According to Torah values, is it considered proper to enjoy sexuality and all forms of amorous expression within the bounds of marriage, or is a more ascetic orientation the proper path? Jewish tradition has apparent contradictory directives in regard to sensuality, sexual pleasure and abnegation. Recommendations of various Talmudic sages range from total denial of pleasure, such as dispensing with the sexual act “as if forced by a demon”, to the other extreme, suggesting that sexual tastes and behavior are akin to one’s taste and preference with food, and so long as it is with one’s wife, any kind of behavior is acceptable and of no moral import (see Nedarim 20b).
One can appreciate the idea of measured abstention and moderation (such as discussed by Ramban in Parashas Kedoshim Vayikra 19:2), and the potential damage of a hedonistic approach to sexuality. However, from a modern psychological and social perspective, it is difficult to make sense of the stress and insistence on limiting sexual pleasure to the extreme level as espoused by Shulchan Aruch (O.H. 240) and many of the poskim and commentaries. Such a degree of deprivation has shown itself to lead down a dangerous path of continuous dissatisfaction for some, and leave a man or woman who is in such a marriage vulnerable to temptation as much as can hedonistic behaviors.
In the author’s personal experience in consultation with dayanim and poskim from many segments of the religious spectrum, in practice, such extreme piety is discouraged. Different sects and individuals within those cultural religious contexts may encounter conflict between their needs, their spouse’s needs, their traditions, beliefs and wishes. Yet, because many people are ashamed to discuss sexuality with their rabbis, and also may feel guilt about misdeeds past and present, they often are too embarrassed to obtain clear guidance on these matters. Thus, they read the strict letter of the law as recommended in Shulchan Aruch and set for themselves impractically high standards. This often become part of a vicious, self-defeating cycle whereby the person is unable to live up to his perceived standard, then as a result of pent up sexual frustration, falls prey to explicitly forbidden behaviors such as masturbation or porn, and then out of guilt tries even harder to abstain, setting himself up for inevitable and continued failure. Clearly, this is unhealthy and destructive.
As a therapist who has been working with high conflict couples and persons with sexual addictions and desire disorders for two decades, I have had ample opportunity to learn from my clients’ struggles and conflicts in these areas. In addition, in the course of helping some of these couples, I have had the opportunity and privilege to observe the practical side of various practices and rulings from esteemed poskim and dayanim from many segments of the Jewish community, as at times these rabbis would ask for my clinical impressions (with consent from the clients) and also share their own thoughts on these sensitive matters. Having repeatedly seen in their rulings such a striking and lenient divergence from the recommended behaviors as stated in classic texts such as the Shulchan Aruch, it spurred me to re-examine the original sources and try to understand them better to reconcile apparent contradictions. This essay is the resulting study and analysis, and I hope it serves as a helpful guide for one who is looking for an authentic and psychologically healthy manner to live in accordance with traditional Jewish sexual values and ethics.
As if Forced by a Demon
One of the most psychologically difficult to understand sections in Shulchan Aruch is his code of marital sexual conduct. Specifically, the importance Rav Karo places on denial of male sexual pleasure. As we shall see from the plain meaning of the text, not only one must engage in sexuality with a high degree of purity of thought and intention, but the very idea of experiencing lust and desire, even with one's own wife and even in the prescribed manner, is still described as morally repugnant. In fact, Shulchan Aruch instructs one to engage in the act "As if he is forced by a demon."
Additionally, Shulchan Aruch advises one to engage in the act quickly (See Shulchan Aruch O.H., 240:1,8), which is seeming contradiction to the Gemara's (Niddah 31a-b) directive to literally "Tarry over the belly", meaning to prolong the sexual encounter in order that the woman experience her pleasure.
This problem was also raised by the Ra'avad in Ba'aley Hanefesh (Sha’ar Hakedusha) and he suggests that “Hashem knows what is in the heart of man”, and thus if one can be sure that his thoughts will not stray to think about another woman, then the preferred practice is to prolong the act. However, if his intention in hurrying through the act is to avoid the danger of having an improper thought, then Hashem will grant him the reward and benefit (being granted male children) as if he had tarried. What is psychologically problematic about the Ra’avad’s suggested resolution to the contradiction between these two directives, is that it seems to take no account of the woman's sexual pleasure, when this is clearly the reason why the Sages encouraged prolonging the act, and promise the reward of having male children. (See Rashi Niddah 30b, Yivol V’yishneh who makes it apparent that the endgame of all this is to increase the woman’s pleasure so that she “gives forth seed prior to the man”, which seems to be the Talmud’s idiom for orgasm.)
