The Mishnah teaches us that the frequency with which a husband is obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of onah(1) is a function of his occupation. It speaks of several different levels of occupations, and, depending upon different aspects of his work, a husband may be obligated to be with his wife anywhere from once a day to once every six months.
The Mishnah in Maseches Kesubos (5:6) discusses the case of the donkey driver and the camel driver. The donkey driver makes his living by transporting people and goods on donkeys, and his job can keep him away from home for a week at a time. Accordingly, the Torah obligates him to be with his wife once a week. On the other hand, the camel driver's job is far superior as far as wages are concerned.
However, since the camel can travel for much longer distances than the donkey, the camel driver has to be away from home for up to a month at a time. Correspondingly, the Torah obligates him to be with his wife only once every thirty days.
The Gemara (Kesubos 62b) asks an interesting question. “What if a donkey driver wants to become a camel driver?” The Gemara is talking about a case where the man was a donkey driver when he married his wife. Now he wants to change his profession and become a camel driver.
Rashi explains: Is he allowed to change professions without his wife’s permission? Will she prefer a more luxurious lifestyle as the wife of a camel driver, who earns much more money than a donkey driver, or will she prefer more frequent mitzvas onah with her husband?
The Gemara answers that a woman prefers a smaller income and more frequent attention from her husband, to a much higher income which brings with it longer separations from her husband. The Gemara is teaching us about the nature of a woman. A woman is prepared to forgo life’s material luxuries in exchange for her husband’s attention.
It is told in Maseches Berachos, that when Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria was offered the position of Nasi Yisrael, a position of great importance, he replied: I’ll go and ask my wife’s advice. Rabbeinu Yehonasan Eibshitz explains that according to the halachah, he was obligated to do so because of the law forbidding a donkey driver to change his occupation to that of a camel driver without permission of his wife, as it reduces her onah. Because the onah of a talmid chacham was once a week and of the Nasi was once a month, Rabbi Elazar was not permitted to take on the position of Nasi without his wife’s permission, as it would be reducing her onah.
A husband might be misled into thinking that since he is young and in the beginning of the important process of building his future, both spiritually and economically, his wife will understand if he can’t give her the full attention that she needs right now. It could be she herself has even agreed to this. But the Gemara is telling us about the nature and essence of a woman. The most important thing in her life is the attention, expressed in different ways, that she receives from her husband.
It is apparent therefore that there is a conflict between his desire to build a successful marriage and his ambitions for success in other areas. We are not advocating that a man should totally neglect his other responsibilities. Rather, we are pointing out that it is very difficult to remedy a marriage which has been neglected in its earliest stages. A man needs to find the proper balance of quantity and quality. He must know that he has to allocate special time to building a bond with his wife.
Men may claim that during the week they cannot possibly spend time with their family, and on Shabbos they need to rest from the past week and gather strength for the coming week. Of course, if there is extra time on Shabbos, there is so much learning or so many social obligations to catch up on. Too often it happens that a man never finds the opportunity to devote time to develop a bond with his closest family members. Shabbos should be dedicated to this bond and the time spent with our wives and children must be quality time especially dedicated for this purpose.
Rav Eliyahu Lopian, of blessed memory, once told a story about himself when he was a young boy of six or seven. His mother used to take out all the dishes from the cabinets once a month. She would put them on the kitchen table so that she could clean the cabinets. The boy, Eliyahu, was playing with his new ball when the inevitable happened. The ball landed on the table, and many dishes went flying, breaking into pieces. He was punished and he learned his lesson. In the future, when it was time for his mother to clean the cabinets, his plan was to keep far from the kitchen.
The next month, when cleaning day arrived, the young Eliyahu took extra special care that he would not cause his mother any trouble. But the Lopians had geese in the backyard, and sure enough, a goose flew in through the window and landed with a crash onto the dishes which were on the table. Naturally many dishes broke. Rav Lopian recalled that he had thought to himself at that moment, is that goose going to get punished!”
But to his amazement, his mother simply came along, picked up the goose, and dropped it back out the window. Little Eliyahu was shocked. The goose didn’t get punished! He wandered around for weeks with the feeling of, “What a pity I'm not a goose!” Then one morning his father took the goose and slaughtered it, and Eliyahu met it again on the Shabbos table. Reb Eliyahu recalled that that was when he changed his mind; from then on he no longer wanted “to be a goose!”
We need to learn to see things in a more mature light than a child who sees only his immediate situation. We must be able to view our own circumstances with a broader and lengthier vision. We have to see how our presence at home will affect our families in the long run. We must make sure that we have our priorities in order. If we act only according to a superficial evaluation of a situation, we may lose sight of our ultimate, long-term objectives, which are the truly important ones.
Notes and Sources
(1)The mitzvah of onah, includes many issues. The Steipler Gaon writes, in his Iggeres Hakodesh, that understanding and responding to the wife's emotional needs and fulfilling them is an integral part of this mitzvah: “Other forms of closeness are part and parcel of the mitzvah of onah.”
Adapted from “Two Halves Of A Whole” by Rabbi Yirmiyohu & Tehilla Abramov. Available at www.jewishfamily.org