Today’s daf (Ketubot 4b) draws a distinction between the kinds of personal gestures that a woman may do for her husband (e. mix a cup of wine for him, make his bed etc.) while she is a mourner versus doing those same acts while he is a mourner.
Explaining this Gemara, Rabbi Ephraim Oved writes in his ‘Torat HaAggadah’ that: ‘since women are often more in touch with their emotions than men…this means that when a woman is mourning, she is uninterested in sexual intimacy…In contrast, when a man is mourning, the primary impediment holding him back from sexual intimacy is simply his knowledge that this is not allowed by mourners.’
Of course, as with all generalisations about gender there are always going to be exceptions. Still, having made this point – which I believe many people would agree with – Rabbi Oved then proceeds to make a further fascinating observation: ‘What we learn from here is that a woman, who is often more connected with her emotions, is often stricter about certain prohibitions than men, such as in the realm of Kashrut and Shabbat.’
However, Rabbi Oved then makes a point which I think is rarely expressed but which, before quoting it, I wish to emphasize that it should not be understood as being suggestive that women or men should not be taught halacha thoughtfully, or that when halacha is taught that there should be a blurring of the lines between halacha as required and personal and communal strictures (chumrot) that some like to adopt.
Having made this point, he says: ‘[In such a situation where a wife is stricter about certain prohibitions], a husband [or other people] should not strive to stop her from observing these strictures. This is because such strictures often stem from her emotional investment [in these mitzvot], and if someone makes fun of these practices… it can have a detrimental effect.’
Personally, I am someone who endeavours to be crystal clear when teaching halacha in terms of distinguishing between halacha as required and personal and communal strictures. Yet what Rabbi Oved is saying is that there are times when people do more than the halacha requires because they feel that they want to do more out of respect and affection for a mitzvah, and to dismiss what they do is to be dismissive of who they are and what they value.
Overall, it is important for us to acknowledge that people relate to mitzvot not only intellectually but also emotionally, and that different people love different mitzvot in different ways.
Consequently, especially if we are seeking to foster a more emotionally expressive Jewish experience in our communities, we should be careful about what we say to those whose particular mitzvah observance is more emotionally invested than us.