A fundamental and oft quoted text in the Talmud that discusses sexual practice and ethics can be found in Maseches Nedarim (20a-b):
אמר רבי יוחנן בן דהבאי ד' דברים סחו לי מלאכי השרת חיגרין מפני מה הויין מפני שהופכים את שולחנם אילמים מפני מה הויין מפני שמנשקים על אותו מקום חרשים מפני מה הויין מפני שמספרים בשעת תשמיש סומין מפני מה הויין מפני שמסתכלים באותו מקום ורמינהו שאלו את אימא שלום מפני מה בניך יפיפין ביותר אמרה להן אינו מספר עמי לא בתחלת הלילה ולא בסוף הלילה אלא בחצות הלילה וכשהוא מספר מגלה טפח ומכסה טפח ודומה עליו כמי שכפאו שד ואמרתי לו מה טעם ואמר לי כדי שלא אתן את עיני באשה אחרת ונמצאו בניו באין לידי ממזרות לא קשיא הא במילי דתשמיש הא במילי אחרנייתא א''ר יוחנן זו דברי יוחנן בן דהבאי אבל אמרו חכמים אין הלכה כיוחנן בן דהבאי אלא כל מה שאדם רוצה לעשות באשתו עושה משל לבשר הבא מבית הטבח רצה לאכלו במלח אוכלו צלי אוכלו מבושל אוכלו שלוק אוכלו וכן דג הבא מבית הצייד אמר אמימר מאן מלאכי השרת רבנן דאי תימא מלאכי השרת ממש אמאי אמר רבי יוחנן אין הלכה כיוחנן בן דהבאי הא אינהו בקיאי בצורת הולד טפי ואמאי קרו להו מלאכי השרת דמצייני כמלאכי השרת ההיא דאתאי לקמיה דרבי אמרה לו רבי ערכתי לו שלחן והפכו אמר לה בתי תורה התירתך ואני מה אעשה ליך ההיא דאתאי לקמיה דרב אמרה לו רבי ערכתי לו שלחן
והפכו אמר מאי שנא מן ביניתא
“Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahavai said: The Ministering Angels told me four things: People are born lame because they [their parents] overturned their table [i.e., practised unnatural cohabitation]; dumb, because they kiss ‘that place’; deaf, because they converse during cohabitation; blind, because they look at ‘that place’. But this contradicts the following: Imma Shalom was asked: Why are your children so exceedingly beautiful? She replied: [Because] he [my husband] converses with me neither at the beginning nor at the end of the night, but [only] at midnight; and when he converses, he uncovers a handbreadth and covers a hand breadth, and is as though he were compelled by a demon. And when I asked him, What is the reason for this [for choosing midnight], he replied, So that I may not think of another woman, lest my children be as bastards. — There is no difficulty: this refers to conjugal matters; the other refers to other matters. Rabbi Yochanan said: The above is the view of Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahavai; but our Sages said: The halachah is not as Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahavai, but a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife [at intercourse]: A parable; Meat which comes from the abattoir, may be eaten salted, roasted, cooked or seethed; so with fish from the fishmonger. Amemar said: Who are the ‘Ministering Angels’? The Rabbis. For should you maintain it literally, why did Rabbi Yochanan say that the halachah is not as Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahavai, seeing that the angels know more about the formation of the fetus than we? And why are they designated ‘Ministering Angels’? — Because they are as distinguished as they. A woman once came before Rabbi and said, ‘Rabbi! I set a table before my husband, but he overturned it.’ Rabbi replied: ‘My daughter! the Torah hath permitted thee to him — what then can I do for thee?’ A woman once came before Rab and complained. ‘Rabbi! I set a table before my husband, but he overturned it.’ Rab replied; Wherein does it differ from a fish?” (Translation adapted from Soncino Edition.)
A simple reading of the text appears to be saying that though there seems to be spiritually noxious thoughts that can have an impact on the physical and characterological development of the fetus, this sensitivity and concern was extra legal. In fact, the opinion was attributed with a moniker of “Ministering Angels”, in order to stress that those who followed this position operated on a level of exceedingly high spiritual standards.
Rabbi Yochanan (not to be confused with Rabbi Yochanan ben Dehavai) rules that, in fact, one is permitted to engage sexaully with his wife however he pleases, and the Talmud goes on to compare sexual preferences to food preferences, as if to point out that one’s sexual preferences and tastes are of no greater moral significance than whether one person enjoys his meat salted, roasted or cooked.
However, Shulchan Aruch (O.h. 240, 1-8) rules differently:
“״אף כשהוא מצוי אצלה לא יכוין להנאתו אלא כאדם שפורע חובו שהוא חייב בעונתה ולקיים מצות בוראו שיהיו לו בנים עוסקים בתורה ומקיימי מצות בישראל וכן אם מכוין לתיקון הולד שבששה חדשים אחרונים יפה לו שמתוך כך יצא מלובן ומזורז שפיר דמי. ואם הוא מכוין לגדור עצמו בה כדי שלא יתאוה לעבירה כי רואה יצרו גובר ומתאוה אל הדבר ההוא. הגה: גם בזה יש קיבול שכר, אך (טור) יותר טוב היה לו לדחות את יצרו ולכבוש אותו כי אבר קטן יש באדם מרעיבו שבע משביעו רעב אבל מי שאינו צריך לדבר אלא שמעורר תאותו כדי למלאות תאותו זו היא עצת יצר הרע ומן ההיתר יסיתנו אל האיסור ועל זה אמרו רבותינו ז''ל המקשה עצמו לדעת יהא בנדוי ... וישמש באימה וביראה כמו שאמרו על רבי אלעזר שהיה מגלה טפח ומכסה טפח ודומה כמי שכפאו שד פירוש באימה וביראה כאילו כפאו שד ויש מפרשים מגלה טפח ומכסה טפח שלא היה ממרק האבר בשעת תשמיש כדי למעט הנאתו ודומה כמי שכפאו שד שעושה הדבר באונס ויש מפרשים מגלה טפח שבאשה כלומר עכשיו מגלה אותה לצורך תשמיש ועכשיו מכסה אותה כלומר שלא היה מאריך באותה מעשה ודומה לו כמו שבעתו השד ונבעת והניח המעשה כל כך היה מקצר בתשמיש ויש מפרשים מגלה טפח על הסינר שהיתה חוגרת בו שאף בשעת תשמיש היה מצריכה לחגרה ומגלה רק טפח ממנה ומכסה מיד כדי למעט הנאתו וכולהו פירושי איתנהו וצריך בעל נפש ליזהר בהם
