Revivim, rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Revivim, rabbi Eliezer Melamed

The Centrality of Marital Relations In the Jewish Home

Meticulousness in the laws of purity is not the revelation of holiness in the home, but only a necessary prerequisite for the mitzvah of marital relations, which is the true revelation * The concept of the mitzvah of marital relations as central to the life of the home is very well established in Judaism, and it is precisely Christianity that minimizes its value * The responses I received following the publication of the book Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato taught that the public was thirsty for such a statement

Q: Rabbi, with your permission and out of great respect for you, I wanted to write about something that perplexed me after studying the book ‘Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato‘. I have found instructions that seem to me to be suitable for chozrim b’teshuva (returnees to Orthodox Judaism), or for specific cases, but not for the vast majority of observant couples who want to build their homes in holiness and purity, and without all the various damaging notions that the corrupt Western culture introduces into other societies. Rabbi, why did you write them as a general guide?

In addition, there is an overemphasis in the book on the importance of the mitzvah of ona (marital intimacy). In contrast, however, I learned from my rabbis that it is better for marital intimacy to be limited (Torah scholars should have marital relations on Shabbat evening, and that Torah scholars should not be intimate with their wives like roosters) and not joyfully, as explained in a number of sections in the book (Chapter 1, Halakhot 1-2, Chapter 2, Halakhot 1 and 3). Perhaps this guidance is suitable for baalei teshuva, but not for yeshiva students, and why is it not explicitly written that these are bedi’avad (ex post facto) instructions for situations where it is necessary to be maykel (rule leniently), and not for a normal situation?

The Background for Writing the Book

A: It was not easy for me to write the book, and as I wrote in 5774 (2013) in the preface: “Originally, I thought that if I ever had the privilege to write about these issues, I would do so in my old age, with the hope that I would be less bashful about it. However, over the last few years, my wife and I have become aware of the lack of proper guidance available to engaged couples and newlyweds. The absence of proper guidance leads to needless pain and frustration precisely where there should be joy and love. Pre-wedding classes spend a great deal of time on the details of the laws of nidda and their precautionary distancing measures (harḥakot), and are very brief with the mitzvah of ona.

My wife likes to illustrate the problem with the following comparison. Imagine that a young woman approaches an older woman and asks to be taught how to cook for Shabbat. The older woman agrees and teaches her how to sift flour, how to check vegetables and legumes for bugs, and how to check eggs for bloodspots. She explains that the laws of meat and milk have relevance not only to cooking but even to cutting onions. She goes over the laws concerning bishul akumḥalav akum, and gelatin. She concludes with advice about buying food that meets the highest kosher standards. She leaves out only one thing: how to cook tasty food that makes Shabbat enjoyable. Moreover, she mistakenly believes that keeping kosher (which, of course, is very important) automatically results in enjoying Shabbat. That the food is undercooked and bland is no problem at all for her, for she believes that our purpose in life is to suffer to sanctify God’s name.

Similarly, there are pre-wedding teachers who tell brides- and grooms-to-be that keeping the laws of family purity in all their complexity results automatically in a holy home. It is true that the laws of family purity are a prerequisite for the mitzvah of ona, but it is the intimate connection and joy associated with the mitzvah of ona that give expression to life’s holiness.

The problem we have described leads to a terrible disconnection between holiness and life, truth and goodness, duty and joy. This breach was meant to be mended through the general mitzvah to “love your fellow as yourself” as well as the specific mitzvah of ona. So in the winter of 5774 (2013-2014), I found the necessary courage to write about the laws of ona and the reasons behind them. This naturally led me to clarify the laws pertaining to procreation as well.”

The Concerns

I also wrote there: “Some of my teachers and friends advised me to forgo writing and publishing this material, or at least make it less explicit. Most of them were worried about the fallout for me, and a few felt that it is inappropriate to elaborate in writing about intimate topics.”

The fear of those looking out for my good was that perhaps the positive explanation of the mitzvah of ona as a mitzvah that should be joyfully fulfilled, would upset the “yirei Shamayim” (“God-fearing”) who believe that the less a person fulfills the mitzvah of ona, the more righteous and holy he is. And as is common among some of them, unfortunately, they will arouse controversy about me, and besmirch the entire ‘Peninei Halakha’ series, and it would be a shame to harm the whole series because of one issue.

However, recognizing the shortcoming of understanding the Torah in this important mitzvah, I felt obligated to properly explain the mitzvah, as I wrote there: “There is much misunderstanding and misinformation circulating among the general public, which casts our holy Torah in a negative light, as if its goal is to minimize the joy of ona. Therefore, I felt it necessary to present the position of our holy Torah clearly, in accordance with the Sages and poskim. Doing so will protect our holy Torah from this slander, and will also protect our dear couples, men and women, from the pain and inadequacy caused by the misinformation. It is worth noting that the distortions of our Torah result from misunderstanding our Sages, Zohar, and kabbalists. These misunderstandings can be traced to the influence of views, espoused by classic Christianity, that consider celibacy an ideal.”

