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Written by Michael   
Wednesday, 31 January 2007
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The Holiness Of Marital Relations
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"Igeret Hakodesh" Of The Ramban
The Holiness Of Marital Relations
(Abridged for the Internet)

Introduction

The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, known as Nachmonides, lived in the years, 1195-1270. Along with his illustrious predecessor, the Rambam, he is considered one of the great Torah giants of all time. His "Commentary on the Torah" is regularly studied alongside the commentary of Rashi. He was both a noted halachic [Jewish legal] authority, and an outstanding Kabbalist, two disciplines that go hand-in-hand.

The famous "Letter of the Ramban to his Son" has become a standard addition to most prayer books. Like the Rambam, he was a practicing physician. After his triumphant defense of the Jewish Faith in a public disputation with an apostate in Spain, he journeyed to the Land of Israel and helped revitalize the Jewish community in Jerusalem, after the Holy City had been destroyed by the Mongols. In his "Igeret Hakodesh," he brings both his medical and mystical knowledge to shed light on the holiness of the marital union.

Igeret Hakodesh

Please know, my brother, that our nation, the nation of Israel, is special to the Holy One Blessed Be He, and separated from all other nations by His holy Torah, just as He is separated from all things in His essence, as it says, "I will separate you from all other nations to be Mine" (Leviticus, 2:26).

As you know, a servant is to behave in the manner of his master. And Hashem is our master, and we are His servants. Just as He is supremely holy, He has commanded us to be holy, as it says, "Sanctify yourselves and be holy" (Leviticus, 11:44).

Since in all of our deeds we are to resemble Hashem, praised be He, when we do what is good and upright, we sanctify His great Name, because we are His nation. However, when we act in an improper and corrupted manner, we bring disgrace to His great Name. Thus, because we are to resemble Him, the Sanctification of His Name and the Desecration of His Name are dependent upon us.

A man's conduct during the marital act determines whether or not he will give birth to righteous children who will sanctify the Name of G-d.

Knowing all this, we must understand that a person's nature, whether for good or evil, is directly influenced by the manner of marital relations and the seminal issue resulting from it. Thus, the way a man conducts himself during the marital union is a cause for the Sanctification of Hashem or the Desecration of His Name, and this finds expression in his offspring. Thus we have been commanded and warned to sanctify ourselves at the time of the marital union, as our Sages have taught on the verse, "And you shall warn the children of Israel..." (Leviticus, 15:31). This is because a man's conduct during the marital act determines whether or not he will give birth to righteous children who will sanctify the Name of G-d.

This being the case, a man must sanctify himself during marital relations. This sanctification has five divisions:

  • First - The Essence of the Marital Union
  • Second - The Time of the Union
  • Third - Nutrition Beneficial to the Union
  • Fourth - Intention of the Union
  • Fifth - Quality of the Union

First - The Essence Of The Marital Union

ImageJust like a person's hands are honored and praiseworthy when he writes a Torah scroll, and dishonored when he performs some vile act, so were the sexual organs of Adam and his wife pure before their transgression. -- When a husband couples with his wife in holiness, the Shechinah rests between them. -- The proper holy union of a husband and wife is like the Creation of heaven and earth.

Know that this union is a holy and pure thing when it is properly conducted in the proper time, and with the proper intention. A person should not think that in this proper union there is something ugly or degrading, G-d forbid. The proper union is called "knowing" from the word "Daat" meaning knowledge, as it says, "And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife" (Shmuel 1: 1:19). The use of this word is not happenstance, for the secret of the matter is that when the seminal seed is brought forth in holiness and purity, it is brought forth from the place of Daat (knowledge) and Binah (understanding) centered in the brain. If this act did not possess great holiness, this union would not have been called Daat. Hashem, may He be praised, has created everything according to His wisdom, and has not created things to be ugly or shameful.... He created man and woman, and created each and every organ and their functions, and there is nothing degrading in this.

He created man and woman, and created each and every organ and their functions, and there is nothing degrading in this.

The proof of the matter is what is written regarding the Creation, "And they both were naked...." (Genesis, 2:25). This was before their sin, because their minds were filled with lofty concepts, and all of their intention was for the sake of Heaven. In their eyes, their sexual organs were like all the other organs of the body. However, after they strayed after the pleasure of the body, and no longer intended to unite for the sake of Heaven, it is written that, "They knew that they were naked" (Genesis, 3:7). This means that just as a person's hands are honored and praiseworthy at the time of writing a Torah scroll in purity, or conversely, degraded when they steal or perform a base action, so were the sexual organs unspoiled before Adam and his wife sinned. Just like with every other organ, it was in their hands to use their sexual organs for good or for bad.

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, is true and wholesome in all of His ways, and any ugliness is completely on the part of man. There is nothing in any of man's organs which is faulty or ugly regarding their creation, for everything is derived from an exalted wisdom, insuring perfection, goodness, and beauty. However, man's foolish behavior brings degradation to things that were originally created without ugliness. This must be understood thoroughly.

