The suffering of the childless is intense. The Sages say, “A person who has no children is considered to be like the dead” (Nedarim 64b). They base this on the verse, “When Raḥel saw that she had borne Yaakov no children, she became envious of her sister; and Raḥel said to Yaakov, ‘Give me children, or I shall die’” (Bereishit 30:1). By making this statement, the Sages are trying to help people understand the depth of the anguish of the childless, so that they will pray for them (Tosafot ad loc.). Even couples who already have children but long to have more can become despondent, especially when they live in a community where large families are the norm.
The question is how we are to understand this suffering: As some kind of punishment for transgression, in which case a person must repent in order to merit having children? Or is one’s fate sealed even before he is born, in which he is blameless in his suffering?
The answer is extremely complex. Sometimes suffering stems from sin, sometimes from fate, and sometimes from a combination of both. Sometimes repentance and prayer help, and sometimes not. It depends on countless factors, as we will now explain.
The Sages say, “Life, children, and sustenance do not depend upon merit, but rather upon mazal” (Mo’ed Katan 28a). “Life” refers to length of life, “children” refers to the number of children, and “sustenance” refers to livelihood. These were all assumed to be determined by one’s fate at the moment of the person’s birth, and not by merit. The Talmud proves this from the fact that Rabbah and R. Ḥisda were both righteous people whose prayers were answered in a time of drought. Yet R. Ḥisda lived to be 92, while Rabbah died at forty. R. Ḥisda’s family celebrated sixty weddings, while Rabbah’s household endured sixty bereavements. R. Ḥisda’s household was so wealthy that even its dogs were fed high-quality wheat bread; Rabbah’s household was so poor that they sometimes did not even have low-quality barley bread on the table (ibid.). This accords with the Sages’ statement, “There is no reward for mitzvot in this world” (Kiddushin 39b). Reward for the mitzvot we fulfill and punishments for the sins we commit are not received in this fleeting world but rather in the eternal world of truth.
The term “mazal” used by the Talmud is what we would call “fate.” As we know today, a person’s genetic makeup is fixed at the moment of conception, and it is a major determinant of how tall, smart, or healthy one will be and what they will look like. The Sages’ statement that life, children, and sustenance are determined by fate at the moment of birth expresses a similar idea.
Yet this seems to be a matter of dispute among the Sages. According to R. Ḥanina, the Jewish people are subject to mazal, while according to R. Yoḥanan they are not (Shabbat 156a). However, the commentators explain that all agree that mazal has a strong influence, and all agree that the Jewish people, more than any other people, can sometimes change their mazal through prayer and good deeds. The disagreement lies in the question of whether it is common or rare for a Jew to change his mazal (see Tosafot on Shabbat ad loc.; Ritva and Ran on Mo’ed Katan 28a).
The idea is that every person has a specific destiny to fulfill in this world, and their mazal is determined accordingly. Sometimes one’s destiny requires him to be poor and wretched; other times, it may require him to be rich and healthy. Sometimes a person’s fate is set in stone and there is no escaping it (except in very rare cases). Other times, it is not absolute, and his actions will determine whether he suffers or flourishes. Sometimes, suffering purifies people and saves them from something even worse. In such cases, it is specifically the righteous who suffer. In any case, until the world reaches moral perfection, there will be human suffering, and the way people cope with their suffering can bring moral refinement to the world.
From a certain perspective, the pain of childlessness differs from other types of suffering. Since having children is a mitzva, righteous people make a greater effort to change their fate in this area, and sometimes the merit of the mitzva may help them alter fate. Even so, there have been righteous people who have been childless.
After this preface, we can now address the proper way to cope with the pain of childlessness.