“Even when he is with his own wife, his intent should not be to gratify himself. Rather he should feel as if he is paying a debt, as he is obligated to give his wife sexual attention and to fulfill the command of his Creator in order to beget children who study Torah and keep the commandments. Likewise, (if she is pregnant already), and his intention is to benefit the developing fetus, as intercourse during the final six months of pregnancy promotes fetal health, he has behaved in a fitting manner. He may also have the intent to reduce his desire, in situations that he sees his desire is overcoming his resistance [this too is acceptable.] Rama: This too is worthy of reward. Yet, it is preferable to push off his desire and vanquish it, as a man has a small limb in his body, which if he starves it, it will be satisfied, but if he satisfies it, it will be hungry. However, one who feels no need and only arouses himself to satisfy his desire is following the counsel of his evil inclination, and this will eventually lead him from the permissible to the forbidden. Regarding this matter, our sages of blessed memory, exhorted “One who intentionally arouses himself merely to cause an erection shall be shunned…
One should engage in the act of intercourse with fear and awe, as it is said regarding Rabbi Elazar, “He would reveal only a handbreadth, and then cover a handbreadth, and it would be as if he was forced by a demon.” This means, it was done with such fear and awe, it was if he was in the presence of a demon forcing him to engage in the act. Some interpret the phrase, “reveal only a handbreadth, and then cover a handbreadth” to mean that he would not enter his wife fully in order to limit his pleasure, and interpret “as if forced by a demon” to mean that he would behave as if he was engaging in the act against his will [also to reduce his pleasure.] Others understand the handbreadth phrase to be referring to the woman, as if to say that he quickly uncovered her and then covered her, meaning he engaged in the act quickly, and the reference to being forced by a demon likewise to mean that he was engaging in the act in a hurried manner as if he was afraid of a demon. Yet others understand the handbreadth requirement to mean that he should undress her as little as possible in order to limit his pleasure [by limiting the amount of contact.]” [Brackets indicate areas where the author supplemented the literal text with implied interpretations.]
The Rama takes a different approach, clarifying that technically a wide range of sexual behaviors and practices are permitted with one’s spouse, though he still stresses the value of abstention from pleasure and the spiritual repugnance of specifically pursuing sexual indulgence, even within marriage (EH 25:2):
״הגה ויכול לעשות עם אשתו מה שירצה בועל בכל עת שירצה ומנשק בכל אבר שירצה ובא עליה בין כדרכה בין שלא כדרכה או דרך איברים ובלבד שלא יוציא זרע לבטלה (טור) ויש מקילין ואומרים שמותר שלא כדרכה אפי׳ אם הוציא זרע אם עושה באקראי ואינו רגיל בכך (גם זה טור בשם ר״י ) ואע״פ שמותר בכל אלה כל המקדש עצמו במותר לו קדוש יאמרו לו ולא ירבה בתשמיש להיות מצוי אצלה תמיד שדבר זה פגום הוא מאד ומעשה בורות הוא אלא כל הממעט בתשמיש ה״ז משובח ובלבד שלא יבטל עונה אלא מדעת אשתו ואף כשישמש בשעת העונה לא יכוין להנאתו אלא כאדם הפורע חובו שהוא חייב בעונתה ולקיים מצות בוראו בפריה ורביה ושיהיו לו בנים עוסקים בתורה ומקיימי מצות בישראל״
“One may conduct himself with his wife in any way he desires, he may engage in intercourse at any time he desires, kiss any part of the body he chooses to, can engage in regular intercourse, anal intercourse, or sexuality via other parts of the body so long as he does not waste his seed. There are those who are lenient and allow anal intercourse even with ejaculation if he does it on occasion and not habitually [this is based on the Ri in Tosafos Yevamos 34b “Velo Kemaaseh”, who considers this act to be wasting seed only if the intent was specifically to avoid pregnancy. An occasional act, out of desire or curiosity, is not be part of a pattern to avoid pregnancy and is within the bounds of normative marital intimacy, and thus is not considered wasting seed.] Even though all of this is permitted, whoever sets himself aside by abstaining from the permitted, is called holy. Furthermore, one should not engage in intercourse too frequently as to be doing so constantly, as this is considered very odious, and uncouth. Rather, whoever limits his sexual behavior is to be praised -- so long as he does not withhold fulfilling his obligation to give his wife sexual attention, unless she is voluntarily willing to forgo it. Even when he does engage in sexual intercourse, he should not focus on his pleasure. Rather, he should conduct himself as if he were paying off a debt, as after all he is obligated to provide his wife with sexual affection, and to be fruitful and multiply so that he may beget children who study Torah and fulfill the commandments…”
The Rama seems to follow both positions, that of Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahavai, and that of Rabbi Yochanan, to say that it is preferred to abide by the holier standard, but one can also follow a less stringent standard. The Rama's source for this may be the Rambam who makes a similar formulation in first ruling that all sexual behavior with one's wife is permitted and then advising one to practice holiness and abstention (See Mishne Torah Issure Biah ch. 21, 9-14, and Deos 5:4.)
There is a logical problem with this halachic formulation. Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahavai made several strong and dire predictions regarding the spiritual and physical health of the fetus should one engage in the proscribed sexual practices. It is one thing to rule in accordance with Rabbi Yochanan and not Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahavai, thus effectively not subscribing to Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahavai’s beliefs and concerns. However, the Rama seems to endorse Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahavai’s position as preferred. If so, how could he allow the reader to engage in these acts and expose him to these potential dangers without warning? And furthermore, how could it be even permitted to expose the child to such toxic dangers? (The Talmud (ibid) presents the same challenge if one takes the position that the phrase Ministering Angels literally refers to celestial beings, as given their knowledge of the secrets of creation, then we surely should take into account their warnings about fetal development.)