The Joy of Marital Intimacy is Sacred

Now to the question of whether this is influenced by “corrupt Western culture”. On the contrary, the joy and desire in this mitzvah is explained in detail in the words of our Sages in the Talmud, the Zohar, and in the Rishonim, as is explained in detail in the book, that the essential mitzvah is to give and receive pleasure, and therefore it is called simchat ona (the joy of marital sexual relations). It is true that among the Jewish nation, there were also individuals for whom the customs of pri’shut (ascetic sanctity) suited them and their wives, such as Rabbi Eliezer. According to halakha, however, one can act as they did, only on the condition that one of the spouses’ wholeheartedly agrees to it. Moreover, in the opinion of many poskim, these customs of pri’shut are not le’chatchila (ideal) and do not constitute a hidur (enhancement of a mitzvah), but only individuals whose minds and souls are inclined may do so, and as I have explained in my book (3: 12-13). In other words, the instruction that a husband should not behave like a rooster constantly engaging in copulation, is not intended to minimize the value of holiness and joy in the mitzvah of ona, rather to create an effective balance, namely, that along with this important mitzvah, a person should also engage in Torah study, prayer, good deeds, and all other mitzvot.

The important foundation that must be understood is that in the mitzvah of ona, there is no contradiction to holiness; rather, on the contrary, it gives expression to holiness, since by means of it, divine unity in the world is revealed – unity of husband and wife, and of soul and body, as it is written, “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:22). This is the supreme ideal of the Torah, therefore this mitzvah most fully expresses the mitzvah ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ which is a great rule in the Torah (HaARI, Sefer Ha’Likutim, Ekev).  On the other hand, Christianity breached this great foundation, and even saw in it the basic sin that caused all the evils in the world. Inadvertently, some Jews were influenced by Christianity, and obscured the value of holiness and joy in the mitzvah.

Evidence that this mitzvah expresses holiness, is that we have found that the shape of the cherubim placed in the Kodesh HaKodeshim (Holy of Holies) on the Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark) was in the form of a man and a woman clinging to one another (Yoma 54a). Rabbi Akiva also said: “All scriptures are kodesh (holy), and the ‘Song of Songs’ is kodesh kodeshim (holy of holies)” (Tanchuma Tetzeveh 5). Not only that, but this connection and union is the parable of the supreme connection between God and the People of Israel, as written: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62: 5). We also find that after the Giving of the Torah that God commanded Moshe “Let them return to their tents “(Deuteronomy 5:27), and our Sages interpreted this as a euphemism for marital relations (Avodah Zara 5a). In other words, precisely out of the holiness that was revealed in the Giving of the Torah, one should return to fulfill the mitzvot of ona with joy (see Ibid. 1: 6).

Since many are unaware of the sanctity and value of this mitzvah, and even mistakenly think that this joy diminishes the sanctity, there is a great educational need to clarify this matter for young adults as well.

It is worth noting that apart from the self-worth of clarifying the holiness in this mitzvah, this study also constitutes a barrier and fence against breaching the boundaries with serious sins. I will expand on this with God’s help on another occasion, when I explain why the book was included in the series.

Responses from those Who Studied the Book

Since the book was published, almost everywhere I go, a number of people approach me to give thanks for the book, by means of which they came to understand emunah (faith) and life, and that it had added joy and blessing to their lives. Quite a few of them say with tears in their eyes: “The book saved our lives.” There are also members of the Haredi community who approach me, and say that thanks to studying the book, they became stronger in emunah and observance of mitzvot, and their lives became better, and happier. I asked one chasid who thanked me for the book, where he had heard about it. He replied that his rabbi had recommended that he study the book.

A young man, the son of a rabbi, told me that he was debating whether to leave religion, and no longer kept many mitzvot. One Shabbat while in the army, he came across the book and studied it for a few hours. At that moment, he decided to remain observant when he realized that precisely according to the guidance of the Torah, life is directed in a more moral, blessed and joyful way.

I received another gratifying ‘thank you’ from a Torah family (Nationalist/Haredi), whose father is a talmid chacham (Torah scholar), and the mother, a veteran teacher. One of their sons left his yeshiva, enlisted in the army, stopped observing mitzvot, and began to learn a profession. By the grace of God, he found an observant girl, and to the joy of his parents, the wedding was set. A week before the wedding, he went to learn his final lesson with his pre-wedding counselor, where they learned about the intimate relationship between husband and wife. The young man returned home upset and angry. He went to his mother, took off his kippa, threw it on the floor, and said the wedding was off. If this is what his bride was learning, and that’s how she thinks they should live, he cannot get married. With tears in his eyes, he said the wedding had to be cancelled.

His mother went to the book shelf, took out the book ‘Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato,‘ and said to him: ‘Take it, and study.’ He went into his room leaving his kippa on the living room floor. After two hours of studying the book, he returned, put on the kippa, and said the wedding was on.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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