle faith, leading to Israel’s ultimate redemption. As it says, “I will remove from you those who rebel and transgress against Me; I will take them out of the countries where they sojourn, but they shall not enter upon the soil of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord” (Yeḥezkel 20:38; see also 20:40-44).

[13]. Masekhet Kalla 1:16 states that “they are like mamzerim, yet they are not mamzerim.” The implication is that these children are considered to be born out of a type of emotional adultery. A woman’s thoughts can be just as damaging as a man’s, as is evident from Tanḥuma Naso §7: “If a woman has sexual relations with her husband and is thinking about a man she saw on the street while her husband is penetrating her, there is nothing more adulterous than this.” Rather, the most important thing is for husband and wife to achieve sexual union with complete love for one another, as Rambam wrote, “with mutual desire and joy” (MT, Laws of Dispositions 5:4). Likewise, the other Rishonim wrote that lack of love is what leads to the nine types of flaw (Raavad, Sha’ar Ha-kedusha; Tur, EH 25:1). The Vilna Gaon, discussing the importance of sanctifying oneself during marital sexual relations, writes: “This refers primarily to the children of the nine flaws, of which it is written, ‘I will remove from you those who rebel and transgress’ (Yeḥezkel 20:38), who originate in the mixed multitude and the Tree of Knowledge” (commentary on Tikkunei Zohar, end of §53). Rabbeinu Baḥya likewise writes, “Sanctity is purity of thought, that he does not think about another woman or anything else, only his wife” (commentary on Bereishit 30:38). In 3:3 below we will explain the two levels of sanctity during intimacy.

14. Inappropriate Times for Sexual Relations

Marital sexual relations are prohibited during times of national crisis, such as widespread famine or war. Only those who have not yet fulfilled the mitzva of procreation may be intimate during such times (Ta’anit 11a; SA 240:12; MB ad loc. 47). On mikveh night, many permit marital sexual relations even in times of crisis (SA 574:4). Others are stringent (MA). If a man’s urge is overpowering him, making him likely to sin, he may have sexual relations with his wife even when the world is in crisis (MB 240:46).

On Yom Kippur and Tisha Be-Av, sexual relations are forbidden as one of the five activities prohibited on these major fast days. In order to ensure that they not end up sinning, husband and wife should behave on these days as they do while she is a nidda. That is, they should neither touch each other, nor sleep in the same bed (SA 615:1; MB ad loc. 1). However, during the day of Tisha Be-Av, which is not as strict, they may touch, since there is little concern that it will lead to intimacy. Still, even on the day of Tisha Be-Av, they may not touch affectionately or sleep in the same bed (Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 10:9; Peninei Halakha: Yamim Nora’im 8:7).

A person observing the seven-day mourning period (shiva) may not have sexual relations, because the mitzva of ona must be fulfilled joyfully, while a mourner is grieving (Mo’ed Katan 15b; SA YD 383:1). However, a mourner need not observe the additional rabbinical restrictions (harḥakot) of nidda. Therefore, husband and wife may touch, and she may make his bed in his presence. Still, hugging and kissing of a sexual nature are prohibited (Rema, YD 383:1; Nehar Mitzrayim, Hilkhot Avelut §113; Shulḥan Gavo’ah 342:14). If the mourner plans to sleep in their own bed, the couple must separate their beds to avoid a situation that may lead to sexual intimacy (SA ad loc.). It would seem that a comforting hug and a polite kiss are permitted, as long as they are not sexual in nature. Upon conclusion of the shiva, the couple should resume fulfilling the mitzva of ona completely. It is even a mitzva for the wife to adorn herself for that purpose, even during the thirty-day mourning period (SA YD 381:6).[14]