There are two reasonable answers to this problem, and they are not contradictory and may both be factors. Perhaps, the Rama felt that these spiritual dangers were only a factor for persons who are on a high spiritual level. This can be seen as analogous to the idea that gentiles are not carriers of certain ritual impurity (Bava Metzia 114b), or that the Sotah waters stopped being effective at a certain point in Jewish history when sexual morality plummeted, according to one opinion (Sotah 47b). This is because one must be on a particular spiritual level to be sensitive or susceptible to subtle noxious spiritual toxins. By way of metaphor, a white article of clothing shows stains much more easily than a black article of clothing, so too a "white" soul might be more sensitive to impurities than a darker soul. In addition, perhaps the Rama viewed these spiritually toxic acts as one might view smoking. We know smoking causes cancer, however cancer is not a guaranteed result, especially if one smokes infrequently. So too, these sexual acts may be of limited danger when done on occasion. There is precedent for such an approach in the Talmud, regarding a similar matter. There was a tradition that intercourse on the 90th day subsequent to conception is tantamount to murdering the child. The Talmud asked, “Realistically, how is it possible to know precisely when this day occurs?” Abaye answered, “Let him conduct his affairs as usual and G-d will watch over those who are foolishly unaware.” (Niddah 31a). This too may be the reasoning of the Rama in regard to those who choose a more lenient path.
Another possibility is that in fact no one rules in accordance with Rabbi Yochanan ben Dehavai, and the strong warnings to abstain and limit pleasure come from other concerns about modesty and abnegation not stated by Rabbi Yochanan ben Dehavai. Furthermore, when the Talmud (Nedarim ibid) relates the sexual practices of Rabbi Elazar as told by his wife, which is the source for conducting intercourse "as if forced by a demon", the rationale given is "so that I may not place my eye on another woman", which is understood as that he not be distracted by thinking about other women. In actuality, it seems from the language of Shulchan Aruch and Rama quoted earlier, the real concern is about the value of abstention in general, so as to be holy, and perhaps they understood Rabbi Elazar's words as not literally "so that I may not place my eye on another woman" but rather understood him to be saying "so that I train myself to abstain and not be indulgent, so as to prevent sins that stem from overindulgence such as gazing at, or thinking about, other women." This is in accordance with the general idea of voluntarily abstaining from pleasures in order to become holy as espoused by Ramban (Vayikra 19:2). This idea is also expressed explicitly by the Talmud (Berachos 22a), "In order that they not frequent their wives like roosters."
The Ra’avad in Ba’aley Hanefesh (Shaar Hakedusha) makes this point most dramatically: Indulgence, though technically permitted, will ultimately lead to terrible sin:
ויגדור את עצמו בגדר הפרישות מן הדברים המותרים לו...וכן הוא דרכו משיאו להשביע את נפשו ולמלא כל תאותו בכל המותר לו, ואחר אשר למדו למלא כל תאותו, ברעבון נפשו כאשר לא תמצא ידו במותר לו יסיתנו למלא תאותו מן האיסור הקל, ומן הקל אל החמור, ומן החמור אל החמור ממנו עד שאומר לו לך עבוד עבודה זרה ותכפור במי שאמר והיה העולם שאין דין ולא דיין ולא גן עדן ולא גיהנם ולא עולם אחר״
"One should abstain even from that which is permitted in order to develop an ascetic quality...and should he follow his inclination to satisfy his desires, and fulfill all that he lusts after even in a permitted fashion, he will become habituated to indulgence. Should he then be confronted with a situation where he is experiencing lust and has no permitted outlet, he will be inclined to commit a small sin in order to satisfy himself. He will then progress to more and more serious transgressions until eventually he commits idolatry, and denies that there is reward and punishment in the world to come, nor that there is justice and a [heavenly] judge and retribution.”
If this point is correct, and the ethic driving this push for extreme abstention stems from the fear that indulgence will lead to sin, and voluntary abstention will train a person in self control, then a door has been opened to allow for judgement calls based on particular personal situations and circumstances. Meaning, since the main goal is to teach self-control and prevent habits of overindulgence, there may be persons and situations that call for adjustments of greater or lesser abstention, based on how it will affect the person's present behavior and future spiritual development.
Indeed, in accordance with this line of ethical reasoning and relativity the Ra'avad (ibid) delineates five levels of sexual holiness, in descending order, inviting the person to align himself with the degree that he can sustain.
״הראשונה לשם פריה ורביה ויהא נכונה שבכולם שהוא מקיים בה שתי מצות עשה, ומצות העונה שהוא בלא יגרע.
והשנית לתקון הולד כמו שאמרו רבותינו ז"ל שלשה חדשים הראשונים קשה לאשה וקשה לולד, אמצעיים קשה לאשה ויפה לולד, אחרונים יפה לזה ולזה שמתוך כך נמצא הולד מלובן ומזורז. וגם זו הכוונה נמשכת בכונת פריה ורביה.
והשלישית אע"פ שאין בה לא זה ולא זה אלא שהיא משתוקקת אליו והוא מכיר בה שהיא משתדלת ומרצה אותו ומתקשטת לפניו כדי שיתן דעתו עליה. וכן בעת צאתו לדרך שבודאי הריהיא משתוקקת אליו, גם על זו יש קבול שכר והיא מצות העונה שאמר תורה דמיון שארה כסותה לא יגרע שהם צרכי האשה והנאותיה.
