Our Gemara on Amud Beis relates a true story and interesting quandary for an accused adulterer. This fellow heard the husband approaching the house and hid behind the door. From his vantage point, he noticed a snake had deposited its venom on some vegetables. When the husband was about to eat, he called out to him to save his life, but also blew his cover. The Gemara wonders, is his honesty a sign that he did not commit adultery, because had he done so, he surely would have allowed his rival to eat the poisonous vegetables and die? Or, perhaps, he preferred that the cuckolded bloke remain alive, because his lover would be more enticing when forbidden. As it states in Mishley (9:17), “Stolen waters are sweet.”
This may seem unrealistic, but quite the contrary, Chazal were astute in human behavior. Many people in adulterous affairs would be unable to sustain the very same relationship with the concomitant responsibilities of marriage. It often isn’t really about not being attracted to their spouse, in fact much to the confusion and distress of the betrayed spouse, the rival commonly is NOT more pretty or attractive. It is the escape factor that drives the affair, and that this person does not come with baggage or responsibilities which is most attractive.
In any case, the psychology of novelty and stolen waters being sweeter, is also referenced in rabbinic literature as legitimate and quasi legitimate strategies for marriage enhancement. The Gemara (Niddah 31b) observes:
תניא היה ר”מ אומר מפני מה אמרה תורה נדה לשבעה מפני שרגיל בה וקץ בה אמרה תורה תהא טמאה שבעה ימים כדי שתהא חביבה על בעלה כשעת כניסתה לחופה
It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: For what reason does the Torah say that a menstruating woman is prohibited from engaging in intercourse with her husband for seven days? It is because if a woman were permitted to engage in intercourse with her husband all the time, her husband would be too accustomed to her, and would eventually be repulsed by her. Therefore, the Torah says that a menstruating woman shall be ritually impure for seven days, during which she is prohibited from engaging in intercourse with her husband, so that when she becomes pure again she will be dear to her husband as at the time when she entered the wedding canopy with him.
While it takes more than this to keep marital sex life fresh, this aspect of abstention and moderation can be helpful. We also find that Rav Chisda advised his daughters to build sexual mystique and tension by being seductive during foreplay, to deliberately tease and withhold in order to stroke the flames of desire. (See Shabbos 140b and Rashi.). Ben Yehoyada (Succah 51b) notes the Hebrew word “Yimtaku” used for “sweet” in the aphorism from Mishley about stolen waters, is homophonically similar and equal in Gematria to Tikkun, which means repair. This might be what he had in mind.
There are other examples in Chazal of more daring and quasi-legal actions taken to reintroduce passion into a marriage. Gemara KIddushin (81b) tells us a story about Rav Chiyya bar Ashi and his wife. After many years of celibacy, his wife overheard him praying to be saved from his passions. At that point she thought to herself, “All these years I thought he had lost desire and was physically no longer capable of sexuality. If he is battling his passions, then something else is going on.” She disguised herself as a harlot and propositioned him. Not only did Rav Chiyyah bar Ashi succumb, he engaged in a heroic dare at her prompting to impress her, and scaled a date tree to bring her fruit from a high branch. His arousal brought back the vigor of youth.
This action was quasi-legal, because he spent the rest of his years repenting for his sin. After all, he thought he was engaging with a prostitute. (As an important aside, after he succumbed, he came home and confessed his “sin” to his wife. This was admirable for its honesty and humility. However, disclosures of infidelity are complex, and though most often are a necessary step in recovery, they can be dangerous and require having a strong relationship and therapeutic support to minimize the psychological trauma and backlash.) Nevertheless, the Gemara records this incident for posterity, and to some degree, from the vantage point of Rav Chiyyah bar Ashi’s wife, it was justified. After all, she had been sexually deprived for many years.
There is an even more unusual Midrash about King David’s father, Yishai, his maidservant and the circumstances leading to King David’s conception. Yalkut Makiri (Tehilim 118:28, also see GRA Shulkhan Arukh YD 157:24) discusses how Yishai’s marriage was sexless, and he began to lust after his maidservant. His wife conspired with the servant so that she pretend to accept his advances. At the last moment, under the cover of darkness, Yishai’s wife switched places with the younger rival. Yishai makes passionate love to his wife, all the while thinking she is someone else.
In fact, this odd Midrash serves as a basis for the following halakhic ruling (Shulkhan Arukh YD 157:2):
מי שלבו העלה טינא וחושק באשת איש אם תוכל אשתו לבא אליו ושיסבור שבא על הערוה שרי
one who desires another man’s wife – if his wife can sleep with him such that he will believe he is sleeping with the forbidden woman, this is permitted.
The Taz (10) says that though this is technically permitted, subsequently one must still repent as there was genuine intention to sin, and proves this from the story we saw about Rav Chiyya bar Ashi. However, one could disagree and say that Rav Chiyya’s repentance (or at least extreme penitence) was an extra pious practice. Indeed the language of the Rama implies it is permitted, though it would seem from the context, that it is only allowed in a situation where the person feels he will otherwise commit a more grave sin. Even so, this does leave some halakhic rationale for stretching boundaries of what is considered otherwise less modest and less proper, if it is to revitalize a dead sex life. At the very least, the power of seduction and newness is being highlighted by these stories and rulings, and possibly the method could be adapted to minimize the moral and spiritual damage, such as engaging in fantasy and role-play.