05 – Procreation

01. The Great Value of the Mitzva

Procreation, being fruitful and multiplying, is a central mitzva of the Torah, and since it is the most basic goal of creation, it is the first mitzva mentioned in the Torah. At the end of the process of creation, we read, “God blessed [Adam and Ḥava] and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it; and rule the fish of the sea, the bird of the sky, and every living thing that creeps on earth’” (Bereishit 1:28). In Parshat No’aḥ, after the flood, a similar directive is given: “God blessed Noaḥ and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Bereishit 9:1). Finally, the admonition against murder is followed by the directive: “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply on it” (ibid. v. 7).

By fulfilling this mitzva, a person walks in the ways of God. Just as God created the world and sustains it, people too give birth to children, take care of them, and raise them. This makes people partners with God; as the Sages say, “There are three partners in the creation of a person: God, the father, and the mother” (Nidda 31a).

This mitzva is the primary and fundamental goal of creation, as the Sages say in the Mishna (Gittin 41b), “The world was created only for procreation, as the verse states, ‘He did not create it to be empty; He formed it to be inhabited’ (Yeshayahu 45:18).” This teaches us that the most elemental divine instruction is to populate the world, as is clear when we place the just-quoted verse in context:

For thus said the Lord, the Creator of heaven, Who alone is God, Who formed the earth and made it, Who alone established it. He did not create it to be empty; He formed it to be inhabited. I am the Lord, and there is no other.

The Tanna’im state, “Whoever sustains one Jewish soul is considered by the Torah to have sustained an entire world” (Sanhedrin 37a). This is said of one who prevents a poor person from dying of starvation (Bava Batra 11a); how much greater is the virtue of parents who give birth to children, raise them, and educate them. They truly sustain an entire world.

Given the importance of this mitzva, we understand why, according to the Sages (Shabbat 31a), the third question that a person is asked when he is being judged in the next world is, “Did you engage in procreation?” (The first question is, “Were you honest in business?” The second is, “Did you set aside time to study Torah?”)

Eliezer said, “If someone refrains from procreation, it is as if he spills blood.” For the verse, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Bereishit 9:6), is immediately followed by, “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply on it” (ibid. v. 7) (Yevamot 63b). Having children is so essential and fundamental that one who does not fulfill this mitzva is considered to have put his children to death before they are born. R. Yaakov said, “Anyone who does not engage in procreation is likened to one who diminishes the divine image.” For the verse, “For in His image did God make man” (Bereishit 9:6), is immediately followed by, “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply on it” (ibid. v. 7) (Yevamot 63b). Every person is unique, and therefore every person reveals an additional aspect of the divine image. Thus, one who refrains from engaging in procreation diminishes the revelation of the divine in the world.

Zohar Ḥadash (Ruth 50b) states:

When a person leaves this world and his soul prepares to take its rightful place in the next world, several angels of destruction stand on either side and several angels of peace stand on either side. If he is deserving, the angels of peace greet him warmly and welcome him. If he is not deserving, the angels of destruction greet him, saying, “Woe to the wicked man, for he shall fare ill; as his hands have dealt, so shall it be done to him” (Yeshayahu 3:11). Who is this [wicked person]? One who did not attempt to leave a child in this world, for anyone who leaves a child in this world and teaches him Torah and good deeds, the angels of destruction and hell have no control over him.

This is what is meant by the verses: “Sons are the provision of the Lord; the fruit of the womb, His reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are sons born to a man in his youth. Happy is the man who fills his quiver with them; they shall not be put to shame when they contend with the enemies in the gate” (Tehilim 127:3-5). These [enemies] are the angels of destruction, who cannot control him. For a person should not say, “My Torah and good deeds protect me; I will not engage in procreation.” Rather, even if someone has studied Torah and performed good deeds, he still cannot enter God’s realm, and he has no share in the World to Come. (See ch. 8 below regarding solace for the childless.)

02. Ḥizkiyahu and Ben Azzai

When the mighty army of King Sennacherib of Assyria besieged Jerusalem, King Ḥizkiyahu of Yehuda fell ill, as we read:

In those days, Ḥizkiyahu fell dangerously ill. The prophet Yeshayahu, son of Amotz, came and said to him, “Thus said the Lord, ‘Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die; you will not live.’” (Yeshayahu 38:1)

Even years before that, Ḥizkiyahu had been aware that the Kingdom of Assyria presented a clear and present danger to his kingdom, for as a result of increasing sinfulness, Assyria had already subjugated the Kingdom of Yisrael and exiled the ten tribes from the land (2 Melakhim, ch. 17). In order to avert calamity, Ḥizkiyahu ordered the entire nation to repent and to strengthen their allegiance to Torah:

He stuck a sword by the entrance of the beit midrash and said, “Anyone who does not study Torah will be stabbed with this sword.” They searched from Dan to Be’er Sheva and did not find a single ignoramus; from Gevat to Antipatris and did not find a single boy or girl, man or woman, who was not thoroughly versed in the laws of purity and impurity. (Sanhedrin 94b)

It was at this difficult time, when the catastrophe Ḥizkiyahu feared was imminent, when the Assyrian army had already besieged Jerusalem, and when he himself lay ill, that the prophet came to him with the terrible message, “Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die; you will not live.” The Sages explain: “You are going to die” in this world, and “you will not live” in the next world. Ḥizkiyahu cried out in protest, “What sin have I committed that I have been sentenced to excision from this world and from the next?” The prophet replied, “You did not engage in procreation.” Ḥizkiyahu responded, “But it was made known to me through divine inspiration that my children would not be virtuous.” The prophet replied, “Why do you involve yourself in the secrets of the Merciful One? You do what you were commanded to do, and God will do what is right in His eyes.” Ḥizkiyahu then realized that he had sinned. He asked Yeshayahu for his daughter’s hand in marriage, hoping that his own merit plus the merit of Yeshayahu might help him have virtuous children. The prophet responded, “Your fate has already been sealed.” Ḥizkiyahu replied, “Son of Amotz, finish your prophecy and leave! For I learned from my father’s father (King David) that even if a sharp sword is resting upon one’s neck, one should not stop begging for mercy” (Berakhot 10a).

Then, “Ḥizkiyahu turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord. ‘Please, O Lord,’ he said, ‘remember how I have walked before You sincerely and wholeheartedly, and have done what is pleasing to You.’ And Ḥizkiyahu wept profusely” (Yeshayahu 38:2-3). God heard him and commanded Yeshayahu to inform Ḥizkiyahu that He had added another fifteen years to his life. Additionally, God would save him from Assyria’s army. In fact, in the middle of the night, an angel of God struck down all of Sennacherib’s soldiers, and Jerusalem was saved. Ḥizkiyahu went on to marry Yeshayahu’s daughter, and they had a son named Menasheh. Ḥizkiyahu’s fears were realized; Menasheh, who ruled after Ḥizkiyahu, acted so wickedly in the eyes of God – worshiping idols and spilling much innocent blood – that God decreed that the First Temple would be destroyed (2 Melakhim ch. 19-21). Nevertheless, the mitzva of procreation remained in full force, for it is the foundation for the continued existence of the world. Even in the case of Ḥizkiyahu, his wicked son Menasheh carried on the Davidic dynasty, from which ultimately the Messiah, descendant of David, will be born; may he come speedily in our time.

Although we learn of a great Tanna, Ben Azzai, who never married and did not fulfill the mitzva of procreation. The Talmud relates that Ben Azzai extrapolated from the biblical verses that if one does not engage in procreation, “it is as if he spills blood and diminishes the divine image.” The Sages said to Ben Azzai, “Some preach well and practice well; some practice well but do not preach well; and then there are those like you, who preach well but do not practice what they preach!” Ben Azzai responded, “What can I do? My soul longs for Torah. The world can be sustained by others” (Yevamot 63b). In fact, halakha accepts Ben Azzai’s position. If someone’s soul longs for Torah, and he spends his entire life studying with tremendous dedication, as a result of which he never marries, he has not sinned, as long as his sexual desire does not overcome him (MT, Laws of Marriage 15:3; SA EH 1:4). However, the language here is precise: he has not sinned, but le-khatḥila, it is not proper to behave this way (Naḥalat Tzvi; Taz ad loc. 6).

We see that there is only one mitzva one can engage in and thereby, under pressing circumstances, abstain from the mitzva of procreation – the mitzva of Torah study. This is because Torah study itself adds life to the world. The fact is that although Ben Azzai did not engage in procreation, he delved deeply into the great importance of the mitzva and expounded upon its great value. Certainly, many children were born as a result of his teachings. In contrast, when Ḥizkiyahu wished to stipulate his performance of the mitzva on having children who would not be wicked, he was negating the sacred principle underlying the mitzva, which expresses the absolute value of life. This is why he would have been subject to terrible punishment in both this world and the next. We learn from this that life is the supreme value, and even the wicked can repent. Furthermore, even if they do not repent, the righteous can learn from their mistakes. However, when one disregards the mitzva altogether, he uproots everything and denies the value of God-given life in this world.[1]

[1]. AHS poses the following question: The Yerushalmi states that one stops studying Torah in order to build a sukka and take the four species (y. Shabbat 1:2). It further states that if someone studies Torah without the intention of putting what he learns into practice, it would have been better had he never been born (y. Berakhot 1:2). In light of these statements, how can it be that Ben Azzai abstained from fulfilling the mitzva of procreation? AHS suggests that the reason must be that “he was unable to detach himself from the Torah at all, and doing so might have been life-threatening for him” (AHS, EH 1:14).

The explanation seems to be that since the mitzva of procreation is contingent upon marriage, and marriage entails being attentive and emotionally available to another person so that one can form a loving relationship with a spouse. Ben Azzai knew himself and realized that his intense commitment to Torah study would not allow him to adequately satisfy the needs of his wife. Therefore, he did not marry. Other mitzvot, however, do not require emotional investment, and therefore can be fulfilled even if one’s mind is still engaged in Torah study. See Sota 49a, which states, “When Ben Azzai died, that was the end of the unceasing learners.” Someone like Ben Azzai also knew that his sex drive would not overpower him. Some poskim have written that no one can emulate Ben Azzai nowadays (Ritva and Birkei Yosef).

03. The General Mitzva and the Individual Obligation

There is a Torah commandment to procreate. With every child a couple has, they fulfill a great mitzva and partner with God in the creation of another human being (Nidda 31a), thereby sustaining an entire world (m. Sanhedrin 4:5). This is the primary goal of creation, as God wanted the world to be inhabited. The Sages declare, “The world was created only for procreation, as the verse states (Yeshayahu 45:18), ‘He did not create it to be empty; He formed it to be inhabited’” (m. Gittin 4:5).

However, if the mitzva would have no clear parameters, it would be too vague, and in many cases, due to a variety of concerns, it would not be properly carried out. Marriage is a sensitive and complex issue that depends on the ideas, emotions, hopes, and consent of husband and wife (and sometimes also on the financial and emotional support of parents). It demands responsibility and courage.

