Parshas Miketz turns our attention to the story of Joseph’s meteoric rise to the Second in Command of Egypt. The Torah goes out of its way to tell us that Joseph and his wife had two sons before the years of famine began.
The Babylonian Talmud in Taanis (11a) picks up on this (Translation – Soncino). “Resh Lakish said: A man may not have marital relations during years of famine, as it is said, And unto Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came.”
The reasoning for this rule is apparently that it is wrong to add the burden of additional children at a time where resources are scarce. This is a lovely message. However Rashi in Taanis says the reason for this statement is that one should participate in the pain of the famine and since marital relations are pleasurable one should refrain from relations while others are suffering.
The Torah Temimah quotes Tosafos in Taanis who asks how Yocheved could have been born while Jacob and his clan were moving from Israel to Egypt if it was a time of famine (assuming that she was conceived during the famine) as per the Midrash that states Yocheved was born at that time? Tosafos answer that this rule was only a stringency kept by super righteous people like Joseph.
The Torah Temimah is not happy with this answer. First of all, Levi was Yocheved’s father. By all accounts he was a super righteous person. Moses has high praise for Levi in his blessings at the end of the Chumash. Further, the tribe of Levi did not sin at the Golden Calf because they were so super righteous!
Instead the Torah Temimah attempt to either interpret the words of Tosafos or offer his own answer to their question (it’s unclear to me). (I am paraphrasing the Torah Temimah here). He says that really it is permissible to engage in marital relations during a time of famine. There is no reason to add additional pain at a difficult time and relations are pleasurable. It’s not reasonable to ban pleasure when times are tough. It’s just that for someone like Joseph who was living in ivory towers in the lap of luxury it would have been inappropriate for him to engage in such pleasurable activities while his people were suffering through a famine. Joseph was joining in the pain of his people and as long as they were in famine he would not give himself the pleasure of marital relations.
With this explanation there is no question from Levi because Jacob and his family were certainly suffering due to the famine so they would have no such restrictions on them. This also explains the subsequent statement in the Talmud. That is: Our Rabbis have taught: When Israel is in trouble and one of them separates himself from them, then the two ministering angels who accompany every man come and place their hands upon his head and say, ‘So-and-so who separated himself from the community shall not behold the consolation of the community’. In other words, one who wants to associate with the suffering of the group sees the group comforted.
These two ideas are now related in a way that explains why they are stated back to back in the Talmud.
In closing the Torah Temimah has some reservations about this idea, although it fits perfectly, he says “it’s new” and it needs a lot of investigation and studying.
Interestingly, the Shulchan Aruch (O.C 574) paskens that one should refrain from engaging in marital relations during a famine. So it seems that the Torah Temimah would disagree with that psak. Maybe.
Read the Torah Temimah here: PDF