Conjugal obligations and rights in Judaism are ultimately based on those apparent in the Bible, although they have been filtered and expanded on by many prominent rabbinic authorities throughout history. In the bible, the wife is treated as a possession owned by her husband[1], but later Judaism imposed several obligations on the husband, effectively giving the wife several rights and freedoms[1]; indeed, being a Jewish wife was often a more favourable situation than being a wife in many other cultures[1]. For example, the Talmud establishes the principle that a wife is entitled, but not compelled, to the same dignity and social standing as her husband[2][3]; she is entitled, according to this, to keep any additional advantages she had before her marriage, as a result of her social status[2][3].

In the Bible

In biblical times, a wife was regarded as chattel, belonging to her husband[4][1]; indeed, the term classically used in Hebrew for husband was ba'al, literally meaning lord, while that used for wife was be'ulah[1], literally meaning lorded over. Unlike fundamentalist Islam, however, there is no biblical evidence of wives being isolated from society[4]; there are several biblical passages describing the presence of women (although, not necessarily that of wives) at festivities[5][6][7][8][9], and others in which they take part in public rejoicing, song, and dance[10][11].

A wife was also seen as being of high value, and was therefore, usually, carefully looked after[4][1]. Early nomadic communities practised a form of marriage known as beena, in which a wife would own a tent of her own, within which she retains complete independence from her husband[12]; this principle appears to survive in parts of early Israelite society, as some early passages of the bible appear to portray certain wives as each owning a tent as a personal possession[12] (specifically, Jael[13], Sarah[14], and Jacob's wives[15]). In later times, the bible describes wives as being given the innermost room(s) of the husband's house, as her own private area to which men were not permitted[16][17]; in the case of wealthy husbands, the bible describes their wives as having each been given an entire house for this purpose[18][19].

It was not, however, a life of complete freedom. The descriptions of the bible suggest that a wife was expected to perform certain household tasks: spinning, sewing, weaving, manufacture of clothing, fetching of water, baking of bread, and animal husbandry[20][21][22][23]. The Book of Proverbs even contains an entire acrostic about the duties which would be performed by a virtuous wife[24].

The husband too, is indirectly implied to have some responsibilities to his wife. The Covenant Code orders men who have two wives (polygynously) to not deprive the first wife of food, of clothing, nor of sexual activity[25]; if the husband does not provide the first wife with these things, she is to be divorced, without cost to her[26]. The Talmud interprets this as a requirement for a man to provide food and clothing to, and have sex with, each of his wives, even if he only has one[27].

As a polygynous society, the Israelites did not exhibit any laws which imposed marital fidelity on men[28][29]. Adulterous married women, and adulterous betrothed women, however, were subject to the death penalty, by the biblical laws against adultery, as were their male accomplices[30][31][32]. According to the Priestly Code of the Book of Numbers, if a pregnant[33] woman was suspected of adultery, she was to be subjected to the Ordeal of Bitter Water[34], a form of trial by ordeal. The literary prophets indicate that adultery was a frequent occurrence, despite their strong protests against it[35][36][37][38], and these legal strictnesses (against women)[28].

In later Judaism

Sustenance and Income

The Talmud sets a minimum provision which a husband must provide to his wife:

  • enough bread for at least two meals a day[27]
  • sufficient oil for cooking and for lighting purposes[27]
  • sufficient wood for cooking[27]
  • fruit and vegetables[27]
  • wine, if it is customary in the locality for women to drink it[27]
  • three meals consisting of fish and meat, on each shabbat[27]
  • a silver coin (Hebrew: ma'ah) each week, as pocket-money[27].

Rabbinic courts could compel the husband to make this provision, if he fails to do so voluntarily[39]. Moses Schreiber, a prominent opponent of early Reform Judaism, argued that if a man could not provide his wife with this minimum, he should be compelled to divorce her[40]; other Jewish rabbis argued that a man should be compelled to hire himself out, as a day-labourer, if he cannot otherwise make this provision to his wife[27].

According to prominent Jewish writers of the Middle Ages, if a man is absent from his wife for a long period, the wife should be allowed to sell her husbands property, if necessary to sustain herself[41][42]. Similarly, they argued that if a wife had to take out a loan to pay for her sustainance, during such absence, her husband had to pay the debt, once he returns[41][42].

In order to offset the husband's duty to support his wife, she was required by the Talmud to surrender all her earnings to her husband, together with any profit she makes by accident, and the right of usufruct on her property[43]; the wife was not required to do this if she wished to support herself[43]. Although the wife always retained ownership of her property itself, if she died while still married to her husband, he was to be her heir, according to the opinion of the Talmud[43]; this principle, though, was modified, in various ways, by the rabbis of the Middle Ages[27].