Even after marriage, the general mitzva leaves much uncertainty. On one hand, since a tremendous mitzva is fulfilled with the birth of every child, perhaps having one child is enough, for that child alone is an entire world. And perhaps the couple should therefore postpone having that one child until they are near the age of forty, when they are economically stable and have a wealth of life experience. On the other hand, given the importance and greatness of this mitzva, perhaps each person should make a superhuman effort to have as many children as they can – marrying as young as possible and shortening a baby’s nursing period to have as many children as possible.

The Torah therefore set basic mandatory parameters for the mitzva, in addition to expressing the general idea. The Sages provided additional parameters to give the general idea a clearer and more obligatory character. The general mitzva of the Torah is to “be fruitful and multiply,” and one fulfills the mitzva with each child born. The Torah obligation is to have a son and a daughter, just as God originally created Adam and Ḥava: “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it’” (Bereishit 1:27-28). Since the verse makes it clear that the Torah wishes us to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth, the Sages established an additional obligation for a couple to have additional children (sections 5-6 below). They even determined a time for the fulfillment of the Torah obligation, that is, an age by which a person must get married (sections 7-10 below).

The general mitzva applies to men and women alike, and from a certain perspective, the woman’s reward is greater, for the more pain one experiences in fulfilling a mitzva, the greater the reward (Avot 5:23). However, there is disagreement about the individual obligation. According to the Sages, the obligation is incumbent upon a man; this is reflected in the man playing the more active role in effecting kiddushin and during sexual relations. It is also alluded in the verse, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it,” about which the Sages observe, “It is the nature of man to conquer, but it is not the nature of woman” (Yevamot 65b). Some explain that since pregnancy and childbirth are both painful and risky for a woman, the Torah did not impose it on women as an obligation, for “its ways are ways of pleasantness” (Meshekh Ḥokhma, Bereishit 9:7).

Yoḥanan b. Beroka disagrees with the Sages and says that women, too, are obligated in this mitzva, as the command is addressed in the plural, to both Adam and Ḥava: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be (pl.) fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it’” (Bereishit 1:28).

In practice, we rule in accordance with the Sages – the individual obligation is incumbent upon men. However, this does not diminish the rights of women; for instance, if it becomes clear that a woman’s husband is infertile, and she wishes to divorce him in order to have a child who will help her in her old age, her husband is required to grant her a divorce and pay her ketuba (Yevamot 65b; SA EH 1:13 and 154:6).[2]

The practical difference is that if a woman does not want to get married, or wants to marry someone who cannot have children, she may do so; even though she is denying herself the opportunity to fulfill a great mitzva, she is not considered a sinner, since she is not obligated to procreate. A man, however, may not remain single and may not marry an infertile woman if he has yet to fulfill the mitzva to procreate (section 8 below).

As in the mitzvot of Torah study and prayer, here too we find that the Torah obligates men to fulfill the mitzva and makes it optional for women. As a result, those who are mandated and those who volunteer join together to fulfill the mitzva comprehensively.

[2]. A distinction must be made between the general mitzva to procreate in order to populate the world, which is equally relevant to men and women, and the individual obligation, which is incumbent upon men, whose parameters are to have a son and daughter, and to which the Sages added an obligation to have more children (as we will explain below in sections 5-6). A general mitzva is a basic principle and goal of the Torah, albeit one that does not have obligatory parameters. Rather, it is a value and a mission. People are commanded to identify with a general mitzva and to do their very best to fulfill it. We learn of the tremendous value of the general mitzva immediately after the creation story and just after the flood story. The Sages support it with the verse, “He did not create it to be empty; He formed it to be inhabited (la-shevet)” (Yeshayahu 45:18). This idea is often referred to as “la-shevet” or “shevet.” This does not mean that the mitzva is considered prophetic rather than biblical. Rather, the prophet is explaining that it is the most basic foundation, for which the whole world was created, and in which human beings partner with God in physically sustaining the world (as opposed to the world’s spiritual sustenance, which is through Torah study). Therefore, it is only for the purpose of fulfilling these two mitzvot (procreation and Torah study) that a Torah scroll may be sold (section 21 below). For the same reason, a slave owner is obligated to free a semi-emancipated slave – to enable him to marry and have children (Gittin 41a). Even though there is a Torah mitzva not to free a Canaanite slave (YD 267:79), since procreation is a general mitzva, it carries great weight, and the Sages permitted the neglect of a Torah commandment in order to fulfill it – which would normally not be allowed (Tosafot, Gittin 41a, s.v. “lo tohu”; Tosafot, Ḥagiga 2b, s.v. “lo tohu”). This is the approach of R. Yosef Engel in Atvan De-Oraita (klal 13).

The general mitzva, which is more important, applies to men and women alike, while the halakhic ruling that women are not obligated in the mitzva of procreation pertains specifically to the individual obligation of procreation. Therefore, when necessary, a Torah scroll may be sold in order to enable a woman to marry, just as it may be sold to enable a man’s marriage (MA 153:9; Eliya Rabba ad loc. 12; MB ad loc. 24; n. 21 below). According to most Rishonim (as explained below in n. 21), a Torah scroll may be sold to enable the marriage of even someone who has already fulfilled the Torah obligation of procreation. Since the general mitzva is unlimited, each and every child born fulfills this mandate, whether that child is an only child or a tenth child. This is the position of Ramban (Milḥamot Hashem on Yevamot 20a in the Rif pages) and Ha-elef Lekha Shlomo (EH 2). The general mitzva is also why a couple who have been married for ten years without children are instructed to divorce. If all that were at stake were the individual obligation, this would not be required. Therefore, if a couple has a son or a daughter, even though they have not fulfilled the individual obligation of having one boy and one girl, they are not required to divorce (6:7 and n. 8 below).

Some say that the verse at the end of the creation story (Bereishit 1:28) is a blessing, while the command was given later, to Noaḥ and his sons (ibid. 9:7). This is the position of Rashi, Ramban, and Tosafot. Others maintain that the verse at the end of the creation story is itself a command. This is the straightforward reading, as the dispute between the Sages and R. Yoḥanan b. Beroka (regarding who is obligated in the mitzva) revolves around this verse. This is the position of Sefer Ha-ḥinukh, Or Ha-ḥayim, Malbim, and Netziv. It seems reasonable to say that even the first position derives the basis for the general mitzva from this verse. I explain the foundation of this mitzva accordingly, in section 1 as well as here.

04. Having a Son and a Daughter

If a man had a son and a daughter but one of them predeceased him without producing progeny, according to Rav Huna he has still fulfilled the mitzva of procreation, as he maintains that the mitzva is fulfilled with their birth. Even if a child lives for only a short time, his life has value. His soul revealed something positive in the world and even brought redemption closer, for “The (messianic) son of David will not arrive until all the souls of the body have been finished.” In contrast, R. Yoḥanan maintains that the mitzva is only fulfilled if a man’s children live after his death, because the objective of the mitzva is to ensure the continued habitation of the world (Yevamot 62a-b). Sadly, R. Yoḥanan himself buried all of his children before they had children of their own, and so he referred to himself when he spoke of a person who was not privileged to fulfill the mitzva. We rule in accordance with R. Yoḥanan. However, if someone leaves behind a son and daughter when he dies, even if they remain unmarried and too old to have children, he has still fulfilled his mitzva (SA EH 1:5).

If someone was predeceased by his son and daughter, but had a grandchild from each, he has fulfilled his obligation through his grandchildren. What matters is for his descendants to continue after him through his son and daughter.[3]

If someone had a son and daughter, and his son has many children but his daughter passes away childless during his lifetime, he has not fulfilled his obligation, since he has offspring not from both children, but only through his son. The same applies if his daughter bears many children while his son passes away childless during his lifetime (SA EH 1:6). If someone has a son and daughter, but one of them is sterile or infertile, he has not fulfilled his obligation, since he did not have a son and daughter capable of having children (y. Yevamot 6:6; SA EH 1:5). However, if his son and daughter were themselves able to have children, but one or both of them married people who were not able to, or they did not marry at all, he has still fulfilled his obligation, since the children themselves are not sterile (Ḥelkat Meḥokek ad loc. 6).

If someone has a child who is deaf-mute or mentally incompetent, he fulfills his obligation, since the child is physically capable of having children (Rema, EH 1:6). Accordingly, someone with an autistic child fulfills the mitzva; however, someone with a Down syndrome child might not, because many children with Down syndrome (especially males) are infertile.

If a non-Jew had children and later converted to Judaism, some say that he fulfills his obligation to procreate if his children convert as well (Rambam; SA EH 1:7; Yam Shel Shlomo). Others maintain that even if his children do not convert to Judaism, he has still fulfilled the obligation of procreation (Tosafot; Maharil; Ḥelkat Meḥokek; Beit Shmuel; Bi’ur Ha-Gra ad loc. 17).

A Jewish man who has children with a non-Jewish woman does not fulfill the mitzva to procreate, since his children are not Jewish and are not halakhically considered of his lineage at all.[4]

[3]. According to Rambam and SA EH 1:6, to fulfill the mitzva of procreation a person must have at least one grandson and one granddaughter, even if the granddaughter is his son’s child and the grandson is his daughter’s child. What matters is that he has one male grandchild and one female grandchild. In contrast, if his grandchildren are all of one gender, he has not fulfilled the mitzva, the same way that if he has children of only one gender, he has not fulfilled the mitzva. According to Tosafot and Shiltei Giborim, as long as each of his children bore him a grandchild, even of the same gender, since he has two grandchildren, one from his son and one from his daughter, he has fulfilled the mitzva.

[4]. Most authorities maintain that if a man has an adulterous affair with a married woman which results in the birth of a mamzer, he has fulfilled the mitzva of procreation despite his sin. However, Responsa Radbaz 7:2 states that it is inconceivable that one fulfills a mitzva by committing a sin. (See 6:6 below for a discussion of this case.) It would seem based on this reasoning that if a couple did not observe the laws of family purity and conceived when the wife was a nidda, they have not fulfilled the mitzva of procreation. For this case, too, would be fulfilling a mitzva by committing a sin. However, many explain that even Radbaz would agree that the mitzva is fulfilled in the case of nidda. A child conceived when a woman was a nidda is not in the same category as a child conceived from an adulterous relationship. A mamzer could not possibly have been conceived without sin, since the union itself is forbidden, whereas a married couple is fundamentally permitted to one another, and the woman could have immersed in a mikveh, so the relationship is not inherently sinful.

05. The Mitzva to Have Many Children

As we have seen (section 3), people fulfill an important Torah commandment with every child they are privileged to have. Nevertheless, the Torah established an obligation for every Jewish man to have one son and one daughter. The Sages (Yevamot 62b) added a rabbinic obligation to have even more children for two reasons: a) the tremendous value of life, and b) to ensure fulfillment of the Torah commandment. Let us now expand upon these.

