The human sex drive is a powerful thing; it can be extraordinarily positive, and it can drag people down to the depths of depravity. It can lead a person to pursue another person’s spouse, to engage in forbidden sexual relations, to destroy families, and ruin lives in this world as well as the next. A person in the thrall of this powerful urge can lose all discretion and act irrationally. As the Sages commented about sin in general and this sin in particular: “A person does not commit a sin unless a spirit of foolishness enters him” (Sota 3a).
Thus, we find people who really want to do the right thing, who marry with every intention of being faithful to their spouse, yet who give space to the evil inclination, which becomes more and more powerful. Eventually, they reach the point where they are prepared to break their wedding vows, betray their spouse, make their children miserable, throw away their money, and destroy their social standing.
The wise author of Mishlei warns of this numerous times: “It will save you from the other woman, from the foreign woman whose talk is smooth…. Her house sinks down to death, and her course leads to the shades. All who go to her cannot return and find again the paths of life” (2:16-19). He further adjures: “My son, listen to my wisdom; incline your ear to my insight…for the lips of another woman drip honey; her mouth is smoother than oil; but in the end she is as bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold of She’ol…. Let your fountain be blessed; find joy in the wife of your youth. She is a loving doe, a graceful mountain goat. Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be infatuated with love of her always. Why be infatuated, my son, with another woman? Why clasp the bosom of a foreign woman?” (5:1-20). And finally: “It will keep you from an evil woman, from the smooth tongue of a forbidden woman. Do not lust for her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes. The last loaf of bread will go for a harlot; a married woman will snare a person of honor” (6:24-26).
. [Editor’s note: This section applies to husbands and wives alike, and the first two paragraphs are written in a way that makes this clear, even though the sources cited in third paragraph and in this footnote are clearly addressed to men.]
The Sages said, “Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are all one” (Bava Batra 16a). Zohar elaborates on this with vivid imagery and allegory on the methods of the evil inclination: The feminine aspect of the Angel of Death descends to the world and takes the form of a beautiful woman who lures men to sin by dressing like a prostitute. Her red hair is neatly styled. Her face is pale with a touch of ruddiness. Six precious Egyptian jewels dangle from her ears, and an assortment of expensive pendants hang from her neck. Her voice is coy and pretty. She speaks seductively, with words smooth as silk, yet sharp as a knife. Her luscious lips are rose red and sweeter than anything in the world. She is dressed in scarlet adorned with 39 jewels. It is a fool who follows her, drinks wine from her cup, and commits adultery with her. His heart is captivated by her. When she sees that he has deviated from the straight and narrow to follow her, what does she do? She leaves him asleep on her bed, removes all her clothes and jewelry, and ascends to heaven in order to inform that he has sinned through adultery. When he is condemned (by the heavenly court) to a terrible fate, she is given permission to kill him, and she descends again to this world. The fool awakens and wants to continue frolicking with her, but suddenly he sees her without her clothing and adornments, a fire blazing around her. Terror grips him. Then he realizes that she is covered with menacing eyes, holding a sharp sword, and oozing venom. She kills him and hurls him into hell (paraphrased from Zohar I 148a, Vayetze, Ḥelek Sitrei Torah).
Since desire and lust can bring a person so low, some gentile philosophers and theologians maintain that the way to reach spiritual heights is to stay as far as possible from lust and desire. Some rejected marriage entirely, and other support marriage solely for the purpose of procreation while admonishing men and women alike to stay as far as they can from carnal lust, as it is shameful for people to so degrade themselves.
The Torah, however, teaches that there is nothing shameful about sexual relations between husband and wife, for this is how God created people, and something that is so basic to the very existence of the world, that brings new life into the world, cannot possibly be shameful. On the contrary, it contains an element of sanctity (Maharal, Be’er Ha-gola 5:4).
God created us with a good impulse and an evil impulse, commanding us to choose the good: “I call heaven and earth today to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse; choose life – so that you and your offspring will live” (Devarim 30:19).
The root of both impulses is one, and God gave us free will to direct our impulse toward good or toward evil. Consider our craving for food: it can be channeled toward gluttony, which destroy health and causes people to forget Godly ideals, or it can be directed toward refined consumption that gives a person the opportunity to thank God and increases joy and health. The stronger and more important an impulse, the greater its power, for good or evil. There is nothing stronger than the human sex drive, through which new life is born and divine unity is revealed in the world. Therefore, when this desire is directed toward evil, toward promiscuity and adultery, there is nothing worse. But when it is directed toward good, increasing love and unity between spouses, there is nothing nobler or holier.
This is the meaning of the statement, “If husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhina is with them; if they are not, fire consumes them” (Sota 17a; see 1:1 above). When a couple expresses their natural drives within the sacred framework of marriage, the Shekhina dwells with them. However, if they direct their sexual drive toward promiscuity and adultery, God’s presence disappears. They are left only with the fire of their lust, which will never be satisfied. It will consume them in this world and the next.
There are two levels in the sanctity of marriage. The basic level is when a couple upholds their marriage vows, remaining faithful and not betraying each other. The higher level is when a couple also tries to deepen their love, makes efforts to please and satisfy each other to the best of their ability, and intend to have children and raising them for a life of Torah and mitzvot. The more mindful and intentional they are, the higher they rise through the levels of sanctity.
Raavad writes that there are four types of intention one can have for the mitzva of ona, three of which are commendable, and one which is a lesser form of intention, though the mitzva is still fulfilled. The motivations are: 1) to bring joy and satisfaction to one’s spouse through sexual intimacy; 2) to fulfill the mitzva of procreation; 3) during pregnancy, to intend for the loving and joyful sexual union to make the unborn child healthy, energetic, and good-natured (Nidda 31a; see also 1:4 above). The fourth motivation is less admirable, but it still involves fulfilling the mitzva of ona and receiving reward for it: a man has sexual relations with his wife because he senses his sexual drive overpowering him, so that he does not lust after other women (Raavad, Ba’alei Ha-nefesh, Sha’ar Ha-kedusha; Tur §240). This type of intention is the most basic level of marital sanctity, whereas the first three belong to the higher level, as we will explain.
The basic level of sanctity is the faithful preservation of the marital covenant. Even if each spouse is more interested in satisfying their own drives than giving their spouse pleasure, as long as they do not betray one another, there is sanctity in their marriage. As the Sages said, “If husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhina is with them; if they are not, fire consumes them” (Sota 17a). Rashi explains: “‘If they are worthy’ – they walk the straight and narrow; neither he nor she commits adultery.”
Accordingly, the marital bond between husband and wife is called “kiddushin,” which is related to the word “kadosh,” sacred. The wording of the berakha recited upon kiddushin is as follows:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot, and has commanded us concerning forbidden unions, forbidding betrothed women to us and permitting to us the women to whom we are wedded by means of ḥuppa and kiddushin. Blessed are You, Lord, Who sanctifies His people Israel by means of ḥuppa and kiddushin.
Moreover, even if someone initially got married to gratify his desires, if he adheres to the framework of a halakhic marriage, over time he will progress toward a deeper love. It stands to reason that he will undergo a crisis when his initial passion wanes, but his loyalty to halakha and his marriage vows will save him from being unfaithful. He will therefore be able to deepen his relationship with his wife, connecting to her with love and great joy, and ascending to the second level of sanctity in marriage.
The higher level of sanctity is that of those who achieve unity through true love. In the case of a husband, the more he thinks about his wife’s well-being, the higher he ascends in this sanctity. In order for him to want to pleasure his wife, their sexual union must be enjoyable for him, too (section 14 below), though his primary goal remains bringing his wife pleasure. Should a conflict arise between his own desires and what his wife enjoys, he prioritizes her enjoyment over satisfying his desire. The same applies to the wife; the more she considers the well-being of her husband and brings him joy through her passion, the higher she ascends in sanctity.
