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How Often Should Married Jewish Couples Have Sex?

And other matters of conjugal bliss in this week’s Talmud study, including a woman’s right to sexual fulfillment

Adam Kirsch
April 14, 2015
(Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock )
(Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock )

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

How should a good Jew treat a waiter? At what age does an infant recognize its mother? How often should a married couple have sex? These are just a few of the practical and ethical questions that the rabbis addressed in chapter 5 of Tractate Ketubot, which Daf Yomi readers finished over the last two weeks. The subject of Ketubot is literally the marriage contract, and the first chapters were dedicated to various issues that arise when that contract is voided or dissolved—whether that means infidelity prior to marriage, or rape, or incest, or a financial dispute between bride and groom. But once the rabbis leave the obstacles to marriage behind and begin talking about marriage itself—what the parties owe each other, not just in terms of money but in affection and respect—the picture becomes a much happier one. In particular, the rabbis show that women do not only have obligations in marriage; they have rights as well.

Earlier in Ketubot, we read that a husband owes his wife material support. In return, he gains control over his wife’s income and the power to nullify her vows. But as the Talmud explains in Ketubot 58b, a husband’s power over his wife’s earnings is not absolute. Initially, in the mishna, we learn that he cannot consecrate his wife’s money—that is, vow to donate it to sacred causes, such as the upkeep of the Temple—without her consent. “If one consecrates his wife’s earnings, she may work and sustain herself”: That is, her right to use the money for living expenses supersedes his right to give it away.

Later on, in the Gemara, this right is made the basis for a much broader interpretation. Why, the rabbis ask, does the law say that a husband has control over his wife’s earnings? It is not because he is her arbitrary master, but because he has an obligation to support her. Her earnings go to him because of what the rabbis call “animosity”—that is, the fear that a husband who supports his wife might grow to resent her if she could keep all her earnings for herself. However, the wife has the power to nullify this implied contract, according to Rav: “A woman may say to her husband: I will not be sustained by you and in turn I will not work for you.” If she chooses, a woman can support herself and live off her own earnings, without giving them to her husband.

Whether she works for a living or not, the Talmud sees most domestic responsibilities as falling to the woman of the house. “And these are the tasks that a wife must perform for her husband,” we read in Ketubot 59b: “She grinds wheat into flour, and bakes, and washes clothes, cooks, and nurses her child, makes her husband’s bed, and makes thread from wool by spinning it.” A woman is allowed, however, to delegate most of these tasks, depending on how many servants she brings to the marriage. The more servants, the less the wife has to do with her own hands, and “if she brought him four maidservants, she may sit in a chair” and do nothing all day. This is in keeping with the ideal of Rabbi Chiyya, who teaches in the Gemara that “a wife is only for beauty and a wife is only for children.” In a perfect world, a woman would devote all her time to being a mother and caring for her appearance.

This doesn’t sound like a very fulfilling existence, however, and not all the rabbis agree with Chiyya. Rabbi Eliezer warns that this kind of idleness is dangerous, since it leads to licentiousness, and he holds that even a woman with “a hundred maidservants” should still do some kind of work, such as making thread. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel goes even further: If a man prevents his wife from doing any work at all, he must divorce her, since a person with nothing to do is prey to “idiocy.” Later in the Gemara, however, the possibility is raised that a woman can be saved from idiocy as long as she has some kind of pastime, even “small dogs or games.”

But are there any kinds of domestic labor that a woman cannot hand over to a servant? Does a mother have to nurse her own infant, for instance? Here Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree: Shammai allows a woman to take a vow not to nurse her child, leaving the responsibility to a wet nurse, while Hillel rules that such a vow can be canceled by her husband, who can compel the mother to feed her own baby. Indeed, once a baby can recognize its own mother, the rabbis say, it is harmful for the mother to stop feeding it—advice that seems to match what experts tell us today about the importance of mother-child bonding. And at what age does a baby recognize its mother? Different authorities offer different answers—30 days, 50 days, three months—but no one thinks to ask an actual mother, even though the rabbis have sometimes consulted their own wives and mothers about such questions in other parts of the Talmud.

