What is a Jew to do on Valentine's Day?

When I was in rabbinical school, I would often receive a question from my friends who were not Jewish, especially seminarians from the Christian seminaries:  “this might be an awkward question…but can rabbis get married?”  I always answered, “not only can we get married, but we are encouraged!”  Judaism looks at sexuality in a much different way than Christianity.  For example, in Catholicism, priests take a vow of celibacy and therefore do not marry although there are exceptions to this rule.[1]  In Catholics (according to many sources), it is ideal for one to remain celibate.  This is not the case in Judaism, although there is a misconception as to how we view sexuality.  The most common answer for how Judaism views sex is as a means to an end, procreation, in other words, to be fruitful and multiply. This mitzvah, taken from Genesis 1:28, is actually a commandment that is directed to all human males.  However, as Jews, we receive another mitzvah regarding our sex, which is in this week’s parashah, Mishpatim.  In Exodus 21:10, we read, “If he takes for himself another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her garment, v’onata lo yigrah – and her onah you shall not withhold.”  These last words can be translated in a couple of ways.  Some commentators say that these words mean habitation, in other words, a husband must provide food, clothing, and shelter, for his wife.  However, other commentators translate it as ‘conjugal rights’.  They translate the word ‘onah’ as time, or as Ibn Ezra says, “her time for love.”  Nahmanides actually says that the food, clothing and onah all refer to sexual relations.  The translation of onah as conjugal relations became part of our law code and is a mitzvah, a sacred commandment.  This weekend is Valentine’s Day, a holiday named after a Christian saint that has become a national love day in America.  On Saturday evening, couples will be having special evenings out, and baby sitters will surely be in short supply.  Of course, Jews do not celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Judaism has a day of love called Tu B’Av, 15th of Av, which is an ancient day of love found in the mishnah.  That all being said, it is not easy being part of a society where everyone is celebrating their love and we are stuck at home!  What is a Jew supposed to do?  My answer is that we should show our love for our partners in a meaningful way at least once a week, on Shabbat.  When I look at the word onah, I take it both literally, and figuratively.  Onah can be looked at as time, but time that is set aside every week for our partners on this day.  Not only do we rest on this day, but we are supposed to step back and appreciate the gifts we’ve received all week, and throughout our lives.  Certainly, one of those major gifts are our partners in life, our spouses.  My blessing for all of us, this Shabbat and for all future Shabbatot, is that we look at the time we have with our partners as truly precious, and that we give our time to our partners more willingly, especially on Shabbat. 

[1] There are married Latin-Rite priests who are converts from Lutheranism and Episcopalianism. 


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