The two levels of marriage reflect the two meanings of the word “kadosh” (“sacred”): a) separate and distinct, and b) transcendent, eternal, and divine. When a marriage is at the basic level, the husband and wife separate themselves from all the other men and women in the world. When a marriage is at the higher level, the couple’s intimate connection reveals the spark that is divine, eternal, and transcendent.
Two paths are available to couples: on the good path, the emphasis is on love; on the bad path, the emphasis is on lust. One who follows the evil impulse cares only about himself, chasing women to satisfy his desires. In contrast, one who follows his good impulse wishes to truly love his wife and bring her maximum pleasure. At the very least, he remains faithful to her. Someone who lusts and someone who loves resemble each other at first, but then the paths diverge. The lust of someone who follows his evil impulse does not last, and all his relationships fall apart, ending in disappointment. In contrast, the sacred love of someone who follows the good path grows ever stronger and deeper.
Occasionally, a person following the path of the evil impulse appears to be willing to do anything for his partner. In order to gratify his desires, he is prepared to go to great lengths to court her, spend exorbitant amounts of money on her, buy her expensive jewelry, pay her endless compliments, and even rejoice in whatever makes her happy. However, because his primary intention is self-gratification, he is really using her. In general, despite his pronouncements and declarations, he would prefer not to marry, since he can satisfy his lusts without marriage. Even if he does agree to get married, as long as his primary objective is self-gratification, he will never truly love his wife. Rather, he will merely exploit her body, so their relationship will grow weaker and weaker.
In extreme cases of being driven by lust, a man is even willing to rape a woman to satisfy his evil impulse. Such an act is motivated by sheer lust and completely devoid of love. On the contrary, when he comes back to his senses, he will hate his victim, just as Amnon hated Tamar after he raped her: “Amnon felt a very great loathing for her” (2 Shmuel 13:15). Lust attempts to take the place of love, but once sobriety returns, the rapist realizes that he still feels hollow and depressed. But instead of loathing himself, he projects his loathing onto the woman he raped.
In contrast, a man who follows the path of love wants a truly loving relationship with his wife. He is very careful not to hurt her, and he tries to give her as much joy as he can. Above all, he cares about her and her well-being. As time goes on, their relationship deepens. Although they get older, the years do not wear them down. Instead, their love intensifies, and they become infinitely close. Such love is precious, sacred, and unabashed.
As we have learned, the basic level of sanctity in marriage is when a husband and wife form a halakhic relationship and avoid sexual transgressions (gilui arayot). Rambam lists 37 Torah prohibitions in his Laws of Sexual Prohibitions, which can be divided into five categories:
Incest, including sexual relations between a man and his mother, daughter, sister, aunt, sister-in-law, stepdaughter, or step-granddaughter. This category includes most of the sexual prohibitions.
Sexual relations between those who are forbidden from marrying each other: a Jew and a non-Jew; a mamzer with a non-mamzer; or a marriage involving a eunuch.
Bestiality and male homosexuality.
Adultery, i.e., sexual relations between a man and a married woman.
There is one other severe sexual transgression: the rape of a woman or man, and certainly of a minor. This crime usually involves an additional transgression as well, such as relations with a nidda, incest, or male homosexual relations. However, even when there are no accompanying prohibitions, the damage done to the rape victim is extremely serious, so much so that in a sense it is the same as murder. Thus, when speaking of rape, the Torah tells us, “For the case is like that of a man attacking another and murdering him” (Devarim 22:26).
Another seventeen mitzvot in the Torah relate to the framework of marriage. These include laws pertaining to divorce, yibum (levirate marriage), ḥalitza (levirate divorce), the laws pertaining to the seduction or rape of a young virgin, and laws pertaining to a sota (a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery).
We should not downplay the degree of sanctity achieved by one who successfully abides by all these rules and mitzvot, for we see that most people who are not committed to Torah and mitzvot do not manage to preserve their marital covenant. Even among the religiously observant, not everyone manages to resist temptation.
The Sages said:
One who sits passively and does not sin is rewarded as if he did a mitzva. R. Shimon bar Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-Nasi] said: It says, “But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life” (Devarim 12:23). If a person is rewarded for avoiding [drinking] blood, which most people find disgusting, how great must the reward be for avoiding theft and sexual immorality, which most people crave and lust after. One who avoids these earns reward for himself, his children, and his descendants until the end of time.” (m.Makkot 3:16)
The Torah teaches, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Vayikra 19:2). Rashi explains, “Avoid forbidden sexual relations and sins. For wherever you find clear sexual boundaries, you also find holiness.” Accordingly, anyone who is faithful to his marriage is considered holy.
. The following is Rambam’s list of Torah commandments, as it appears at the beginning of Laws of Sexual Prohibitions, in Sefer Kedusha:
Not to have sexual relations with one’s mother; 2. not to have sexual relations with one’s father’s wife; 3. not to have sexual relations with one’s sister; 4. not to have sexual relations with one’s stepsister; 5. not to have sexual relations with one’s son’s daughter; 6. not to have sexual relations with one’s daughter; 7. not to have sexual relations with one’s daughter’s daughter; 8. not to marry a woman and her daughter; 9. not to marry a woman and her son’s daughter; 10. not to marry a woman and her daughter’s daughter; 11. not to have sexual relations with one’s father’s sister; 12. not to have sexual relations with one’s mother’s sister; 13. not to have sexual relations with one’s father’s brother’s wife; 14. not to have sexual relations with one’s son’s wife; 15. not to have sexual relations with one’s brother’s wife; 16. not to have sexual relations with one’s wife’s sister; 17. for a man not to have sexual relations with an animal; 18. for a woman not to have sexual relations with an animal; 19. for a man not to have sexual relations with another man; 20. not to uncover the nakedness of one’s father; 21. not to uncover the nakedness of one’s father’s brother; 22. not to have sexual relations with a married woman; 23. not to have sexual relations with a woman while she is a nidda; 24. not to marry a non-Jew; 25. not to allow an Ammonite or Moabite to marry into the congregation of Israel; 26. not to prevent the third-generation offspring of an Egyptian convert to Judaism from marrying into the congregation of Israel; 27. not to prevent the third-generation offspring of an Edomite convert to Judaism from marrying into the congregation of Israel; 28. not to allow amamzerto marry into the congregation of Israel; 29. not to allow a eunuch to marry into the congregation of Israel; 30. not to castrate any male, even an animal or bird; 31. for a kohen gadol not to marry a widow; 32. for a kohen gadol not to have sexual relations with a widow, even outside the context of marriage; 33. for a kohen gadol to marry a virgin who had just reached adulthood; 34. for a kohen not to marry a divorcee; 35. for a kohen not to marry a zona; 36. for a kohen not to marry a ḥalala; 37. for a person not to touch affectionately someone they may not marry, even if they refrain from intercourse.
