Onah: A Husband’s Conjugal Duties?
If a man purchases a Hebrew maidservant as a wife for himself or his son, and then wishes to take a second wife, Exodus requires him to continue to fulfill his marital obligations to the maidservant:
שׁמות כא:י אִם אַחֶרֶת יִקַּח לוֹ שְׁאֵרָהּ כְּסוּתָהּ וְעֹנָתָהּ לֹא יִגְרָע.
Exod 21:10 If he marries another, he [the husband] must not withhold her [his wife’s] food, clothing, or onah.
What does the final term mean?
The classical rabbinic understanding of the term is “conjugal rights.” The language of the husband’s declaration in the traditional ketubbah [marriage contract] reflects these three duties:
מזונייכי וכסותייכי וספוקייכי ומיעל לותיכי כאורח כל ארעא
[I will provide] your food, clothing and necessities, and I will approach you [sexually] in the standard manner.
The phrase “approaching her” is how all three of the targums of Land of Israel render the term onah in this verse:
ומעלה ומפקה לוותה
And coming and going to her
And approaching her
מעילה ומפקה לוותה
Coming and going to her
The Syriac Peshita also understands the term this way: ומשכבה (ܘܡܫܟܒܗ݁), “and her conjugal rights (literally ‘lying with’).” Similarly, the LXX Greek translates ὁμιλίαν (homilian), which literally means “company” or “conversation,” which many scholars think is being used euphemistically here for conjugal relations.
Nevertheless, as Nahum Sarna (1923–2005) of Brandeis University remarks, understanding this word as conjugal rights “has no philological support.” Thus, medieval and modern interpreters look for alternative possible meanings of the term.
Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel b. Meir; c. 1080–c. 1160) understood the term to refer to shelter:
ועונתה—בית דירה, לפי הפשט, לשון מעון, כי המ״ם של מעון כמו מ״ם של מקום ושל מלון שאינו עיקר. הרי מזון וכסות [ומדור].
Onatah: following the plain meaning of Scripture, means “her lodging.” For the letter mem in מעון (maʿon), “lodging,” is [a prefix, and is] not part of the root, just like the mem at the beginning of the words מקום and מלון. The verse then requires [providing] food, clothing, and shelter.
An example of such use of מעון (maʿon) is in the prayer over the first produce, bikkurim:
דברים כו:טו ...הַשְׁקִיפָה מִמְּעוֹן קָדְשְׁךָ מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם.
Deut 26:15 …Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven…
Rashbam’s explanation, that the term comes from a root ע.ו.נ meaning “to dwell,” is thus supported etymologically, and has been adopted by modern scholars such as Cassuto and von Soden.
The list of three obligations—food, clothing, and shelter—makes sense: All three require a financial outlay and provide for basic human needs. Particularly, as the biblical text applies this list to a Hebrew maidservant, of whom the master may tire and feel he can remove with impunity, the merit of this explanation is clear.
Based on a comparison with ancient Near Eastern texts, which describe the three basic provisions for a wife: “food, clothing, and ointment,” Elyashiv Oren (1924–1998), an Israeli rabbi, educator, and author, proposed that onah means “anointing oil.” For example, the laws of King Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (20th cent. B.C.E.) legislate:
§27 If a man’s wife does not bear him a child, but a prostitute from the street does bear him a child, he shall provide grain, oil, and clothing rations for the prostitute and the child shall be his heir…
Oren further pointed to the parallel in Hosea, in which the cheating wife says to herself:
הושע ב:ז ...כִּי אָמְרָה אֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי מְאַהֲבַי נֹתְנֵי לַחְמִי וּמֵימַי צַמְרִי וּפִשְׁתִּי שַׁמְנִי וְשִׁקּוּיָי.
Hos 2:7 … “I will go after my lovers, who supply my bread and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.”
He also notes this trio in Ecclesiastes’ description of material enjoyment of life:
קהלת ט:ז לֵךְ אֱכֹל בְּשִׂמְחָה לַחְמֶךָ וּשֲׁתֵה בְלֶב טוֹב יֵינֶךָ כִּי כְבָר רָצָה הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ. ט:ח בְּכָל עֵת יִהְיוּ בְגָדֶיךָ לְבָנִים וְשֶׁמֶן עַל רֹאשְׁךָ אַל יֶחְסָר.
Eccl 9:7 Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God. 9:8 Let your clothes always be freshly washed, and anointment for your head never lack.
