Every young bride knew that the command “Be fruitful and multiply” was not an empty ritual. The purpose of her marriage, any marriage, was having children. Such things we take for granted, such as love, attraction, happiness, often existed, but they were secondary and unimportant. A girl, in her early teens, was ready to accept reproduction as her duty and her destiny. The very reason for such early marriages was to give the woman as much opportunity and time to have as many children as she could.
The young man was informed of his duties as well. Abstinence, which under some conditions was permitted to a woman, was totally forbidden to a man until he had children. The House of Shammai advocated that a man had to have two sons before he could practice abstinence. The more tolerant House of Hillel allowed a son and a daughter.
It was not all as grim as it sounds, because sexual relations were considered a joy for both genders. The woman as well as the man was encouraged to enjoy it, and when practiced within marriage, sex was never regarded as sin. It was viewed as a healthy activity as well, so much so that it was even allowed during pregnancy, as long as it was deemed safe for the fetus. Under some circumstances, the woman (but not the man) was allowed to use methods of contraception so that she could continue to have sex during times when pregnancy was not advisable. For example, a woman nursing a new baby was encouraged to use contraception, because an immediate pregnancy might reduce the woman’s production of milk and so deprive the newborn from the milk he or she needed. Contraception was achieved by several potions derived from natural substances such as herbs, and by using absorbent material. They were not full-proof, of course, but generally quite reliable.
However, there were limitations. The frequency and the sexual relations were dictated by the many regulations of purity – which involved complete abstinence, sometimes even entire separation of the couple while the woman was menstruating. This was a serious taboo which was kept as a religious command, and was uniformly observed.
The young bride usually had other difficult adjustments to make. With a husband who was also very young, the couple did not have their own home, but lived in the extended family home. It was often a farm, or, the cities and towns, perhaps the home of an artisan or a shop keeper. The girl had to adjust to a whole new family. If she married within her own town or village, she had access to visiting her family, but if she married in another village, she rarely saw her family. Even if the new family was kind to her, it was not an easy adjustment.
Most likely the girl’s mother trained her well in matters of housekeeping or farm work, but at such a young age the girl still had a lot to learn, particularly since she might have been placed in a household that was devoted to a different way of making a living. Her training would continue by her mother-in-law, who was probably in her late twenties or early thirties and most likely had a couple of very young children and was pregnant herself. In addition, the girl’s new husband’s grandmother might be living with the family, and older sisters-in-law would also be there to instruct her.
The girl was expected to do her share of the work with attention and care, to be chaste and obedient, and to leave the home or farm as little as possible. She was not encouraged to be in public very often, and absolutely never alone, unless there were very strong reasons to do so or perhaps an emergency. In public, her dress had to be modest, her hair covered, and she would not be allowed to talk freely to men who were not family members unless it was on business, such as shopping. As she grew older and became a mother, her sphere would naturally be enlarged, but as a young bride, she had to be carefully watched to avoid any humiliation for her new family.
All these instructions were recorded carefully by the sages, who spent much time on the issues of domestic rules and regulations. How much of these restrictions were really applied in real life, is impossible to know…