והרביעית שהוא מתכוין לגדור את עצמו בה כדי שלא יתאוה לעבירה כי הוא רואה את יצרו מתגבר ומתאוה אל הדבר ההוא ואולי יצא ענינו לידי חולי מדרך הרפואות. גם בזו יש בה שכר אך לא כראשונות לפי שהיה יכול לרדות את יצרו ולעמוד נגד תאותו בהזכרת ענינים קשים המתרגשים בעולם, והויית אדם מן האפס וסופו אל ההבל, וגבורת הבורא ומכותיו הקשות אל המורדים ואל הפושעים, כענין שאמרו רבותינו הסתכל בשלשה דברים ואין אתה בא לידי עבירה דע מאין באת ולאן אתה הולך ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן את החשבון. וכמו שאמר החכם אם ראית צורה נאה וחמדת אותה הפוך את הצורה ותראה מה יש בתוכה. והיא כמו שאמרו רבותינו ז"ל שהיא דומה לחמת מלאה זבל ופיה מלא דם. ועם כל אלה ושאר ענינים אחרים יכול אדם לכבוש את יצרו. אעפ"כ כיון שהיא לו דבר היתר אינו צריך להלחם עם תאותו רק שיסתפק מן ההיתר כדי שלא יתן דעתו אל האסור כענין שאמרו יצר תינוק ואשה תהא שמאל דוחה וימין מקרבת. ויש לו שכר על זה כי הוא מתכוין לגדור עצמו מן העריות ולהנצל בה מן החטא. הרי אלו ארבע הכוונות הנכונות אל המעשה הזה, ואם יש בו חמישית בדברי הרופאים שהיא מועלת לגוף הרי זו נכנסה בכלל הכוונה הרביעית, כי בהתגבר היצר והרבות התאוה בא הנזק ההוא, והנגדר מזה ינצל מן הנזק ההוא.״
“The first intention is to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. This is the most proper intention of all of them, as he fulfills two commandments [having children] and providing his wife with sexual attention, which he may not limit her from an appropriate level.
The second intention is in order to help the fetus, as our rabbis tell us: Intercourse in the first trimester is harmful to the mother and child; in the second trimester it is harmful to the woman but beneficial to the fetus, and in the third trimester it is beneficial to the woman and to the fetus. This too, is really a part of the mitzvah of reproduction, and can be considered an extension of the first intention.
The third intention, is when there is no focus on the mitzvah of reproduction nor is he doing this to meet the minimum required frequency of relations in the marriage [presumably because he has already engaged in intercourse to a sufficient degree to meet these obligations]. Instead his intent to engage in relations is in response to noticing that his wife is adorning herself that he would pay attention to her and that she is dropping hints that she is feeling desirous of him. Similarly, there is an obligation to show one’s wife extra sexual attention prior to departing on a journey, as surely she will be desirous of him at that time. This too is worthy of reward, as it is a mitzvah to provide one’s wife with sexual affection, as this is a basic need and pleasure.
The fourth intention is when he is attempting to reign in his desire so as to prevent him from sinning, when he sees that his desire is overcoming his ability to control himself. At times, this can even make a person physically ill. This too is worthy of reward, but not at all comparable to the first three intentions. After all, he could master his desires by reflecting on the tragedies in the world, the impermanence and fleeting nature of man’s existence, and the wrath of G-d upon those who rebel and sin, as our sages have advised one to do in order to avoid sin...And, as our masters of blessed memory have taught us, a woman is like a jug filled with excrement and at the lips of the vessel, it is full with blood. [Meaning, the lower region of a woman functions as a means for excreting waste, and also menstruation, and thus one can quell his desire by reflecting on this unsavory description.]
Even though this is true, that he can and should tame his desire, since his wife is, after all, is permitted to him, he is under no obligation to fight his desire. He may allow himself what is permitted to him in order to prevent him from having lustful thoughts about what is forbidden. As it is said, “The evil inclination, a child and a woman should be disciplined via the left hand pushing away, and the right hand drawing close.” [i.e., rebuke should be gentle. And so too, Ra’avad is suggesting that in fighting against temptation, a full frontal assault by total abnegation is less productive than sidestepping and allowing for partial discharge of sexual tension and needs within permitted parameters.] He will be rewarded for this as well, since his intention is to limit his sexual behavior to that which is permitted and save himself from sinning.
Behold, we have explained the four intentions, and there may be a fifth intention for sexual activity, which is to preserve health. However, that is really included within intention number four, as when desire is felt too strongly without abatement it can make one physically ill, and the resolution to the problem lies in relieving the intensity of the desire via the means we described."
It is important to note, this entire discussion focuses on ascetic stringencies placed upon the male, and there is no mention of female abstention. To the contrary, the responsibility of the man to assure that his wife is given adequate affection and attention is constantly stressed. This refers to sexual, physical and emotional affection on all levels. (As we saw above in the Ra’avad’s third intention. Also, see for example Tosafos Yevamos 62b, “Chayyav Odom”, and Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 184:10, Rama Op. Cit., Taz Op. Cit. 16, Pischey Teshuva Op. Cit (22). As a fascinating aside, the Midrash Rabbah (Parasha 19) seems to take concern that a husband continue to show affection and attention even subsequent to marital relations, and offers a none too subtle rebuke toward Adam:
״ ותאמר האשה אל הנחש. והיכן היה אדם באותה שעה? אבא בר קורייה אמר נתעסק בדרך הארץ וישן לו
“And the woman spoke to the serpent.’ Where did Adam go while she was speaking alone with the serpent? Abba Bar Kureya said, he engaged in relations, and then fell asleep.”