Home and household

In Jewish tradition, the husband was expected to provide a home for his wife, furnished in accordance local custom, suitably for the husband's status[27]; the marital couple were expected to live together in this home, although if the husband's choice of work made it difficult to do so, the Talmud excuses him from the obligation[44]. Traditionally, if the husband changed his usual abode, the wife was considered to have a duty to move with him[27]. In the Middle Ages, it was argued that if a person continued to refuse to live with their spouse, the spouse in question had sufficient grounds for divorce[45][46]

Most Jewish religious authorities held the opinion that a husband must allow his wife to eat at the same table as him, even if he gave his wife enough money to provide for herself[27]. By contrast, if a husband mistreated his wife, or lived in a disreputable neighbourhood, the Jewish religious authorities would permit the wife to move to another home elsewhere, and would compel the husband to finance her life there[27].

Expanding on the household tasks which the bible implies a wife should undertake[1], rabbinic literature requires her to perform all the housework (such as baking, cooking, washing, nursing her children, etc.), unless her marriage had given the husband a large dowry[27]; in the latter situation, the wife was expected only to tend to supposedly affectionate tasks, such as making his bed, and serving him his food[27]. Jewish tradition expected the husband to provide the bed linen and kitchen utensils[27]. If the wife had young twin children, the Talmud would make her husband responsible for nursing one of them[47].

Clothing, etc.

The Talmud elaborates on the biblical requirement of the husband to provide his wife with clothing, by insisting that each year he must provide each wife with 50 zuzim's-worth of clothing[48], including garments appropriate to each season of the year[27]. The Talmudic rabbis insist that this annual clothing gift should include one hat, one belt, and three pairs of shoes[49] (one pair for each of the three main annual festivals: Passover, Shabu'ot, and Sukkoth[48]). So too was the husband expected, by the classical rabbis, to provide his wife with jewellery and perfumes, if he lived in an area where this was customary[27].

Bodily obligations

The Talmud argues that a husband is responsible for the protection of his wife's body. If his wife became ill, then he would be compelled, by the Talmud, to defray any medical expense which might be incurred in relation to this[43]; the Talmud requires him to ensure that the wife receives care[43]. Although he technically had the right to divorce his wife, enabling him to avoid paying for her medical costs, several prominent rabbis throughout history condemned such a course of action as inhuman behaviour, even if the wife was suffering from a prolonged illness[27].

If the wife dies, even if not due to illness, the Talmud's stipulations require the husband to arrange, and pay for, her burial[50]; the burial must, in the opinion of the Talmud, be one conducted in a manner befitting the husband's social status, and in accordance with the local custom[50]. Prominent rabbis of the Middle Ages clarified this, stating that the husband must make any provisions required by the local burial customs, potentially including the hiring of mourners, and the erection of a tombstone[51][52]. According to the talmud, and later rabbinic writers, if the husband was absent, or refused to do these things, a rabbinic court should arrange the wife's funeral, selling some of the husband's property in order to defray the costs[51][52].

If the wife was captured, the husband was required by the talmud and later writers to pay the ransom demanded for her release[53][54][55][56]; there is some debate whether the husband was required only to pay up to the wife's market value as a slave[57], or whether he must pay any ransom, even to the point of having to sell his possessions to raise the funds[27]. If the husband and wife were both taken captive, the historic Jewish view was that the rabbinic courts should first pay the ransom for the wife, selling some of the husband's property in order to raise the funds[53][54][55][56].


In the classical era, the attitude of rabbinic scholars was comparatively mild towards adultery[29]; although the Talmud allowed people to be convicted of adultery merely on the basis of circumstantial evidence[58], it forbids conviction if

  • the woman had been raped, rather than consenting to the crime[59], or
  • the woman had mistaken the paramour for her husband[29], or
  • the woman had not already been cautioned, by her husband, in the presence of two witnesses, before the time the crime allegedly took place, against intimately associating with the paramour in question[58], or
  • the woman had not known the intimate details of the laws against adultery, before she committed the crime[29]

These rules made it practically impossible to convict any woman of adultery, and in nearly every case women were acquitted[29]. However, Jewish priests were compelled to divorce their wife if they (the wife) had been raped, by someone other than her husband, due to the religious belief that a priest should be untainted[60][29].

Even when a woman was convicted, the punishment was comparatively mild; the death penalty (for all crimes) was abolished in 40 AD[61], possibly under pressure from the Roman overlords, and adulteresses were flogged instead[29]. Nevertheless, the husbands of convicted adulteresses were not permitted, by the Talmud, to forgive their guilty wives, instead being compelled to divorce them[62]; according to Maimonides, a conviction for adultery nullified any right that the wife's marriage contract (Hebrew: ketubah) gave her to a compensation payment for being divorced[63]. Once divorced, an adulteress was not permitted, by the Talmudic writers, to marry the paramour she had committed the adultery with[64].

