The Rabbis and Sexuality

While researching for article on virginity, I came across a book, Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality, by Michael L. Satlow (1995). While it was not much of a help for my topic, it did provide an interesting insight as to how Rabbi Eliezer worked out the implications of Exodus 21:10.  This verse records the obligation for a husband not to deprive a wife of her conjugal rights.  The rabbi’s concern was how to apply this verse for men of various occupations that would take them away from their wives for extended periods of time. Satlow quotes the rabbi’s understanding from Mishnah Ketub 5:6 : “the conah [obligation] which is stated in the Torah: Tayalin (day students) every day. Workers, twice a week. Donkey drivers, once a week. Camel drivers, once every thirty days. Sailors, once every six months” (268). The variation in amounts of sexual intercourse is determined by when the man is home. A sailor is away from home longer than a day student so his obligation to keep Ex 21:10 is only twice a year. A student’s obligation was everyday (outside of her mensuration week) because he was home every night! It seems that the Mishnah and the rabbis took seriously a husband’s responsibility to meet the sexual needs of his wife. Satlow concludes, “Thus, the tannaitic sources declare that a wife has a right to sex, the amount which depends on the husband’s occupation” (Ibid.).

Daniel Boyarin certainly has read the Mishnah incorrectly when he concludes, “It (the Mishnah) thus masks almost entirely its own oppressiveness of women, and the way men are securing their own sexual needs here.” “On the History of the Early Phallus,” in Gender and Differences in the Middle Ages, eds. Sharon Farmer, and Carol Braun Pasternack (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 33.

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