The fact that there is little concern about women overindulging in their sexual needs, may be both a product of psychology and halacha. In general, the Talmud felt that women were less apt to become aroused by initial and mild stimulation, which may be true psychologically as well. Therefore the Talmud encourages that a woman frequently examines herself to make sure she did not become ritually impure, while it discourages men from doing so. The reason being, “Women are not apt to become aroused...while men are apt to become aroused” (Niddah 13a). This is in contradistinction to the Talmud’s belief that once a woman becomes aroused, her desire can be more intense than a man. (See for example, Kesubos 51b that discusses a woman who was forced into a sexual encounter, initially against her will, but eventually became aroused. In that case, it is still considered to be an involuntary non-adulterous act. In the picturesque words of the Gemara, “Even if she shouts, leave him be, I would even pay him to do this”, it is still considered involuntary, as “Her desire enveloped her”.) This is in contrast to the Yevamos 53b, which essentially states that a man cannot usually be forced into a sexual act, and to a degree there always is consent, because “There is no erection without the will to have one.” (The Gemara (ibid, 54a) does consider that if man already had an erection, and he was physically pushed into the act, this may still be considered involuntary. Nevertheless, no one suggests that he is given the same psychological leeway, such as by the woman, claiming he now desires what was initially involuntary, that he would be granted a status of “desire enveloped him” effectively making it involuntary.)
Another possible reason that there is little focus on female abstention, is because of what we can call "the underdog principle". Since women often were socially and physically at potential disadvantage in relationships, perhaps the sages felt that it would be best to insist on meeting their sexual needs instead of downplaying them. This is in accordance with a general Jewish ethic to pay special attention to the socially vulnerable, see for example Rashi (Shemos 22:21), on the verse, “Do not oppress any widow or orphan”: “Actually, this command refers to all persons. However, the verse singles out the widow and orphan because they are likely to be victimized as they are weak.”
Regardless of the available leniencies, it seems that all the poskim and commentaries strongly encourage extreme levels of abstention from sexual pleasure, and discourage a man from allowing himself to experience pleasure during the sexual act, or at least to limit his pleasure to whatever degree possible. As we have noted earlier, this is a psychologically problematic ethic, as it is hard to believe that a harmonious modern Jewish marriage would be built on a principle of extreme abnegation and denial. Limited abnegation and avoiding hedonistic extremes are understandable approaches as we have discussed earlier, but the degree of abstention and denial espoused by Shulchan Aruch and the other poskim seems unsustainable. Furthermore, we shall soon see many traditional sources that encourage enjoyment and pleasure within the confines of a marital relationship. In order to understand and harmonize these sources and the ascetic ideas expressed by Shulchan Aruch and other poskim, a more nuanced approach is necessary.
Conceptually, there may be various kinds of pleasures, and not all pleasures may be considered to be hedonistic indulgences. Quite the contrary, to immerse oneself in the pleasure of that particular mitzvah may be considered a way of honoring the mitzvah. For example, Rashi Pesachim (99b, “Lo Yochal”) discusses that to build up an appetite and eat matzah on Seder night with gusto is “hidur mitzvah” honoring the mitzvah. Additionally, we find in regard to eating bread, while ordinarily one should break off small portions so as not to behave in a gluttonous manner, on Shabbos, it is preferred to break off a large piece and indulge.
וז״ל שו״ע א״ח סימן קס״ז, סעיף א׳:
״ ולא יבצע פרוסה קטנה מפני שנראה כצר עין ולא פרוסה יותר מכביצה מפני שנראה כרעבתן.״
וז״ל המשנה ברורה ס״ק י״ב: ״בשבת לא מחזי כרעבתנותא דמשום חבוב סעודת שבת הוא עושה להרבות בסעודה:״
Shulchan Aruch (O.H. 167:1) states: “Do not break off a small piece of bread so as not to appear miserly, and do not break off too large a piece so as not to appear gluttonous.” Mishna Berura comments (Op. Cit.12), “And on Shabbos, there is no concern of appearing gluttonous, as he is doing this to increase his feasting and show his love for the Shabbos meal.”
Furthermore, we find that Shulchan Aruch himself (O.H. 280:1) specifically encourages sexual relations on Shabbos, as it is one of the “delights of Shabbos”. If Shulchan Aruch unequivocally discouraged all forms of sexual pleasure, why would he describe it as one of the “delights of Shabbos”? We must therefore conclude that not all pleasures are considered indulgences.
It can be demonstrated, that there are three distinct categories of sensual pleasure within marriage that would seem to be of a different category, and not subject to Shulchan Aruch’s abnegating and ascetic approach. In addition, we also shall see a more clear delineation of circumstances, where the ascetic approach toward sexuality is discouraged and a more sensual approach is considered acceptable.
Category Number One: Rejoicing in the Mitzvah
Experiencing joy during the act of marital relations, as an expression of regard for the mitzvah, and not mere lust, seems to be encouraged. As Maimonides states (Hilchos Ishus 15:7):
רמב״ם אישות טו:ז
״ולא יאנוס אותה ויבעול בעל כרחה אלא בדעתה ומתוך שיחה ושמחה.״
“One should not engage in the act by force or against her will. Rather he should engage with her consent, in a context of [loving] dialogue and joy.”
The source for Rambam’s formulation of “loving dialogue and joy” is apparently none other than how Rav, the great Talmudic sage, was reported to conduct himself with his wife (Berachos 62b):
בברכות סב, א
״רב כהנא על גנא תותיה פורייה דרב שמעיה דשח ושחק ועשה צרכיו אמר ליה דמי פומיה דאבא כדלא שריף תבשילא
א''ל כהנא הכא את פוק דלאו אורח ארעא אמר לו תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך.
“Rav Kahana lay underneath Rav’s bed [in order to study from his master how he comported himself in the bedroom]. He heard him speak, laugh, and engage in relations. Rav Kahana exclaimed, ‘Abba conducts himself as a starving man who has not eaten!’ Rav commanded, ‘Kahana, you are here? Leave, as this is not proper conduct!’ Rav Kahana replied, ‘This is Torah and I feel compelled to study it.’”