[14]. Some observed the stringency of refraining from sexual relations, bathing, and applying ointments on the eve of the minor fast days, but that was during times of terrible persecution. At such times, some say that le-khatḥila all the fast days should be treated like Tisha Be-Av. Nowadays, there is no place for this stringency, as explained in Peninei Halakha: Zemanim, ch. 7 n. 2. MA (240:3) states that according to Arizal, it is proper to refrain from sexual relations on the nights of Rosh Ha-shana, Seder night, Shavu’ot, and Shemini Atzeret (and certainly not during the daytime of those holidays). Nevertheless, if mikveh night falls out on one of these times, it is a mitzva to have sexual relations on those nights as well (Shlah). Other Aḥaronim echo this stringency. Ḥokhmat Adam 128:19 argues that the stringency is limited to a man who is so God-fearing that there is no concern that he might have sinful thoughts. For any man who does not fit into this category, it is best that he have sexual marital relations and avoid sinning. This is also the position of MB 240:7. Darkhei Tahara adds (22:24) that when there is a mitzva from the Torah to have sexual relations, such as when the wife yearns for it, the mitzva applies even on those nights.

15. Privacy

Privacy (tzni’ut; lit. “hiddenness”) is an expression of the sanctity of the mitzva of ona; Rashi explains the Sages’ exhortation to sanctify oneself: “Engage in sexual relations in a private manner” (Nidda 71a). This precious mitzva is meant to express the complete unity between husband and wife, so it is forbidden to expose it before others, and it is forbidden for others to discuss it. Every couple has its own special way of being together, which encompasses a whole world. Any couple lucky enough to be madly in love feels that there is nothing else like their love in the whole world. The Kabbala likewise explains that at the moment when husband and wife achieve true unity, light and blessing spread through all the worlds. Since their union is so profound, it should be kept like a secret between them.

Sexual intimacy must therefore take place at home or in an enclosed, private area. It is forbidden to have intercourse in public or in an open space, even if there is no one there to see it. Those who do so look like they are behaving promiscuously and habituating themselves to sinfulness, for which they deserve to be punished (Sanhedrin 46a; SA EH 25:4). It is forbidden to have sexual relations in the presence of any other person, even someone who is sleeping, for they may wake up. Technically, a couple may have sexual relations in the presence of a preverbal baby; however, this, too, is inappropriate, and is therefore permitted only when there is no other option, and when the baby is sleeping. If the baby wakes up while the couple are still having intercourse, they may continue. Le-khatḥila, there should not be pets, such as dogs or cats, present.

It is customary for the couple to be under covers during sexual intercourse, even where there is no light (see Darkhei Tahara 22:39).

The couple must keep the time of their sexual relations private. During intercourse, they should be careful that their voices cannot be heard by others. It is also proper for the wife to be discreet about when she goes to the mikveh, so that no one will sense that she is going (Rema, YD 198:48).

To ensure that intimacy takes place joyfully and in private, without concern that children or guests might suddenly enter the room, the couple should make sure to lock the door to their room. They should do so every night when they go to sleep, so that it is not obvious when they are fulfilling the mitzva. They should also not let one of the children sleep in their room.

Husband and wife should not tell others about their lovemaking practices. Only when necessary, to seek guidance and obtain advice, may this information be divulged. Furthermore, a couple may not speak about their intimacy in a coarse or foul-mouthed manner, such as in the manner of those who tell dirty jokes (MT, Laws of Dispositions 5:4).It is likewise forbidden to talk about anyone else’s sex lives unnecessarily, and all such talk is considered nivul peh (vulgar, explicit, or foul language). It transforms vibrant discussion whose purpose is to increase blessing into repulsive, dead speech. Such talk can be compared to a decaying carcass (nevela), which is forbidden to eat. The Sages say, “Everyone knows why a bride enters the ḥuppa, but if someone speaks about it in a vulgar manner, then even if the heavenly court had sealed a decree of seventy good years on his behalf, it will all turn bad on him” (Shabbat 33a).

Guests may have sexual relations as long as they have a closed room, there is no concern that the hosts will be aware of it, and they leave no evidence on the sheets.

