Love, Marriage and Sex in All Who Go Do Not Return

“Use of the bed” is a better translation of the Hebrew tashmish hamitta than “service of the bed”. It's a euphemism, but it's not a weird euphemism.

Shulem's and Gitty's ignorance about the facts of life — not knowing until the day of their wedding how babies are made; not managing, at first, to do it, even when they had each other to learn from; and not knowing, even after Gitty got pregnant, what part of the body the babies come out of — is not characteristic of traditional Jewish societies. It is not characteristic of any traditional society. No one who lives in an agricultural society, or in a pastoral society, or in a hunter-gatherer society, can be ignorant of such things; and every human being who ever lived, until yesterday, lived in one such society. Even the few people who dwelled in cities, lived closely with animals. Profound ignorance of the facts of life is a result of modernity, and it would have been impossible any time prior to the twentieth century.

Now, it is true that to see something done, does not guarantee that you can do it yourself, so you might still seek to blame Shulem's and Gitty's straight-laced upbringing for their failure to consummate their marriage on their wedding night. I don't know what it's like to try to lose your virginity to a man who has never touched a woman before; I have never participated in such an event (my first wife was a twice-divorced woman thirteen years older than myself); but one might imagine that such attempts often fail, the first time, because the man and the woman are too inexperienced to know what to do, and mostly — you might want to think — because they are too timid, they are too embarrassed, because they are the victims of an oppressive education that has caused them, till now, to think that sex is shameful and distasteful.

Except that there is strong linguistic evidence to the contrary. There is a Yiddish vulgarism that describes a woman who makes love with exuberance, similar to the English vulgarism “she f...s like a porn star” minus the obscenity[1]. The English vulgarism does not mean anything to me, because I have never looked at pornography[2] ; but the Yiddish expression does. In Yiddish, you say זי איז משׁמשׁ די מטה ווי א כלה, zee iz mshammesh dee mitta vee a kalla, which means “she makes love [literally, she uses the bed] like a bride”. It is clear that most Yiddish-speaking people have a much different memory of their wedding night, than Shulem Deen has of his.

Moreover, it is impossible for any student of the Talmud to be ignorant of such things. The Talmud discusses sex, and not just in generalities. For example, there is detailed discussion in the Talmud about the legal distinctions between bi'ah kdarkah (natural sexual intercourse) and bi'ah she-lo kdarkah (unnatural sexual intercourse). Thus, a Jewish marriage can, technically, be consummated either by bi'ah kdarkah or by bi'ah she-lo kdarkah; in contrast, a non-Jewish marriage can only be consummated by bi'ah kdarkah. The laws that govern all of humanity are found in the first few chapters of Genesis, before humanity was differentiated into nations; and the laws of marriage, for non-Jews, are derived from Genesis 2:24, a verse which describes a “joining together” of husband and wife which implies sex that is pleasurable to both parties. Non-Jewish couples, who are not subject to the betrothal and divorce laws that are incumbent upon Jews, can be “joined together“ only through their ongoing mutual consent, which is assumed to require mutual giving of pleasure; and bi'ah she-lo kdarkah is believed to be more pleasurable for the man than for the woman.

Shulem Deen claims to have grown up in a society where study of the Talmud starts in early adolescence, if not late childhood; so his ignorance of sex is inexplicable. Moreover, technical terms of the sort presented in the previous paragraph are not confined to the Talmud; they have found their way into, e.g., Rashi's traditional commentary on the Torah (cf. Rashi on Genesis 24:16, explaining a seeming redundancy in the verse). Children start learning Rashi's commentary on the Torah when they are 5 years old.

Readers unacquainted with Judaism may have been surprised to learn of a legal system that tells a man how many times a week he has to have sex with his wife. No similar passage exists in the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5/101 et seq.); and readers may even think that the existence of such laws is characteristic of a totalitarian society, one that seeks to regulate everything that people do, even in their most intimate moments. But if you think that, you're not thinking.

Obviously, law becomes involved only when there are parties in controversy. If husband and wife are in agreement, and they want to make love twice a night, the law has nothing to say about it; and if they want to make love twice a month, the law has nothing to say about it. But in Judaism, women have conjugal rights, and men have conjugal obligations, and it is grounds for divorce if a man does not give his wife enough sex; so if a woman comes to court seeking a divorce on those grounds, the law must have a definition of how much sex is minimally required.