Aside from the fascinating interchange between master and student, and the student’s, dare we say, almost Asperberger’s-like quality in studying every minute detail of his master’s life to the point of socially inappropriate behavior, it clearly emerges that the great sage, Rav, engaged in his marital intimacy with personability, desire and joy. This is a different picture than what Ima Shalom tells us of her husband, Elazar ben Hurkanos, as we saw earlier in Nedarim (20a-b).
Category Number Two: Enjoying the Beauty of One’s Wife
While it is surely deep with meaning, there are a dozen or so verses that constantly note the matriarchs’ physical beauty. (See for example, Bereishis 12:11, 24:16, 29:17, and not limiting it just to women, Yosef is described in a similar fashion 39:6.) It is reasonable to surmise that if it wasn’t an important quality, these great people would not have been blessed with it. No matter what degree of pilpul and derash may be added to the simple meaning of these verses, it is difficult to disregard the value of human beauty in the Torah.
Even though the Talmud (Bava Basra 16a) makes note that Avraham was so pious, that he did not even notice his wife’s beauty, this would seem to be an unusual degree of piety, and not what is considered the norm, even in regard to the patriarchs. For example, Midrash Rabbah (Lech Lecha, Parasha 45) offers some interesting and rather uncharacteristically cosmetically oriented thoughts as to why many of the matriarchs were initially unable to bear children:
״ למה נתעקרו האמהות? ר' לוי משם רבי שילא דכפר תמרתא ורבי חלבו בשם ר' יוחנן שהקב"ה מתאוה לתפלתן ומתאוה לשיחתן שנאמר (שיר ב) יונתי בחגוי הסלע יונתי בחגוי למה עקרתי אתכם בשביל הראיני את מראיך השמיעיני את קולך. רבי עזריה משום ר' יוחנן בר פפא כדי שיהיו מתרפקות על בעליהן בנויין. רבי הונא משם רבי חייא בר אבא כדי שיצאו רוב השנים בלא שיעבוד. רבי הונא ורבי אבון בשם רבי מאיר אמר כדי שיהנו בעליהן מהן שכל זמן שהאשה מקבלת עוברין היא מתכערת ומתעזבת שכל תשעים שנה שלא ילדה שרה היתה ככלה בתוך חופתה.״
“Why were the matriarchs barren? Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Shilah of Kefar Tamrasa and Rabbi Chelbo in the name of Rabbi Yochanan state: The Holy One Blessed Be He desires their prayers...Rabbi Azaryah in the name of Rabbi Yochanan Bar Papah states, so that they will be outstanding in the beauty and appearance toward their husbands….Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Avon in the name of Rabbi Meir state, so that their husbands enjoy them more. Because every child borne during pregnancy reduces a woman’s beauty. The first 90 years that Sarah did not conceive, she appeared as beautiful as a bride at her Chuppah.”
Why is having a beautiful wife so important? The Ohr Hachaim commentary states (Bereishis 29:18): “Based on the Talmud (Shabbos 25b), a talmid chacham should have a beautiful wife in order to combat the evil inclination.” (The reference from the Talmud is not explicit, but implied.)
We also find that the wife of Abba Chilkiya was careful to greet him adorned and beautified when he returned from travel (Taanis 23b). When his students expressed concern about this apparent breach of modesty, his explanation was “So that my eyes not be [tempted to gaze] at another woman.” It is important to recognize the great spiritual stature of Abba Chilkiya, as he was the grandson of the miracle worker, Choni Hameagel, and someone who also was able to bring about miracles upon request, as described in that section of the Talmud.
Additionally, there are numerous places in the Talmud where the beauty of women is encouraged and supported. Some examples of this include the Mishna Nedarim (66a) where Rabbi Yishmael bemoans how poverty has affected the beauty and radiance of Jewish daughters. Lest one think this sensitivity is limited to young maidens, we find Rav Chisda making a point to his colleagues that even an elderly grandmother is expected to take steps to preserve her beauty (Moed Kattan 9b). There are even situations where concerns about possible sins and lack of modesty are bypassed to prevent a woman from becoming ugly in her husband’s eyes (See Bava Kama 82b, and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 195:9).
In these cases and real life experiences of these sages, there is no mention of the idea that it is better to vanquish one’s desires as we saw earlier in the Ra’avad and others. It is possible that the distinction lies in the difference between the base hedonistic pleasures of sexual gratification which is discouraged, versus the more sublime pleasures of appreciating beauty.
Category Number Three: The Experience of Pleasure to Promote Love and Bonding
Pleasure that is experienced as part of an act of love to strengthen the bond of marriage may be considered in a different category than mere gratification of lust. Conceptually, it is important to develop a sense of connection and bondedness between husband and wife through physical intimacy. The Iggeres Hakodesh (which is likely misattributed to Ramban) speaks of the value of creating a sense of connection and joining of the minds during marital intimacy :
״ולפיכך יש לך להכניסה תחלה בדברים שמושכין את לבה, ומיישבין את דעתה, ומשמחין אותה, כדי שתקשר דעתה בדעתך, וכוונתה בכוונתך, ותאמר לה דברים קצתם מכניסין אותה בדברי חשק ואהבה ורצון, וקצתם מושכין אותה ליראת שמים וחסידות וצניעות."
“And therefore, one should initiate with with words that draw her heart close, soothe her, please her, so as to connect her mind and your mind, and her intent and your intent. One should [even] say some words of desire and love to draw her close, and words that encourage fear of Heaven, piety and modesty.”
