The Holiness of both Sex and Marriage
within the Jewish Tradition
Jozef Israëls
Jozef Israëls: A Jewish Wedding 1903

In Jewish tradition, marriage is viewed as a contractual bond commanded by God in which a man and a woman come together to create a relationship in which God is directly involved. (Deut. 24:1) Though procreation is not the sole purpose, a Jewish marriage is also traditionally expected to fulfill the commandment to have children. (Gen. 1:28) In this view, marriage is understood to mean that the husband and wife are merging into a single soul, which is why a man is considered "incomplete" if he is not married, as his soul is only one part of a larger whole that remains to be unified

Even a surface review of Judaism makes clear that in the Jewish tradition sexual union is not regarded as a concession to the flesh but as a proper and sacred act. The flesh need not be the enemy of the spiritual life; true spirituality raises the flesh to make it, too, the servant of God. Rabbi Nathan of Bratslav (1772-1811), the great-grandson of the Baal-Shem Tov and himself a great figure of the Hasidic movement, is the author of the passage that follows:

The whole world depends on the holiness of the union between man and woman, for the world was created for the sake of God’s glory and the essential revelation of His glory comes through the increase of mankind. Man must therefore sanctify himself in order to bring the world holy people through whom God’s glory will be increased….

In truth all experiences of the Divine Unity and Holiness depend on the union between man and woman, for the ultimate meaning of this act is very lofty. Alas, darkness and falsehood tend to grow stronger and to spread so much blackness that we no longer see the truth at all. Union between man and woman becomes so tainted with imperfection that one can almost begin to believe the lie that there is no true holiness to this act.

Union represents the state in which breathing is suspended. It is therefore the opposite of the state of longevity, for, as is well known, many die of this passion. It is also the opposite of wisdom, for many people are driven mad by it. But through the act of union in holiness and purity life is increased and years are added. Through it "man sees life with his wife" and attains wisdom and elevation of the spirit.



The traditional Hebrew word for marriage is Kiddushin. It is derived from kadosh -- holy -- and this describes quite accurately the Jewish attitude toward marriage. The Bible describes marriage as the natural state intended by God. "Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh" And the rabbis went further: "He who is without a wife dwells without blessings, life, joy, good, and peace."

The degree of holiness that Judaism ascribes to marriage is attested by the tradition that God can be present in the marriage partnership. "When husband and wife are worthy, the Divine Presence abides with them. "The idea that the bond of marriage is sacred and eternal, a reflection of the berit between God and the people Israel, goes back to the Bible, particularly to the prophecies of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea . In the Middle Ages the mystic poets of Safed embellished the Shabbat liturgy with the image of joyous conjugal union as a symbol of the berit between God and Israel. It is in this tradition of sacred covenant that a man and a woman are inspired to build together the mikdash meat (the miniature sanctuary) that the Jewish home should be, a place of serenity and warmth sanctified daily by the performance of mitzvot. In such an atmosphere Israel may survive eternally as a "kingdom of priests and a holy people" Consequently of all the joyous occasions of Judaism, the heartiest Mazal Tov is reserved for the wedding.

The family is the core of Jewish community and center of religious life. Jewish existence and continuity depends upon it. Therefore, Jewish Law legislates every aspect of marriage's formation and healthy development and growth. It is the Jewish home, that has preserved the traditions and values of Judaism through centuries of dispersion.

Orthodox Judaism recognizes the fact that procreation is one of the major purposes in marriage. However, marriage has its own significance, sanctity and self-fulfillment, apart from children. " ...A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife , so they become one flesh." (Genesis 2:24). Thus people unable to have children –because of infertility or after menopause—still find in marriage sexual satisfaction, companionship, and love. Thus, the main objective of marriage is to find a "holy" way of happiness.

The Talmud and our sages wisdom recordings have many words of advice to achieve such happiness. For example: "A man must love his wife at least as much as himself but honor her more than himself." (Yevamot 62b, , Sanhedrin 76b).