It is proper for a couple to refrain from behaving in a way that expresses their desire for one another in front of others (Rema, EH 21:5). A polite hug or kiss, in a society where this is considered acceptable, is not a breach of modesty, but if it expresses sexual desire, it is immodest, for the love between husband and wife is a very deep and personal matter. Exposing it in front of others trivializes it and cheapens it. The couple should also be sensitive to the fact that such displays of affection can cause pain and stir up jealousy among those who are not privileged to be in such a relationship.[15]

[15]. In extreme cases, breaches of modesty are grounds for divorce. For example, the Sages say in the mishna, “The following women are divorced without receiving their ketuba…a noisy woman…. What woman is considered ‘noisy’? When she speaks in her home, her neighbors can hear her voice” (m. Ketubot 7:6). Rambam explains that this means they can hear her loudly demanding sex from her husband. Similarly, if a husband vows to abstain from sexual relations with his wife unless she shares details of their private life with others, she is entitled to a divorce and payment of her ketuba (Ketubot 72a-b).

Matters of modesty and privacy are dependent upon accepted norms. Therefore, in the past, when homes were smaller and sometimes an entire family lived in one room, parents were allowed to be sexually intimate while their children (and anyone else in the room) were sleeping. Moreover, in those times, people generally slept more soundly, since they worked at hard physical labor all day. However, now that homes have several rooms, norms of privacy dictate that sexual intimacy is forbidden in a room where someone else is sleeping. See Harḥavot 13:5-6. It is worth adding that locking their bedroom door not only allows a couple to fulfill the mitzva with great joy, but it also has educational value in that it teaches the couple’s children how deep and personal their parents’ relationship is, and that it must not be disturbed. They will thus learn by example how to live accordingly, and they will merit establishing good families of their own.

16. Sexual Intimacy with the Lights On

It is forbidden to have sexual relations during the day, as it is forbidden to do so in the light. This is a matter of modesty and privacy, which is a characteristic Jewish trait (Yevamot 79a). The Sages said, “The Jewish people are holy; they do not have sexual relations during the day” (Nidda 17a). Similarly, it is prohibited to have sexual relations at night where there is light (SA 240:11). This does not mean that the room must be pitch dark; rather, if moonlight comes into the room, sexual relations are permitted as long as it does not truly illuminate them. Some people are stringent when possible, closing the blinds or curtains to block out even this light (see MB 240:39).

This prohibition is limited to the conjugal act itself, which must be private and hidden, deep and sublime, as befits this holy mitzva. There is also a concern that perhaps in the light, a man’s wife will seem less attractive to him. The basis of their love is infinite, transcending external beauty, but when they have sexual relations in the light, it becomes limited, dependent on external appearances, and no longer an expression of their endless love. The inner beauty and mystery of their lovemaking is liable to dissipate, which can have a deleterious effect on their relationship. We find a similar phenomenon in the Amida prayer: because it is so sublime and profound, it must be whispered, unlike the other prayers and blessings, which are said aloud. (See Tikkunei Zohar §10, 25a for the comparison of intimacy with the Amida.)

In a darkened room, since it is nightlike, sexual relations are permitted even during the day. If a couple find that their lovemaking is more enjoyable during the day (for example, when they know they will be too tired at night), it is better for them to have sexual relations during the day, in a darkened room. The Talmud relates that this was the custom of King Monobaz’s household, whom the Sages praised for fulfilling the mitzva of ona joyfully (Nidda 17a). Likewise, if a man returns home in the middle of the day from the army or a long trip, he and his wife may darken their room and have sexual relations during the day, even le-khatḥila. Nevertheless, when there is no special need or advantage to having sexual relations during the day, it is best saved for the night, the time that is most suitable and affords the most privacy.

In a time of need, when it is impossible to make the room dark, a Torah scholar may have relations with his wife during the day, provided that they cover their bodies and heads with a blanket. The Sages did not extend this permit to others even in times of need, lest they become lax in this regard (Rema 240:11). However, under pressing circumstances, when a man sees that his urges are overpowering him and he is liable to violate the prohibition of wasting seed (hotza’at zera le-vatala), he may have relations with his wife during the day, on condition that they cover their bodies and heads with a blanket (Ḥokhmat Adam 128:9; SHT 240:25).

