We often hear about the great Kaballist, the Arizal, Rabbi Issac Luria. He was on a spiritual plane so high, he merited bringing exalted new understandings to the Torah. Often, he is called, the Holy Ari. The Hebrew letters of “Ari” ((אר"י stand for “Elohi Rabenu Yitzhak”- the G-dly Rabbi Yitzhak. No other Sage ever had this extra letter, standing for Elohi (G-dly) prefaced to his name.
The Ari's teachings come down to us through the voluminous writings of his most gifted student, Rabbi Chaim Vital, an incredible gifted Torah scholar himself. The teachings of the Ari are considered on the same level as the Zohar itself. The great halachic codifier, the “Magen Avraham,” takes the Ari’s personal customs as legally binding precedents. In deciding disputes that had remained unresolved for centuries, he often cites the Ari’s custom as the final authority.
While the majority of the Ari’s teachings are grounded in difficult Kaballistic codes and terminology, the commandments and their kavanot (intentions) are sometimes explained in a more down-to-earth fashion for the layman. To give people a taste of his inspiring teachings on the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying, and on marital relations, a short section is translated here from Rabbi Chaim Vital’s writings in the book, “Taame HaMitzvot” (Torah portion Bereshit, 6-9). In certain places (very brief explanations have been added to aid the reader.)
6) MITZVAH “TO BE FRUITFUL AND MULTIPLY”
This mitzvah has been explained by us in the first chapter of “Shaar HaGilgulim” (Gate of Reincarnation) in the matter of extracting the 288 sparks of holiness (during the “Shattering of the Vessels” that preceded Creation) which fell into the kelipah (husk) of Noga, and returning them to holiness.
Behold, at the hour of the marital union, the father and the mother bestow, from their spiritual/physical make-up, two coverings for the soul (of the child to be conceived from their union). One from the father and one from the mother. This is because the soul of the newborn derives from the sefirot of hesed and gevorah of the highest manifestation of Zer and Nuk. This covering of physical attire (levush) aids the newborn to perform mitzvot in the world, since it cannot perform them when it is small, especially if the soul is a reincarnation, because its former transgressions don’t allow it to perform mitzvot, and the needed support for this comes from the levush. Also, if it should be an original soul, it is not accustomed to being in this world, and it is the levush which assists it. Even the Divine Influence (shefa) granted from Heaven comes to the newborn via the levush, and in this way the husband and wife participate in the formation of the child.
Thus, we can understand how strict the Torah is with the need for a man to sanctifying himself at the time of the marital union. For if the husband sanctifies himself at this time, it draws a holy levush upon the soul, and with this holy levush, it will merit to serve Hashem. Even if it be a superlative soul, it needs the sanctification of the father and mother at the time of marital relations, in order to provide it with a suitable, high quality levush, so that this levush won’t draw it to transgression by following after the evil inclination.
7) ON MARITAL RELATIONS
The Zohar has prohibited engaging in marital relations at the beginning of the night (Parshat Amor). The reason, as is known, is because at this time, the celestial union of the spiritual worlds of Yaacov and Leah occurs, which is the lowest of all the spiritual unions, and thus harsh judgments are reinforced in the world at this time. However, from midnight onward, the celestial union is between Yisrael and Leah. This is an aspect of the spiritual world of Rachel, which encompasses Yisrael’s full measure, and this is a more perfect union. For this reason, a regular person (am haaretz) is allowed to conduct marital relations at this time. However, a Torah scholar is not permitted – the time for his marital union is after midnight on Shabbat. This parallels the celestial union of Yisrael and Rachel, similar to the positive spiritual influences drawn into the world during the Shacharit prayer on weekdays. Sabbath night before midnight, however, is similar to a weekday night after midnight, which resembles the union of Yisrael and Leah, in its aspect of Rachel. Nonetheless, the marital union on Sabbath night before midnight is more sublime than the union on weekday night after midnight. A Torah scholar is also permitted to engage in relations after midnight on Rosh Chodesh and Yom Tov, when allowed, since it is considered a favorable time, like after midnight on Shabbat, while not quite as exalted. On the night of the wife’s ritual immersion, my teacher, may the memory of the tzaddik be for a blessing in this world and the World to Come, would remain awake until after midnight studying Torah, and then he would engage in marital relations and recite the bedtime Shema. All of this was done in order that he not have any sexual thoughts whatsoever, and perhaps, G-d forbid, come to have an unintended spilling of seed.
8) REGARDING MARITAL RELATIONS BY CANDLELIGHT
The Sages stated that engaging in marital relations by candlelight (electric light, etc) causes the offspring to be born with a nervous disorder (lit. epilepsy). My teacher, may the memory of the tzaddik be for a blessing in this world and the World to Come, said this comes about not only at the time of the specific union that leads to the birth of the newborn, but even if the wife is already pregnant. To prevent this, a partial divider blocking out some of the light isn’t enough – a full divider is needed that doesn’t allow any light to be seen. If one does not do this, he will not escape from his offspring being thus handicapped, whether in their youth or in their old age. He said that the majority of young children who die from nervous disorders, this is the reason. There was a Torah scholar in our days who had to suffer a reincarnation as a goat because of this transgression, during the lifetime of my teacher, may the memory of the tzaddik be for a blessing in this world and the World to Come, because he caused his children to have epilepsy. This is the secret of the words חפרוה שרים כרוה in the verse, “the well that the princes dug out (Bamidbar, 21:18), whose initial letters spell חשך (darkness), implying there should be darkness when the “well” is dug (a euphemism for marital relations) and that it is forbidden to do so by candlelight, so that a blessed spiritual light be drawn down from the spiritual wellspring of souls Above to this “well” down below.
And regarding the mitzvah of “Ona,” fulfilling the wife’s desire for marital relations, he said that a husband should fulfill the mitzvah of “Ona” even when his wife is pregnant or nursing (and a child cannot result from the union), because there is a constant spiritual union Above, even when the exalted spiritual worlds are in spiritual stages of pregnancy and nursing, ensuring the sustenance of the world, on an ongoing basis (and the lower union stimulates this upper spiritual union in a positive fashion).
And regarding wintertime, I asked him if I can exempt myself from the obligation of “Ona,” because of the cold, so that I shouldn’t have to immerse myself afterward (as the pious practice) considering it was a time of her pregnancy or nursing? He answered that if the wife pardons the husband and doesn’t insist on her privileges, then certainly the husband is exempted. Nevertheless, it is proper to conduct relations. And I heard from his neighbors who know him that he would not conduct relations at these times.
9) REGARDING SHABATH NIGHT
It can be understood from the Tikunim 93, that all of the warning of the Sages regarding the time of marital relations for a Torah scholar being on the night of Shabbat, and not again until the next night of Shabbat (excluding Rosh Chodesh, permitted holidays, and the night of ritual immersion) applies for the purpose of causing pregnancy, to have children. And one needs to be careful in this union to draw an exalted holy soul upon the seed from the paralleling celestial union.
However, if his wife is already pregnant or nursing, one needn’t have this concern. The reason is that all of the forcefulness of the warning is in order to influence the souls, so that the souls will be on the level of tzaddik (the very righteous), blessed with a soul of Shabbat. But if she is already pregnant or nursing, this necessity is abrogated.
And if a husband should awaken with an erected member from a dream, he should be careful not to have relations right away with this erected member, for the resulting offspring will be blemished, and termed “Bnei Temorah” (children of improper relations) at their inception. Also, if the wife is already pregnant, destructive spiritual beings will be created from such an undesirable union. For marital unions should be conducted in the secret of the spirit of holiness of Shabbat.