The first reason is the tremendous value of life, revealed within each and every soul. The Torah states many times that an increased number of children is both a mitzva and a blessing: “God blessed [Adam and Ḥava] and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it’” (Bereishit 1:28); “God blessed Noaḥ and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Bereishit 9:1); “Be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply on it” (ibid., v. 7). Later, God told Avraham, “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore” (ibid., 22:17). God said to Yitzḥak, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven” (ibid., 26:4). God promised Yaakov, “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth” (ibid., 28:14). One of the blessings promised to the Jewish people if they obey God is, “I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you” (Vayikra 26:9). Likewise, in the blessing Moshe bestowed upon them he said, “May the Lord, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold” (Devarim 1:11). Finally, the blessing will be fulfilled at the time of the redemption: “They will be fruitful and multiply” (Yirmiyahu 23:3), “I will multiply men and beasts upon you, and they will multiply and be fruitful” (Yeḥezkel 36:11), and “I will multiply their people like sheep” (ibid., v. 37).

This is what Rambam means when he writes:

Although a man has fulfilled the mitzva of procreation (by having a son and daughter), he is rabbinically commanded not to neglect procreating as long as he has the strength, for anyone who adds a soul to the Jewish people is considered to have built a world. (MT, Laws of Marriage 15:16)

The second reason is to ensure the fulfillment of the Torah commandment. Even one who has a son and daughter cannot be sure that he will take part in the general objective of the mitzva, namely, that his son and daughter will continue his family line. Perhaps one of them will die, or will turn out to be infertile. This concern is what led R. Yehoshua to advise:

If one had children in his youth, he should also have children in his old age, as it states (Kohelet 11:6), “Sow your seed in the morning, and don’t hold back your hand in the evening, since you don’t know which is going to succeed, the one or the other, or if both are equally good.” R. Matna says, “The halakha accords with R. Yehoshua.” (Yevamot 62b)[5]

[5]. There is general agreement that this rabbinic obligation is not as strict as the Torah obligation to procreate. Several Rishonim wrote that the mitzva is to populate the world in a normal way. Therefore, one who fulfilled the Torah commandment and was then widowed should marry a woman who can bear children, but he is not compelled to do so, and we do not label him a sinner if he marries a woman who cannot bear children (Ramban, Milḥamot Hashem on Yevamot 19b in the Rif pages). This is the halakha (Beit Shmuel, EH 1:14). Similarly, if a man is worried that quarrels will erupt between the children of his first wife and the (potential) children of his second wife, he may marry a woman who cannot have children (Terumat Ha-deshen §263; Rema, EH 1:8). Likewise, if more children would create financial difficulties, a widower who has already fulfilled the Torah commandment to procreate may marry a woman who is unable to have children (AHS 1:8).

The same applies to keeping the set times of ona. One who has not fulfilled the Torah obligation to procreate must keep all the times of ona when his wife can get pregnant; however, when it comes to the rabbinic obligation, if his wife agrees, they may forgo some onot (Birkei Yosef, EH 1:2; Pitḥei Teshuva ad loc. 1; AHS ad loc. 10; Rav Kook, Mitzvat Re’aya, EH §1). However, according to Beit Shmuel 1:1 and Taz 1:1 (in the first answer), a man must keep all the onot even to fulfill the rabbinic obligation.

The second reason we mentioned for having many children is based on the objective of the mitzva to procreate. If one of a man’s children is infertile or predeceases him, he does not fulfill his obligation. In contrast, if someone’s children never marry (which is more common), he still fulfills his individual obligation. However, what is not fulfilled is the objective of the general mitzva, which is for one’s line to endure through his son and daughter. Netziv writes in Ha’mek She’ala 165:3-4 that according to She’iltot, since a son or daughter might die, there is a Torah obligation to have an additional son and daughter. However, Rambam maintains that we do not make the assumption that a child will predecease his parents. Therefore he wrote that the mitzva to have more children is due to the inherent value of each and every child.

Rashi interprets the phrase from Kohelet, “You don’t know which is going to succeed, the one or the other,” to mean you don’t know which child will turn out to be upstanding and God-fearing nor which child will survive. We find an example in the story of Boaz. Our Sages identify him with Ivtzan, one of the judges, who had numerous wives and fathered thirty sons and thirty daughters (Shoftim 12:9), all of whom he successfully married off. Toward the end of his life, when he was close to eighty years old, his wife died. Because of his devotion to the mitzva, he did not decide that he already had enough children and grandchildren. Instead, when the opportunity came his way to continue fulfilling this mitzva, he married Ruth the Moabite. This union ultimately led to the birth of King David and the start of the Davidic dynasty (Ruth 4:18-22). We are also told that all sixty of Boaz’s earlier children predeceased him, while only Oved, the son who was born to him in his old age, outlived him. Generally, we would not advise an eighty-year-old to marry a woman of child-bearing age, since he would not be able to raise the children. Nevertheless, in the case of Ruth, his marrying her was an act of special kindness. It was a kindness to her, since she was a foreigner whom no one else was likely to marry, and it was a kindness to the family of Elimelekh and Naomi, who now had someone to carry on for them. Additionally, since Boaz was part of a large and wealthy family, the child born from Ruth would be well provided for even if he were to be orphaned. In any case, this is an example of a youngest child bringing enormous blessing. Being aware of this encourages the optimal fulfillment of the mitzva.

06. Two Tiers of the Rabbinic Mitzva

As we have seen, there is a Torah commandment to have a son and a daughter, and the Sages expanded this and enacted a rabbinic mitzva to have additional children. At first glance, it would seem that there is no limit to the rabbinic mitzva, and that people must do their best to have as many children as possible. However, it seems more reasonable to posit that there are two tiers within the rabbinic mitzva. The first tier is a blanket obligation to have four to five children. The second tier is to have even more children, each couple according to its capability.

Accordingly, ordinary couples of relatively sound mind and body are obligated to fulfill the rabbinic mitzva of having four to five children. Beyond this, they may assess whether they have the energy to continue fulfilling this important mitzva by having more children. For example, if they know that they can raise additional children and educate them in the ways of Torah, mitzvot, and derekh eretz (considerate behavior), they should continue to have as many children as they can. However, if they know that having additional children will be too stressful for them, making anger and irritability their constant companions, there are grounds for them to stop having children; even though each additional child is a mitzva, being in a bad emotional state often leads to transgression, which will likely have a negative impact on the upbringing of their children. Additionally, parents who are interested in channeling their talents in other meaningful ways may choose to do so even if this will leave them without the energy to raise additional children, as we will explain below in section 16. (Concerning permissible contraceptive methods, see sections 17-19; for the need to consult a rabbi, see section 20.)

The basis for dividing the rabbinic mitzva into two tiers is that we find that the Sages often pattern a rabbinic mitzva on a Torah commandment, and since the Torah established an obligation to have two children, it is reasonable to posit that the rabbinic obligation is to have an additional two children. One might even suggest that the requirement is to have a total of two girls and two boys. In most cases, then, in order to fulfill the rabbinic requirement, a couple would need to have five children. Indeed, it is the norm in most religious families today to make efforts to have at least four to five children.

Thus, although a couple fulfills a Torah commandment with each child that they have, there are three tiers of obligation within this mitzva: a) There is a Torah obligation to have a son and a daughter, and even when conditions make it challenging, the couple must make every effort to fulfill this mitzva (see below, sections 13-15, and ch. 6 sections 1-4). b) There is a rabbinic obligation to make efforts to have four to five children. c) There is a mitzva to have even more children, taking into account the parents’ energy (as we will explain below in sections 16 and 20).[6]

[6]. Rambam writes, “Although a man has fulfilled the mitzva of procreation (by having a son and daughter), he is rabbinically commanded not to neglect procreating as long as he has the strength” (MT, Laws of Marriage 15:16). Responsa Rivash (§15) and Sefer Ḥaredim (7:2) quote this opinion. It is unclear if one is required to make every effort to have additional children, barely taking into consideration the financial and health risks involved, or if Rambam means that one should make a reasonable effort, considering the various difficulties involved. Some Rishonim write that “Don’t hold back your hand in the evening” is a rabbinic mitzva and do not define it based on the parents’ ability or number of children (Rif, Rosh, Smag, and many others; nevertheless, it is clear from Tosafot [Shabbat 110b, s.v. “ve-hatanya”] that the rabbinic mitzva is having more than two boys and two girls).

In my humble opinion, the reason that this question never arose in the past is because almost half of all children died in childhood and women were infertile for various reasons. For example, miscarriages often caused infertility, in the times before dilation and curettage (D&C), and breastfeeding often had a contraceptive effect for two years. (Nowadays, it seems that it is due to the abundance and varieties of food available that women have the strength to nurse and ovulate simultaneously.) In any case, in the past, the average number of children was at most four or five. It never dawned on those who merited the blessing of many children to try to prevent pregnancy.

Nowadays, with the improvement of medical care and the shortening of time spent breastfeeding, the average woman can give birth to many more children. Thus, the question arises: what are the obligations under this mitzva, and when is contraception permissible? Some are inclined to say that the obligation is to have as many children as possible, giving only minimal consideration to financial issues and physical well-being. They permit birth control only if there is physical or mental illness involved (R. Yosef Messas; Yaskil Avdi; Minḥat Yitzḥak). Others maintain that one may take finances and health into consideration (AHS; Igrot Moshe; Tzitz Eliezer). See n. 15 below. In practice, though, it seems that even those who are stringent will rule leniently if those asking describe their situation as difficult, and even those who are lenient will rule stringently if those asking describe their situation as manageable. Thus, the halakhic ruling will depend a great deal on how the couple presents the question, which in turn depends upon their worldview, their attitude toward having many children, and their perception of how difficult this would be. In such cases, both the questioners and the responders find themselves facing a difficult dilemma.

In order to help these families and the rabbis they consult, it seems to me that it is necessary to divide the rabbinic obligation into two tiers, which will address most questions. It also seems that most poskim rule this way in practice, namely, that before a family has reached the average size in the religious community, rabbis are less willing to be permissive regarding birth control, but from that point on they are more willing. This formulation therefore gives systematic expression to what is already the generally accepted pesak (as explained below in n. 15).