While Ramban does not spell this out, it seems that engaging in acts and expressions of love and desire, with the intent of strengthening the bond of marriage, is not considered in the base category of mere lust. For example, Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta, refers to the reproductive organ as “the peacemaker “ (Shabbos 152a, see Rashi “Mesim Shalom".)
In Yoma (54b), we find a description of an unusual display that took place during every Festival, which also sheds light on the esteem our sages placed on the act of love as expressed passionately between husband and wife.
״אמר רב קטינא בשעה שהיו ישראל עולין לרגל מגללין להם את הפרוכת ומראין להם את הכרובים שהיו מעורים זה בזה ואומרים להן ראו חבתכם לפני המקום כחבת זכר ונקבה.״
“Said Rav Katina, at the time that the Jewish people would make their pilgrimage on the Festivals, they would roll back the curtain [of the Holy of Holies] and show the Cherubim intertwined in each other. They would declare, “Behold your are as beloved before the Omnipresent as that of the love between man and woman.”
This graphic image was held up as a model for the love between G-d and man. Perhaps one might object and accuse the author of injecting more into the text than is stated. After all, perhaps they were in a chaste, filial embrace? If so, why then did the sages not compare this to the bond between mother and child? We must conclude with our powers of common sense and reason that these Cherubim were not wearing clothes and were apparently in a passionate embrace.
An additional proof to the importance of using passion to help generate an emotional bond, comes from the commentary of the Rosh printed on the daf in Nedarim (20b). The Talmud allows one to engage in conversation during intercourse. Ran (Op. Cit.) explains, “In order to appease her.” However, in contrast, Rosh states “It is permitted in order to increase his desire.”
Rashi (Niddah 17a “Oness Sheina”) goes one step further. The Talmud offers an explanation as to why the house of Munbaz was praised for engaging in relations during the day, even though this usually is not considered modest behavior: “They did so because of fear that they would be overcome with sleepiness and then find their wives unappealing.” This is quite a statement in and of itself about the value and importance of desire within marital sexual expression. But here is where Rashi takes this one step further in his frank and practical recognition of the importance of sexual passion, and perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that this is the most remarkable Rashi in the Talmud:
וז״ל רש״י: ״אונס שינה. מתוך שהוא נאנס בשינה אינו מתאווה לה כל כך ומשמש לקיום מצות עונה בעלמא או לרצותה ולבו קץ בה והוא מבני תשע מדות דאמרו בנדרי' (דף כ:).״
“Because he will feel overcome by sleepiness, he will not desire her as much, and then will engage in the act merely to fulfill his marital duty or merely to appease her, but in his heart he will be feeling revulsion. Such an act is improper and a child conceived from it will be of the the nine improper intentions as delineated in Niddah 20b.)”
Rashi makes it clear that not only is it acceptable to cultivate feelings of passion, but in fact, if one tries to disregard and downplay desire, he runs the risk of conducting relations with improper thoughts and intentions!
Category Number Four: Not All Persons Can Be Considered Fit Candidates For Extreme Abstention
We have seen the plain wording of Shulchan Aruch makes it seem as if behaving in a manner "as if forced by a demon" is a level of abstention that all should aspire toward. Even Rama and Ra'avad, who acknowledge the need for some to make concessions for their permitted desires as a way to mitigate sinful expressions of desire, still place emphasis on the moral repugnance of indulgence and the importance of training oneself to withstand temptation and voluntarily limit sexual pleasure. After all, in halacha there are many instances where the poskim make it clear that not everyone is emotionally and spiritually qualified to take on the mantle of a machmir or zealot. See for example, Mishna Berachos (2:8), "Said Rabbi Gamliel, not all those who wish to bear the name [of a pious individual] shall do so." Or for example, Rama (O.H. 17:2) refers to taking on certain voluntary mitzvos that are not customary as "yohara" arrogance. Or, at times, Rama (Y.D. 374:6) declares that "One who is stringent, is behaving in an odd manner." Regarding sexual abnegation, Shulchan Aruch and the Rama have made no such distinctions.
Yet, we do find clear indications that there are persons and situations where it is considered proper to abate desire via indulgence instead of conquering it through abstention.
In Kesuvos (65a), Rava reportedly goes home and engages in marital relations with his wife because he inadvertently saw a woman dressed immodestly and apparently became aroused, or at least was concerned lest he become aroused. Even more remarkable, Ohr Hachaim (Bereishis 26:8) suggests this very intervention as being a possible explanation for why the Patriarch Isaac apparently engaged in marital relations during the day.
Finally, we find at least one authority explicitly stating that the entire recommendation to "behave as if forced by a demon" is inappropriately pious for most people. Rav Yaakov Emden (Berachos 62a) comments on the story we saw earlier of how Rav conducted himself in the bedroom with apparent joy and desire as follows:
״שמע מינה ההוא דנהג ר״א שגלה טפח וכו׳ ודומה כמי שכפאו שד מלתא יתירתא עבד ואינה מדת כל אדם - אפילו הגדול כרב.״
"From here we see that the practice of Rabbi Elazar to behave as if forced by a demon is excessive, not for every person-- even someone as great as Rav"
This citation of Rav Emden can be found in the back the Vilna Shas. For some reason, some published edition of Shas omit this comment.
In summation, though there are strong statements in Shulchan Aruch and poskim advising extreme abstention and asceticism in regard to marital intimacy, there are important nuances in how to to apply these principles. As we have seen in this study, there are key distinctions about when, to whom, and regarding what forms of expressions of love where the preferred course of action may be to experience passion and desire instead of attempting to quash it.. It is the hope that this essay had contributed to a more clear and authentic understanding of this crucial halachic and moral sphere of married life.
This article is based on a more extensive kuntres, written in l’shon kodesh, which can be obtained by emailing the author.