At night, if a couple is in a room with lights on or a lit candle, they may not have sexual relations even if they cover themselves with a blanket. Rather, they must put out the light. Even on Friday night, when it is forbidden to put out the lights, they may not have sexual relations even when completely covered by a blanket, as the Sages proscribed relations in a lit-up room (SA 240:11). If the light is coming from outside the room, then the law is the same as during the day; in times of need, a Torah scholar may be lenient and rely on the darkness provided by a blanket, and under pressing circumstances, anyone may rely on this leniency (MB ad loc. 41).[16]

[16]. According to the vast majority of Rishonim and Aḥaronim (including Rif; Raavad; SA 240:11; MA ad loc. 26; and AHS ad loc. 16), sexual relations are permissible during the day in a dark room even le-khatḥila. Others say that it is allowed only in a time of need or under pressing circumstances (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 240:80; Darkhei Tahara 22:13).

Darkhei Tahara 22:30 states that the couple must cover themselves with a blanket from head to toe, and so states Ben Ish Ḥai, Year 2, Vayera §26. However, Rabbeinu Yehonatan (commenting on Rif, Eruvin 33b) implies that it is enough to cover the head and most of the body.

The conjugal act itself is prohibited in the light, but foreplay is not. We find nothing that prohibits a couple from gazing at one another’s naked bodies. The only exception is that according to some poskim (on Nedarim 20a-b), it is forbidden for the husband to gaze at his wife’s vagina (see section 19 below). On the other hand, it is forbidden to have sexual relations in the light. We can therefore conclude that the prohibition pertains only to conjugal act itself. This is the conclusion of Mishkan Yisrael, part 2, p. 79. Also, see Darkhei Tahara, ch. 22, additional material and responsa §6.

At night, when there is light in the room, it is forbidden to have sexual relations even under the covers (Raavad; Smak; Ritva; SA 240:11 and EH 25:5; Eliya Rabba; MB 240:39). Although there are a few poskim who have ruled leniently in this matter (Ḥida, Petaḥ Einayim on Nidda 17b; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 240:71), here I follow the opinion of the poskim who rule stringently.

17. In the Presence of Sacred Texts

Even though the sanctity of the mitzva of ona is very great, it is still necessary to separate different realms; the mitzva of ona involves unbounded physical liberation and joy, whereas Torah must be studied with a sense of dread, awe, fear, and trembling, and a Torah scroll must be treated with seriousness and gravity (as explained below, 3:9). Therefore, marital relations are forbidden in a room in which there is a Torah scroll written with ink on parchment as it was written at Mount Sinai. If at all possible, the Torah scroll should be removed from the room. If that is not an option, a barrier must be set up between the Torah and the bed in such a way that the scroll is considered to be in a separate domain. The barrier must be at least ten tefaḥim (30 in or 76 cm) high and four amot (6 ft or 1.82 m) wide (Darkhei Tahara 22:41). The scroll must also not be visible to the couple.

It is forbidden to have sexual relations in a room where there are tefilin, a mezuza, or any other handwritten sacred text. However, if one covers these objects with two covers, it is permitted. The regular tefilin case or mezuza cover can serve as the first cover, but the second covering must be specifically for this purpose. The tefilin must be covered with a sheet or towel or placed in an additional case. Usually, a mezuza already has two covers, at least one of which is opaque, making it permissible to have sexual relations (or change a baby’s diaper, etc.) in that room.

As for printed Torah texts on a shelf or elsewhere in the room, their binding serves as one cover, and it is proper to cover them with an additional cover, like cloth or paper. Under pressing circumstances, when this is impossible to do so, they may have sexual relations provided that they make sure to cover themselves with a blanket, so that they are not naked in the presence of the books.[17]

Some say that it is necessary to perform netilat yadayim (ritual handwashing) after relations (Shlah; Darkhei Tahara 24:3). However, in practice, there is no obligation to do this, and those who wish to go straight to sleep may do so.[18]

[17]. There are several uncertainties with respect to printed books. The first is whether they have the same status as manuscripts. According to most poskim, they have the same status as handwritten sacred texts (this is the opinion of Masat Binyamin §99; Taz, YD 271:8; MB 40:4; and the overwhelming majority of poskim; however, Ḥavot Ya’ir §187 and Eliya Rabba 40:2 rule leniently under pressing circumstances). The second is whether a book binding is considered the first covering. Some say that it is (Birkei Yosef and Ḥesed La’alafim), while others maintain that it is not (MA and MB 40:4). In combination with the prior uncertainty, one may be lenient (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 40:14; Darkhei Tahara 22:49; Piskei Teshuvot 40:3).