Two rationales can be brought to support this division. First, we know that the Sages often pattern rabbinic laws upon Torah laws, as the Talmud states, “Whatever the rabbis ordained, they ordained on the pattern of the Torah” (Gittin 65a et al.). For example, fasts established by the prophets are patterned after Yom Kippur, which is a biblically mandated fast (Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 7:1). R. Yosef Ottolenghi (Lu’aḥ Dinim Shel Ha-Nimukei Yosef, Yevamot §60) seems to apply this principle to procreation: “On the Torah level, the mitzva of procreation is fulfilled by having a son and a daughter, while fulfilling the rabbinic mitzva requires having two of each.” This requirement of specifically two sons and two daughters can be added to how Ha’mek She’ala understands She’iltot (165:3-4), namely, that in order to ensure the fulfillment of the Torah mitzva, one must have two sons and two daughters (n. 5 above). Statistically, the chance that out of four children two will be boys and two will be girls is 37.5%; out of five children, it is 62.5%; out of six, 78.13%; and out of seven, 87.5%. Thus, the second tier in the fulfillment of the mitzva requires four to five children, meaning, that if one does not have two boys and two girls among the first four children, it is best to have a fifth child, for in most families, the five children will include two boys and two girls. However, we do not assert on the basis of this speculative reasoning that it is obligatory to have more than five children. Even in a family with four children, the second tier obligation is patterned on the Torah with respect to number, and the risk of not fulfilling the mitzva of procreation has been greatly minimized.

The second rationale is not as well defined, but carries great weight. There is a well-known principle that when we are uncertain as to how exactly to perform a specific mitzva, we should look at the prevalent practice among observant Jews. Among families that have no specific physical or mental difficulties (not counting those who enhance the mitzva by having especially large families), the typical number of children is between four and five. Likewise, some Rishonim write that the rabbinic mitzva does not require people to make every effort to have a limitless number of children; rather, it is a mitzva to populate the world in a normal way (Ha-Ma’or; Ramban, Milḥamot Hashem on Yevamot 19b in the Rif pages). Some contemporary rabbis maintain that there is a dispute about whether the rabbinic commandment is a bona fide obligation, like other rabbinic mitzvot, or is a lighter commandment (Bnei Banim 2:38; Ish U-veito, ch. 17, n. 2). Though it seems more likely that this is not a dispute, if we accept their statements, there is room in the division I propose for each view and rationale; having four to five children is obligatory, and having more is an optional mitzva.

07. The Age of Marriage for Men

Although at the age of thirteen a male becomes obligated to fulfill all the mitzvot, the Sages say that the ideal age for a male to get married is eighteen, and no later than twenty. This delay is because he must prepare himself for the challenges of raising a family in two areas. The first is mastery of the basics of the Torah to mold his worldview and so that he knows how to act in accordance with halakha. This is what the Sages mean when they say, “Five years old is the age to begin studying Scripture; ten for Mishna; thirteen for the obligation of the commandments; fifteen for the study of Talmud; eighteen for marriage” (Avot 5:21). Elsewhere the Sages say that studying Torah should come before marriage, because if one marries first, the burden of supporting a family is likely to impede his Torah study (Kiddushin 29b). Similarly, Shulḥan Arukh rules, “A man should first learn Torah and then marry. For if he marries first, he will not be able to devote himself to Torah study, as he will have a millstone around his neck” (YD 246:2).

The second type of preparation is learning how to earn a living. It used to be that while a young man was studying the basics of the Torah, he devoted part of his day to working with his father and thus learning a trade that could earn him a living, build a home, and save up to invest in the furtherance of his career. The idea that one must have a means of support before getting married is derived by the Sages from the order of the verses in the Torah: “Who has built a new house…planted a vineyard…betrothed a woman…” (Devarim 20:5-7). The Talmud states:

The Torah teaches us the proper way to go about things. First, one should build a house, then he should plant a vineyard, and only then should he get married. King Shlomo, too, wisely declared, “Put your external affairs in order; get ready what you have in the field, then build yourself a home” (Mishlei 24:27). “Put your external affairs in order” refers to the house; “get ready what you have in the field” refers to the vineyard; “then build yourself a home” refers to getting married. (Sota 44a)

Rambam similarly writes:

It is the way of intelligent people to ensure that first they learn a trade with which they can support themselves, then buy a home, and afterwards they marry…. But fools marry first; then, if he can, he buys a house, and then, at the end, he will try to learn a trade or will live off charity… (MT, Laws of Dispositions 5:11)

Therefore, the Sages instruct men to postpone marriage until the age of eighteen. At the same time, they also warn against delaying marriage beyond the age of twenty, saying (Kiddushin 29b), “Until a man turns twenty, God sits and waits for him to get married. If he reaches the age of twenty and is not yet married, God says, ‘Let his bones swell up!’” In other words, he is cursed for not fulfilling the mitzva of procreation. The Sages also comment on the verse, “A time for giving birth and a time for dying” (Kohelet 3:2): “From the time of a person’s birth until he turns twenty, God awaits his marriage. If he reaches the age of twenty and has not yet married, God says to him, ‘There was a time for you to give birth, but you were not interested; now it is only a time to die’” (Kohelet Rabba 3:3).

Furthermore, the Sages state, “If a man does not marry by the age of twenty, he spends his whole life thinking sinful thoughts” (Kiddushin 29b), for as long as a man who has not yet reached that age knows that when the time comes he will marry and love his wife as himself, then even if he sometimes entertains sinful thoughts and transgresses by masturbating, he knows that it is improper and that when he is married he will reserve all his desire for his wife. However, when bachelorhood lasts too long, he despairs of mastering his desire, surrenders to it, and gets used to gratifying himself sinfully. Then, even when he marries and is faithful to his wife, it will be difficult for him to avoid sinful thoughts, because they will have become a part of him. Only if he repents sincerely out of love will he be able to correct this (above, 4:2, n. 2).

Some people manage to marry early, either because they had help from their parents or because they were exceptionally talented, and this is praiseworthy. As R. Ḥisda said of himself, his preeminence was not because he was more talented or more righteous than his colleagues, but because he was able to marry at sixteen and thus learn Torah in purity without sexual temptation. He added that had he gotten married at fourteen, he would have been so immune to the evil inclination that he would have been able to taunt Satan without fear of being tempted to sin (Kiddushin 29b-30a).[7]

[7]. The basis for the obligation to get married by age twenty is the mitzva to procreate. “Until a man turns twenty, God sits and waits for him to get married. If he reaches the age of twenty and is not yet married, God says, ‘Let his bones swell up!’” Rambam likewise writes, “A man is commanded to procreate…. Once he has reached the age of twenty and has not married, he is guilty of disregarding a positive commandment” (MT, Laws of Marriage 15:2). Rosh, explaining this age limit, writes similarly, “It is inconceivable for a person to disregard the mitzva of procreation forever” (Kiddushin 1:42). Elsewhere he writes, “If an unmarried man past the age of twenty does not want to get married, it is proper for the beit din to compel him to get married in order to fulfill the mitzva of procreation” (Yevamot 6:16). Other Rishonim who say likewise include Smag (Aseh 49), Rabbeinu Yeruḥam (Toldot Adam Ve-Ḥava, netiv 22, ḥelek 2), and Tur. SA states, “If a man passes the age of twenty and does not want to get married, the beit din compels him to do so, in order to fulfill the mitzva of procreation” (EH 1:3). Responsa Maharam Padua §45 states that anyone who postpones marriage “transgresses a positive commandment each and every day.” Likewise, Maharit writes:

The beit din compels a man to marry in order to fulfill the mitzva of procreation, even though the mitzva of procreation remains constant throughout life and one is exempt after fulfilling it, so one who is lazy about it has postponed the mitzva but not completely disregarded it. Nevertheless, because he is commanded, he is still disregarding the fulfillment of a mitzva…. [Therefore,] if a man takes an oath that he will not get married until after he turns twenty, even if he specifies that he will delay it for only a year, he has taken an oath to disregard a mitzva, and the oath therefore does not take effect. (Responsa Maharit YD §47; likewise Shiyarei Knesset Ha-gedola [YD 236, Hagahot Tur 44] and Yafeh La-lev vol. 4, EH 1:12)

However, according to Rashba, one who swears that he will not get married until he is over the age of twenty is not considered to have taken an oath to disregard a positive commandment, since he can fulfill the mitzva later (Responsa Rashba 4:91). Ḥikrei Lev (EH §1) agrees, since it is possible to fulfill the mitzva at a time later than the ideal. As long as it is possible for him to keep his oath and still fulfill the mitzva, he is not considered to have sworn to disregard a mitzva. Nevertheless, Ḥikrei Lev adds, “He is punished by heaven for the time during which he disregards a positive commandment; furthermore, he could die before fulfilling the mitzva, in which case he will in fact have disregarded the positive commandment entirely.” We can also posit that Rashba’s leniency does not mean he is denying the rabbinic requirement to marry by the age of twenty. Rather, Rashba maintains that an oath that negates a rabbinic mitzva takes effect (Responsa Rashba 1:614).

It is important to add that timing plays a significant role in fulfilling the mitzva of procreation, since the goal of the mitzva is to multiply and fill the world with people (Bereishit 1:28 and 9:7). Multiplying is dependent on two factors – how many children a couple would like to have, and when they begin having them. The younger that people are when they begin having children, the faster the next generation can begin to multiply. This is why the Sages prohibited getting married on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed. If it were permitted, people might delay marriage by a few months in order to get married then, and that would negatively impact procreation (Ḥagiga 8b; SA 546:1-2; Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 10:4). The Sages also said, “Yehoshua was punished only because he prevented the Jewish people from fulfilling the mitzva of procreation for one night” (Eruvin 63b).

Other critical reasons to insist on marriage by the age of twenty are the fulfillment of the mitzva of ona and the prevention of sinful thoughts, as explained in Kiddushin 29b (see above). Rambam codifies: “Likewise, it is rabbinically mandated that a man not remain single, so that he will not have sinful thoughts” (MT, Laws of Marriage 15:16). Ritva (Yevamot 61b); Hasagot Ha-Ra’avad and Nimukei Yosef (Yevamot 19b in Rif pages); Levush 1:8; and AHS 1:7 all write similarly. See 4:7-8 above.

08. Coercion to Marry

Shulḥan Arukh rules, “It is a mitzva for every man to marry a woman when he is eighteen…and under no circumstances should he pass the age of twenty without a wife. If a man passes the age of twenty and does not want to get married, the beit din compels him to marry in order to fulfill the mitzva of procreation” (EH 1:3). What does this coercion involve? According to Rif and Rambam, he is beaten; according to Tosafot and Rosh, he is rebuked and sanctioned – no one is to do business with him or employ him, but he is not physically beaten or excommunicated (SA EH 154:21).

The question arises: How can a person be compelled to fulfill this mitzva, when marriage requires desire and love? How is it conceivable that we would coerce someone to get married? Clearly a man is not forced to marry someone he does not choose to marry. Rather, the Sages wish to advance a principled position: a person should get married by the age of twenty in order to fulfill the mitzva of procreation, and in principle the beit din should compel him to do so. In reality, though, only on rare occasions is the beit din in a position to intervene. An example would be a situation in which a young man has a close relationship with a young woman, and they have agreed to get married, but he keeps delaying the marriage based on various pretexts. In such a case, the beit din would compel him to marry her (R. Ḥayim Palachi, Ru’aḥ Ḥayim, EH 1:12).

