While far from egalitarian in the contemporary sense, the rabbis placed great emphasis on maintaining shalom bayit, a peaceful home, where harmony and tranquility reign between husband and wife, and where mutual concern and respect are the aim of the partners. While the stipulations of the rabbi were generally formulated in the masculine (i.e., the husband should honor his wife, the husband should avoid insulting his wife, and so forth), we today may apply the spirit of their words in both directions.

According to Biblical precept, a husband is responsible for providing his wife with her food, clothing, and conjugal rights.[1] This precept teaches that it is the husband's responsibility to satisfy the physical needs of his wife.

Our rabbis teach: A man must never force himself upon his wife against her will; on the contrary, conjugal relations should always be with her full consent. If a feeling of animosity is present he to her, or she to him even if the physical intercourse itself may be desired, it should be avoided. If there is anger between a husband and wife, it is forbidden to engage in the conjugal act until anger has abated and tender words have replaced the harsh.

A woman must never deliberately delay her immersion in the mikveh [ritual bath], or otherwise make herself unavailable to her husband, just to annoy or aggravate him. To use the conjugal act as a weapon over one's mate, as a means of punishing a mate, or as a means of getting one's way in other matters, is a most serious offense in the husband-wife relationship.

The Sages also cautioned a man to be most careful about avoiding insulting his wife, so as not to cause her pain by his words. This applies when the words between them are said in private. How much greater is the severity of the pain and the sin entailed when such insults or criticisms are made before others.

"A man must love his wife at least as much as himself but honor her more than himself."[2]

"A man should eat and drink with less than his means allow him; should dress according to his means; and should honor (by proper clothing and dwelling place) his wife and children with even more than what he can afford."[3]

"Eat and drink less and add the savings to enhance your dwelling place."[4]

"In the affairs of a household and in the feeding and clothing of his sons and daughters, a man should follow the advice of his wife as peace and harmony will dwell in his home as a result."[5]

In Hebrew, the words for man and woman differ only by two letters, yod and hay; together those letters form the name of God. The rabbis teach us that if a man and woman are worthy, the spirit of God abides between them (yod-hay) and they live in harmony. If they are not worthy, fire (Hebrew letters aleph-shin, the letters which comprise man and woman without the yod-hay) consumes them.

"Our Sages said: A man should always flatter his wife for the sake of marital harmony."[6]"A woman of valor who can find; for her price is far above rubies." (Proverbs 31:10) A Jewish Sage once said: "This psalm is in praise of the woman who deliberately gives up her father's ways in favor of those of her husband; who smiles upon him even when he is angry; who honors him in poverty as well as in wealth, in old age as in youth. She is slow to leave home but quick to give bread to the poor. Though she may have many servants, she does not sit idly by, but works with them. She is attentive to those who address her, but not hasty in response. She is happy with her husband's happiness, and a source of hope to him when he is burdened with woe. Her ways are seemly and she is clad in modesty."

"Who is rich?" Rabbi Akiva said: "He who has a wife whose ways are pleasant."[7]"A man should be kindly and not demanding in his house."[8]

"Anger in a household is like a worm among sesame seeds."[9] Because sesame seeds are so small, when a worm spoils some of them all must be discarded, as it is impossible to separate the good seeds from the worm-eaten ones.

"Through anger the wise man loses his wisdom."

[10] But should anger come to pass, it is better to be angry and then contrite, with due apologies and humility, than to try to justify the anger by insisting that it was right.

One must learn to listen patiently and attentively to the wishes, the claims, or the arguments of a wife and children before responding, so that the response be considered and appropriate, and not hasty or thoughtless.

footnotes [1] 1Exodus 21:10 [back]
BT Yevamot 62b, Sanhedrin 76b [back]
BT Hullin 84b [back]
BT Pesachim 114a [back]
Baba Metzia 59a [back]
Midrash Yelamdenu [back]
BT Shabbat 25b [back]
Midrash Bamidbar Raba 89 [back]
Sotah 3 [back]
Pesachim 66 [back]

From: Hayim Halevy Donin, To Be A Jew A Guide to Jewish Observation in Contemporary Life (Basic Books: June 1991)

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