. Rambam’s Sefer Nashim is dedicated entirely to these laws. This is his list of Torah commandments in the order he discusses them in that book. The Laws of Marriage contain four mitzvot: 1. To marry a woman by means of a ketuba and kiddushin; 2. not to have sexual relations with a woman without a ketuba and kiddushin; 3. not to withhold food, clothing, and conjugal rights; 4. to procreate from one’s wife. The Laws of Divorce contain two mitzvot: 1. That divorce is by means of a bill of divorce (get); 2. not to remarry one’s divorced wife if she had since married and divorced another. The Laws of Levirate Marriage and Levirate Divorce contain three mitzvot: 1. To perform yibum; 2. to perform ḥalitza; 3. for the levirate widow not to marry anyone else until she is no longer under her brother-in-law’s authority. The Laws of [Seduction and Rape of] a Young Virgin contain five mitzvot: 1. For a seducer to be fined; 2. a rapist must marry his victim; 3. for a rapist never to initiate divorce of his wife/victim; 4. for a husband who slanders his wife (motzi shem ra) to remain married to her forever; 5. for a husband who is motzi shem ra not to divorce his wife. The Laws of Sota contain three mitzvot: 1. To perform the sota ritual as delineated by the Torah; 2. not to place oil on her offering; 3. not to place frankincense on her offering.
In addition to the intrinsic value of the mitzva of ona, which gives expression to the love between husband and wife, the mitzva also serves as a shield against adultery. For this reason, unmarried people are more vulnerable to sexual temptation, and they must therefore strengthen themselves through Torah study and mitzva observance so that they save the power of their love for their true and holy match through the framework of marriage. Sometimes a person’s sex drive is so strong that it is extremely difficult to resist. In that case, the more one bolstered himself through Torah study and mitzva observance, the more he finds the strength to resist temptation.
The Talmud (Menaḥot 44a) recounts:
Natan said: There is no mitzva in the Torah, not even a minor one, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world. As for reward in the next world, who knows how great it will be! Go and learn this from the mitzva of tzitzit. A certain man was very meticulous in observing the mitzva of tzitzit. He heard about a prostitute, in one of the towns by the sea, who charged 400 gold coins as her wages. He sent her 400 gold coins, and arranged a time to meet. At the appointed time, he sat at the door. Her maidservant came and told her, “The man who sent you 400 gold coins has arrived and is waiting at the door.” She replied, “Let him in,” and he entered. She had set for him seven beds, six silver and one gold. Between each bed was a silver ladder, and the uppermost was of gold. She climbed up and sat naked on the topmost bed. He, too, started to climb up in order to be naked with her. While he was climbing up, his four tzitziyot hit him in the face. He climbed down and sat on the ground. Then she, too, climbed down and sat on the ground. She exclaimed, “By Rome! I will not let you go until you tell me what flaw you saw in me!” He responded, “By the Temple service! I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. But the Lord our God has given us a mitzva called tzitzit, in the context of which it is twice written, ‘I am the Lord your God’ (Bambidbar 15:41). This means ‘I am the One Who will exact punishment in the future, and I am the One Who will give reward in the future.’ At this moment, these fringes appeared to me as four witnesses [testifying against me].” She said to him, “I will not let you go until you tell me what your name is, what city you are from, who your rabbi is, and the name of the beit midrash in which you study Torah.” He wrote it down and gave it to her. She immediately divided all her property into three parts: one third she gave to the government (so that they would permit her to convert to Judaism), one third to the poor (to atone for her sins), and one third she kept for herself, as well as the bedspreads. She then went to R. Ḥiya’s beit midrash. She said to him, “Rabbi, tell me what I must do to convert to Judaism.” He replied, “My child, perhaps you have your eyes set on one of the students?” [He was concerned that she wanted to marry one of the students because she could not find a husband among her own people, or because she wanted his money, but did not really want to convert for the sake of heaven.] She took out the note and handed it to him. [The note contained the specifics of the incident, which demonstrated that she was both wealthy and desired by many, but that she chose this student because of his greatness of spirit. R. Ḥiya therefore agreed to convert her.] He said to her, “Go and collect what you acquired.” The same bedding that she spread out for him sinfully, she now spread out for him lawfully. This is the reward for a mitzva in this world. As for the next world, who knows how great it will be!
Therefore, we see that when the sex drive spills over into licentiousness, it is wicked. But when it is expressed within the framework of a proper marriage, it is good and holy, and is even considered a heavenly reward.
It is important to add that joyful fulfillment of the mitzva of ona improves one’s mental health and well-being. God created human beings with different drives, with the sex drive prominent among them. While not everyone is the same with regard to this drive – some experience it more intensely, and some less – everyone has it. Someone who does not feel it at all suffers from an emotional handicap. For most people, the sex drive is the strongest drive of all. Repressing it can distort and pervert the psyche, making it hard for that person to fulfill their purpose as a human being. This is what the Sages meant when they said, “Any man without a wife is not a man (adam), as it states (Bereishit 5:2), ‘Male and female He created them. He blessed them and called them Adam’” (Yevamot 63a). Since the sex drive is so powerful, it is difficult to resist. This is why the Torah had to give us so many mitzvot aimed at regulating and channeling it.
Some men and women mistakenly believe that by suppressing this inclination and minimizing their onot, they will become holier and more spiritual. However, this may very well backfire, for sometimes if a person does not allow this drive to be expressed within the framework of halakha, and instead adds limitations that the Torah does not require, it can result in severe sins of sexual transgressions. Therefore, if a man naturally needs more times of ona than those set by the Sages, he should not try to suppress his needs and behave like everyone else. Similarly, if a woman senses that her husband requires more ona times, she should encourage him to add more, since that is appropriate and good for him, and allows him to retain his holiness. But, if he suppresses his needs and ignores what is right for him, his evil inclination is likely to urge him to get involved with other women or even young girls. It is known that men who commit adultery and rape minors are often undergoing an extended period of time without regular, healthy sexual relations.
At the higher level of sanctity, this drive is channeled into the sacred framework of marriage so that it increases love and joy. The couple can thus connect with the very root of life; when they fulfill the mitzva of ona, they draw down a divine spark and reveal it to the world. As R. Akiva said, “If husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhina is with them” (Sota 17a; see also ZoharRa’aya Mehemna III 34a). This explains what the kabbalists meant when they wrote that one who does not feel this urge is inferior to a donkey because he lacks the ability to fully understand anything, and he can never truly love God (Reishit Ḥokhma, Sha’ar Ha-ahava, end of ch. 4).
We have learned (1:5 above) that the foundation of the Jewish faith is discovering the world’s ultimate unity, and that the mitzva of ona, when fulfilled with an abundance of love and desire, reveals unity within the world. It is through this passion that two completely distinct individuals become one. Body and soul take part in the mitzva together. Even the evil inclination is transformed for the better and unites with the good inclination to enhance the couple’s joy and love. The result is that they are able to connect to the Source of life, refine their faith, and actively work for the perfection and redemption of the world. Something within them unites with the divine spark, from which new life is brought forth. Thus, they become God’s partners in bringing a new soul to the world (Nidda 31a).
. Of those men who cheat on their wives and commit adultery, many start after an extended period of time in which they did not observe the times of ona regularly, such as during pregnancy and after birth, and when their wives canceled the set times of ona on account of minor health issues. Even the crimes of adultery, incest, and rape of minors can sometimes be prevented by regular sexual relations. This is another reason why it is important to observe the mitzva of ona in accordance with halakha – the set times of ona as well as any additional times when one spouse wishes to be intimate (see above, 2:7-8). Only if both husband and wife wholeheartedly agree to forgo one or more times of ona, is it not deemed sinful. Even then, they are missing out on a mitzva.
