This week we have a rapid fire succession of mitzvot involving civil and criminal litigation, though ending with the calendar of festivals. Near the beginning of this vast number of rules there is a the discussion of having slaves and the proper way of keeping them. For the female slave there is an interesting verse:
10. If he takes for himself another wife; her food, her garment, and her conjugal rights, shall he not diminish. 11. And if he does not do these three things to her, then shall she go out free without payment of money.[Exodus 22]
As specific as the rules that make up Mishpatim are, they leave a lot unanswered. Such answers would come through the Oral law, written down in the Mishna and the Gemara, what is know collectively as the Talmud. the rules of jurisprudence and how to try cases involving each of these cases make up a whole order of the Talmud, Nezikin. Yet here and there other orders of the Talmud find their basis in this week’s text. In the order Nashin, the rules concerning the relationships of women and men and marriage. We have the commentaries on these rules.
The rabbis quickly connected slavery with marriage. Contemporary minds might scoff at that, that wives were nothing more than slaves, but the point of this passage in Mishpatim was the exact opposite. Female slaves were elevated to a responsiblity level for a man as if he had a wife. The rabbis derive this that 22:10 refers to the slave as “another wife.” A slave could be treated a lot worse than a wife, but is put on a equal footing.
The implication of this is that all women under the power of man either by buying her or marrying her are guaranteed three basic needs. While this might seem simple for the first two it is not as simple as it seems. The phrase in Hebrew is Sh’airah, c’sutah, and onatah. But these a difficult words to translate, and the rabbis in Ketubot 47b debate their meaning. In its most literal sense the first word Sh’airah would be her remnant, or her flesh. the second word, c’sutah means covering or clothes, but sometimes used as a word for gift. Finally there is Onatah, which oddly enough means her affliction. None of these words make sense, and so are open to clarification by the rabbis. Flesh, most rabbis decide means food, a covering means clothing, and her affliction means the affliction found in the curse of Eve:
16. To the woman he said, I will greatly multiply the pain of your child bearing; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you. [Genesis 3]
The rabbis came to the conclusion the the desire for sexual satisfaction was not strongest in a man, but in a woman, so much so she suffers because of it. The only way to relieve it was to have orgasms. The rabbis were so adamant on this, they even created a timetable for providing a woman with satisfaction depending on a man’s profession.
Students may go away to study the Torah, without the permission [of their wives for a period of] thirty days; laborers [only for] one week. The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: 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 R. Eliezer [M. Ketubot 5:1]
Some of the rabbis combined ‘her flesh’ and ‘her suffering’ and come up with a second idea – you gotta have sex naked:
R. Joseph learnt: Her flesh implies close bodily contact, viz, that he must not treat her in the manner of the Persians who perform their conjugal duties in their clothes. This provides support for [a ruling of] R. Huna who laid down that a husband who said, ‘I will not [perform conjugal duties] unless she wears her clothes and I mine’, must divorce her and give her also her kethubah.[Ketubot 48a]
Where that leaves us is a Torah passage which means a wife must be given food, clothing and sex or else she has grounds for divorce. I’ve written more about Onatah before, but there is another question that nags me: why these three? Is this the basic needs of a human being or of a woman? What about shelter, or of less hard things like learning and creativity? Sex is one thing, but what about love and emotional support? What else could be considered basic needs?
For the most obvious physical need, shelter, we do have an obvious answer. Her covering does not just apply to clothes, but also to shelter as well, a covering of a roof over her head. If following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, all others of a higher order are not required for the husband to provide. I have yet to find much about these higher needs of women in the tradition, and from what I have read our view of wives and slaves comes full circle: beyond basic needs wives have little needs — relationship between men and women are not required.
Yet when we break those assumptions in our contemporary world and break the mould of who is in a partnership or marriage, we need to re-evaluate this. While I’ve thought about this a lot theoretically, it is only this year I am finally blessed to think of it from the view of living it. Form that view I believe two things. First is that as the role of husbands and wives have changed, it is no longer the mans responsibility to provide these things but the couple’s. Both provide for the other. At any given time, there might be inequalities, like one working while the other goes to school, but in the end, it will all balance out. I’ve know many a couple, who have one spouse working to support the couple in order to allow their partner to achieve their dreams — often with a possibility of switching off in some time in the future. Often I believe people percieve this idea of equality is too short term — that both need to be equal in the instant observed, when it may be there are some long term investments to make that so, or even to switch off pursuing a higher dream.
That brings us to the second belief of mine. Onata does not mean merely physical sex needs, it is far grander than that.Onah is an affliction, one I have felt for so many years myself. Maybe I first noticed it fourteen years ago, how lonely and empty the single life is. Some of my friends reminded me of this recently with Valentines day coming. It is hard to be single. I’ ve felt that affliction all too much myself. Yet in the last year I know what the absence of Onah is, having that gap filled. Onata is the need for all of the higher needs we have: validation, appreciation, emotional support. It is the shoulder to cry on after a bad day, it is the ear to listen to stores of the day’s adventures. It is the mouth that kisses for no apparent reason, and tells how wonderful their partner is. It is the arms that hug, it is the eyes which cry together, and even once in a while the voices clearing the air in an argument. it is learning together and exploring together, it is found in gifts of plush animals and flowers. . It is being loved by your partner and loving back with all your heart and all your might. Love fulfills all the higher needs.
I give give sweetie flowers, chocolate and plush stuffed toys to say that I love her. I might give her a message every once in a while to say how I love her. Mishpatim is a set of rules, of mitzvot. Most make sense. Some are about the relationship between human beings, some about our relationship between man and God. Some seem to have no reason, like not mixing milk with meat. In our observance of each commandment, we are saying “I love you” to God, we are giving the spiritual equivalent of a rose or chocolate truffle. Like a gift to our sweetie, it needs to be done with the right attitude, not a cold “here!”, but with joy and warmth and showing our love. I think the relationship between committed intimate partners and between God and Humanity is parallel. Both feel Onah, an affliction of being without the other. Only through loving each other can that emptiness in Onah be filled.
May we fill it with our partners, may we fill it with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.