Behold, the hidden meaning of the "knowing" at which I am hinting is a secret, for in his inner essence, a man encompasses wisdom, understanding, and knowledge (Chochmah, Binah, Daat), for man is the secret of Chochmah, woman is the secret of Binah, and the purity of the marital union is the secret of Daat.  This is the secret of a man and a woman according to the esoteric inner understanding of the Kabbalah. Thus the marital union is a most exalted matter, as is fitting.

Our Sages of blessed memory have said that at the time when a man unites with his wife in holiness, the Shechinah [Divine Presence] rests between them. If a man and a woman are heated with lust, the Shechinah flees from them, leaving only fire in its place. This was explained in the Talmud (Sotah 17A): "Rabbi Akiva taught that if a man and woman are meritorious, the Shechinah is with them.  If they are not meritorious, a fire consumes them."

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Ish V'isha [Husband & Wife]
The explanation is that when a husband and wife conduct their marital union in holiness, the letter yud from the man (איש) and the letter hai from the woman (אשה) form (yud-hai) the Name Of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, indicating that the Shechinah is between them. However, if the union was not performed out of holiness, but rather to fill their lust and heat their passions, then the letter yud of the man, and the letter hai of the woman flee, causing the Shechinah (yud hai) to flee, leaving them with (אש) and (אש) fire and fire. Our Sages of blessed memory referred to this secret when they said that there are three partners in the creation of a child - the husband, wife, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He (Niddah 31A). If this was some unseemly matter, how could Hashem join His Name to it?

Rather, it must be understood that when the marital union is performed for the sake of Heaven, then there is nothing holier or more wholesome than this. Therefore, it is written regarding the union of Tzaddikim, "Before you were formed in the womb I knew you" (Yirmeyahu, 1:8). However, in the case of a licentious evildoer, the seminal seed is completely impure and the Name of Hashem is not attached to it, as it says, "Their offspring are evildoers from the womb" (Psalms, 54:4).

Contrary to this, our Sages of blessed memory taught that when the marital union is performed in the proper manner, it resembles the Creation of heaven and earth, as it says, "The saying of the L-rd, Who stretches out the heavens and lays the foundations of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him" (Zechariah, 12:1), and "And has founded His bundle in the earth" (Amos, 9:6).  He and His court joined together to create man. This is the secret of "Let us make man in our likeness" (Genesis, 1:26). That is to say, I am also a partner in the creation of a man, for the mother and father contribute the bodily aspect, and Hashem Blessed Be He provides the soul (Niddah 31A).

Now that we have informed you about the secret of the essence of the marital union, we will clarify the second aspect, which is the opposite of the first. For when a man does not have the intention that the act be for the sake of Heaven, then the seminal seed which is brought forth is a putrid drop to which the Name of G-d is not attached. A union of this nature is called "corrupted its way on the earth" (Genesis, 6:12). And behold he exerts himself for naught. And it is as if he planted an ashera tree (used for idol worship) and sacrifices calves to idol worship, in that his seed is rotten, and his seminal drop is cast away to a patch of painful thorns.

Referring to him, it is said, "The wicked are estranged from the womb" (Psalms, 58:4). Behold, the Holy One Blessed Be He commanded in the Torah, "And you shall be holy to me, for I the L-rd am holy" (Leviticus, 20:26).

Second - The Time Of The Marital Union

It is not fitting for a man to be with his wife like a rooster. -- The time for the marital union is divided into three. The first depends on the proper days. The second depends on the proper time as it relates to food. The third depends on the proper hour. -- This is the secret of what our Rabbis, of blessed memory, have taught us, that whomever positions his bed in a north-south direction will have male children.

Behold, Hashem, praised be He, commanded in the Torah, "Her food, her clothing, and her time of marriage relations, he shall not diminish" (Shemot, 21:10). The time of marital relations is set forth in the Talmud (Ketubot 61B), since the times vary due to the each person's differing situation. For now, we will set aside speaking about the general populace and relate only to the proper time for Torah scholars, and this is on Sabbath night. Regarding this it is said, "that brings forth its fruit in its time" (Psalms, 1:3), which is referring to the time Torah scholars have their marital relations (Ketubot 62B).

Know that a man's semen is the life of his body and the light of his splendor, for this is the most refined and choicest aspect of his blood, without which he would not be a man. Behold, the semen is a part of the body, containing a part of every organ. For as it is known, an ear cannot give birth to an eye, nor an eye to an ear, rather each organ gives rise to its kind; just like peas won't sprout from wheat, nor a donkey, bull, or goat from the semen of a man. Every organ and species has its own unique nature and life forces which give birth to it. And since the semen contains a part of every organ of the body, it is not appropriate for a man to be always with his wife like a rooster. For this will diminish his life force, and the light in his eyes will wane, and all of his body will weaken.

ImageHowever, when marital relations are performed at the proper time, which is on Sabbath night, and then again on the next Sabbath night... then one coupling will strengthen the next, and the man will experience no weakness whatsoever, for his strength is constantly regenerated. This is the reason the verse says, "that brings forth its fruit in its time," meaning from one Sabbath night, then the next, and after this it says, "and his leaf will not wither," meaning that this will not cause him weakness. And this is followed by "and everything he does will be successful," meaning that the marital union, when performed for the sake of Heaven, will achieve the desired results.

