Ask the Rabbi: On being fruitful

May newlywed couples use contraceptives?

June 4, 2010 22:58
4 minute read.
The 1996 Surrogacy Law is a success despite fears.

pregnancy womb 58. (photo credit: Tzipora Ivry)

The issue of contraception in Jewish law remains very sensitive, to the extent that some historically contended that it is appropriate for scholars to exclusively address these issues orally and on an individual level, without issuing writings for public consumption (Igrot Moshe EH 1:64). Given the unhindered and untroubled use of contraceptives in broader society, as well as the nature of contemporary discourse about intimate matters, a consensus has emerged to engage in greater public discourse regarding these issues. Nonetheless, all agree that each personal circumstance must be individually addressed. As such, this column will try to present general considerations to facilitate more informed conversations.

The Bible depicts procreation as both a blessing and a commandment (Genesis 1:28, 9:1-7). Some medieval scholars count it as the first mitzva, both in order and importance, since it facilitates the settlement of the world and the ability for mitzvot to be performed (Hinuch). Procreation is further deemed as a central purpose of marriage, albeit not its exclusive goal (Tur EH 1), and one may even sell a Torah scroll to support a marriage (Megila 27a). Conversely, the Talmud declares, “He who has not engaged in procreation, it is as if he committed murder,” or alternatively, “has diminished the divine image (Yevamot 63b).

The sages debated the number of children necessary to fulfill the mitzva (Yevamot 61b), with normative law requiring a child of each gender who themselves survive with physical capabilities to procreate (EH 1:5-6). Some decisors believe that couples unable to beget children may fulfill this commandment through adoption, since the Talmud equates rearing an orphan with giving it life (Hochmat Shlomo EH 1:1).

The sages enjoined us to go beyond minimal population growth, citing Isaiah’s exhortation (45:18) to populate the world. Moreover, following Ecclesiastes’s advice (11:6), they proclaimed that one should not stop sowing his seed, given the unpredictable nature of progeny and mortality (Yevamot 62). While scholars debate the legal nature of these statements (Aruch Hashulhan EH 1:8), their theological sentiments had significant influence. Especially following the Holocaust, scholars like rabbis Aharon Lichtenstein and Ya’acov Breisch (Helkat Ya’acov EH 61) have further stressed the centrality of childbirth toward the nation’s revitalization. These considerations have, in part, motivated the Israeli health care system to generously finance fertility treatments and reproductive technologies.

As such, decisors generally agree that a couple which has not fulfilled this mitzva may not arbitrarily refrain from attempting to bear children (EH 76:6). (Such action becomes precarious for relatively older couples, when fertility rates drop and childbearing becomes more complicated.) In many situations, however, the desire to use contraceptives stems from other considerations, including medical, emotional and economic concerns, which vary in degrees of severity for each couple (another reason why every case must be examined individually).

The proposition of delaying pregnancy, in part, stems from our understanding of the commandment to procreate. Unlike time-bound commandments, such as the daily recitations of Shema Yisrael, the mitzva of procreation does not have a set hour of performance; one simply must fulfill it before he or she dies. Scholars discuss whether factors like economic loss or other considerations may mitigate their immediate performance (Hazon Ish YD 154:5). Rabbi Moshe Schick raised the possibility that one should not overly delay choosing a spouse, lest one die beforehand and leave no descendents (Shu”t Maharam Schick EH 1). Yet one might contend that this idea, along with general principle of trying to perform commandments at the earliest possible hour (zerizin makdimin lemitzvot), may be pushed aside in the face of conflicting needs. A precedent for such a declaration might already exist in our case, as the mitzva of marriage, and consequently the ability to procreate, is postponed from the age of majority (until at least the age of 18) to allow for proper education (Helkat Mehokek EH 1:2).

Rabbi Elyakim Ellinson and others have cited these factors to suggest that newlywed couples may temporarily use permissible forms of birth control to more firmly establish their marriage. Rabbi Ya’acov Ariel, however, has retorted that these sources allow only for the postponement of marriage, but not childbearing (Be’ohala Shel Torah 1:66). Rabbi Yehuda Henkin (Bnei Banim 4:15) has alternatively noted that in an age where some fear the bonds of marriage and others engage in illicit premarital fornication, it remains definitely preferable for couples to wed and use contraceptives. Yet at least in their published works, most decisors, including Rabbis Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe EH 4:72), Herschel Schachter (RJJ 4) and Shlomo Aviner (Assia 4), have argued that marriage entails raising a family. As such, newlyweds must immediately try to procreate, unless serious health reasons dictate greater caution. In our next column we will discuss the issue of spacing between children and the various methods of contraception.

The writer, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.

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