Usually the issue of coercion arises when a man wants to marry a woman who cannot have children. For example, Rivash (who lived c. 600 years ago in Algiers) was asked about a young man who wanted to marry a rich old woman. The beit din of Tenes sought to prevent it on the grounds that he would not be able to procreate with her. Rivash responded that longstanding custom is not to compel particular matches, for such coercion can lead to much strife (Responsa Rivash §15). (The issue of a couple who has no children after ten years of marriage is addressed below, 6:7-8.)

To summarize, according to Shulḥan Arukh, the rabbinic courts can coerce a person to fulfill the mitzva of procreation, but as we have explained, in practice this has been done only in exceptional cases, when there was blatant disregard for the mitzva. According to Rivash and Rema, even then coercion is not used (SA EH 1:3). Current practice follows the last approach.

If a man reaches the age at which he is obligated to marry but has not found the right woman, even if there is a woman who is willing to marry him, he is not obligated to compromise, and he may continue his search for a suitable match (Yafeh La-lev, vol. 4, EH 1:13). However, if he is deluded, in search of a woman who does not exist or who would most likely not agree to marry him, he is guilty of delaying the mitzva. To help resolve these kinds of problems, the Sages instruct, “Get yourself a teacher; acquire a friend” (Avot 1:6). These mentors may give him advice, and sometimes even point out the error of his ways. The older the unmarried man, the harder he must try to fulfill the mitzva. This includes the willingness to compromise, because it would seem that what it comes down to is not compromising but adjusting to reality.

09. The Age of Marriage for Men (In Practice)

Based on the Talmud, some prominent poskim write that a man may delay marriage until the age of 24 for the purpose of Torah study or if his financial situation does not allow for earlier marriage (Yam Shel Shlomo; Birkei Yosef). In the past, plain study of Tanakh, ethics, and halakha with its rationales was sufficient for a person to create a Jewish home. It was enough for someone to work a few hours a day with his father when he was young to acquire the skills necessary to earn a living by the age of eighteen. He would likely even be able to put aside some money for wedding expenses and for building a one room house.

In modern times, life has become more complex, and preparation for married life requires more time. To successfully cope with today’s challenges, most young men must study far more Torah than was necessary in the past. To that end, the majority of them need to study in a yeshiva framework for at least a year after the age of eighteen – usually for longer. There is another sacred obligation to which young men must give time, and this is serving in the IDF in order to protect our people and our country. This mitzva, too, causes marriage to be delayed. Similarly, learning a profession suited to one’s talents generally involves academic study, which can take a few years, and begins after army service. Another complicating factor is that today’s homes are more expensive. They are larger and equipped with utilities such as water and electricity. Purchasing such homes requires working for years.

If a man were to delay marriage until after he learned all the Torah fundamentals, finished studying a suitable profession, and bought a house, most young people today would need to marry in their thirties. Such a postponement is impossible according to halakha. After all, while the environment in which we live has become more complex, complicated, and challenging, people’s emotional and physical nature has not changed, and from that standpoint, the appropriate age for marriage is still eighteen.

Thus, in light of today’s more complicated life, marriage may be postponed past the age of twenty, as in extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, it may not be deferred beyond the age of 24. On one hand, young people need more time to solidify their Torah knowledge, more fully form their worldview, and take their first steps toward acquiring a profession, or at least have a practical plan in place to learn a profession and support a family. On the other hand, they must not wait too long past the ideal emotional and physical age to get married, so as not to lose the enthusiasm and passion of youth necessary for building their relationship in its initial stages. We also find that people who wait until they are older to get married have more trouble finding their life partner, and some remain single for many years. In addition to all of this, the mitzvot of marriage and parenting require a person to express himself most fully and completely. As the Sages say, “any man without a wife is not a man” (Yevamot 63a), and such a person remains without happiness, without blessing, without goodness, without Torah, without fortification, and without peace (ibid. 62b). There is a limit to how many years a person can live absent all these. Additionally, we have seen that delaying marriage more than necessary can cause a person’s sexual drive to overwhelm him, so he will be unable to avoid sinful thoughts throughout his life (Kiddushin 29b). Therefore, most people should be instructed not to postpone marriage past the age of 24. People who are able to get married earlier – without seriously compromising their Torah study, army service, or career preparation – are blessed.[8]

[8]. The possibility of delaying marriage, be-di’avad, until the age of 24 is mentioned in the Talmud, which advises, “While your hand is still upon your son’s neck, marry him off” (Kiddushin 30a). Rashi explains: “While you still have authority over him, before he grows up and refuses your admonitions, marry him off.” The Talmud continues to explain that this time period is “from sixteen to 22, and some say from eighteen to 24.” That is, according to the second view, the Sages instruct parents to guide their sons to marry between the ages of eighteen and 24. Not before eighteen, because they are not mature and responsible enough to raise a family, and not after 24, because then it will be difficult to push them to get married. Additionally, as people get older they tend to become less flexible and open, so it becomes more difficult for them to get married, as we see with our very own eyes. The Sages assess that it is relatively easy to get married before the age of 24, and even easier before the age of 22. Based on this statement in the Talmud, Maharshal rules that for someone who wants to defer marriage in order to study Torah longer, “the latest possible age, following those who are lenient, is no later than 24” (Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin 1:57). If this is the deadline for Torah study, it is certainly not later than that for mundane concerns. Thus, Ḥida writes, “It seems that one should not postpone marriage past the age of 24 for any non-physical reason” (Birkei Yosef, EH 1:9; also cited in Pitḥei Teshuva ad loc. 5). This is also the position of R. Moshe Azulai (grandson of Ḥida), Zikhron Moshe, EH 1:3; R. Yitzḥak Isaac Shor, Toldot Adam, EH 1:3; and R. Yosef Ḥayim of Baghdad, Rav Pe’alim YD 2:30. Similarly, Rosh implies that there is a limit to how long marriage can be postponed even to allow for Torah study (Kiddushin 1:42). Some write that marriage may be postponed until the age of 25 (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot Ha-Katzar, Aseh 43; Shemesh U-magen, EH 2:23). For their position to be compatible with the Talmud in Kiddushin, it would seem that they must mean that marriage can be delayed up to but not including 25. Beit Shmuel 1:5 states that although according to Rosh there is a limit to how long marriage can be delayed even to allow for Torah study, according to Rambam it would seem marriage can be put off indefinitely to allow for Torah study on the condition that his sexual drive does not overpower him. Stretching this point, a similar allowance might be made for a man who is learning a profession. If he is doing so for the sake of heaven, in order to benefit the world, and if his inclination is not overpowering him, when truly necessary he may rely on Rambam’s position and postpone marriage even beyond the age of 24. (See above, ch. 4, n. 12.)

Some insist that we should not take into account all the difficulties and challenges with which modern life presents us; instead we must continue to demand that all males get married before the age of twenty. However, their opinion contradicts the Torah’s teaching to act normally (Sota 44a; MT, Laws of Dispositions 5:11). These leaders impose poverty upon the majority of their followers and prevent them from using their God-given talents and abilities to contribute to the world. The same leaders also tend to deny the mitzva of the Torah to serve in the army in order to protect the people and country. (As for the claim that delaying marriage leads to sinful thoughts, see above, ch. 4, n. 12.)

In contrast, others claim that a man should postpone marriage until he completes his academic studies and starts earning a respectable income, even if this will take many years, as is the practice of many young people in economically developed countries. This position is likewise contrary to halakha, which limits the postponement of marriage. Additionally, as we mentioned above, people who postpone marriage often have a difficult time finding the right person at a later point, and end up remaining single for a very long time, for the ideal age to marry from the point of view of emotional well-being is approximately twenty. As more time passes, enthusiasm wanes and it becomes more difficult to make a permanent commitment. This is one of the reasons for the breakdown of the institution of marriage and family in those countries where young people postpone marriage for too long.

10. The Age of Marriage for Women

As we have seen, halakha establishes eighteen to twenty as the ideal age for men to marry, with a delay until 24 under extenuating circumstances. In contrast, halakha does not establish a specific age for women to get married. The reason is that all mitzvot related to establishing and providing for a family, as well as the mitzva of Torah study, were imposed on men as an obligation, whereas for women it is a non-obligatory mitzva. A man who has not studied the basics of the Torah or cannot support his family is considered a sinner. Therefore, the Sages instruct men to wait until age eighteen to get married. In contrast, women can get married earlier, since they are not obligated to learn all the basics of the Torah and are not halakhically required to assume the burden of supporting their families. Men are obligated in the mitzva of procreation, so halakha does not allow a man to delay marriage past twenty, or in extenuating circumstances, past 24. In contrast, since women are not obligated to procreate, the Sages did not establish an age by which they must get married. Nevertheless, the Sages said that it is proper for a woman to marry as early as possible. This way, she will fulfill the mitzva of procreation without delay, and the evil inclination will not tempt her (Sanhedrin 76a).

Since a woman fulfills a tremendously important mitzva by marrying and having children, the Torah commands parents to do their best to help their daughters marry. The Sages even instruct people to put aside approximately one-tenth of their assets to help a daughter get married (Ketubot 52b; SA EH 113:1). Nevertheless, the beit din does not get involved in compelling parents to do so (Rema, EH 70:1).

In times of dire poverty, many families were forced to marry off their daughters while they were still girls in order to ensure their future, to make sure that they would not go hungry, and so that they would have the privilege of raising a family. Therefore, the Torah permitted a father to marry off his daughter while she was still a minor (under the age of twelve). However, when there was no existential need to marry off minors, the Sages prohibited doing so, saying, “A man may not marry off his daughter while she is still young; [rather, he must wait] until she has matured and is able to say, ‘I choose this one’” (Kiddushin 41a; SA EH 37:8).[9]

[9]. At first glance, this halakha seems self-contradictory. On one hand, the Torah allows a father to marry off his daughter from the moment she is born until she reaches adulthood. With his acceptance of kiddushin money from the groom (who must be at least thirteen years old), she becomes a wife. On the other hand, the Sages state, “A man may not marry off his daughter while she is still young; [rather, he must wait] until she has matured and is able to say, ‘I choose this one’” (Kiddushin 41a). In order to understand this law, we must be aware that until recently, earning a living generally involved working at hard physical labor all day long. Therefore, women were existentially dependent on men. When times were difficult, a young woman’s parents would need to provide a large dowry so that a man would agree to marry her and commit to providing for her. If they did not do so, they had reason to fear that their daughter would remain alone, without a husband, children, or income. Sometimes, when the parents received a marriage proposal from an upright man from a good family, they would hasten to marry off their daughter to him even while she was still a minor, while they still had money for a dowry. They were afraid that if they waited until she was grown, they would be unable to find her a decent husband or provide her with a suitable dowry. Sometimes, when the parents’ financial situation was dire, the only way left for them to save their daughter from starvation and to secure her future was to marry her off young to a successful man. Therefore, the Torah permitted a father to marry off his minor daughter. This explanation is offered by Tosafot, stating 800 years ago, “Because each and every day the exile worsens, if a man has the ability to provide his daughter with a dowry now, he should do so, because he may not have the means to do so later, and his daughter will remain alone forever” (Tosafot, Kiddushin 41a, s.v. “asur”). Sometimes parents married their daughter off as a minor because their community was very small, and if the father did not accept a viable son-in-law when he was available, he might get snapped up by someone else (Rabbeinu Peretz’s glosses on Smak §183). Similarly, “If he does not seize the opportunity, he may not have another chance” (Rabbanei Tzarfat as cited in Shita Mekubetzet, Ketubot 57b). See Otzar Ha-poskim, EH 37:8:25-26.