Under pressing circumstances, the blanket covering the couple may be considered a covering for this purpose. Then, together with the binding, there are two covers, once the view that printed books do not have the same level of sanctity as manuscript books is factored in (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 40:17; Darkhei Tahara 22:57).

Be-di’avad, it is permissible to have sexual relations in a room where the mezuza does not have a double covering, in accordance with the view of Ma’amar Mordechai 40:2, namely, that the requirement for two coverings applies to tefilin but not a mezuza, which is set in place and which is more than ten tefaḥim off the floor. This is the position of Responsa Zivḥei Tzedek §40 and Halakha Berura 40:9.

[18]. The Rishonim and most Aḥaronim do not mention a requirement of netilat yadayim. However, SA 4:18 states that some say it is necessary to do netilat yadayim after sexual relations. One possible explanation is that this refers to a person who gets out of bed following relations and starts going about his business. In contrast, a person who simply goes to sleep can fulfill the obligation of netilat yadayim upon waking. This is the opinion of Taharat Moshe 3:17 and R. Meir Mazuz. Likewise, R. Yosef Messas writes that the custom is not to do netilat yadayim after relations (Mayim Ḥayim 2:1:3).

18. Anal Intercourse

Normal sexual intercourse is vaginal, but some people desire anal intercourse, which the Talmud calls bi’a she-lo ke-darka, “abnormal intercourse.” Clearly, if anal sexual intercourse is painful for the wife or done against her wishes, it is forbidden. But what if she consents or even desires it? The Talmud records (Nedarim 20b) that the Sages ruled that it is not prohibited. On the other hand, we learn (Yevamot 34b) that the sin of Yehuda’s sons, Er and Onan, was that they penetrated Tamar anally, thereby wasting their seed. This was evil in God’s eyes (Bereishit 38:7 and 38:10), and He put them to death.

Most Rishonim explain that when a couple engages in anal intercourse in order to avoid pregnancy, it is considered a waste of seed and is forbidden. However, if they engage in it occasionally, it is not prohibited. Some Rishonim explain that the Sages permitted anal sexual intercourse as long as the husband does not ejaculate in the anus. Rather, the couple must later engage in vaginal intercourse, culminating in ejaculation. Some halakhic authorities forbid even this.

In practice, a man who feels a need may rely on the opinion of most poskim, who permit this on occasion, as long as his wife consents.[19]

Some say that even vaginal intercourse should take place with the man on top of the woman, face to face (i.e., the missionary position). Some are very insistent on this. Although there is something virtuous about this, technically all possible positions are permitted, as long as both spouses desire them. If changing position enhances the pleasure of either spouse, then doing so is a fulfillment of the mitzva of simḥat ona. However, if neither spouse wants to change, it is preferable for their sexual relations to take place in the optimal manner, namely the missionary position. Even if they find a different position more enjoyable, when they are trying to conceive it is better to use the missionary position.[20]

