The mitzvah onah, the mitzvah of marital sex, is defined in the mishna in Ketuvot as fixed, regular times that a husband must have sex with his wife. However, another definition emerges from other Talmudic passages – that the husband must have sex with his wife when he sees that she desires it, and this is referred to as lisameyach et ishto bi’dvar mitzvah, to give pleasure to his wife with this mitzvah act.
There is a debate in the achronim which of these two is the fundamental obligation. Rav Chaim Ozer Grodansky (Achiezer 3:83) rules that the fundamental obligation is the fixed times, whereas Rav Moshe Feinstein (EH 3:28), following Ra’avad (12th Century, Provence) in Ba’alei HaNefesh, rules that the entire obligation is for the husband to be responsive to his wife’s desires, and states that the fixed times are just a way of estimating and approximating what under normal circumstances this would mean in terms of frequency. A third possibility is that both are equal but different obligations.
It is possible that these two definitions – regular times as opposed to responsiveness to the wife’s desires – reflect different attitudes towards marital sex. If one thinks that all sex, including marital sex, is somehow religiously problematic – because it taps into to a person’s most basic desires and drives and can lead to over indulgence and sin – then it has to be regulated and limited. Fixed times have to be set for it, and it is only tolerable as a thing for a man to “pay” in regular installments to his wife. This understanding would bundle it together with other debts that a husband owes his wife according to halakha, i.e., clothing and food. Such is the position of Rashi and Rambam who understand that these three – sex, clothing, and food – are equal Biblical obligations that a husband owes his wife.
According to this approach, it is noteworthy that when the Gemara speaks about regular times, it does not use the phrase “to give pleasure to his wife” or the phrase “a mitzvah act.” There is no positive valuing of this act, and no emphasis on pleasure – of either husband or wife. Rambam, in particular, adopts this approach, and he can only find value in marital sex if it allows for procreation or if it is beneficial to the husband’s health (Deot 3:2). It is thus not surprising that Rambam also sees the times of onah as ideally defining a maximum, not minimum, frequency (Deot 5:4), and even states that a man can, and perhaps should attempt to, persuade his wife to waive her onah rights (Ishut 15:1).
In contrast to this, the approach that emphasizes the husband being responsive to his wife’s desires does not have a problem with the idea of pleasure in the sex act. This approach would see onah not as a debt to be paid, but as a way of bringing husband and wife together, and it underscores the intimacy, the romance, and the pleasure of marital sex. Ramban adopts this approach, and he states (Commentary to Shemot 21:9 ) that only the obligation of onah is Biblical, and clothing and food are Rabbinic and are not on par with this obligation. (This is similar to the position of the Sheiltot who states that onah is so fundamental to the marriage that it did not even have to be mentioned as a separate obligation). In this vein, Ramban emphasizes the importance not only of the sex act itself, but of the intimacy, the environment, the sharing of the marital bed and the coming together as one flesh. Thus, Ramban does not mention the idea of regular times, but rather of having sex at times of romance and love. It is significant that at the end of this passage he refers to the act of sex as “et chiburam” – the time of their coming together/cojoining.
According to this latter approach, marital sex is not problematic and something that needs to either be redeemed through procreation or a debt to be discharged. Rather it is something that is intrinsically good as it joins the couple together as one flesh, and pleasure and romance must be attended to. This approach would presumably encourage increasing the frequency, and this, in fact, is the simple read of Rava in Pesachim 72b -that marital sex with a focus on intimacy and pleasure should occur as frequently as possible.
It is, of course, possible to adopt both the fixed times model and the responsiveness model within a sex- positive framework. This would recognize that while ideally marital sex takes place in the context of romance and deep connection, this will not always be the case. If the couple were to wait until a time when they were really motivated, then they might go a long time without sex, something that would be detrimental to the marriage.
