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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Marital sex is the context in Ruth Calderon's speech-Ketubot 62b

      In her February 12, 2013 inaugural Knesset speech, Ruth Calderon made a macro connection between politics and Talmud. I think it is also important to hear the micro message that is embedded in the Talmudic story – which has nothing to do with politics. One may wonder how her vision of her party ‘Yes Atid’ (‘There is Future’) is related to the story.

      She remarks on a story from Ketubot 62b about Rav Rechume who would study Torah with Rava in a very prestigious Yeshiva in Mehuza. He regularly came home once a year on the eve of Yom Kippur to be with his wife; One year his involvement in Torah study was so intense that he forgot to go home. His wife was in pain and cried. As her tears fell, the rooftop where the rabbi was studying collapsed and he died.

       Ruth Calderon’s conclusions from this story are as follows;

“What can I learn about this place and my work here from Rabbi Rechume and his wife? 

I learn that one who forgets that he is sitting on another’s shoulders – will fall. 

I learn that righteousness is not adherence to the Torah at the expense of sensitivity to human beings. 

I learn that often, in a dispute, both sides could be right, and I understand that my disputant and I, (the woman and Rabbi Rechume), can feel that they are doing the right thing and are both responsible for the home. Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work while others sit on the roof and study Torah; sometimes others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition, Torah, and our culture while we go to the beach and have a blast. Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding”.

     Looking at the context of this story in Ketubot 62b, we will see that it has to do with sexual obligations that are demanded from married men and women;– In Exodus 21:10 we read that marital sex is one of the woman's rights: ‘Her food, her clothing, and her duty of marriage relations he shall not diminish.' The Talmud instructs that a man is obligated to sanctify married unions, and has to please his wife by having marital relations with her at the appropriate times, and also at other times when she so desires. The Talmud also specifies the frequency of sexual obligation based on the husband's occupation and that a man may not take a vow to abstain from sex for an extended period of time, and may not take a journey for an extended period of time, because that would deprive his wife of sexual relations.

     Our Gemara now criticizes men who leave their wives for long periods of time for the sake of studying Torah. Although men can leave home without permission from their wives, and that women actually have no say in the frequency of marital relations, it shows that if a man believes that studying Torah is more saintly and more important than his obligation to be with his wife, God will eventually punish them for this transgression;

-“The Sages ruled: Students may go away to study Torah without the permission [of their wives even for] two or three years. Raba stated: The Rabbis relied on R. Adda b. Ahabah and act accordingly at the risk of [losing] their lives [i.e., they die before their time as a penalty for the neglect of their wives (v. Rashi]". 

     To illustrate the severity of improper “saintliness” concerning one’s wife, the sages use the story of Rav Rechume,

“Thus R. Rechume, who was frequenting [the school] of Raba at Mahuza used to return home on the Eve of every Day of Atonement. On one occasion he was so attracted by his subject [that he forgot to return home]. His wife was expecting [him every moment, saying.] ‘”He is coming soon”, “he is coming soon”. As he did not arrive she became so depressed that tears began to flow from her eyes. He was [at that moment] sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him and he was killed”.

     Rav Rechume dies because of the pain he inflicted on his wife. The Gemara continues with the story of Yehuda ben Hiyya, who dies because of a tragic misunderstanding when he did not return home from his Yeshiva;

     "Judah, the son of R. Hiyya and son-in-law of R. Jannai was always spending his time in the school house but every Sabbath eve he came home. Whenever he arrived the people saw a pillar of light moving before him. Once he was so attracted by his subject of study [that he forgot to return home]. Not Seeing that Sign, R. Jannai said to those [around him], ‘Lower his bed, for had Judah been alive he would not have neglected the performance of his marital duties’. This [remark] was like an error that proceeded from the ruler, for [in consequence] Judah's soul returned to its eternal rest". 

     Ruth Calderon’s macro message is not wrong when she equates Rav Rechume and his wife to the different factions in the Israeli political/social front, namely the conflict between the Ultra-Orthodox population and the secular Israeli. She wisely calls the nation to be considerate and mindful about these conflicts. And she is right to ask for clarity and acknowledgment of the pain of each member of its society as it is envelops with its dreams and ideals.

     On the micro level, I see another message in Ketubot 62b -- a message of caution for couples; no partner should be deprived of respect, love, pleasure or else because of a spouse’s extra hours of work in the office, extensive business trips or internet related work. Men or women who will spend too much time away from home will end up sacrificing their family unity and sanctity.

- What did you get out of the stories from this page of Gemara?

- Can you picture yourself as one of the characters of these stories?

- How frequently do you think a couple needs to see each other in order to maintain a positive relationship?

To listen to the speech click here;