Peninei Halakha

20. Asking a Rabbi

The generally accepted instruction, as written in most responsa that deal with questions of this sort, is that a rabbi should be consulted on all questions involving contraception and birth control. Since the subject is complex and the consequences are fateful, such questions demand serious consideration. The factors on which the ruling hinges, in short, are: a) the number of children the couple already has – i.e., whether they have already fulfilled the Torah commandment or the rabbinic commandment, and to what degree; b) the man’s age – the more time that has passed since he turned twenty, the harder it is to permit the use of contraception before the fulfillment of the mitzva to procreate; c) the woman’s age – the older she is, the greater the risk that using contraception will end up preventing the couple from having the number of children they desire, or even from fulfilling the Torah commandment; d) the reasons for seeking contraception – they may include physical or mental illness, financial difficulties or psychological issues, the need for personal fulfillment, difficulty with raising children, or prevention of anger and tension; e) the method of birth control – when the le-khatḥila methods (the pill or IUD) are not an option, the need to use contraception must be weighed against the difficulty of granting permission to use the be-di’avad methods (spermicide or a diaphragm).

Another reason to consult a rabbi is that sometimes the couple does not see the whole picture. They may think that because of the importance of the mitzva they are forbidden to use birth control, when in reality in their particular situation they should be using birth control for a year or more. In another case, their stress and financial struggles seem worse to them than they really are. If they use contraception they are likely to regret it years later, but by then it will be too late. In order to avoid these types of mistakes, it is prudent to consult a rabbi. His life experience, together with his good judgment, allows him to properly weigh the variables and values at stake and to guide the couple toward proper fulfillment of the mitzva in a manner that will benefit them in this world and the next.

In truth, in simple cases it is unnecessary to ask a rabbi. For example, any young couple may use contraception for nine months to a year after a birth. Even so, speaking with a rabbi is still a good idea, as they might learn about other things, and they will strengthen their relationship with him. When the question is complicated, anyone who is not an expert in all the pertinent issues must ask a rabbi. Someone who has the requisite expertise can generally figure out the right thing to do. Nevertheless, people are prone to err in assessing their difficulties, evaluating the challenges facing them, and weighing them correctly against the values on the other side of the scale. The misjudgments can go in either direction. The couple may be exaggerating or minimizing the difficulties and challenges. Therefore, it is preferable for them to ask a rabbi who knows them if they want to use contraception for more than a year after a birth. When the wife has a relationship with a rabbanit who is experienced in this field, the couple may decide that the wife will consult with her.

If the couple do not have a rabbi or rabbanit who knows them personally, they should ask a rabbi who is familiar with their value system. Nevertheless, since he does not know them personally, it will be difficult for him to assess whether they are overstating or understating the difficulties and challenges that they are facing. Therefore, his answer cannot be complete.[20]

[20]. My rabbi and teacher, R. Mordechai Eliyahu, writes: “A person should not rule for himself on these matters, and a woman should not rely on a halakhic ruling that a friend received from a rabbi” (Darkhei Tahara 19:17). R. Yaakov Ariel writes similarly (Be-ohala Shel Torah 1:66-67). R. Moshe Feinstein explains that when he deals with this type of question, he explores the couple’s situation carefully and thoroughly, and then gives an individualized ruling, which he requests that they not publicize. He contrasts this with a certain rabbi who permitted every couple across the board to use contraception for two years following a birth (Igrot Moshe, EH 1:64). R. Shmuel Wosner notes that he wrote a bare minimum about these laws, because they should be dealt with orally (Shevet Ha-Levi 4:177). R. Binyamin Zilber writes similarly (Az Nidberu 7:81). In contrast, R. Naḥum Rabinovitch writes that it is permissible to use contraception for two years after a birth, following which a rabbi should be consulted (Si’aḥ Naḥum §95).

In practice, it seems that a couple may decide on their own to use contraception for a year, for that is the halakha. (However, if they married late, perhaps it is preferable for them not to use contraception at all.) People who are Torah-knowledgeable and have studied the subject (elucidated in this chapter and the notes) in depth and to whom the halakha is clear, can make the decision for themselves. Nevertheless, it is still possible that they will make an error in judgment. Therefore, it is a good idea for them to consult a rabbi who knows them. Additionally, a relationship with one’s rabbi is always helpful to strengthen one’s connection to Torah and its values.

It is important to note that when a couple poses this sort of question to a rabbi who does not know them, the way they formulate the question will be largely responsible for the outcome. If they overstate or understate the need for birth control, the answer given may be appropriate to the question posed, but might not be correct given the actual circumstances of the couple’s lives. Since the rabbi does not know them well, even if the question is presented with great precision, he will not be able to give them advice that is optimal given their value system and the challenges they face. Therefore, it is highly preferable to put this type of question to a rabbi who knows the couple, or minimally one who is familiar with the society in which they live and the values which guide them.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
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The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

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