[19]. The Talmud (Nedarim 20a-b) states: “R. Yoḥanan b. Dahavai said, ‘The ministering angels told me four things. Why are people born lame? Because [their fathers] flipped over their tables (that is, had anal intercourse).’” Later in the discussion, R. Yoḥanan said, “These are the words of Yoḥanan b. Dahavai, but the Sages said that the halakha does not follow Yoḥanan b. Dahavai. Rather, whatever a man wishes to do with his wife, he may do.” The Talmud further recounts: “A certain woman came to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and said to him, ‘I set the table for my husband, and he overturned it. (I.e., I prepared for normal intercourse, and he penetrated me anally. Is this forbidden?)’ R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi replied, ‘My child, the Torah permits this. What then can I do?’” His answer implies that he was uncomfortable with this, but could not forbid it since the Torah allows it. Perhaps in this case the woman took no pleasure in it, but agreed on condition that it was not prohibited. The Talmud continues with yet another story: “A woman came to Rav and said, ‘Rabbi, I set the table for my husband, and he overturned it.’ He replied, ‘How is this any different from fish?’” Rav was invoking an opinion of the Sages cited a few lines earlier: “Whatever a man wishes to do with his wife, he may do. An analogy can be drawn to meat from the butcher. If he wishes to eat it salted, he may; if he wants to eat it roasted, he may; if he wants to eat it seethed, he may; if he wants to eat it stewed, he may. The same is true of fish delivered from the fisherman.” The implication is that according to Rav, there is no prohibition, just as a person may eat fish however he likes.

This seems to contradict a talmudic passage (Yevamot 34b), which states that the sin of Er and Onan was having anal intercourse with Tamar, thereby wasting their seed. Most poskim limit this prohibition to doing this regularly to avoid conception. When done occasionally, it is permissible. This is the opinion of Tosafot (Sanhedrin 58b, s.v. “mi”); Tosafot Rid (Yevamot 12b, s.v. “tanei”); Or Zaru’a (Kuntres Ha-re’ayot on Sanhedrin 58a); Rosh (Yevamot 3:9); Rabbeinu Yeruḥam (Toldot Adam Ve-Ḥava, netiv 23, part 1); Mordechai (Shevu’ot, Hilkhot Nidda §732); Hagahot Maimoniyot (Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 23:4); Ritva (in his primary explanation as cited in Shita Mekubetzet, Nedarim 20b); and Rabbeinu Yona (Sanhedrin 58b). This is also the correct text of Rambam (MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 21:9). It is also the opinion of Yam Shel Shlomo (Yevamot 3:18); Levush (240:14); Shetilei Zeitim (240:20); and Torot Emet, Yeshu’ot Yaakov, and Erekh Shai in their commentaries on SA EH 25:2.

Others are stringent and maintain that anal sexual intercourse is permitted only on condition that the husband does not ejaculate there. This is the opinion of R. Avraham Min Ha-har (Nedarim ad loc.); Orḥot Ḥayim (Hilkhot Ketubot §7); Ri (in his first explanation as cited in Tosafot, Yevamot 34b s.v. “velo”); Beit Yosef (EH 25:2); and AHS (EH 25:11). This is also the reading that appears in the printed editions of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. Some are even stricter and do not permit anal penetration at all (Sefer Ḥaredim ch. 64; Shlah, Sha’ar Ha-otiyot, Kedushat Ha-zivug §§360-364). They understand the phrase “shelo ke-darka” (non-normal) to mean that the wife is on top of her husband or that the husband is behind his wife during vaginal intercourse. Even when it comes to these positions, people who do not feel a need for them are considered holy. According to these authorities, the Sages did not even speak of anal intercourse because it is forbidden. However, this interpretation is rejected by almost all poskim. Rema mentions the first two opinions and concludes, “Even though this is all permitted, anyone who sanctifies himself [by refraining from] what is permitted to him is considered holy” (EH 25:2).

In practice, the halakha follows those who are lenient, as they are in the majority. Furthermore, according to most poskim the entire discussion relates to a rabbinic prohibition (because it is not truly a violation of the prohibition against wasting seed, as masturbation would be for a man). On the contrary, if this brings the husband joy and satisfaction, it has value and is a mitzva. Certainly, then, if both husband and wife enjoy it, it is a fulfillment of the mitzva of ona according to most poskim. Rav Kook wrote similarly in his explanation of the lenient opinion: “Even in this manner, when done occasionally, since the Torah permits it according to this opinion, it is considered something of a mitzva as it helps satisfy the husband, and therefore is not really a waste [of seed]” (Ezrat Kohen §35).

