On daf 61b the Mishnah outlined how often, according to the Torah, a husband should have conjugal relations with his wife. Just to remind you, here are the rules:
העונה האמורה בתורה הטיילין בכל יום הפועלים שתים בשבת החמרים אחת בשבת הגמלים אחת לשלשים יום הספנים אחת לששה חדשים דברי רבי אליעזר
Conjugal rights that are defined in the Torah are as follows: Tayalin (students who are at home with their wives every night) must be intimate each day; laborers, twice a week; donkey drivers (who would be away for six days at a time), once a week; camel drivers, once in thirty days; sailors, once in six months. This is the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer.
The Mishnah seems here to be descriptive, rather then prescriptive. Tayalin are home every day, so their conjugal obligation is daily. But camel drivers are away for up to a month at a time, so their conjugal obligation is...once a month.
Vows of Abstinence
So far so good. But what happens if one of the partners vows to abstain from marital relations? Is such a marriage sustainable? This question is partially addressed in the Mishnah on 61b:
המדיר את אשתו מתשמיש המטה ב"ש אומרים שתי שבתות בית הלל אומרים שבת אחת
If [a husband] takes a vow to forbid his wife from marital relations with him, Bet Shammai say that if the term of the vow was up to two weeks, [he need not divorce her], and Bet Hillel say that if the term was only one week [he need not divorce her]
The Mishnah is dealing with a vow of abstinence made by the husband. But what about such a vow made by a wife? That question is dealt with in today’s daf.
דאמר רב כהנא "הנאת תשמישי עליך" כופה ומשמשתו
Rav Kahanah said: If a wife vows: "The pleasure of cohabiting with me is forbidden to you" [the vow has no legal standing and the husband] can force her [to ignore the vow and] to cohabit with him.
In this case, the wife is attempted to forbid the husband from cohabiting with her, but since she has no legal power to do this, the vow has no legal standing. But the Talmud then teaches that if the wife vows not to have the pleasure of marital relations, the vow can take legal effect – since it is a vow she made on herself.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II beatified the husband and wife team of Luigi (d. 1951) and Maria (d. 1965) Quattrocchi-Beltrame. And what did this couple (-the first married couple to be so recognized-) do that earned them this extraordinary recognition? There were several achievements, but among them was their decision to engage in a spiritual marriage, that is, a marriage in which, as an expression of piety, the couple jointly undertook a vow of sexual abstinence. Based on what we’ve learned over the last several pages of the Talmud, you would expect that such “spiritual” marriages would be quite antithetical to Jewish practice. And you’d be largely, but not completely correct. Enter Exhibit A, Benjamin Brown’s recent remarkable paper, The Sexual Abstinence of Married Men in Gur, Slonim, and Toledot Aharon.
The Sexual Abstinence of Married Hasidim
Brown (no relation to me,) is a gifted researcher in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University. His 2013 paper reveals a little known practice of the Hasidic sects of Ger, Slonim and Toledot Aharon. These sects do not require complete abstinence of sexual relations within a marriage, but they start to get very close. They radicalized a notion of Kedushah (holiness) and in this radical version, married men limited to the minimum the frequency of sexual intercourse with their wives. Brown records how the fourth Gerer Rebbe, Israel Alter (d. 1977) inaugurated the Ordinances on Holiness, which were never published “nor, in all probability, ever formulated systematically.” Instead, they were communicated from the Rebbe to his senior hasidim, “who later became the community’s first marriage guides (madrikhim), and they passed them on to the community...” Here they are, as condensed by the good professor:
- The couple shall have sexual intercourse only once a month, on leil tevilah (the night after the wife’s immersion in the mikveh at the end of her halakhically prescribed menstrual period).
- The couple shall refrain from sexual intercourse from as early as the seventh month of pregnancy.
- After the wife has given birth, the couple shall refrain from sexual intercourse for a further period of six months.
- During intercourse, the couple shall aim to minimize physical contact. The husband shall wear some of his clothes, including his tsitsit (considered a segulah—supernatural remedy—against the sexual drive) and will not hug or kiss his wife or engage in any behaviour that is not required for the performance of the act of intercourse itself.
- The husband shall direct his thoughts as far away as possible from the sexual act.
For the Slonim Hasidim, only one rule was formulated: there was to be no sexual intercourse on Shabbat, because the “crude physical act of intercourse would defile the spirituality of the holy day.” The Slonim Hasidim take this rule very seriously; there is a saying among them that “a man who has sexual intercourse on Friday night is not allowed to recite the Nishmas (shorthand for nishmat kol hai)—a paragraph in the Sabbath morning prayer, considered one of the high points of the Sabbath service in the Slonim tradition.”
Finally Brown turned to R. Avraham Yitzhak Kohn (d. 1996) who led one of the two factions of the Toledot Aharon sect in Jerusalem. In his pamphlet called דברי קדושה he urged his followers to adopt some of the stringencies of kedushah, but he was more moderate than either Gur or Slonim.
It is not surprising that rabbinic leaders outside of the Hasidic community criticized these practices. The Hazon Ish, (R. Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, d. 1953) was especially concerned about the effect of these stringencies on a newly wed couple (though Brown notes that Karelitz himself was reported to have abstained in physical contact with his wife). The head of the Slobodka Yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Sher (d. 1952) was also concered, and outlined his thoughts in his work קדושת ישראל:
As for the bad habits that many of them have adopted in error, believing that in order to maintain themselves in holiness they must refrain from talking to their wives—the rabbis must strive to make them realize that this kind of holiness is the very essence of impurity…and that the husband must speak to his wife, addressing her with wondrously affectionate words of placation. ( p27).
Brown believes that there are three sociological forces that may explain these rather extreme hasidic practices:
(a) the inherent hasidic quest for spiritual renewal, which in time generated a range of supererogatory mysticism substitutes; (b) the overriding Orthodox tendency toward halakhic stringency; (c) the hasidic struggle to resist the promiscuous sexuality of modern society, which prompted the rebbes to construct defensive fences even around the limited sphere of sexual activity that is permissible within the boundaries of halakhah.
So there you have it. Despite all we have learned in the Talmud over the last several pages, sexual abstinence within marriage is certainly to be found in some sections of the Jewish community.
House Work and Intimacy
If there is one thing that all hasidic sects emphasize, it is the clearly defined gender roles that men and women are expected to have within their society. This is in stark contrast to the way in which many contemporary marriages have evolved. According to the Emory sociologist Sabino Kornrich and his colleagues Julie Brines and Katrina Leupp, this evolution has challenged "the notion of marriage as an institution ensnared in a stalled gender revolution, [and] this new perspective asserts that today’s marriages are more egalitarian, flexible, and fair than those of the past." For many couples, this evolution revolves around housework, and some research showed that - at least in the US - couples who have more equal divisions of labor are less likely to divorce than are couples where one partner is the breadwinner and the other takes care of the household duties. But this may come at an unexpected price. In their study of (rather old) data from the National Survey of Families and Households, Kornrich and his collegues concluded that
It's So Confusing...
Some hasidic sects may encourage sexual abstinence within marriage, but do they understand that their preservation of traditional gender roles might actually lead to a greater frequency of sexual relations between and wife and husband? And what is the modern orthodox Jew to do when she asks her husband to vacuum, or he asks his wife to take out the trash? Do they realize that in complying, these egalitarian couples may be endangering their most intimate lives? One thing is certain: further research is needed.