Not long after Oren’s article, Shalom Paul of Hebrew University published a more detailed defense of this view, noting that this trio of terms is ubiquitous in ancient Near Eastern legal texts, and that onah should be understood as the equivalent to the Akkadian piššatum, “anointing oil,” though from an unknown root. For example, in the Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1770 B.C.E.):
§32 If a man gives his child for suckling and for rearing but does not give the food, oil, and clothing rations (to the caregiver) for 3 years, he shall weigh and deliver 10 shekels of silver for the cost of the rearing of his child…
Sarna brought further support for this view, from the Egyptian Old Kingdom text The Instruction of Ptahhotep:
§21 When you prosper and found your house, and love your wife with ardor, fill her belly, clothe her back, ointment soothes her body, gladden her heart as long as you live…
Sarna summarizes that the suggestion that this is the meaning of onah in our verse is “persuasive, although as yet philologically unsustained.”
A General Term for Maintenance
A different interpretation of the term, suggested by Jonathan Paradise of the University of Minnesota, is that onah has no specific reference but is a catchall for needs or requirements. Paradise notes that in addition to the trio “food, clothing, and, oil,” ancient Near Eastern texts know of another trio, “clothing, oil, and general needs.” Paradise argues that this is the meaning of onah here as well, and that the phrase should be translated, “her food and clothing, that is her upkeep.”
Supporting the Sages’ Understanding: Ibn Ezra and Radak
As noted above, Sarna argued that the traditional understanding has little philological support. Still, many modern scholars of biblical Hebrew accept this understanding, and offer various supporting etymologies. One common suggestion, first floated by Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167), is that it derives from the noun עת, meaning “time”:
ופי וענתה על המשכב שהוא "עֵת דֹּדִים" שמלת עת בחסרון נו"ן כמו אמת. על כן נדגש תי"ו "וְהִנֵּה עִתֵּךְ" או עִתּוֹ... גם כן: עַתָּה.
The meaning of “and her onah” is sexual activity, also known as “the time of lovemaking” (Ezek 16:8). The word ʿet (time) is missing a nun (i.e., the nun is assimilated into the tav), similar to the word emet (truth) [which comes from א.מ.נ, with the nun assimilating into the final tav]. Hence the tav (of עת) receives a dagesh [as a sign of the assimilated letter] in [for instance] עִתֵּךְ “your time” (Ezek 16:8), likewise: עִתּוֹ “its time,”… also עַתָּה “now.”
Rabbi David Kimhi (1160–1235) argued further that the Torah appropriately uses a word that relates to a “fixed time” to refer to sexual activity, since Mishnaic law legislates the frequency of sexual activity required for a man to fulfil this mitzvah.
Shadal on Onah
Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto; 1860–1865), a Renaissance man who taught Bible and Jewish Thought in the modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Padua, Italy, for most of his life, mentions Rashbam’s interpretation, but defends the traditional rabbinic one:
אומר אני כי "וענתה" הוא התנאי הראוי לה במה שהיא אשה בעולת בעל והתנאי הזה הוא התשמיש בלא ספק.
I say that “her onah” refers to the duties toward her inasmuch as she is a married woman, and this must be a reference to sexual intercourse.
Shadal accepts that the etymology of the term comes from עת, but offers a different understanding of the term’s nuance:
אמנם נראה לי כי מלת עת אין תחלת הוראתה על הזמן, אך תחלת הוראתה כהוראת השרש אשר ממנו לוקחה; והנה שרש ענה הונח תחלה על הדבור המתיחס לדבור זולתנו, ומורה ג"כ זמרת ב' כתות בני אדם שמזמרין אלו כנגד אלו, ומורה ג"כ עשיית בקשת זולתנו ומלוי שאלתו...
It seems to me, however, that the primary meaning of the word ʿet is not connected with time. Rather its meaning is like the meaning of the root it came from, ע.נ.ה. The root ע.נ.ה is primarily used in connection with speech which responds to the speech of another person, and it also refers to the singing of two groups who are singing to each other. It also may refer to fulfilling the requests of other people…
Shadal takes strong exception to ibn Ezra and Radak’s association of conjugal rights with the concept of fixed times:
וזה דבר שאין הדעת סובלתו, שהתורה תְכַנֶה ביאת אדם אל אשתו בשם עת קבוע, מלבד שאין בכל התורה שום לוח הקביעות לענין זה.
This explanation is unthinkable—that the Torah would designate a man’s relations with his wife by the term “set time”! Besides, nowhere in the Torah is there any timetable for this matter.
While Shadal does not explain why the explanation is unthinkable, he likely subscribed to a modern romantic criticism of legislated frequency for sexual activity. As Noam Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute writes, “For believers in romance, obligatory scheduled sex is by definition insincere, perfunctory, and dehumanizing, and thus vitiates its meaning as an act of love.”
