From Parsha to Halakhka: Miketz – Starvation Mode
“Reish Lakish said: A man is prohibited from having intimate relations during years of famine, as it says, ‘And two boys were born to Yosef before the year of famine came.’ It was taught in a beraita: Those without children may have marital relations during years of famine.”
The Torah tells us that Yosef’s sons, Efraim and Menashe, were born before the famine began. Reish Lakish learns from here that intimate relations are prohibited during a famine. The gemara adds a beraita that childless couples may have relations.
Rashi explains that marital relations are prohibited because “a person must behave like he is suffering.” Just as someone in mourning is prohibited from marital relations, when the community is grieving one must act similarly. This seems pretty straightforward but there are a number of disputes.
No children or some children?
Some teach that Reish Lakish refers to a couple with no children. Rashi, however, explains that the term Reish Lakish uses, chasukhei banim, does not mean childless, but rather men who have not yet fulfilled the mitzvah of periyah v’reviyah – to be fruitful and multiply – which we rule is the mitzvah to have at least one male child and one female child. As women are not obligated to fulfill this mitzvah, although they may volunteer to do so, it is unclear what the law would be if a husband has fulfilled his obligation but his wife has not.
For the future
Shulchan Arukh teaches: “One may not have marital relations except on the night of tevila and for those who lacks children [Rema: who have been denied children] is allowed.” Shulkhan Arukh indicates that even couples with children may have relations about once a month, after the woman immerses in the mikva – which is generally considered to be a time there is a mitzvah to be intimate.
This seems to be based on the Yerushalmi at the end of the first chapter of Taanit, but there it’s quite clear that one this refers to couple without children, seemingly because the night of tevila is generally around the time of ovulation.
Yet it’s possible to understand that Shulchan Arukh understands that people need intimacy, not just for physical pleasure or procreation, but also for support and comfort and so much more. Judaism does not limit such intimacy to those trying to procreate or just to fulfill physical urges. There are many Jewish sources that reflect the idea that intimate relations between a married couple transcend the physical.
Prohibition or guideline?
The midrash teaches that Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, was born “between the walls,” as Yaakov and his children crossed into the land of Egypt.
If this midrash is to be understood literally, as many do, then Yocheved was conceived during the famine. Tosafot question how it’s possible that Yocheved, daughter of Levi and mother of Miriam, Aaron, and Moshe, was conceived in a time marital relations were prohibited? Therefore, Tosafot conclude that this is not an actual prohibition, but rather a guideline.
In the merit of righteous women
The midrash about Yocheved’s birth can also be understood homiletically – just as Chazal teach us Mashiach was born on Tisha b’Av, the day the Temples were destroyed, so too they tell us that the mother of the man who God sent to take Israel out of Egypt was born as the exile began.
This seems to reflect the idea that destruction or exile is the first step to redemption. When a structure has shaky foundations – perhaps it was not built well in the first place, perhaps they rotted or eroded over time – it may be possible to support them and built it taller using the existing infrastructure’ other times the structure must be torn down completely to build something better and longer lasting. Unfortunately, there are times when a society needs a complete reset to merit redemption; there is often a period of pain before growth.
Chazal also teach us that “In the merit of righteous women our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.” The midrash relates that the women would go to great lengths to entice their downtrodden husbands to have relations so they could have children. This was not a time these women were “available” to raise their children, according to the midrash God fed them and tended to them in the fields until they were grown and could return to their mothers. How could these women have children during the suffering of Egyptian slavery?
It seems that these women, like Miriam Yocheved’s daughter, had faith that God would end their suffering and believed they were needed to ensure the continuation of the people. Slavery is one unimaginable horror, slavery without hope seems unbearable. Moreover, suffering is worse when one suffers alone. At these times spouses should not retreat from one another, but rather should take comfort in one another.
Following Reish Lakish’s statement the gemara brings a series of rabbinic statements with the same message – one who separates from the community when the community is suffering, who eat and drinks or otherwise focuses on their own pleasure, will not be a part of the consolation of the community.
Being part of a community of faith
At the same time being part of a community means working towards its continuation. It’s interesting to note that these halakhot were originally discussed regarding a famine, and few halakhic authorities apply it to other times of suffering such as war or persecution.
It’s possible that this is based on an important difference. Practically, in times of famine it is hard to be pregnant and carry the child to term. Similarly, children are often the first to die during famine. This year the rains did not come, but there is reason to believe that next year will be different, so delaying having children is temporary and practical.
From a faith perspective, drought and famine are caused by forces that humans have never been able to control. The only place to turn is God. The Torah consistently tells us that God “speaks to us” through the weather in Israel, giving us rain when we follow God’s path, and withholding when we go astray.
When we lose God’s favor there is no room to act like everything is fine. The longer rain is withheld the less life continues as usual. Series after series of fasts are decreed, growing more widespread and more stringent over time. More prayers are added. And life at home changes.
War and persecution are created by people. These people have free choice, and there’s no way to know God’s part. How much is a result of free choice? How much God’s intervention? A mix?
Of course, we believe that there is reward and punishment, and that God guides us in this world – but we must be humble enough to know that without prophecy there is no way to know for certain when or how.
In these cases, it is obviously important to turn to God in prayer and to strengthen ourselves in the Torah, but it is equally important not to rely on miracles and to act in ways that will change the reality for the better. Part of this means acting in ways that demonstrate faith that God has provided us with all we need to find the strength to get through this and make things better.
This means thinking about the future when possible. Actively working on every front to bring about the redemption. It means weddings in uniform and soldiers finding the Cohen in their unit to do Pidyon HaBen in the field, and celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs for displaced children and every other thing we see Am Yisrael doing right now.
This does not mean those of us who have gone back to work, to fertility treatments, to celebrating smachot and milestones are turning our backs on the community. The opposite, we are finding a place within ourselves to hold suffering along with hope for the future, and coming together to proclaim our faith in God and that Am Yisrael Chai.
 TB Taanit 11a; Bereishit 41:3.
 Shulchan Arukh and Rema 674:4
 Ad loc. See also Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Taaniiyot 3:8.
 OC 574:4.
 See Magen Avraham OC 574:5.
 Ad loc.
 Sota 11b; Shemot Rabba 1:12
 Shemot Rabba 1:19; Rashi Shemot 2:1