In English common law, in contrast, only men had conjugal rights. Women had none; they had only conjugal obligations. The Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act does not define a man's conjugal duties to his wife, because he has none. Under English common law, if someone injured your wife, and rendered her incapable or less capable of giving you sex, you could sue the person who injured her for the tort of loss of consortium. But if someone injured your husband, and rendered him incapable or less capable of giving you sex, you could not sue for loss of consortium, because you had no consortium rights, and therefore were not deprived of any. In Illinois, women did not acquire consortium rights until Dini v. Naditch, 20 Ill.2d 406, which was decided in 1960, an event that took place within the lifetime of several members of our book club.

For the curious, here is the Jewish law, as codified by רמב“ם, Moses Maimonides, in 1176, translated by myself:

If the husband and wife stipulate by agreement that the husband will not be obligated in one of the matters in which he is normally obligated, the stipulation is binding, except regarding three matters in which the stipulation has no effect, namely, her conjugal rights, her rights to the principal of the prenuptial contract, and his inheritance rights. Thus, if the husband and the wife stipulate by agreement that the wife will have no conjugal rights, the stipulation is void, and the husband is still obliged to have sexual relations with her, because it is a stipulation regarding a non-monetary matter that is explicitly mentioned in the Torah.

The conjugal duties that are required by the Torah differ from one man to another, depending on his health, and on the kind of work he does. Thus, men who are healthy, who do not perform tiring labor, and who are able to come home every day for mealtimes, are obliged to have sexual relations with their wives at least once a night. Men who engage in manual labor are obliged to have sexual relations at least twice a week if they work locally, and at least once a week if they work in another city. Donkey-drivers are obliged to have sexual relations at least once a week, camel drivers, at least once every thirty days, and sailors, at least once every six months.

A woman may object to her husband's traveling on business, except locally, in order that her conjugal rights not be diminished. Similarly, she can prevent her husband from leaving a profession with greater conjugal duties and entering a profession with lesser conjugal duties — e.g., a donkey-driver who wishes to become a camel-driver, or a camel-driver who wishes to become a sailor.

If a man becomes ill, or feeble, and is unable to perform the marital act, we wait six months for him to recover, because the least conjugal duty is once every six months. After that, he must either obtain her permission, or he is compelled to divorce her, and give her the full amount recited in the prenuptial contract.

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1) Although this expression is not an example of it, there are obscenities in Yiddish, as in any spoken language. I have read that Hebrew is The Holy Language, because it has no obscenities; but this pious statement was written at a time when no one spoke Hebrew as a native language. During that long period, when Hebrew was used for prayer, religious discourse, and belles-lettres, but not for day-to-day conversation, the obscenities dropped out of the language. In modern Israel, spoken Hebrew has obscenities, which are borrowed from Arabic. And in Biblical times, when people spoke Hebrew as a native language, Hebrew also had obscenities: there are verses in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Deuteronomy 28:30; 2 Kings 18:27) that contain words that we do not pronounce as they are written; when we read those verses out loud, we substitute other words or phrases for those words. [back]

2) And I don't understand its appeal. I was not raised in the kind of isolation from the outside world that Shulem and Gitty were; on the contrary, I am well integrated in it: I work and do business in it; after attending Jewish elementary and secondary schools, I went to a secular college for my undergraduate degree; I went to a secular university for my graduate degree; throughout the years I have had intimate friends who were non-Jewish, and whom I loved, and respected, and married; I read and appreciate non-Jewish literature, and I speak and write English better than anyone I know (and you cannot speak a language fluently, without understanding the culture of the people who speak it) — but still, this is a thing in non-Jewish culture that I find completely alien. If you are hungry for a pastrami sandwich, you should eat a pastrami sandwich, not look at a picture of one. And if you don't have a pastrami sandwich, still, how can looking at a picture of one satisfy you?

Maybe the pleasure that people take in pornography is altruistic. If you don't have a pastrami sandwich, it still may comfort you to know that somewhere else, someone is eating one. We are social animals, naturally empathetic, and, just as it is painful for us to see other people in pain, we also take pleasure, from seeing other people have pleasure. But this doesn't explain, to me, the pull that it exerts on people, the hours that people spend seeking it, the tens of billions of dollars that are annually spent on it in just this country alone, how, for a few people, it becomes almost an addiction. I just don't get it. [back]