[20]. According to Kalla Rabbati 1:23, “He on the bottom and she on top – this is impudent.” Several Rishonim cite this (Raavad, Sha’ar Ha-kedusha; Ohel Mo’ed; Sefer Ha-eshkol; Menorat Ha-ma’or; and Tur). SA 240:5 cites it as well, as do many Aḥaronim. Sefer Ḥasidim §509 limits the admonition to mikveh night, when it is more likely that the woman will conceive. This is also the approach of Birkei Yosef 240:7 and Da’at Torah 240:5.

In contrast, most Rishonim, and Rambam foremost among them, do not record the admonition at all. As Rabbeinu Yeruḥam writes, “The case in Nedarim about a woman who said that she set a table and her husband turned it over, which the Sages ruled was permitted, was referring to anal intercourse. It does not mean that she was on top and he was beneath her, because that is certainly permitted, and she would not have been upset about it” (Toldot Adam Ve-Ḥava, netiv 23, part 1). Zohar (II 259a) implies that the admonition is against positions where the husband faces his wife’s back, “For it says, ‘And he shall cling to his wife’ (Bereishit 2:24) – specifically to his wife, not behind his wife.” Ma’amar Mordechai 240:7 explains that the problem with the “impudent” position is that it seems like the woman is trying to dominate her husband, implying that if both spouses consent, it is permissible. In practice, since according to most poskim it is not forbidden to change from the missionary position, they may. Even those who are stringent view insistence on the missionary position as a pious practice, not a requirement, and some explain that the stringency applies only when there is no mutual consent. Therefore, a couple who wants to change from the missionary position may do so, and it is even a mitzva if it increases their pleasure. Nevertheless, when a couple is hoping to conceive, the pious practice is for them to defer to the stringent opinion and have sexual relations in the missionary position.

19. Oral Sex

The Talmud relates that R. Yoḥanan b. Dahavai said, “The ministering angels told me four things…. Why are people born mute? Because [their fathers] kissed the vagina…. Why are people born blind? Because [their fathers] gazed at the vagina” (Nedarim 20a). However, at the conclusion of the discussion, the Talmud states that this is a solitary opinion, whereas the Sages’ opinion is that these practices are not prohibited (ibid. 20b).

Some Rishonim are stringent, saying that cunnilingus is forbidden, as is gazing at the vagina, though there is no danger involved (Raavad). Other Rishonim say that doing so is permitted, but that it is pious to show concern for potential danger (Smak). Nevertheless, according to the vast majority of Rishonim, R. Yoḥanan b. Dahavai’s opinion is rejected, and the halakha follows the Sages, who maintain that doing so is neither prohibited nor dangerous. Some of those Rishonim even maintain that there is no less holiness in doing so (Yere’im). Many, though, think that while doing so is neither prohibited nor dangerous, a holier and more modest practice is to refrain (Rambam; Smak; Rema, EH 25:2).

In practice, since most Rishonim are lenient, and even those who forbid it agree that the prohibition is rabbinic, it is not prohibited. However, because most Rishonim feel that modesty and holiness make it preferable to be stringent, it is proper to show concern for their opinion (Rema, EH 25:2). However, if one spouse finds it very enjoyable, and their enjoyment will be marred without it, then the joy of the mitzva of ona overrides the stringent opinions, and the couple should follow the majority of the poskim. If they wish to be stringent, they can refrain from this when there is a possibility of conception. If either spouse finds it repulsive, they should follow the stringent view.

There are no limitations on a wife seeing or kissing her husband’s penis. Still, they should not do anything that repulses either one of them. If a specific act is particularly enjoyable for one of them, then even if the other one is not so interested in it, as long as they are not repulsed, there is an element of mitzva in it, for whatever adds to the love and joy of their intimate relations is part of the mitzva of ona as well as the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself.”[21]

[21]. According to most poskim, the halakha follows the Sages, who allow a husband to gaze at his wife’s vagina and perform cunnilingus, and who maintain that this poses no danger to their children. R. Yoḥanan b. Dahavai’s opinion was rejected, as R. Yoḥanan said: “Those are the words of Yoḥanan b. Dahavai, but the Sages said that the halakha does not follow Yoḥanan b. Dahavai. Rather, whatever a man wishes to do with his wife, he may do” (Nedarim 20b). Yet many hold that while there is no prohibition or danger, it is more modest and holier not to do these acts. This is the opinion of Rambam (MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 21:9; Peirush Ha-Mishnayot on Sanhedrin 7:4); Me’iri (Nedarim 20b); Kol Bo (§75); and Tzeda La-derekh (ma’amar 3, klal 4, ch. 14). Along the same lines, Smak §285 states that it is pious to show concern for danger.