Biblical Law considers satisfying sex an obligation, and one of the responsibilities of a married man toward his wife. (Ona) The beauty of character, and even the health of the offspring were considered by our sages to be influenced by the quality of he sexual relationships between the married couple.

Hence, in Orthodox Judaism, sex is seen as an integral and very important part of marriage and therefore it is thoroughly regulated (or may be over-regulated?). For example, Jewish Law warns against forcing one's wife to engaging in intercourse; it warns against having intercourse under the influence of alcohol: or while a couple is quarreling and "hatred drives them..."

Maimonides sums-up the Halakhic view of sex : "Sexual union should be consummated only out of desire and as a result of joy of the husband and wife.

Still the Halakha places limitations upon the sexual expression between husband and wife in order to create, holiness within the couple.

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Marital Harmony
A House Divided Cannot Stand

Shalom bayit

שלום בית

Shalom bayit or peace of the home..... is the Jewish religious concept of domestic harmony and good relations between husband and wife. In a Jewish court of law, shalom bayit is the Hebrew term for marital reconciliation.
Origin of Term
The term sh'lom beto is found in the Talmud regarding domestic peace in general. Nowadays, it is mostly used regarding matrimonial peace.

As a Jewish value
Throughout the history of the Jewish people, Jews have held an ideal standard for Jewish family life that is manifested in the term shalom bayit. Shalom bayit signifies completeness, wholeness, and fulfillment. Hence, the traditional Jewish marriage is characterized by peace, nurturing, respect, and chesed (roughly meaning kindness, more accurately loving-kindness), through which a married couple becomes complete. It is believed that God's presence dwells in a pure and loving home

In Jewish culture, a marriage is described as a "match made in heaven," and is treated as a holy enterprise. For example, the Jewish betrothal ceremony is referred to in classical rabbinic literature as Kiddushin (meaning hallowing / sanctification / consecration). By declaring the marriage union sacred, a couple stands sanctified before God. It is in a relationship where both husband and wife recognize each other as creations in God's image and treat each other accordingly that true sanctity emanates forth. Moreover, this sanctity of the marital union reminds the Jewish husband and wife to express their holiness through marriage and to build a home based on mutual love, respect, and chesed.

In practice
The greatest praise the Talmudic rabbis offered to any woman was that given to a wife that fulfils the wishes of her husband. The husband too was expected to love his wife as much as he loves himself, and honour her more than he honours himself; indeed, one who honours his wife was said, by the classical rabbis, to be rewarded with wealth. Similarly, a husband was expected to discuss with his wife any worldly matters that might arise in his life.

Tough love was frowned upon; the Talmud forbids a husband from being overbearing to his household, and domestic abuse by him was also condemned. It was said of a wife that God counts her tears.

In the Midrash
In Jewish thought and law, domestic harmony is an important goal; to this end, an early midrash argues that a wife should not leave the home too frequently.

The goal may even warrant engaging in a white lie. According to the Talmud, when God tells Sarah she will give birth to a son, she expresses disbelief, saying: "After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my husband being old also?" But when God speaks to Abraham, he says: "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?" (Genesis: 18:12-13). The rabbis comment that God omitted Sarah's mention of Abraham's age out of concern for their shalom bayit.

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I. The Cosmic Roots of Marriage

When a man and woman unite in marriage, their personal union draws its power from the cosmic marriage that underlies the whole of existence -- the bonding of the divine masculine and feminine energies emerging from the Creator's Infinite Light to generate existence, a world, and life.

Indeed, the entire Seder Hishtalshelut--the kabbalistic blueprint of the spiritual infrastructure of creation--is modeled on a male-female dynamic: masculine "lights" (orot) unite with feminine "vessels" (keilim), masculine "wisdom" (chochmah) unites with feminine "understanding" (binah), male "holiness" (kedushah) unites with female "immanence" (shechinah), and so on. On each level, masculine and feminine energies unite to "give birth" to the next link in the chain of spiritual "worlds" that channel the flow of divine vitality into our world.

