Jewish Women and Conjugal Rights

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, we learn the remarkable law of the Hebrew maidservant, known in Hebrew as, אָמָה עִבְרִיָה.

As we have explained previously (Mishpatim 5767-2007), the Hebrew maidservant is the young daughter (under the age of twelve) of a poor man who cannot afford a dowry to marry her off, so he “sells” her into “servitude.” The maiden works for several years, and when she reaches puberty or twelve (the age of majority), she is automatically betrothed to her master. Since she can only be betrothed with her consent, if she declines, she goes out free. But now the money that she earned for her years of work can serve as a dowry, enabling her to marry.

Despite the previous agreement that the master will marry the handmaiden, the Torah declares (Exodus 21:8), “If she is displeasing in his eyes, he shall not have the power to sell her to another man, for he has betrayed her.” However, says the Torah, in Exodus 21:9-10, וְאִם לִבְנוֹ יִיעָדֶנָּה, כְּמִשְׁפַּט הַבָּנוֹת יַעֲשֶׂה לָּהּ. אִם אַחֶרֶת יִקַּח לוֹ, שְׁאֵרָהּ כְּסוּתָהּ וְעֹנָתָהּ, לֹא יִגְרָע., If he [the master] had designated her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the rights of the young women. If he [her husband] shall take another [wife] in addition to her, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing or her marital relations.

It is from this particular verse that the rabbis learn that every Jewish husband has the fundamental obligation to provide his wife with food, clothing and sexual pleasure.

The Hebrew term for sexual pleasure is, עוֹנָה, “Oh’nah,” which literally means, “time” or “period.” It refers to the frequency of conjugal visits that a husband must “pay” his wife in order to make certain she is pleased. The Mishna in Ketubot 61b, lists the frequency of conjugal obligations prescribed by the rabbis: for men of independence, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for ass drivers, once a week; for camel drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months. These are the rulings of Rabbi Eliezer.

The Code of Jewish Law states clearly that not satisfying one’s wife sexually, is grounds for divorce.

The mitzvah of “Oh’nah,” of sexually gratifying one’s wife, is so great that it even overrides certain prohibitions and negative laws. So, for instance, the prohibition of “Onanism,” the wasteful spilling of the male seed, is considered a grave Torah violation. In fact, the Torah records (Genesis 38:7-11) that at least one, perhaps two, of Judah’s sons died because they spilled their seed to prevent their wives from becoming pregnant.

The question then arises whether one may have sexual relations with one’s pregnant or menopausal wife, since the seed cannot result in pregnancy. And yet, the rabbis conclude, that the positive mitzvah of providing sexual pleasure to one’s wife overrides the negative mitzvah of not wasting seed.

Contemporary poskim, decisors of Jewish law, like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, cite this Torah source regarding the mitzvah of “Oh’nah,” when elaborating on the husband’s obligation to please his wife.

Rabbi Kanievsky writes, that according to the law of the Torah, it is forbidden to have relations with one’s wife where she will not be pleased, and that husbands must make every effort to please their wives by embracing and kissing them affectionately so that they be aroused sexually. Husbands must be certain that their wives not be left feeling that they are being physically exploited.

Rabbi Kanievsky declares that it is virtually “criminal” to hold back what is the wife’s privilege, even if husbands do this out of a sense of piety and/or righteousness. One may not “steal” the rights of one’s wife in order to express one’s own righteousness. To do so is considered degrading, similar to treating one’s wife as a lowly handmaid and a prisoner.

Nachmanides goes so far as to regard the mitzvah of sexual pleasure as one of the essential definitions of marriage.

May you be blessed.