A husband owes his wife regular conjugal relations — a mitzvah derived from Exodus 21:10. The second half of a mishnah on yesterday’s daf explains just how regularly he must provide them, depending on his profession:
Men of leisure (must engage in marital relations) every day, laborers must do so twice a week, donkey drivers once a week, camel drivers once every 30 days, and sailors once every six months. This is the statement of Rabbi Eliezer.
Depending on the nature of one’s work, the expectation of providing marital relations changes. Sailors, obviously, cannot make love to their wives every day like men of leisure who are always at home with time on their hands. The mishnah also allows that some professionals might need to take trips. For example, a student may leave his wife for up to 30 days in order to go study.
The reasoning here is clear enough and the legal discussion of these requirements is fairly matter-of-fact. However, the Talmud next brings a series of stories that complicate things. It turns out that the sages themselves found this a particularly difficult law to follow. The stories we read today describe many who left their wives for anywhere between one and 24 years in order to study Torah. Torah study was not only an ultimate value for the sages, it was a passion — which could outweigh other passions in their lives. The stories show an awareness of the danger this poses. In almost all the cases, there was some tragedy or price to pay for choosing their love of Torah study over their obligation to love their wives at home. The first of these tales is fairly representative of the collection:
It is related about Rav Rehumi, who would commonly study before Rava in Mehoza: He was accustomed to come back to his home every year on the eve of Yom Kippur.
One day he was particularly engrossed in the halakhah. His wife was expecting him (and continually said to herself): Now he is coming, now he is coming. But he did not come. She was distressed by this and a tear fell from her eye. (At that exact moment) Rav Rehumi was sitting on the roof. The roof collapsed under him and he died.
This story is full of irony. The sage who has neglected his wife is named Rehumi — meaning love or compassion — yet he displays neither for his wife. He comes home to see her only once per year, of all days on Yom Kippur when, ironically, marital relations are forbidden and he, like all others, is to be judged for his actions. While Rav Rehumi is completely disconnected from his wife, she is so deeply connected to him that when a tear falls from her eye, he falls from the roof and dies.
The next stories are in a similar vein, but this collection of tales (the technical term that scholars use for this is kovetz) culminates in one more surprise: The story of Rabbi Akiva who is in fact praised for leaving home for a total of 24 years in order to study. In this case, he had full permission and support from his wife, returned to her triumphant and was welcomed with open arms. This story is perhaps an expression of a rabbinic fantasy that a sage can be fully devoted to Torah study without any other obligation or distraction — and still possess the love of a devoted spouse.
These stories convey the fiery passion for Torah which characterized the talmudic sages — one which could compete with their passion for their families. But they also express anxiety about that single-minded focus and warn that even this ultimate passion must be balanced by obligations outside the study hall – namely, family. As many of us experience today, the rabbis found the perfect work-life balance was a work-in-progress.
Read all of Ketubot 62 on Sefaria.