As for the men who committed adultery (with another man's wife), Abba ben Joseph and Abba Arika are both quoted in the Talmud as expressing abhorrence, and arguing that such men would be condemned to Gehenna[65].

"Family Purity"

In modern Orthodox Judaism, the traditional regulations about menstruation, which are known as Niddah, are regarded as an intrinsic part of marital life (rather than just associating it with women in general). Together with a few other rules, including those about the ejaculation of semen, these are collectively termed Family Purity (Hebrew: Taharas haMishpacha), and adherence to them is (in Orthodox Judaism) regarded as a prerequisite of marriage.

Attitude to each other

The Talmud argues that a man should love his wife as much as he loves himself, and honour her more than he honours himself[66]; indeed, one who honours his wife was said, by the classical rabbis, to be rewarded with wealth[67]. Similarly, a husband was expected to discuss with his wife any worldly matters that might arise in his life[67]. Tough love was frowned upon; the Talmud forbids a husband from being overbearing to his household[68], and domestic abuse by him was also condemned[27]. It was said of a wife that God counts her tears[27].

As for the wife, the greatest praise the Talmudic rabbis offered to any woman was that given to a wife that fulfils the wishes of her husband[69]; to this end, an early midrash argues that a wife should not leave the home too frequently[70]. A wife, also, was expected to be modest, even if the only other person present with her was her husband[71]. It was believed, in classical times, that God's presence dwelt in a pure and loving home[72].

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "marriage", a publication now in the public domain.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ketubot 48a
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ketubot 61a
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "marriage", a publication now in the public domain.
  5. Exodus 21:22
  6. Deuteronomy 25:11
  7. 2:5+&verse=&src=! Ruth 2:5+
  8. 1 Samuel 9:11
  9. 2 Samuel 20:16
  10. Exodus 15:20-21
  11. Judges 16:27
  12. 12.0 12.1 William Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in early Arabia, (1885), 167
  13. Judges 4:7
  14. Genesis 24:26
  15. Genesis 31:33-34
  16. Judges 15:1
  17. Judges 16:9
  18. 1 Kings 7:8
  19. 2 Kings 24:15
  20. Genesis 29:9
  21. Exodus 2:16
  22. 1 Samuel 2:19
  23. 1 Samuel 8:13
  24. Proverbs 31:10-31
  25. Exodus 21:10
  26. Exodus 21:11
  27. 27.00 27.01 27.02 27.03 27.04 27.05 27.06 27.07 27.08 27.09 27.10 27.11 27.12 27.13 27.14 27.15 27.16 27.17 27.18 27.19 27.20 27.21 27.22 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Husband and Wife", a publication now in the public domain.
  28. 28.0 28.1 This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "Jealousy, Ordeal of", a publication now in the public domain.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 29.4 29.5 29.6 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Adultery", a publication now in the public domain.
  30. Ezekiel 16:40
  31. Leviticus 20:10
  32. Deuteronomy 22:22-25
  33. Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962 edition), ad loc
  34. Numbers 5:11-31
  35. Jeremiah 7:9
  36. Jeremiah 23:10
  37. Hosea 4:2
  38. Malachi 3:5
  39. Ketubot 77a
  40. Moses Schreiber, Hatam Sofer on Eben ha-'Ezer, 131-132
  41. 41.0 41.1 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut 12:10-22
  42. 42.0 42.1 Jacob ben Asher, Eben ha-'Ezer, 70
  43. 43.0 43.1 43.2 43.3 43.4 Ketubot 46b-47b
  44. Ketubot 61b
  45. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut 14:1-16
  46. Jacob ben Asher, Eben ha-'Ezer, 76-77
  47. Ketubot 59b
  48. 48.0 48.1 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Costume", a publication now in the public domain.
  49. Ketubot 64b
  50. 50.0 50.1 Ketubot 46a-47b
  51. 51.0 51.1 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut 14:23-24
  52. 52.0 52.1 Jacob ben Asher, Eben ha-'Ezer, 89
  53. 53.0 53.1 Ketubot 51a
  54. 54.0 54.1 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut 14:18-22
  55. 55.0 55.1 Jacob ben Asher, Eben ha-'Ezer, 78
  56. 56.0 56.1 Joseph Karo, Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 252:10
  57. Gittin, 45a
  58. 58.0 58.1 Sotah 1:2
  59. Ketubot 51b
  60. Yebamot 56b
  61. Sanhedrin 41
  62. Sotah 6:1
  63. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut 24:6
  64. Sotah 5:1
  65. Sotah 4b
  66. Sanhedrin 76b
  67. 67.0 67.1 Baba Metzia 59b
  68. Gittin 6b
  69. Nedarim 66b
  70. Genesis Rabbah 65:2
  71. Shabbat 140b
  72. Sotah 17a

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