If a father died, the Sages ordained that in order to ensure a minor daughter’s well-being, her mother and brother could marry her off. However, since such a marriage does not have the status of a Torah marriage, if the minor wants to leave the husband they chose for her, she may say before two witnesses that she refuses to be married to him, and this dissolves their union. Based on her refusal, a certificate of repudiation (shtar mi’un) is drawn up. However, if she has not rejected him by the time she turns twelve and exhibits signs of puberty, she becomes his full-fledged wife (SA EH §155).

Nevertheless, when it was not absolutely necessary to marry off a minor in order to ensure her well-being, the Sages directed that even a poor man should not marry off his minor daughter without her wholehearted consent. Only when a girl was close to puberty, if she wished to marry a particular person, then it was a mitzva for her father to marry her off to him (Kiddushin 41a; SA EH 37:8; Tiferet Yisrael, Kiddushin 2:2). If she was not interested in getting married yet, they would wait until she was. In general, the Sages said that girls should be encouraged to marry early, as soon as possible after puberty, so as to avoid delaying the fulfillment of the mitzva of procreation. Additionally, doing so would protect her from the evil inclination’s enticements to act promiscuously. As it says, “Do not degrade your daughter and make her a harlot” (Vayikra 19:29), on which Rabbi Akiva commented, “This refers to a man who delays marrying off his adult daughter” (Sanhedrin 76a).

When such marriages were made due to financial necessity, then even though the bride did not choose the groom, there was no shame in it. Many such marriages were happy and resulted in a thriving family life. The relationship would evolve: At first, the husband’s attitude to his young wife would be paternal. As she grew up and developed her identity, they would become peers. As their connection deepened, she would become as a mother to him, taking care of all of his emotional needs. The Sages use this development as an allegory to describe God’s relationship with the Jewish people (Shemot Rabba 52:5). We must add that the Sages instructed the husband of a minor to refrain from sexual relations until his wife reached puberty. A man who has sexual relations with a minor, even his wife, is deemed a child molester. The Sages say that such a person prevents the arrival of the Messiah, since the girl takes no pleasure in this, nor is she able to bear children (Nidda 13b).

11. The Age of Marriage for Women Nowadays

Over the past several centuries, as the economic situation improved and stabilized, eliminating the need to marry off young girls to ensure their sustenance, the practice ceased to exist in most countries (AHS 37:33). Rather, marriages were generally arranged after girls reached halakhic adulthood and physical maturity, generally between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, and the final decision about whom to marry was left to them. The parents still had the very important job of helping their daughters choose a husband and of providing a dowry (approximately a tenth of their assets). However, the decision to get married was made by the girls themselves, and the kiddushin money was given to them directly.

Nowadays, thanks to a much higher standard of living and greater opportunities for women to utilize their talents in various fields, women are marrying later. There are two reasons for this. First, because women can now use their skills in many areas, they have a concomitant obligation to learn more Torah as they train in a suitable field, so that they can contribute goodness and blessing to the world. Second, in the past, young couples lived with their extended family, so even young women could have children because the older women would help them rear the children. In contrast, now that young couples set up house on their own, it is not realistic for women to get married until they are able to take full responsibility for caring for their children.

Nonetheless, women should not delay marriage too long. The right age for women to get married is slightly younger than the right age for men. First, girls mature earlier, as is reflected in their becoming obligated in mitzvot at the age of twelve, a year earlier than boys. Second, the mitzva to learn Torah requires less of women than of men. Third, women are not obligated to serve in the army as men are. It is true that nowadays, when it comes to supporting a family, women share the burden with men. One might think this would cause marriage to be delayed. On the contrary, it can enable earlier marriage. If a woman finishes her studies early, she can assume most of the burden of supporting the family at the beginning of the marriage, putting her husband through school where he can train in a suitable field, rather than needing to wait until he is able to support the family. In conclusion, the appropriate age of marriage today for men is between twenty and 24, while for women it is approximately two years younger.

12. The Responsibilities of Young Adults, Parents, and Society

The mitzva to get married poses a great challenge today for young people, their parents, and society as a whole. Young adults are expected, within a few years, to form a Torah-based worldview, acquire a profession that suits their talents, and start a family. In addition to this, men are expected to complete their army service and study as much Torah as possible.

The primary responsibility for meeting this challenge rests with young adults themselves. They must plan carefully to avoid wasting time during these precious years. Even though we have defined the present day as “pressing circumstances,” when young men may delay marriage until 24, one who wastes time during these years is disregarding a Torah commandment. Therefore, every young man and young woman has an obligation to pave a way to integrate all these values. They must try to marry at a young age while simultaneously acquiring suitable professions, in order to support their family and contribute to the world.

The second responsibility is that of the parents. The Sages teach that it is the parents’ responsibility to marry off their children (Kiddushin 29a-30b), as it says, “Take wives and beget sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters” (Yirmiyahu 29:6). In other words, the mitzva of procreation does not end with the birth of the children, but continues. When children mature and reach marriageable age, the parents must encourage them to get married, and provide them with both advice and financial help. This makes the parents partners in ensuring continuity. The Sages instruct parents to set aside a tenth of their assets for the marriage of each child. It would seem that nowadays, a significant part of the parents’ support should be directed toward helping their children to successfully navigate the challenge of combining marriage, professional training, and in some cases childcare as well.[10]

Society as a whole also has a responsibility to create conditions conducive to young people fulfilling the mitzva of getting married in a timely fashion. To allow for this, it is necessary to make professional training as efficient as possible, to help young people find affordable housing and childcare, and to enable women to begin their studies as early as possible so that they can help support their family in the initial years of the marriage.[11]

[10]. “How much must [parents spend on a daughter’s marriage]? Abaye and Rava both say: Up to a tenth of their assets” (Ketubot 52b). Therefore, if a father passes away without explicitly expressing his wishes about how much to spend on marrying off his daughter, a tenth of his estate should be allocated for that purpose (Ketubot 68a; SA EH 113:1). However, we do not enforce this (Rema, EH 70:1). Maharam Mintz writes that a father may not favor a daughter by giving her more than a son (Responsa Maharam Mintz 1:31). Rabbeinu Ḥananel says that he may not give a daughter more than a tenth of his assets, so as not to discriminate against the sons and deprive them of their inheritance (as cited in Tosafot to Ketubot 50b, s.v. “u-mai”). But the common practice was not to follow this (Rema, EH 113:1; Taz ad loc. 1), because sometimes the reality was that if the parents did not give their daughter more, they would not be able to find her a husband.

The straightforward meaning of the Talmud in Ketubot 52b is that the mitzva for parents to marry off their children is a Torah obligation. However, many believe this law has the status of divrei kabbala (prophetic writings), an intermediate status between a mitzva from the Torah and a rabbinic mitzva (Ran; Me’iri; Ritva). Others say that the mitzva is rabbinic, and the verse is simply used as a support for the rabbinic law (Leḥem Mishneh explaining MT, Laws of Marriage 20:1). Some Rishonim write that the mitzva to marry off a child is the father’s obligation, while the mother is exempt from this just as she is exempt from the obligation to procreate (Ran; Me’iri). Nevertheless, it is obvious that this is a great mitzva, just as her participation in procreation is a great mitzva, as explained above in section 3. I would humbly suggest that paying children’s tuition when they are over eighteen so that they can learn a profession can be considered part of the tenth that parents need to invest in their child’s marriage, for this, too, helps enable the children start and support a family. Furthermore, it seems reasonable to me that the directive to dedicate a tenth of one’s assets for each wedding was made at a time when most people had about five children to marry off. Accordingly, someone who has been privileged to have ten children would need to dedicate only five percent of his assets to each child. That is, unless he manages to save and invest, increasing his net worth, in which case he may be able to dedicate ten percent of the assets he holds at the time of each wedding to the child getting married.

[11]. Not only does modern life present us with some difficulties, it also provides us with solutions. Thus, while it is true that learning a profession takes longer than it once did, at the same time it is a good long-term investment. Therefore, banks are prepared to provide student loans which need to be repaid only after the borrower starts working. There is a similar phenomenon with housing. While homes are certainly larger and more expensive than they once were, there is also a thriving long-term mortgage market which helps people to purchase them.

Beyond the difficulty of juggling all these challenges simultaneously, today’s society of abundance has left many people addicted to luxuries. For many, the addiction is so serious that it prevents them from realizing any of their ideals. Instead, they are constantly preoccupied with making more money to buy a better car, fancier clothing, more expensive furniture, and a bigger house in a wealthier neighborhood. In order to do that, many people postpone marriage and neglect the mitzva of procreation. People need to overcome temptation and prioritize their ideals over fleeting pleasures. They must remember that even someone who nowadays is considered to be making do with the minimum is still living as well as someone wealthy lived 200 years ago. If people in the past could live that way happily, then it should be possible to do that today, too. Everyone can realize their ideals, and thus be privileged to live a truly meaningful life.

13. The Permit to use Birth Control for a Year

In the past, most women nursed their children for about two years, and nursing would almost always prevent ovulation and menstruation. Consequently, a woman could not become pregnant while nursing, and there was thus a natural gap of about two years between birth and the next pregnancy. Today, reality has changed in two ways. First, the average time spent nursing has been shortened to six months or less. There are several reasons for this: women have joined the workforce, life is more stressful, and substitutes for breast milk are available. Second, for many women, nursing does not prevent ovulation and menstruation, so they can become pregnant even while nursing.

Thus, if a couple fulfill the mitzva of ona at its set times, many women would conceive a few months after giving birth, especially women who are not nursing at all or are nursing some of the time and supplementing with formula. The question arises: may a couple use contraception in the year following birth, to enable them to fulfill the mitzva of ona while avoiding another pregnancy?