Others maintain that there is no lack of sanctity in this. This opinion is explicit in Sefer Yere’im (cited by Shita Mekubetzet, Nedarim 20b), and can be inferred from Maḥzor Vitri (§528) and Sefer Ha-eshkol (Albeck edition, Hilkhot Tzni’ut 34b), which state that the halakha follows the Sages without making mention of any higher level of modesty or sanctity. Other Rishonim write extensively on the laws and customs of ona without making mention of R. Yoḥanan b. Dahavai’s admonitions. These include Igeret Ha-kodesh (which is attributed to Ramban) and Smag, Lo Ta’aseh 126. It would seem that in their opinion, there is neither prohibition nor any lack of sanctity involved.

Some are stringent and maintain that gazing at the vagina and cunnilingus are forbidden but not dangerous. They write that cunnilingus violates the prohibition of bal teshaktzu (“Do not make yourselves abominable”; Vayikra 11:43). This is the approach of Raavad (Sha’ar Ha-kedusha) and Tur (240; EH 25). It is also implied in Ohel Mo’ed (Sha’ar Isur Ve-heter, derekh 11, netiv 2). SA 240:4, cites Raavad’s strict opinion, as do Beit Shmuel 25:1; Ḥokhmat Adam 128:3; Od Yosef Ḥai, Shoftim §16; Igrot Moshe, YD 2:75; and Darkhei Tahara 22:4.

However, Beit Yosef, EH 25, notes that there is no prohibition according to Rambam, implying agreement with this ruling. This is why R. Karo does not mention any prohibition in SA EH 25. Rema, EH 25:2, writes, “Even though all of these acts are permissible, anyone who sanctifies himself by [refraining from] what is permitted to him is considered holy.” The Aḥaronim explain Rema to mean that it is technically permissible, and it seems that they agree with this (Atzei Arazim; Torot Emet; Ezer Mi-kodesh; Yeshu’ot Yaakov; and R. Kapah’s explanation of Rambam, MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 21:15). Levush 25:2 and AHS ad loc. 11 rule this way as well. The reconciliation of Shulḥan Arukh’s two rulings is that in Oraḥ Ḥayim it states that these actions are forbidden from the perspective of sanctity and modesty; but since they are permitted technically, this issue is not raised in Even Ha-ezer. Others say that cunnilingus and gazing at the vagina are permissible but that there is danger in doing so as part of the intercourse that leads to conception. That is how Kalla Rabbati presents R. Yoḥanan b. Dahavai’s opinion: “All this is if she conceives from this intercourse.” It is also implied by Menorat Ha-ma’or Ha-kadmon, ch. 10.

We can add that perhaps the stringent opinions prohibit kissing the vagina only, not the clitoris, which is the primary erogenous zone. It is also possible that the stringent opinions would apply the prohibition of gazing only to a shaved vagina, since it is then completely exposed. It is also possible that the prohibition of gazing applies only to prolonged ogling in the light, but if it is dark, or the glance is fleeting, it is not prohibited. So states Ezer Mi-kodesh (EH 25:1). R. Yosef Messas (Mayim Ḥayim, vol. 1, p. 92) suggests that the prohibition of gazing is due to the concern that the husband would find it repulsive. Nowadays, though, when there are showers in every home and people wash frequently, there is no prohibition. Perhaps we can explain that since the admonition against cunnilingus is on the grounds of bal teshaktzu, when people wash regularly, there is no concern. All of these uncertainties can be combined with the opinion of the majority of Rishonim that there is no prohibition whatsoever involved.

Chapter Contents