At first glance, we learn something that indicates the opposite, that repression of the sex drive is what enables one to overcome it: “R. Yoḥanan said: Man has a small limb (i.e., the penis). When he starves it, it is satisfied; when he feeds it, it is hungry” (Sukka 52b). Along the same lines, Raavad asks (Sha’ar Ha-kedusha, cited by Tur, EH §25): When discussing human sexual desire, how could the Sages say (in Sota 47a) that one should draw the sexual impulse close with the right hand and push it away with the left hand? The Sages themselves established obligatory times of ona. How then can we reduce their frequency, pushing them away with our left hand? Raavad answers that the Sages’ statement refers only to the set ona for tayalim, namely, every night (see 2:7 above); in this context the Sages recommend a small reduction in frequency, by mutual consent, so that the couple does not have sexual relations every night. Rather, it is better “to stand up to one’s inclination, and not gratify every urge; he should reject it with one hand and welcome it with the other. He should not reject it completely lest his battle to overcome his impulses cause him to neglect his conjugal duties.” Raavad offers a second explanation as well: The Sages’ statement refers to someone who wants to have relations more frequently than dictated by the mitzva of ona – such a person is to welcome his desire with the right hand and reject it with the left, so that he does not gratify his every urge. As explained in Tosafot on Sukka 52b, “When he feeds it” refers to someone who indulges his sexual urges frequently, day and night. This would not leave him satisfied, but hungry for more, as he becomes addicted to the stimulation. Like a drug addict, a sex addict cannot function without a fix. Furthermore, to continue experiencing satisfaction, the addict must occasionally increase the dosage. This type of sexual intercourse is no longer an expression of love, merely an attempt to satisfy an insatiable addiction. This is what the Sages meant when they said, “When he starves it, it is satisfied; when he feeds it, it is hungry.” However, it is forbidden to “starve it” in a way that undermines the Torah commandment of ona – at the set frequency as well as any additional times when one spouse is particularly aroused.
We still need to explain two halakhot, one Torah law and one rabbinic, that seem to indicate that despite the sanctity of the mitzva of ona, it has an aspect of impurity as well.
According to the Torah, semen ejaculated by a Jew is a source of impurity (av ha-tuma). Even when a husband and wife have marital sexual relations and fulfill the Torah commandment, since he ejaculated inside her, they both become impure, as they have come into direct contact with a source of impurity (they have the status of rishon le-tuma). To purify themselves, they must immerse in a mikveh and wait until nightfall, whereupon they resume their ritually pure status and are permitted to enter the Temple, eat the meat of the sacrifices, and, if they are kohanim, eat teruma. Similarly, clothing and kelim that have come into contact with a Jewish man’s semen become ritually impure and may not be used or worn while handling sacrifices or objects that must retain their pure status. These items are purified through immersion in a mikveh. In the Torah’s words:
When a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water and remain impure until evening. All cloth or leather on which semen falls shall be washed in water and remain impure until evening. And a woman with whom a man has sexual relations and an emission of semen, they shall bathe in water and remain impure until evening. (Vayikra 15:16-18)
Ritual impurity, tuma, is an expression of life lost. The supreme source of tuma (avi avot ha-tuma) is a corpse. The impurity of nidda also expresses death; this was a potential pregnancy that has been lost and is no longer. The impurity of semen is likewise an expression of something that could have created new life but has now been lost and has died (Kuzari 2:60-62). The Torah teaches us that even when semen is ejaculated in fulfillment of the mitzva of ona, it harbors impurity. Likewise, we find that childbirth renders a woman impure. The idea is that when any grand notion descends to this world, there is a certain aspect of death. The vision is always grander than its realization. In this case, the hopes preceding a birth are grandiose. There is a tendency to believe that the whole world will change for the better because of this birth, and that the newborn child will be absolutely perfect. In reality, after birth we return to routine life, with its aches, pains, and exhaustion. Despite the miracle of birth, the new baby will still need to contend with all the challenges of human life. Even our bodies sense this letdown, which is an aspect of post-partum depression.
A man, too, experiences letdown after ejaculation, even though it occurs within the holy context of the mitzva of ona. Beforehand, he believed that he will soon be closer than ever to his beloved wife, and that everything will always be great. His heart fills with passion and excitement, building until its release during ejaculation. But then he falls back to the routine of this world, his passion drained. In contrast, women do not experience this fall. After orgasm, her return to this world is gentle and easy. When their sexual union is loving and joyful, her feelings of satisfaction and contentment linger for a while. Therefore, the man’s semen is impure, but not the fluids secreted by the woman during arousal.
Perhaps the letdown that a man experiences after orgasm expresses human incompleteness. Even when one is truly in love, true unity between two people is fleeting. Even when a man truly wishes bring joy to his wife, he remains, to some degree, within himself. He fails to harness all of his passion to that love. If this were possible, there would be no more death in the world, no more post-coital tristesse, and no more post-partum depression. The Sages allude to this in their explanation of the impurity of childbirth:
“Indeed, I was born with iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me” (Tehilim 51:7). R. Aḥa explained: Even if a person is the most devout of the devout, it is impossible for him to be completely devoid of sin. David said to God, “Master of the universe! Did my father Yishai intend to create me? He had nothing in mind but his own pleasure! We know that this is true, for after they attend to their needs (i.e., after sexual intercourse), one turns this way and one turns that way (and they fall asleep). You, however, gather in every single drop (of semen, to ensure that there are viable fetuses).” This is what David meant when he said, “Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in” (Tehilim 27:10). (Vayikra Rabba 14:5).
. Sexual relations render a woman impure not because she came into contact with a man’s semen, because the contact took place internally, and such contact does not cause impurity. Rather, the Torah informs us that the sexual intercourse itself renders her impure (Nidda 41b-42a; MT, Laws of Other Types of Impurity 5:9). During the 72 hours after intercourse, if a woman leaks semen, she becomes impure. After that, the semen loses its identity and does not cause impurity. Dried semen does not cause impurity, and neither does the semen of a non-Jew.
As we mentioned above, the Torah declares semen impure. Ezra the Scribe and his court extended this, ordaining that any man who had sexual relations or otherwise ejaculated semen may not pray or study Torah until immersing in a mikveh (BK 82b according to Rosh). The reason is that Torah must be studied with “awe, fear, trembling, and trepidation,” just as we received it at Sinai, whereas semen is ejaculated “out of frivolity and arrogance” (Berakhot 22a and Rashi ad loc.). Another reason is “so that Jews are not like roosters, which mate, get right up, and go eat” (y.Berakhot 3:4), or “so that Torah scholars do not constantly cohabit with their wives, like roosters” (Berakhot 22a).
According to all of these reasons, Ezra’s ordinance does not indicate that there is something wrong with sexual intimacy between husband and wife. Rather, they should not overindulge as does a rooster, which has nothing else to live for. Human beings have other purposes, spiritual as well as professional. If people spent all their time mating like roosters, they would not manage to fill all their other roles. The requirement of immersion creates a certain inconvenience whose purpose is to ensure that people fulfill the mitzva of ona with the appropriate frequency and not to excess.
Additionally, immersion is meant to separate between the different realms of a person’s life. Torah must be studied with the appropriate gravitas, with a sense of fear and awe, whereas the mitzva of ona is fulfilled with a spirit of playfulness, liberation, and unbounded joy, as it is written: “Yitzḥak was being playful with Rivka his wife” (Bereishit 26:8). Rashi explains that “being playful” is a euphemism for sexual relations. This is similar to the Sages’ ordinance that men wear belts while they are speaking holy words, to separate the heart from the genitals, lest the urges emanating from the genitalia confound the head and heart and make it difficult to engage in spiritual matters with the requisite purity. Ultimately, the mind and emotions can become enslaved to the realization of lustful fantasies.
Therefore, in order to fortify his spiritual world, one must study Torah with awe, fear, trembling, and trepidation, as is becoming of its sanctity and seriousness. Then, when he later returns to physicality, he will be able to direct it properly. This explains why the Sages instituted a blessing to be recited upon putting on a belt in the morning: “Who girds Israel with strength” (Ozer Yisrael bi-gevura). The strength to separate between the heart and the genitals liberates a person from being enslaved by his urges and enables him to sanctify them through the mitzva of ona.