We do learn, however, about a real case that came before Shmuel, when a woman refused to nurse her son. The baby was carried before a row of women, and when he came to his mother “he looked at her face with joy.” This proved that he could recognize her and she was forced to continue nursing him, even though she cruelly “averted her eyes from him.” As for the proper age for weaning a child, the rabbis, again like today’s parenting experts, have definite opinions. “A child may continue to nurse until the age of 24 months, and from this point forward he is like one who nurses from a non-kosher animal,” says a baraita in Ketubot 60a. Rabbi Yehoshua is more lenient, saying that a child can nurse until the age of 4 or 5 . However, if a child above the age of 2 stops nursing, he can’t go back to it.

Rabbi Chiyya teaches in the Gemara that ‘a wife is only for beauty and a wife is only for children.’

In the course of this discussion, the rabbis offer medical advice as well. Some foods, they believe, are bad for nursing mothers, including hops, small fish, and pumpkins. They go on to list activities that women should avoid during conception and pregnancy, lest they damage their unborn children: “A woman who engages in intercourse in a mill will have epileptic children; one who engages in intercourse on the ground will have long-necked children; one who eats mustard during pregnancy will have gluttonous children,” and so on. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious logic to these prohibitions, except perhaps a bias against unconventional forms and locations of sexual intercourse. More logical are the things the rabbis encourage a pregnant woman to eat, including eating meat and fish. And if you eat etrogs while pregnant, the rabbis say, your child will be sweet-smelling, as happened with the daughter of the Persian King Shapur: “Her mother ate etrogs and they used to place her in front of her father on top of all the spices,” since she smelled better than all of them.

As for waiters, they enter the discussion through a digression. Rabbi Yitzhak ben Chananya is quoted to the effect that a menstruating woman, who is forbidden to have sex with her husband, can carry out all her usual responsibilities except “pouring his cup, and making his bed, and washing his face, hands, and feet.” Those particular acts are so intimate that they might tempt the couple to engage in unlawful intercourse. The Gemara goes on to quote other, unrelated rulings from Yitzhak ben Chananya, including one to the effect that it is forbidden to withhold meat and wine from a waiter who is serving them as part of a meal. This is because the appetite for meat and wine is so strong that the waiter may be physically injured if he can’t gratify it—and indeed, several rabbis go on to mention occasions when they felt sick from hunger for specific foods. This sensitivity to the needs of waiters—who in Talmudic times would not have been restaurant workers but domestic servants—is part of the Talmud’s consistent ethic of consideration for others.

Finally, in this week’s reading we learned how often a married Jewish couple should have sex. The answer, we read in Ketubot 61b, depends on the husband’s occupation: If his job keeps him away from home or is very physically demanding, he can have sex less often than if he lives a sedentary life. Thus “men of leisure” must have sex with their wives “every day,” while laborers do it twice a week, camel drivers once every 30 days, and sailors once every six months. Two things are remarkable about the Talmud’s treatment of this subject. The first is that sex is considered not as the husband’s right but as the wife’s: A man owes his wife sexual fulfillment, not vice versa. The second is that celibacy is not seen as a virtue, as it is in Christianity, but an evil to be avoided, so that a man is forbidden to vow to abstain from sex with his wife.

The rabbis can imagine men wanting to leave their wives in order to devote themselves solely to Torah study. The wife of Rabbi Akiva is praised for allowing him to study in a distant city for 24 years, sacrificing her sexual pleasure for his scholarly achievement. But this is seen as an extraordinary case, and in general the rule is that a Torah scholar must have sex with his wife at least every Shabbat. The justification here is not just procreation, but intimacy and pleasure. As we have seen many times before in the Talmud, while Judaism is severe about sexual misconduct, it sees conjugal intimacy as one of life’s blessings and necessities.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.