Consider, by comparison, tfillah. Ideally tfillah should take place when we are inspired and spontaneously motivated to pray, and it should be the most profound and intense pouring out of our hearts and connecting to God. However, if we would wait for that to happen, we would almost never pray. So we pray three times a day. The regularity ensures that the relationship is there for those times when the inspiration hits us, and it strengthens and sustains that relationship on a day-to-day basis.
The same is true regarding marital sex. The obligation to have sex with regular frequency does not have to frame it as a debt to be paid, but as a way to ensure that the couple remains connected and the marriage remains strong even when they are not experiencing strong sexual feelings. Not-great marital sex is much better than no marital sex, and many marriages break up or are at risk because the couple loses sight of the importance of this concept of onah. This concept was publicized in recent news reports regarding Rev. Ed Young and his challenge to his congregation of 20,000 to have marital sex daily for one week. As the New York Times reported:
But if you make the time to have sex, it will bring you closer to your spouse and to God, he has said. You will perform better at work, leave a loving legacy for your children to follow and may even prevent an extramarital affair. . .
Others found that, like smiling when you are not particularly happy, having sex when they did not feel like it improved their mood. Just eight months into their marriage, Amy and Cody Waddell had not been very amorous since Cody admitted he had had an affair.
“Intimacy has been a struggle for us, working through all that,” Ms. Waddell said. “This week really brought us back together, physically and emotionally.”
One issue that we did not address here is that the mitzvah of onah focuses on the husband’s obligation, and not the wife’s. This could be seen as reflecting a patronizing approach towards women and their needs, i.e., that women are the ones with these base drives and it is the husband who has to provide for their needs. This would, perhaps, be in line with the first approach mentioned above that sees marital sex as something fundamentally problematic. However, in a study done by Tova Hartman and Naomi Marmon (Gender Society 2004), the authors found that the halakhic focus on women’s needs is experienced by many women as empowering and as a corrective to the usual norms of patriarchal systems:
In addition to respecting their desire to be nonsexual, the halakhic framework, according to many of our informants, sanctions women’s sexual desires within the framework of marriage. The Torah (Ex. 21:10) charges every married man with the mitzvah of onah, that is, the commandment to provide his wife with her conjugal rights. Thus, the halakhic system establishes a sexual sphere within marriage that is distinct from procreation and encourages women to expect, demand, and enjoy an active and vital sexual relationship with their spouses. . .
“A woman can also initiate physical things. It’s good to say that I want this or that, especially because the woman is supposed to enjoy. In fact, the husband is not fulfilling his commandment of onah if you don’t enjoy. So that means that if you want sex, or whatever, then he has to agree, and you have the right to ask for it.” (Yael).
Contrary to Freud’s (1963) image of the silent and passive woman sexual partner, because of the mitzvah of onah, Yael feels as though “she has the right to ask” when she wants sex.
Sarah echoed this sentiment: “Whatever a woman wants is the obligation of the husband. I remember that they spoke to us about how important it is that a woman should also enjoy.”
This halakhic premium on women’s sexual fulfillment can be seen as a stark challenge to broad-based claims that religion represses women sexually and that women’s pleasure is achieved through surrender, passivity, and recognition of themselves as sexual objects (Nicholson, 1994).
Jane concurred that this element of niddah affirms, very practically and directly, her own needs within the sexual relationship and validates a woman’s rights to sexual fulfillment and desire more generally:
“The general feeling of the mitzvah of onah makes me feel that the tradition goes against the idea that sex is all about him and his needs. . . The mikveh joins the larger value of what does she need, what does the woman deserve.
Just as our informant above felt that the tradition speaks with them in validating their “no” voice within their sexual relationships, similarly, these women felt that it “joins” their “I want/I need/I desire” voice – another voice traditionally silenced by men’s power. Their sexual fulfillment is validated . . . [by a system] that demand[s] of its men participants, as a requirement of membership in good standing, that they listen.”
The mitzvot of onah and mikvah can be understood as respectful and empowering to women’s desires.