The discussion in the section of Talmud that I read this week (Ketubot 61b-62a) centers on a rather sexually explicit subject. In preparing to study this page of text with my father–– who is my
partner––I felt catapulted back into the days of yore whenhe attempted to impart upon me his words of wisdom concerning the birds and the bees. Thankfully our analysis and debate concerning the text was a little less awkward.
In my last post, I discussed the responsibilities that a wife has to her husband. They included: nursing, making the bed, working wool, grinding (flour and corn), baking bread, washing clothing, and cooking. This week, the rabbis begin by describing the responsibilities that a husband has to his wife. The Mishnah starts by laying out his sexual obligations. It is important to note that it seems rather clear that we are talking specifically about sexual pleasure, and not about sexual reproduction. There is, of course, some disagreement as to how often a man is obligated to be intimate with his wife. The House of Hillel (the dominant strand of rabbinic learning) says that in general, a man has the obligation to fulfill his sexual duty weekly. The House of Shamai (the weaker strand of rabbinic learning) argues that he need only satisfy her every other week. Depending on one’s profession, however, there are exceptions to the rule:
- טיילין (those who are unemployed)- every day, or more likely suggesting every time his wife desires him
- פועלים (workers)- twicea week
- חמרים (donkey drivers)- once a week
- גמלים (camel drivers)- once a month
- ספנים (sailors)- once every six months
Students of Torah, the Mishnah proclaims, can leave for up to a month without the permission of their wives. During that time, we can assume that a student of Torah would have no sexual obligations to his wife. The frequency of sexual relations listed in the Mishnah appears to suggest more than carnality. The type of jobs that enable a husband to extend his sexual absence from his wife are also the careers that implicitly cause him to be physically displaced. Intimacy is about being present emotionally as much as, if not more than, it involves intercourse.
It just so happens that this summer I have traveled down to Philadelphia for seven weeks in order to work at Congregation Rodeph Shalom. I left my bride-to-be for the sake of professional development in the field of Torah! As a rabbinical student (I think I would fall under the category of student of Torah ), I am permitted to make such a trip of professional development with Stephanie's permission.
The discussion in the Gemara concerning such a leave from a wife seems all too relevant in my case (even though I am not yet married). The choice to leave for seven weeks in the summer leading up to our wedding was not an easy one. Even Jewish law would suggest that such a trip violated my duties to my future spouse if I failed to obtain her permission. Of course, I would not dream of making such a deicison without Stephanie's blessing. Yet even the Gemara recommends that certain steps be taken when one has his wife's permission, so as to ensure that the relationship remains healthy.
The rabbis pose the question: "ואורחא דמילתא כמה, how long is it proper to leave if he has her permission?" Rav, one of the most famous rabbinical authorities, states that with his wife's permission, he should spend one month home in between every month that he is away. Rav Yochanan goes one step further in suggesting that he should spend two months home in between every month that he is away. The Gemara notes that the latter opinion should be taken as the norm, whereas the opinion of Rav only in cases of necessity. According to this cycle, Torah should never take a student away from his wife for more time than he is at home.
After all, intamcy between a man and his wife is more than just sex, and cannot be accomplished through periodic visists home.
The rabbis elevate the importance of healthy relationship even over the study of Torah.
Shortly after Stephanie and I started dating, I moved to Cincinnati while she remained in New York. We maintained a long-distance relationship for about a year before I moved back. This was no doubt a trying time in our relationship, especially because it was so young at that point. Had the 600 mile buffer between us extended past that academic year, I'm not so sure that our relationship would have lasted. This time, we are taking the advice of the rabbis and trying to maintain the distance by periodically visting each other on the weekends. In my life, my resonsibilitiy to upholding our relationship takes precidence over my professional career as a future rabbi (Torah student).
Questions for Thought and Commenting Upon:
How have you preserved the intimacy in your relationship in times of physical seperation?
How frequently do you think a couple needs to see each other in order to maintain their relationship?
Does a man have more responsibility to his wife's sexual needs than she does to his?