In practice, Ezra’s ordinance did not become widespread. Some people did not want to stop studying Torah, and since they found it inconvenient to immerse, they simply refrained from sexual relations, thereby forgoing both the mitzva of ona and the mitzva of procreation. In contrast, some others were happy to fulfill the mitzva of ona, but because of the inconvenience of immersion, they simply refrained from Torah study. Many others simply ignored the ordinance, wishing neither to detract from the mitzva of ona nor to lessen their Torah study. When the Sages saw that Ezra’s enactment was not accepted by the Jewish people, they rescinded it and permitted those who had ejaculated or had sexual relations to pray and study Torah without restriction (Berakhot 22a; MT, Laws of Reciting Shema 4:8). Nevertheless, some people are meticulous about immersing before studying Torah or praying, in accordance with Ezra’s ordinance. Others show their meticulousness by washing in nine kabin (approximately 11 liters) of water. Nowadays, when every home has a shower, it is good to be meticulous about this.
. It seems from Berakhot 22a-b that relying on nine kabin of water is acceptable only for a healthy person who unintentionally ejaculated semen, or a sick person who had intercourse. Torah scholars are considered like sick people for these purposes. However, according to R. Hai Gaon and Rif, now that the ordinance requiring immersion has been rescinded, even according to the stringent opinion (which required immersion in a mikveh prior to prayer), bathing in nine kabin of water is sufficient. MB (88:4) adds that even though the ordinance was rescinded, some pious people still immerse following an ejaculation of semen. If this is too difficult, they bathe in nine kabin of water. According to R. Ḥayim Naeh’s calculation of halakhic volume, nine kabin is 12.44 liters, and according to the more precise calculation, it is 10.8 liters.
What is the actual procedure for washing in nine kabin? The water must be poured onto the person; he should not immerse in it (Berakhot 22a). The pouring must be continuous, without pause (MB 88:4). According to Raavad, the water must also be poured manually, so that all the water touches the body. According to this view, it seems that a shower would not be acceptable. However, Sefer Ḥasidim (§828) states that a person may fulfill the obligation even with water flowing on its own, as long as the water makes contact with his whole body, including his arms. Accordingly, taking a shower would be acceptable. Kaf Ha-ḥayim 88:7 and Yaskil Avdi 5, OḤ 13, agree. This is also the opinion of almost all the poskim, as cited in Yalkut Yosef 88:1 and Piskei Teshuvot 88:42. Some insist that the water must make contact with all parts of the body (Pri Megadim, Mishbetzot Zahav 88:1). Based on this, some advise first pouring water on the soles of the feet, because otherwise the poured water will not reach there (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 88:7). Others disagree, maintaining that a ḥatzitza (barrier) does not disqualify the nine kabin, as earlier authorities do not specify that a person must lift his feet from the floor (Responsa Ma’amar Mordechai §1-2, as cited in Sha’arei Teshuva 88:1). This implies that even those who insist that there must be no ḥatzitza, and that the soles of the feet must get wet, are not careful that the water touch every single part of the body, even inside the ears. If they had meant to be that stringent, they would have needed to say so explicitly. Furthermore, nine kabin of water is a relatively small amount, too small to make contact with every single part of a person’s body. R. Ephraim Zalman Margolies implies this in Mateh Ephraim 606:10, and he writes it explicitly in Elef Le-mateh 606:3; see also Piskei Teshuvot 88:5.
Ma’amar Mordechai 88:2 understands Rambam and SA to mean that the ordinance was limited to Torah scholars, who study Torah frequently. Today, though, when it is easy to follow the ordinance and it also fits in easily with our hygienic lifestyle, it is best for everyone to follow it.
Let us review some essentials: The mitzva of ona is unique in that its sanctity is revealed in material reality. Moreover, even physical passion and desire, which are generally inclined toward the evil impulse, are transformed by it into a mitzva and sanctified. This is an especially powerful corrective; through ona we discover that no area of life is disconnected from the divine, that the Lord is God of earth as well as heaven, and that even physical urges can connect with the sacred and even strengthen it. The mitzva of ona is similar in this way to the mitzva of living in Eretz Yisrael; through both, holiness is revealed in the world (1:5 above).
Nonetheless, since the mitzva of ona is fulfilled by means of a person’s most physical elements, where lusts and urges loom large, one is prone to being overly attracted to them, to the point that one might forget the mitzva and think only about himself instead of about his wife. This is the impurity that lurks here, the flipside of this sacred mitzva. This is not meant to discourage a person from performing the mitzva, but to encourage him to refine his intentions when fulfilling it. The Sages thus encouraged one who wishes to become holier and more pious to sanctify himself through the mitzva of ona, that is, that he should be mindful of bringing his wife as much joy as possible. Ezra the Scribe, the same person who ordained that one must immerse after sexual relations, also made two enactments to increase the love between husband and wife: that they should eat garlic, an aphrodisiac, on Friday nights, thus increasing the passion of their sexual union, and that peddlers may sell perfume and jewelry everywhere, so that wives are enticing to their husbands (Bava Kama 82a-b; 2:5 above).
It is worth considering an extraordinary idea underlying interpersonal commandments, which transforms routine aspects of life into mitzvot. When a person prepares tasty food for himself, he does not fulfill any mitzva; he is simply tending to his needs. However, when he cooks tasty food for a guest, he fulfills a mitzva. This is even truer of a couple’s intimate relationship – when they give each other pleasure, they become imbued with the sanctity of the mitzva of ona, and the Shekhina dwells with them.
As we explained above (section 3), there are two primary levels of holiness within marriage. The basic level of holiness is the upholding of a halakhic marriage, avoiding sexual transgressions and observing the laws of nidda. The higher level of holiness increases the couple’s love and unity, which brings out the depth of eternal life inherent in their relationship.
Thus far, we have taken the mainstream approach, namely, that the more a couple enjoys and gives pleasure to one another, the greater their mitzva and the holier their union. However, we must note that there are two additional approaches to the holiness of ona: Rambam’s approach and the approach of ascetic sanctity. Since there is truth in each approach, it is worth studying them. This study will also allow us to explain the primary approach in a more comprehensive and balanced way.
Rambam, consistent with his worldview, sees bodily needs and pleasures as mere means to the ultimate end – spiritual service of God. Nevertheless, God created flesh-and-blood human beings, who must take very good care of their bodies, since it is the vehicle which allows them to study Torah and fulfill mitzvot. If a person does not take care of bodily needs, including the natural desire for sexual intercourse, it will cause deterioration of physical and mental health and loss of equilibrium. Such a person will be unable to concentrate on spiritual service. The purpose of the mitzva of marriage and the sexual prohibitions is to train every person to satisfy their natural desire for physical intimacy within the framework of halakha. The more careful one is to satisfy his own needs and those of his spouse without getting overwhelmed by physical lust, the more sanctified such a person becomes. This is the aim of the mitzva of ona: to satisfy natural sexual desire, each person according to their health and occupation, no more and no less.
When a person follows this path, then even tending to one’s physical needs is considered part of divine worship:
When he has sexual intercourse, his only intention should be to keep his body healthy and produce viable offspring…. One who follows this path for his entire life serves God constantly, even while doing business and even while having sexual intercourse. For his intention is always to provide for his needs so that his body is whole, in order to serve God…. This is what our Sages meant when they commanded, “All of your actions should be for the sake of heaven” (Avot 2:12). This is also what Shlomo said, in his wisdom (Mishlei 3:6): “In all your ways, know Him, and He will make your paths smooth.” (MT, Laws of Dispositions 3:2-3).