The reason the proper time is on Sabbath night and not again until the next Sabbath night is because the Sabbath is the foundation of the world, resembling the soul to the body. The Sabbath is dedicated to Hashem, as it says, "Sabbath to the L-rd" (Shemot, 20:10), meaning that this is the proper time for Torah scholars, from one Sabbath night to the next, in order to give birth to children who are inclined to the service of G-d, possessors of exaltedly pure and intelligent souls.

This is the inner meaning of "And on the seventh day, He rested and was refreshed" (Shemot, 31:17), referring to the proper time of relations for Torah scholars. Understand this well, because their time [for marital union] was not set for the days of physical exertion - the other six days of the week - but rather for the day which is completely Sabbath rest, pertaining to the world of souls.

Having clarified this, we will now explain why we wrote that the time for marital relations has three divisions:

  • the proper days
  • the proper time as it relates to food
  • the proper hour

Know that the food that a person eats goes through three processes in the body, and during the fourth process, it is transformed into semen or what is called "white blood" which gives vitality to the body.

If a man has marital relations near the time that he ate, at this time the metabolism is naturally heated and the blood is not clear and refined. Therefore the semen that is brought forth at this time is dirty, putrid and polluted. It is neither clean nor pure. Thus the fetus that is formed from such semen is vile and polluted at its root. Regarding this it is said, "Behold he travails with iniquity, and has conceived with mischief, and brings forth falsehood" (Psalms, 7:15), and also, "The wicked are estranged from the womb" (Psalms, 58:4).

A man must plan his marital relations for a time when his metabolism is calm and cooled down from the heat of the food which he has eaten.

When the semen is mixed with unrefined elements, the offspring that results from it is bound to be vile and polluted. Therefore, a man must plan his marital relations for a time when his metabolism is calm and cooled down from the heat of the food which he has eaten. At this time, the blood has been refined, and the impure elements have descended to their proper place. The foundations of the body are in the proper functioning order, and this is at the beginning of the later half of the night.

Regarding this, our Sages of blessed memory taught, "Abba Benyamin says, All of my life, I took great pains about two matters - that my prayer should be before my bed, and that my bed should be placed north and south" (Berachot 5B)... "Rabbi Yitzhak says, Everyone who places his bed in the direction of north and south will have male children, as it says, And with Your treasure (lit. Your north) You fill their belly; they will have a bounty of sons (Psalms, 17:14). Rabbi Nachman ben Yitzhak says, His wife will also not miscarry, as it says here, And with Your treasure (lit. Your north), You fill their belly; and elsewhere it is written, And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold there were twins in her belly (Genesis, 25:24).

I must clarify this matter, for surely there is no one so foolish who believes that just by placing a bed in a north-south direction that a person will merit male children, or that his wife would not have a miscarriage. Even more startling, these things were said by the pillars of the world, wise and understanding men.

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Avoid the extremes
The explanation is that they spoke in hints, as was their fashion. Now we will clarify this matter. is known that the severest cold is from the north, and the severest heat is found in the south. The wise men of truth knew that in guiding a person toward the proper path, it is not appropriate or beneficial to direct him toward the extremes. Rather, that the attributes that lay on the middle path are the favorable ones. King Shlomo hinted at this when he advised, "Do not be overly righteous.... nor overly wicked or foolish" (Kohelet, 7:16).

The Sages disguised their inner meaning by using the opposites of north and south for the extremities of hot and cold. The understanding is that a man should engage in marital relations when his bodily metabolism is neither too hot, nor too cold, but rather between the two. This way, he will feel rested, and he will not eject his semen in a rush. He will be able to have relations in an unhurried manner, and his wife will reach her satisfaction first.

In this manner, the wife's seed will be prepared for the husband, like material prepared for building. Then when the semen of the husband comes, it is like the builder who comes and shapes the prepared material into the form of the building.... From this we can understand the secret why someone who places his bed in a north-south direction will merit to have male children. The time when the body is neither too hot, nor too cold, is in the middle of the night when the heat of the body generated from the evening meal has had a chance to be digested and to cool down. At this time, the body's metabolism is calm and temperate. The intention then in saying between north and south was that the body should be between cold and hot.

For it is known that a person who is born from a drop of cold semen will always be slow-witted and foolish. And someone who is born from a drop of hot semen will be quick-tempered and prone to anger. However, someone who is born from a drop of semen of moderate temperature, between hot and cold, will always be a wise person, calm in reasoning, thoughtful, noble in spirit, and liked by his fellow man. Regarding this, it says, "If though will give to Thy handmaid a man child" (Shmuel 1, 1:11). And our Sages of blessed memory have explained this as, "Neither too tall, nor too short, neither too thin, nor too fat, neither too pale, nor too red, neither too clever, nor stupid." (Berachot 31B). This comes to teach that all of a man's attributes will be balanced when his nature is temperate between hot and cold, and this is the secret of between north and south, and the secret of having male children, as we have explained.



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