Shadal’s Proto-Feminist Reading of the Sages
Despite his insistence that onah could not mean “fixed time,” Shadal defends the Mishnaic rabbis, and explains that the rabbis had a valid reason—protecting women’s rights—for legislating the frequency of sexual activity:
התורה לא נכנסה בפרטי הדברים שאין להם סוף. ורז"ל עשו (כתובות ס"ב ע"א) כמו שעשו בכל שאר חלקי התורה והגבילו השיעורים, שאם יפחות הבעל מהשיעור המוגבל לו לפי מה שהוא אדם, תוכל אשתו לבוא לצעוק חמס לפני ב"ד.
The Torah did not enter into discussion of the endless details of these matters. The rabbis, as they do for other parts of the Torah, specified set [minimum] frequencies (Ketubbot 62a), such that if the husband diminished the frequency established for him according to his individual circumstances, his wife could bring a claim against him in court.
According to Shadal, the intention of the law of onah is to increase married women’s sexual gratification:
והנה חז"ל בחכמתם ובצדקתם ראו כי האישה איננה כלי ולא נבראת לתועלת האיש ולהנאתו בלבד, אבל איש ואשתו שני שותפים, התחברו ברצונם לעזור איש את רעהו באהבה ואחוה.
In their wisdom and righteousness, the Rabbis saw that a woman is not just a tool; she was not created just for a man’s benefit and pleasure. Rather, a man and wife are partners who have willingly joined together to help one another in love and friendship.
ולא לבד השגיחו שלא יהיה האיש גורע חק אשתו, אבל השגיחו גם על הפרטים היותר קלים, לבלתי יהיה האיש גורע הנאת אשתו כגון אם אמר הוא בבגדו והיא בבגדה (כתובות מ״ח). ומה נכבד מאמרם בשכר שמשהין עצמן... (נדה ל״א)
Not only were the rabbis careful to prevent a man from diminishing his wife’s due, but they were also careful about the finer details, that a man should not diminish his wife’s pleasure, as for instance if he said that [he would have intercourse with her only while] he wore his clothes and she wore hers, [then he must, if she wishes, divorce her and pay her ketubbah (Ketubbot 48a)]. How worthy is their statement concerning the reward due to men who restrain themselves (Niddah 31a–b) [and do not achieve orgasm too quickly].
Two Wrong Attitudes to Sexuality
Shadal excoriates two unacceptable male approaches to sexuality. He first mentions promiscuous men:
והפך מזה מצד אחד דרכי הנבלים שאינם מבקשים רק הנאת עצמם והם משוטטים תמיד לבקש זימה ונשיהם נמאסות בעיניהם ויושבות עגונות אלמנות חיות.
In contrast to this [i.e. to the correct Jewish attitude to sexuality], on one hand, is the behavior of men who are villains, who seek nothing but their own pleasure, always searching for licentiousness, men who look at their own wives with disgust, abandoning them to be agunot (chained women) in living widowhood.
Shadal then denounces another type of man who sees sexuality only in terms of his own needs, critiquing the stance of Moses Maimonides (1138–1204):
והפך מזה מצד אחר דרכי המתחכמים אשר האשה היא להם כשפחה לשרתם, וכסם לשמירת בריאותם (לא יבעול אלא כשימצא גופו בריא וחזק ביותר וכו' וכו'... [רמב"ם] הלכות דעות פרק ד').
And in contrast, on the other hand, is the behavior of those “wise men” who relate to their wives as a handmaiden to serve them and as a tonic to keep them healthy (“One should not engage in intercourse unless he finds that his body is exceedingly healthy and strong, etc., etc.…”) ([Maimonides, MT] Hilkhot De’ot 4).
Shadal insinuates that Maimonides’ attitudes on sexuality are borrowed from Aristotle and other non-Jewish philosophers, and that he abandoned real Jewish values. According to Shadal, had Maimonides adopted traditional Jewish attitudes, he would have come to different conclusions:
אבל מי שתורתו היא תורת משה והמשנה והתלמוד, הוא אוהב את אשתו כגופו ומכבדה יותר מגופו.
But the man whose Torah is the Torah of Moses and the Mishnah and the Talmud, loves his wife as much as he loves his own body, and honors her more than he honors himself.
An Ethical Stance about Marital Sexuality
While these slavery laws have not been relevant for Jews for many centuries, the phrase enumerating a husband’s obligations to his wife still serves an important purpose today in the halakhic system. As such, Shadal’s main point about Jewish sexual values is valid.
Whatever onah originally meant in Exodus 21, for at least 2000 years Jews have believed that it means that a married woman has the right to expect her sexual needs to be fulfilled. As Nahum Sarna wrote, if in Exodus already onah meant this, then Exodus 21:10 “reflect[s] a singular recognition in the laws of the ancient Near East that a wife is legally entitled to sexual gratification.”
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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