Rambam thus disagrees with the gentile sages who praise celibacy, because he feels that it is unnatural, painful, and unhealthy. Just as we do not encourage a person to starve himself on a regular basis or to suppress his need to relieve himself, so too, we must not encourage a person to abstain from sexual relations. Even if the person’s spouse is willing, as long as abstention involves going against natural desires, they must satisfy those urges. However, since sexual relations are merely a means to an end, one should not indulge in them more than necessary. One who indulges in physical pleasures more than necessary to serve God is like an animal that always follows its natural impulses. From this perspective, “Our sense of touch is a disgrace to us” (Moreh Nevukhim II:36).
It stands to reason that the more a person is engrossed in Torah, the less he will feel this need. This is virtuous, as long as husband and wife develop this virtue in tandem. However, when one spouse has a palpable need for sexual intimacy, no attempts should be made to suppress it, for doing so will demand a constant fight against the urges. Instead of developing spiritual virtues, that spouse will be preoccupied with doing battle against the body. Not only that, but there is concern that such a person will delude himself into thinking that he has been liberated from the burden of his urges, but ultimately the repressed urges may find unrestrained expression and lead to sexual transgression. Even if he does not end up sinning, all the effort that he exerts to restrain his urges will warp his spirit and damage his mental health. The Torah therefore gave us the mitzva of ona with all its parameters, so that husband and wife, by observing halakha, will treat each other and their own bodies properly.
The advantage of Rambam’s approach is that one who follows it will not engage in self-delusion, will not try to be overly abstemious while imagining that he has successfully overcome his physical needs and ascended to the lofty virtues of asceticism and sanctity. But neither will he fool himself into constant indulgence of the body and the passions with the claim that he is “sanctifying the material” and “redeeming sparks of holiness.” The drawback of this approach is that it denies any intrinsic value to the body and the act of sexual intimacy.
Realistic, critical, and intellectual individuals love Rambam’s approach because it does not pretend to sanctify what appears profane. But even the wider public has much to gain from his approach, as it recognizes human physical needs and does not attempt to deny human nature.
A person must direct his heart and all his actions only to knowing God. His sitting down, getting up, and speech must all be directed to this purpose…. Likewise when eating, drinking, and having sexual relations, his intention should not be only for his own gratification, which would lead him to eat and drink only what tastes sweet, and to engage in relations for pleasure only. Rather, when he eats and drinks, he should have in mind that he is doing so in order to keep himself healthy…. Similarly, when he has sexual intercourse, his only intention should be to keep his body healthy and produce viable offspring. Therefore, he should not engage in sexual relations whenever he desires to do so, but only when he knows that he needs a sexual release for his physical well-being or to produce viable offspring…. He should be mindful of having a son; perhaps he will become a Torah scholar or a Jewish leader. Thus, one who follows this path for his entire life serves God constantly, even while doing business and even while having sexual intercourse…. (MT, Laws of Dispositions 3:2-3)
As is known, young people have a more frequent need for sex – two or three times a week – but among older people, it decreases to once a week, and among the elderly, even less frequently. Of course, these are generalizations; some individuals need more, and some less.
Elsewhere, Rambam writes:
A man’s wife is permitted to him; therefore, whatever a man wishes to do with his wife, he may do. He may have sexual relations with her anytime, kiss any body part that he wants, and penetrate her vaginally, anally, or through another body part. Nevertheless, it is the practice of the pious to avoid acting frivolously in such matters. Rather, he should sanctify himself during sexual intercourse, as explained in Laws of Dispositions. He should not deviate from normal behavior and practice, as this is meant only for procreation…. The Sages disapprove of one who has relations frequently and constantly cohabits with his wife like a rooster. It is deeply flawed, the conduct of the unrefined. (MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 21:9, 11)
Thus, on one hand, Rambam praises those who minimize sexual relations, but on the other hand, he does not try to restrain natural human desire. See Harḥavot.
We must, of course, add that even if asceticism suits the husband’s body and temperament, if his wife remains interested, he is still obligated to please her sexually. As Rambam writes: “The ona mandated by the Torah depends on each man’s stamina and occupation…. A wife may prevent her husband from traveling for business except locally, so that he does not withhold her ona, and he may not travel without her permission…” (MT, Laws of Marriage 14:1-2). Additionally, “A man who decreases the frequency of sexual relations is praiseworthy, as long as he does not neglect the set ona without his wife’s consent” (MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 21:11). The same applies when asceticism suits the wife but not the husband; she may not neglect ona without his consent.
There is another approach as well. It agrees that there is sanctity in the sexual union of husband and wife, which causes the Shekhina to dwell with them and thereby reveals divine unity in the world, unites heaven and earth, and spreads an abundance of blessing through all the worlds. However, according to this approach, these ideas are so sublime and exalted that one must take care to fulfill the mitzva of ona out of deep love and intense longing. Ideally the mitzva should be fulfilled at the most suitable time – Friday night after midnight. For on the holy Shabbat, peace is revealed in all the worlds, making it the best time for a couple to add an abundance of blessing through their sexual union (see Zohar I 50a, 112a1; III 49b).
This approach does not minimize the value of love; rather, love is exalted and transformed into a something transcendent and yearned for. The more sublime it is, the more we yearn for it, but with a yearning that is filled with awe, respect, and refinement. The husband is like a responsible king whose every action affects the entire world, and the wife like a beautiful and noble queen, refined and sensitive, whose every good deed that she does and beautiful emotion that she feels uplifts the whole world. All the battles he fights and the heroic deeds he performs are for her; all her beauty and good deeds are for him. They are willing to give their lives to remain faithful to each other. Due to their longings and mutual respect, their spiritual union stirs them to the depths of the soul and spirit, but it need not climax in physical orgasm.
The Talmud tells of R. Eliezer:
They asked [R.Eliezer’s wife] Ima Shalom: “Why are your children so beautiful?” She said to them, “[R. Eliezer] does not talk [that is, have sexual relations] with me at the beginning of the night or the end of the night, but only at midnight. When he talks [has sexual relations] he reveals a tefaḥ and covers a tefaḥ, and it seems as though he is compelled by a demon [i.e., by fear and trepidation]. I asked him, ‘What is the reason for this?’ He answered, ‘So that I do not look at another woman, which would render my children mamzerim.’” (Nedarim 20b)
It as if R. Eliezer was saying, “If I lose my special reverence and respect for you, there would be no difference between you and another woman. Our union would not be complete, and it would damage our children, for this is a kind of spiritual adultery and mamzerut.”
Regarding the phrase “reveals a tefaḥ and covers a tefaḥ,” the commentators explain: “He would not thrust his penis during sexual relations, in order to minimize his pleasure” (Raavad; SA 240:8). This implies that his technique limited his own pleasure, but it is possible that it increased his wife’s pleasure. Another explanation of the phrase is that he would not expose too much of his skin or her skin. However, later poskim and kabbalists reject this explanation, as it goes against halakha as well as kabbalistic notions according to which a couple must be naked during intercourse (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 240:61).
The advantage of this approach is that those who follow it are not swept away by their physical urges, and their longing and yearning for union preserve their love. The disadvantage is that many desires remain unrequited and they lose the opportunity for experiences that they can sanctify through the mitzva of ona. Another serious drawback is that many people who follow this path delude themselves into believing that they are becoming holy, when in reality, they are repressing their desires, which may then find expression through unseemly thoughts and sexual transgressions. The pressure can also damage their mental health and warp the spirit.