This male/female dynamic pervades every level of existence. The relationships between spirit and matter, heaven and earth, G‑d and the people of Israel, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, the Jewish people and the Shabbat, soul and body, mind and heart--all these are "marriages" in which the coming together of contrasting forces results in the creation of life on every level.

The significance of this correspondence is twofold. One the one hand, "From my flesh I perceive G‑d" (Job 19:26) -- we can use our own marriages as a metaphor and model through which to better understand the divine reality. This works in the reverse as well: because we know that human marriage derives from the cosmic marriage of G‑d and creation, studying the mystical texts which scrutinize these divine processes allows us to better understand the foundations of our gender differences, how to bridge the gender divide, and how to become better husbands and wives to our spouses and better actualize the tremendous potential of marriage.

II. Becoming One

In the first human marriage, Adam and Eve are initially created as "a single, two-faced body." The single being is split in two -- a man and a woman -- creating the essence of sexual tension: a primal memory of original oneness, countered by the strangeness of otherness and difference. Like every groom, Adam is apprehensive; he wants to keep his options open. Married, he sees the light. "This is it!" he proclaims. "A bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh... Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."

This process of separation and alienation, and subsequent reunion, is reenacted by the wedding of every couple. A soul which was sheared in half enters two bodies. The attraction between the sexes is a direct result of the soul's deep longing to reunite with its long lost other half; a feat accomplished by the wedding canopy.

The essence of marriage is to become one. If man and woman would have simply remained the "single being" that they initially were, there would have been no alienation, no mystery, no reunion; no marriage. If they would have been initially created as two distinct beings, the gap of difference would have been insurmountable -- there would be no way for them to become truly one. It is their intrinsic oneness, coupled with their acquired distinctiveness and difference, that is the secret of marriage, of creation, of life.

III. Love

Love is a paradox. Many paradoxes, in fact.

It is the most altruistic and the most selfish of human emotions. The most giving and the most fulfilling. The most spiritual and the most physical. The most natural and the most irrational. The source of our deepest pleasures and our deepest agonies.

We call it an "emotion," yet love is much more than a feeling. Everywhere we look -- nature, human society, physics -- the giver/recipient equation is the very math of existence. Yet the math doesn't add up. One plus one never equals two. In love, one plus one equals one. And also three.

The key to love is selflessness, and the fulfillment it brings. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the ostensibly self-consumed, egotistical human being can gain no greater satisfaction than through giving and committing.

The reason? The soul. The soul's selflessness is as great as the body's selfishness.

Perhaps the ability to truly love is the area in life most profoundly impacted by the teachings of Kabbalah. The more in tune a person is with the soul, the greater the capacity for pure love, unsullied by ulterior motives and ego.

Love is the language of the soul. Without an understanding of the soul, we are breaking our teeth, speaking with a horrible accent, and constantly confusing our verbs for nouns... Kabbalah teaches us the language of the soul, and allows us to unleash its unlimited capacity for love.

IV. Intimacy

Look closely at the fabric of the universe, examine it from any angle, probe any cell of its form and you will find the same motif again and again: Two opposites in fission and fusion, parting and reuniting to give birth to change, movement and life. Matter and anti-matter, positive and negative, nucleus and periphery, information and chaos, life and death, mind and body, self and other--will it ever cease to amaze us that these opposites somehow harmonize to create a glorious world?

If we could find the molten core of this paradox and know its secret we could control all of reality. We could make life as beautiful as we wish and realize our sweetest dreams. Where is that core? The Kabbalists tell us it is in the union of a man and a woman in body and in spirit. When that union is made under the conditions it deserves, with the right preparations and mindful focus, its waves ripple outward through substance of reality. No facet of the cosmos is left untouched, unaltered. Every voice of the Creation resonates in unison as an orchestra plays back the soloist's melody. And so the lives of that man and woman, their children and their children's children are filled with the music of the heavens down on earth.

Nothing is more sacred than this union, the very fount of life itself. And nothing is more crucial to our mission in this world. All of life, all of being, depends on the harmony of male and female, a harmony placed in our hands and hearts. That it is why, for most of us, it presents the greatest challenges we ever face.

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