Some rabbis are inclined to rule stringently and do not permit birth control except if there is a great need, such as when the mother is extremely weak or very stressed. In their opinion, the mitzva of procreation requires having as many children as possible. However, the halakha follows the opinion of most poskim, who maintain that when necessary it is permissible to prevent pregnancy using halakhically acceptable methods (as explained in sections 17-19). Experience shows that from the perspective of physical and psychological health, it is best for most women to take a break of approximately nine months to a year between birth and the next pregnancy. Accordingly, it is permissible le-khatḥila for all women to use contraceptive methods during this time. Similarly, after a miscarriage, birth control may be used for several months if necessary, based on the instruction of a God-fearing doctor.[12]

[12]. The parameters of family planning are not addressed systematically in the halakhic literature; rather, we find numerous responses given to different people in a variety of situations. This is primarily because it is a subject that has surfaced in recent times. Thanks to medical advances and improved living conditions and nutrition, the average woman can have many more children than in the past (as explained above, at the beginning of n. 6). Additionally, many feel that since the subject is very complex, a wise person should always be consulted. Accordingly, there is no need to write general parameters (as explained below, in section 20). It is also important to note that many rulings deal with contraceptive methods that raise concerns about wasting seed, and not with birth control pills and IUDs, which avoid this problem because they are akin to the talmudic sterility potion (kos shel ikarim); see section 17 below. Nevertheless, three general opinions emerge from these rulings. The most stringent approach maintains that contraception should not be used unless there is a great need. Only natural means like nursing should be used (including after birth). Other means of contraception may be used only in cases of physical illness or psychological fragility (Shevet Ha-Levi 3:177; Mishneh Halakhot 5:210). At the other extreme are those who permit the use of contraception for two years following a birth, even before the mitzva of procreation has been fulfilled. They see it as natural, and also what was done throughout history. Women generally nursed for two years (Nidda 9a), and the nursing had a contraceptive effect (Si’aḥ Naḥum §94; Bnei Banim 1:30). The moderate approach is that it is permissible le-khatḥila to use contraception for nine months to a year following a birth. This allows the mother to recuperate from the birth and to take proper care of the baby, both of which are very important. Even a woman who does not feel it is necessary may still use birth control le-khatḥila for this amount of time, since experience shows that it is in fact necessary. In special cases of physical or psychological fragility, contraception may be used for up to two years. It seems most rabbis rule by this approach (see Nishmat Avraham, EH 5:16 n. 1).

14. Birth Control for Two Years or More

Prior to the fulfillment of the mitzva of procreation, contraceptives should not be used for more than a year. However, some women, because of their physical or emotional state, need a break of more than a year after giving birth. In such cases, birth control may be used for up to two years.

A couple who has not yet fulfilled the Torah commandment of procreation may not use contraception for more than a year if using it is for financial reasons or to make studying or working easier. Some poskim are lenient in these cases too, and allow birth control for up to two years. Although it is preferable to follow the majority of poskim and not be lenient, for the world was created for this mitzva and it gives people the opportunity to be God’s partners in sustaining the world (Gittin 41a-b; Nidda 31a), nevertheless, those who wish to be lenient in this regard have someone to rely upon.12 Even this leniency is limited to two years.

It is incorrect for a woman to claim that since she is not obligated in the mitzva, she is therefore allowed to use contraception for an unlimited amount of time. Ever since the acceptance of Rabbeinu Gershom’s ordinance forbidding men to marry two women or to divorce their wives against their will, a man is completely dependent upon his wife to fulfill the mitzva of procreation. Therefore, when a woman consents to get married, she is also agreeing to be her husband’s partner in fulfilling this mitzva (Responsa Ḥatam Sofer, EH §20).

In extenuating circumstances, such as when a woman suffers from physical or mental illness whose treatment requires contraception, it is permissible to use birth control for more than two years following a birth, even if the couple has not yet fulfilled the Torah requirement by having a son and daughter. This permit should be granted only after serious deliberation and after consultation with a God-fearing doctor.[13]

[13]. The basis for the rulings in this section is explained in the previous note. However, R. Yehuda Herzl Henkin allows the use of contraception for up to four years to allow the mother to care for the current child. He bases this on the Talmud in Ketubot 60a which says that a woman is permitted to nurse her child for up to four years (Responsa Bnei Banim 1:30). However, one could object that this is only permissible when the prevention is through natural means, like nursing one’s baby. Then one could apply the logic that a person who is currently involved in fulfilling a mitzva (nursing) is exempt from fulfilling another mitzva (another pregnancy). However, other interventions are prohibited due to the mitzva obligation. Just as the Sages established a maximum age to get married in order to fulfill the mitzva of procreation, and anyone who delays past this age is considered a transgressor (Kiddushin 29b), so too there is a natural timeframe for the use of contraception, which is at most two years. This is also the generally accepted ruling.

15. Birth Control for Newlyweds

Under normal circumstances, a couple may not use contraception if they have not yet had children, because the mitzva of procreation is an absolute obligation meant to be fulfilled within a certain time frame. Thus, the Sages state (Kiddushin 29b), “Until a man turns twenty, God sits and waits for him to get married. If he reaches the age of twenty and is not yet married, God says, ‘Let his bones swell up!’” because he has not started to fulfill the mitzva of procreation (MT, Laws of Marriage 15:2; section 7 above). Nevertheless, we have seen (section 9) that in our times, one may delay marriage, when necessary, until the age of 24. Those who are privileged to marry earlier may not actively avoid fulfilling the mitzva of procreation.

Only when there are extenuating circumstances, such as when the wife suffers from physical or mental illness, is it permissible for newlyweds to use contraception even before her first pregnancy, so that she can get healthy. This permit should be granted only after serious deliberation and after consultation with a God-fearing doctor.

Similarly, if a couple’s relationship is shaky and there is concern that they will have to divorce, they should avoid pregnancy until their relationship is stable. This permit is generally for the period of six months to a year.

There is another reason to consider a couple’s circumstances to be pressing: when both are enrolled in particularly rigorous academic frameworks, such as medical school. If no one is available to help them, and in their estimation, getting pregnant and having a baby would mean that at least one of them would need to drop out of school and lose the opportunity to realize their aspirations and develop their talents in a profession that suits them so as to contribute to society, then since pregnancy and birth would cause them considerable and lasting harm, they may use contraception, as these are pressing circumstances. This is on condition that using contraception will not prevent them from fulfilling the mitzva of procreation by having four to five children (as explained above in section 6). The situation needs to be examined seriously by a wise rabbi.

Let us say a young couple is in a serious relationship and are planning to get married, and they ask whether it is preferable to get married and use contraception until they finish their professional schooling, or postpone marriage. Then even though their halakhic obligation is to get married and not use birth control, nevertheless, if these are the only two options they are willing to consider, it is better that they get married and use contraception. By delaying marriage, they will be delaying the fulfillment of the mitzva of ona, and will also be prone to having sinful thoughts.[14]

[14]. The consensus of poskim is that the use of contraception is prohibited before the first birth, whether because the couple wants to strengthen their relationship, are overburdened by school, or are concerned about finances. This is because when a man reaches the age of twenty, he is fully obligated to fulfill the mitzva of procreation, as explained above in section 7 and note 7, based on the writings of Rambam, Rosh, and many others. From a moral perspective as well, couplehood and parenthood are meant to come together, thus expressing their marital covenant. This is the position of Be-ohala Shel Torah 1:67. However, when there is concern that a couple’s relationship is unstable, they may use birth control. Experience shows that birth control in such cases is critical, so that if they must divorce, the pain and harm that it causes will be minimized. Nevertheless, this permit should not be prolonged indefinitely, hence I wrote that this is generally granted for six months to a year (Responsa Bnei Banim 4:15 grants half a year, which is the minimum ona frequency – that of sailors).

Under pressing circumstances, contraception can be permitted for the completion of a particularly demanding course of study, such as medicine, since without contraception, there is a reasonable concern that one of the spouses will not be able to realize their dreams, causing significant, lifelong harm. The grounds for this permit are twofold. First, we can extrapolate from the Sages’ permission to postpone marriage until the age of twenty to allow a man to study Torah and train for a profession. Yam Shel Shlomo and Birkei Yosef comment that if truly necessary, it is permissible to delay marriage until the age of 24, as explained above in section 9 and n. 7. Beit Shmuel 1:5 states that whereas Rosh limits the postponement of marriage even when there is a good reason, Rambam implies that someone immersed in Torah study may postpone marriage longer as long as his sexual drive does not overpower him. Stretching this point, a similar allowance might be made for someone who is studying a demanding subject for the sake of heaven and in order to better the world, and he would not be able to complete his studies without relying on contraception. This is comparable to the permission given above (section 9) to postpone marriage until the age of 24 for the sake of studies and other very important pursuits. (The opinion of Responsa Rashba 4:91, that there is no Torah obligation to get married by a certain age, cannot be used here as an additional factor, because the Sages do require marriage by a specific age, as explained in n. 7.)

Second, halakha does not demand that a person spend more than a fifth of his assets to fulfill a mitzva (Rema 656:1). Only if the going price for a mitzva item exceeds one fifth of his income must he spend more. Nevertheless, if it is possible to fulfill the mitzva at a later point, one might suggest that halakha does not demand that a person give up his dream, when it is worth more to him than a fifth of his assets. Furthermore, this type of sacrifice usually entails losing much more money than a fifth of one’s income. It is also important to point out the value of making a living. The Sages did not demand that camel-drivers and sailors quit their jobs even though they needed to travel for as much as six months at a time, thus reducing the chance that they would fulfill both the Torah and rabbinic obligations to procreate.

However, the permit is limited to pressing circumstances and where there is no other option. It is proper to consult with a wise rabbi who understands all the different aspects of this issue in order to examine whether contraception is necessary to allow them to realize their dreams.

As we have seen in section 7, the Sages prohibit delaying marriage beyond the age of twenty, for two reasons (Kiddushin 29b): First, according to the academy of Rabbi Yishmael, because it neglects the mitzva of procreation. Second, according to Rav Huna, because of sinful thoughts and, formulated positively, because of the value of marital love as expressed in the mitzva of ona. We see that even if a person avoids fulfilling the mitzva of procreation, there is nevertheless a mitzva for him to get married, both to fulfill the mitzva of ona and to avoid sinful thoughts. Thus, when a couple insist that they must either put off marriage or use contraception, it is preferable for them to marry and use birth control.

16. Contraception After Fulfillment of the Torah Obligation

Some authorities rule stringently that even after a couple has fulfilled the Torah commandment of procreation by having a son and a daughter, contraception is still forbidden, because the Sages ordained a mitzva to have as many children as they can. Therefore, the use of contraception is permissible only for nine months to a year following birth, to allow the woman to recuperate and tend to her baby’s needs. Beyond that, contraception is permitted only if there is a specific health-related need. Contraception because of preoccupation with raising the children or financial constraints is forbidden.

Nevertheless, in practice, as we learned (section 6), the rabbinic obligation can be understood to mean having four to five children, while having more children is a great mitzva but not an obligation. Therefore, until one fulfills the rabbinic obligation, it is best not to use contraception for more than a year after birth. Those who wish to be lenient, to allow more time for physical and emotional recuperation, may use contraception for two years, because for many generations, this was the duration of the natural contraception that resulted from nursing. In cases of illness, as long as the biblical obligation of having a son and a daughter has been fulfilled, contraception may be used for more than two years.