Therefore, rabbis and educators caution young couples that even if they wish to follow this approach, they should not do so during the first years of marriage. Rather, they should behave normally and enjoy themselves naturally, in accordance with halakha. Later on, they can cautiously explore whether the ascetic approach is right for them. We must add that the destruction of the Temple and the pain of exile were key components in the formation of this approach, as we will explain below, in section 15; indeed, during the generation after the Temple’s destruction, like the post-Holocaust generation, stringencies and restrictions on the mitzva of ona proliferated.
. See section 15 below, where we explain that after the destruction of the Temple, the union between husband and wife was impaired, and ascetic practices proliferated. Indeed, R. Eliezer (who, as we just saw, exemplified ascetic sanctity) lived at the time of the Temple’s destruction and, together with R. Yehoshua, helped R. Yoḥanan b. Zakkai escape from Jerusalem before the destruction (Gittin 56a). Nevertheless, R. Eliezer’s opinion on this matter is rejected. This explains why the Talmud says that he acted like someone who was being compelled by a demon; the phrase implies that it was an improper way to act, as there are only negative associations with the demonic. Rather, the halakha follows R. Yehoshua, who objected to ascetic customs (Bava Batra 60b, cited below in section 15).
Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin suggests that R. Eliezer’s approach stemmed from his attribute of reverence, which is more connected to this world, thus explaining why his children were beautiful. R. Yehoshua’s approach stemmed from his inclination toward love, which is more closely linked to the next world, thus explaining why he was ugly (Ta’anit 7a). On the surface, he seemed more disconnected from sanctity (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik §146). In the generation following the Holocaust, we likewise find that some rabbis and Ḥasidic rebbes practiced stringencies and added restrictions beyond what had been practiced beforehand, presumably patterning themselves on the laws applicable during times of crisis (above, 2:14).
In practice, based on what we have learned from the Sages and the poskim, the primary way to fulfill the mitzva of ona is that the more love and pleasure shared by husband and wife, the more holy they become. This sanctity has an ascetic element in that the husband does not think about any woman other than his wife, and the wife does not think about any man other than her husband. This sanctity also has an element of self-discovery of the divine root of their souls, for when they unite lovingly and passionately, a spark of divine unity is revealed through them, giving life to them and to all the worlds.
The verse states, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy’” (Vayikra 19:2). Zohar explains that God chose the Jewish people and made them a unique nation, through which His divine unity is revealed in the world. Therefore, His holiness dwells with the Jews, and He guides them in a unique way. Zohar continues:
When is a person called “one”? When a person is male and female together, sanctified with supreme holiness, and having in mind to be sanctified through sexual union…. Then a person is whole and called “one,” with no imperfections. To this end, a man must give his wife enjoyment at that time, preparing her to share a single desire with him, wherein they both have the same thing in mind. Then when they are together, then all is one, in soul and body. In soul – they cleave to one another with a single desire; in body – as we have learned, an unmarried person is like someone who has been divided in half, so when male and female unite, they become one body. Thus they become one soul and one body, and are called one person. Then the Holy One abides in this unity and implants in [the pure souls born of their union] a spirit of holiness. They are thus called God’s children. (Zohar III 81a-b).
Nevertheless, it is well known that our abilities are limited, and the body cannot reveal all the love and truth within the marital bond. If a couple’s relationship is based primarily on physical desire, presumably it will not last. Therefore, a couple must base their relationship on a spiritual foundation as well. Doing so requires some abstinence from the physical, an asceticism that makes room for the spiritual. This abstinence is achieved primarily during nidda times, as the Torah commands.
Furthermore, the mitzva of ona can take place only within the boundaries of one’s ability to give and receive pleasure properly. Sometimes a person pursuing his desires tries having relations in addition to the set times of ona, expecting that this will increase their enjoyment and devotion. Instead he senses love slipping away, the spirit dissipating, and desires becoming more superficial. If this happens, he must return to the set times established by the Sages for the mitzva of ona, in order to restore balance between body and soul, so that the couple’s love and joy can once again come to full expression through the mitzva of ona.
. Sometimes one who has greatly overindulged this urge, and certainly if it was in a sinful manner, must undertake a counterbalancing penance (teshuvat ha-mishkal) and abstain from expressing this urge for a period of time. This is similar to a person who fantasized about sinning and then abstained from wine for a while to safeguard himself from sin (see Berakhot 63a). This is a common penitential practice. However, avoiding wine does not conflict with any Torah obligations, whereas refraining from marital intimacy does, as ona is a mitzva in the Torah. Therefore, the husband must still fulfill his conjugal duties; he may not abstain to try to make up for his overindulgence at his wife’s expense. On the contrary, the best way for him to correct his situation is to do his very best to give his wife enjoyment, especially at the expense of his own pleasure. This will ultimately enable him to experience tremendous joy in fulfilling the mitzva together with his wife.
As we discussed above (2:4), ona is referred to as derekh eretz, which makes it clear that this mitzva must be fulfilled joyfully and pleasurably, as is the way of the world. The mitzva is not meant to repress our natural desire, but rather to express its holiness and channel it properly, so that it will last through the years. There is still room to ask: should a husband and wife increase their passion and try to maximize their own joy and pleasure, or is it enough that they are aroused to give each other pleasure?
It would seem that we can apply an important halakhic distinction here – between mitzva and makhshireimitzva (prerequisites or things that facilitate a mitzva). In this case, the mitzva incumbent upon the man is to bring his wife pleasure. His own enjoyment facilitates the mitzva as it increases his passion and desire to bring pleasure to his wife. According to halakha, makhshireimitzva have the same status as the mitzva itself, as long as they are auxiliary to the fulfillment of the mitzva. In other words, when a husband gives his wife pleasure, then his enjoyment is also part of the mitzva. The more pleasure he brings her, the greater his mitzva. As a consequence, his personal pleasure is likewise considered a greater mitzva. In contrast, if he does not manage to give her pleasure, his own great pleasure is no mitzva. There is only the basic benefit that it saves him from sexual transgression (as explained above in sections 3 and 5).
Likewise, when a wife gives her husband pleasure, she fulfills a mitzva, and her own pleasure facilitates the mitzva. The more pleasure she brings to her husband, the greater the value of her own pleasure.
Let’s take this a step further. When a wife wants to enjoy their sexual union, and to that end she opens up to her husband and allows him to bring her great pleasure, she is enabling him to fulfill his mitzva. Thus, her pleasure facilitates the mitzva in two ways: she helps her husband fulfill his mitzva, and this, in turn, intensifies her desire to bring him pleasure. Similarly, the pleasure that a husband receives from his wife facilitates the mitzva in two ways: for through his pleasure, his desire to give his wife pleasure grows, and this allows her to fulfill her mitzva to give him pleasure.
The general state of the Jewish people affects the joy of the mitzva of ona because the sacred bond between every Jewish husband and wife parallels the bond between God and the Jewish people. The Sages explain in the Mishna that the momentous occasions on which the Jewish people became connected to God are referred to as “His wedding day” and “His day of bliss” (Shir Ha-shirim 3:11). “‘His wedding day’ refers to the giving of the Torah, and ‘His day of bliss’ refers to the building of the Temple” (Ta’anit 26b). We also find that immediately after the Jews received the Torah at Sinai, they were commanded to return to their tents, “to the joy of ona” (Avoda Zara 5a). And directly following the dedication of the Temple, the husbands returned home, joyful and in excellent spirits, and found their wives in a state of purity. They then fulfilled the mitzva of ona with tremendous joy (Mo’ed Katan 9a; above, 1:6).
In contrast, when the Jewish people distance themselves from God, the pleasure of this mitzva is diminished as well. As the Sages said, “Since the destruction of the Temple, sexual pleasure has been taken away and given to sinners” (Sanhedrin 75a). As a result of the distance between God and the Jewish people, rifts permeate all the worlds. The earth is not responsive to heaven and does not express holy values; heaven is not responsive to the earth and does not bestow life and blessing upon it. Global anguish permeates individual homes. As a result, men cannot be fully responsive to their wives’ desire, and women cannot be fully responsive to their husbands’ desire. Those people who have understood the profundity of the crisis and the anguish, and who have truly identified with the pain and tears of both God and the Jewish nation, have at times found it difficult to joyfully fulfill the mitzva of ona.
The Talmud cites R. Yishmael b. Elisha as saying that from the day that the Temple was destroyed, by rights we should have decreed upon ourselves not to eat meat or drink wine, and the day that the evil (Roman) empire conquered us and imposed on us evil and harsh measures, depriving us of Torah and mitzvot and forbidding us from celebrating circumcisions, by rights we should have decreed upon ourselves not to marry or to have children. Avraham’s line would have come to an end by itself. However, R. Yishmael concluded, the Jews should be left alone; it is better that they sin unwittingly and not willfully, as they would not be able to endure such a harsh decree (Bava Batra 60b).
The Talmud continues that after the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a proliferation in the number of Jews who abstained from eating meat or drinking wine in mourning over the cessation of the sacrifices and libations. R. Yehoshua challenged them: “So should we not eat bread, because the meal offerings have been eliminated? Should we not eat fruit, because there are no more bikkurim (first fruit offerings)? Should we not drink water, since the water libation has ceased?!” Rather, he counseled: “My children, it is impossible to avoid mourning completely, for the sentence has been decreed. But it is also impossible to mourn excessively, because we do not impose a decree on the community unless the majority can endure it” (ibid.). Thus, the Sages instituted only mourning customs that are appropriate and suitable for the community.
Therefore, even in exile, the halakhot of the mitzva of ona did not budge, for the essence of the mitzva is that it must be fulfilled joyfully, and the greater the couple’s love and joy grows, the more virtuous they are. Furthermore, the fulfillment of this mitzva ameliorates the exile somewhat, for through it a couple establish their home as a mini-Temple, as the Shekhina dwells with them when they properly fulfill this mitzva (Sota 17a). This accords with the statement of the Sages, “Wherever the Jewish people were exiled, the Shekhina, as it were, went into exile with them” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, §14). The Sages further said that by fulfilling the mitzva of procreation, people draw the redemption closer: “The (messianic) son of David will not arrive until all the souls of the body have been finished” (Yevamot 62a), that is, until all the Jewish souls in the heavenly storehouse have been born.
Thus, it is through our efforts to fulfill the mitzva of ona in accordance with halakha that we bring the redemption closer and arouse pining and yearning for the restoration of the special relationship between the Lover and the beloved, that is, between the Holy One and the congregation of Israel (Knesset Yisrael). As it is written:
For the sake of Zion I will not be silent, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still, until her righteousness emerges resplendent, and her salvation blazes like a torch…. No longer will you be called “Azuva” (“Forsaken”) nor shall your land be called “Shemama” (“Desolate”). Rather, you shall be called “Ḥeftzi-bah” (“I-delight-in-her”) and your land “Be’ula” (“Espoused”). For the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be espoused. As a youth espouses a maiden, your sons will espouse you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. (Yeshayahu 62:1, 4-5)
But those righteous ascetics, whose hearts were so filled with anguish over the Temple’s destruction, could not make do with the mini-Temple which remained to the Jewish people. In their sorrow, they could not fulfill the mitzva of ona with the appropriate joy (see 2:14 above). Therefore, even as they scrupulously fulfilled the mitzva – aware of its value and importance, and aware that through it they were bringing the redemption closer – they reduced its frequency to the necessary minimum, just enough to uphold the sanctity of marriage and fulfill the mitzva of procreation. Occasionally, their customs are cited by the poskim.
Nevertheless, as explained in the Talmud and halakhic literature, the general directive stands. The way to fulfill the mitzva of ona halakhically is with great joy. The more pleasure a husband and wife give each other in this mitzva, the more praiseworthy they are. At the same time, it is natural that despite the wish to fulfill the mitzva in the most complete way, the global pain caused by the exile of the Jews and the Shekhina clouds the joy of the mitzva. Yet the more we merit seeing the Jewish people return to their land, the more the joy of this mitzva is restored, as it is written:
And the Lord’s redeemed shall return, and come with shouting to Zion, crowned with joy everlasting. They shall attain joy and gladness, while sorrow and sighing flee. (Yeshayahu 35:10)
May it be God’s will that we all together merit seeing the ingathering of all exiles and the rebuilding of entire breadth and width of the land. May our eyes behold the return of God to Zion, the restoration of the Davidic dynasty to its rightful place, and the rebuilding of the Temple. Heaven and earth will unite, as will duty and desire, truth and joy, vision and reality, body and soul. “And on that day, declares the Lord, you will call Me ‘Ishi’; you will no longer call Me ‘Ba’ali’” (Hoshea 2:18). Knesset Yisrael will call the Holy One “Ishi” instead of “Ba’ali,” by the term for husband that means “man” instead of “master,” thus emphasizing love that has no element of compulsion. God’s continues, through His prophet:
I will betroth you forever; I will betroth you with righteousness and in justice, and with goodness and mercy. And I will betroth you with faithfulness; then you shall know the Lord. On that day I will respond (e’eneh – from the same root as ona), declares the Lord, I will respond (e’eneh) to the heavens, and they shall respond (ya’anu) to the earth. And the earth shall respond (ta’aneh) with new grain and wine and oil, and they shall respond (ya’anu) to Jezreel. I will seed her in the land as My own; and I shall have compassion on Lo-Ruḥama (No-Compassion); and I will say to Lo-Ami (Not-My-People), ‘You are My people,’ and he will respond, ‘My God.’” (Hoshea 2:18-25)
God will rejoice over us as a groom rejoices over his bride, and the joy of the mitzva of ona will be restored in all its glory.
. The abstinence customs that were practiced after the destruction of the Temple and concomitant persecutions are similar to what we learned above (2:14), namely, that it is forbidden to have relations when the world is suffering greatly, such as from a famine or harsh decrees. Only those who have not yet fulfilled the mitzva of procreation may have sexual relations at such times. Along these lines, R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen explains that it is not coincidental that the Talmud’s accounts of the Temple’s destruction appear in Gittin (55b-58a), the tractate about divorce, as the destruction and exile are comparable to Israel’s divorce by God (Kedushat Ha-Shabbat 3:5). Likewise, R. Tzadok points out that the Talmud’s teachings in praise of Eretz Yisrael appear at the end of Ketubot (110b-112b), the tractate about marriage contracts, for settling Eretz Yisrael manifests the marriage between God and Knesset Yisrael (Inyanei Halakha, Igeret Ha-kodesh, p. 399 [Har Bracha edition], s.v. “ve-yizkor”).
Zohar III 118a, states:
For happiness exists only when Israel is in the Holy Land, for there the wife achieves union with her Husband, which is a joy to all, joy above and below. When Israel is not in the Holy Land, one is forbidden to be or appear happy, as it says, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad in her, all who love her” (Yeshayahu 66:10). It is specifically with her that you may be glad.
It is important to add that after the Temple was destroyed and the laws of ritual purity rendered moot, all the immersions related to the Temple were eliminated. The only circumstance where purification of the human body remains relevant is the immersion of a nidda to purify herself so she can resume sexual intimacy with her husband. Thus, to some extent, a Jewish home is a mini-Temple.