After the rabbinic obligation of having four to five children has been fulfilled, it is permissible to use contraception for an indefinite amount of time if necessary. For example, if a couple knows that they would feel overburdened by additional children, leading to irritability and anger and making it difficult for them to educate their children properly, they may use birth control. If a couple wants to focus on their important, valuable jobs more than they want to have additional children, and they feel they will not be able to do so if they have more children, they may use birth control. If a wife wants to work at a job that will make use of her talents, and having more children will prevent her from doing so and leave her extremely frustrated, the couple may use birth control. Poor people who believe that it will be hard to raise more children without needing to accept charity may use birth control. The couple should weigh all these factors together; if they disagree, they should compromise, as they are codependent partners. It is also good idea to consult with someone wise.

Those who wish to enhance the fulfillment of the mitzva will continue to have as many children as they can, even after they already have five. Even if they use contraception for a year following each birth, it is considered enhancing the mitzva. This is the proper conduct for those who feel that without too much difficulty they can raise more children in the ways of Torah, mitzvot, and derekh eretz, and whose work is not a calling that will be harmed significantly by having more children. A woman at the age of about forty who is concerned about increasing risk may use contraception from then on. This is common even among those who enhance the mitzva.[15]

[15]. Some say that a man may not avoid having more children on the grounds that it would be difficult to educate and support them, since the rabbinic obligation is to have as many children as possible. Health issues are the only legitimate excuse not to fulfill the rabbinic mitzva (R. Yosef Messas, Otzar Ha-mikhtavim 3:941; Yaskil Avdi, EH 2:6; Minḥat Yitzḥak 3:26:3; Ḥelkat Yaakov 3:61; Az Nidberu 6:63; Mishneh Halakhot 5:210). The basis of their view is Sefer Ḥasidim §519: “The righteous person who is poor should not think, ‘If I am intimate with my wife, she may get pregnant. How I will support us?’ A person who thinks this way lacks faith, for God makes a woman’s milk come in after she gives birth. Mekhilta states that a person who has food for today but asks what he will eat tomorrow lacks faith.” (See also n. 6 above.)

On the other hand, we find that poskim permitted contraception for several reasons. For example, Rema says that if a man’s wife died and he already has many children, and he is concerned that if he marries a woman of childbearing age, quarrels will erupt between the two sets of children, he may marry a woman who is no longer fertile (Rema, EH 1:8). Terumat Ha-deshen §263 states that after a man fulfills the mitzva of procreation, he may marry a woman who cannot conceive. It is possible that Rambam feels that the mitzva for a man to marry a woman of childbearing age is only on condition that he has the energy to educate and support the children; Rambam’s formulation is “as long as he has the energy” (MT, Laws of Marriage 15:16). Along the same lines, AHS 1:8 qualifies, “if his economic position is good enough to support them.” Moreover, the Talmud relates that after R. Ḥiya’s wife had two sons and two daughters, she drank a sterility potion and did not conceive again (see the next note). From this story, many have concluded that after fulfilling the Torah obligation, a woman may take indirect action to prevent further pregnancies, even without a compelling reason to do so (Igrot Moshe, EH 4:74:1-2; Tzitz Eliezer 9:51:2; R. Elyashiv, Kovetz Teshuvot 3:174). It is possible that there is no major disagreement here. Even those who are lenient would agree that there is a mitzva to have as many children as possible, and even those who are stringent would agree that people who wish to use contraception in a way that does not violate any prohibition (as explained in the next section) may do so, though they generally instruct their students to act more piously.

In practice, as I wrote in section 6 above, the mitzva has three tiers of obligation: a) the Torah commandment to have a boy and a girl; b) the rabbinic obligation to have four to five children; c) the non-obligatory mitzva to have additional children. In addition to the specific sources cited for this division in n. 6, this structure gives expression to all views – the stringent opinion in the second tier and the lenient opinion in the third. In truth, even within the second tier, some maintain that four children are sufficient even if they do not include two sons and two daughters, while others go further and have five children, or continue to have children until they have two sons and two daughters. Within the third tier (six children or more), there is variation as well. The more children a couple has, the greater their enhancement of the mitzva.

At first glance, this division of the rabbinic mitzva into two tiers – the obligatory and the optional – is an innovative division for which there is barely any source in the halakhic literature. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one who scrutinizes the rulings and guidance of the poskim will find that this comports with their mainstream guidance: Early on, when a family is relatively small, they instruct the couple to be stringent and not to use contraception unless there is a great need for it. Once they have many children, poskim are lenient and allow contraception even when there is no great need for it. Thus, we see that the division of the mitzva into three tiers gives expression to what poskim have accepted. Moreover, this structure is effective as it gives the posek and the couple a rubric; until a couple have four to five children, which is the norm for most religious families, it is best for them to incline toward the opinion of the stringent poskim who rule against contraception unless there is a particular need. From that point on, they should incline toward the permissive view.

As we explained above in n. 5, the rabbinic obligation is not as strict as the Torah obligation. Before the latter has been met, no ona may be skipped; after the fulfillment of the obligation, according to most poskim, a couple may forgo some onot (SA EH 76:6). Therefore, the mainstream position is that before fulfilling the Torah obligation, a couple may not use contraception for more than a year unless there is a serious need for it; after they fulfill the obligation, it is preferable not to use contraception for more than a year, but those who wish may be lenient for a period of two years.

17. Birth Control Methods

Halakha prohibits the wasting of seed, so even when contraception is permitted, it is prohibited to prevent pregnancy by means of coitus interruptus (above, 4:1 and n. 1). Likewise, having sexual relations with a condom is prohibited, for the man ejaculates into the condom, thereby wasting his seed.

However, it is permissible to prevent pregnancy indirectly, by means of two main methods: a) taking birth control pills; b) inserting an IUD (intrauterine device). These are considered the most effective contraceptive methods and the most halakhically preferred, because the prevention of pregnancy takes place in the body of the woman, and indirectly, with no harm done to the sperm. Therefore, when birth control is permitted, these methods are permissible according to all opinions (as explained in section 18).

There are two other methods which are less effective in preventing pregnancy and also less preferable halakhically: a) spermicide (foam or vaginal suppository); b) diaphragm. (In section 19, we explain how these methods work.)

In discussing when contraception is permissible le-khatḥila, we were assuming use of the pill or an IUD. However, permission is granted only be-di’avad for a diaphragm or spermicide. Those wishing to use them must have a more compelling reason to do so (as explained in section 19).[16]

Women who are fortunate to be able to rely on nursing for contraception are free of all the concerns and side effects accompanying the various methods of birth control. Therefore, if a woman is not afraid of becoming pregnant soon after giving birth, it is recommended that she not use contraceptives while nursing. If while nursing she does not menstruate or get pregnant, she will know that nursing works for her as a means of contraception. Then, after subsequent births, she can prevent pregnancy by nursing without any need for the pill or to have an IUD inserted. Nonetheless, if someone is worried about getting pregnant while nursing, she may use contraceptives for a period of nine months to a year after giving birth.[17]

[16]. The Talmud tells the story of R. Ḥiya’s wife, who had tremendously painful births. After having two boys and two girls, she obtained halakhic permission to drink a sterility potion which made her permanently infertile (Yevamot 65b). SA EH 5:12 rules that this behavior is permissible. Some say the permission is limited to a situation in which giving birth is extremely painful (Baḥ 5:9; Yam Shel Shlomo, Yevamot 6:44; AHS ad loc. 24). Others say the permit applies even when childbirth is not terribly painful (Beit Shmuel 5:14; Ḥelkat Meḥokek ad loc. 6; Taz ad loc. 7; Birkei Yosef ad loc. 14). It seems to me that if there is no pain at all, destroying the ability of the woman’s body to conceive is prohibited on grounds of destructiveness (bal tashḥit).

As a result of Rabbeinu Gershom’s ordinance prohibiting polygamy and disallowing divorce against a woman’s will, when a woman marries, she is in effect agreeing to partner with her husband in the fulfillment of the mitzva of procreation (section 14 above). Consequently, decisions about contraception, and certainly sterilization, must be made jointly. This is the position of Ḥatam Sofer, EH §20, cited in Pitḥei Teshuva 5:11. Nevertheless, even if the wife drank the sterility potion without halakhic sanction, as long as they are married the mitzva of ona still applies to them.

In any case, we see from the story of R. Ḥiya’s wife that when contraception is achieved indirectly within the woman’s body, and there is no barrier between the sperm and the uterus, there is no concern that seed is wasted. Therefore, there is no problem of wasting seed when using birth control pills or an IUD; the question is whether it is permitted despite the neglect of the mitzva to procreate. However, the poskim disagree regarding the use of spermicides or diaphragms which block the sperm from reaching the uterus. Even though most poskim are lenient, le-khatḥila it is preferable to defer to the stringent opinion. Thus, the use of these methods is be-di’avad, as explained below in section 19 and n. 19.

There is general agreement that the use of a condom is forbidden. Regarding someone with AIDS, see 6:4 below.

[17]. It can be suggested to a nursing mother to use spermicidal suppositories until her period returns. Even though we have seen that this method of birth control is be-di’avad, there is a good chance in this case that nursing itself is preventing pregnancy, so the use of a spermicide is less problematic. The nursing is the primary contraceptive, while the spermicide simply bolsters its effectiveness. If the woman does not get her period at all while she is nursing, then following the next birth she can rely only nursing alone. If she is still concerned, she can use a spermicide until her period returns.

18. Birth Control Pills and IUDs

Birth control pills are meant to be taken orally every day. The pills contain hormones that either prevent ovulation or prevent the implantation of the egg in the uterus. It is also possible for these hormones to be delivered through a patch, which is effective for a week, or via a vaginal hormonal ring, which is effective for three weeks. There are several advantages to the hormonal methods of contraception. They are user-friendly; they can be used for just a month or for years; and prolonged use can significantly lengthen the time during which a woman is ritually pure, since she does not menstruate as long as she continues to take the hormones. Thus, if the duration of a woman’s ritually pure time is generally two to three weeks of each menstrual cycle, by taking the pill it is possible to extend this time to a month and a half or longer. The couple can also control when the woman will be a nidda and plan it based on their convenience. Nevertheless, the hormones should not be taken for extended periods of time without medical approval.

The downside of hormonal treatments is that they often have side effects, such as moodiness, weight gain, and loss of libido. However, there are many types of birth control pills. A woman, under her doctor’s supervision, can switch to a different pill until she finds the best one for her, thus reducing the side effects. Some people are concerned that hormonal treatments are carcinogenic, but the general consensus among doctors today is that the risk is minimal and not a cause for concern. Some even claim that the hormones reduce the risk of certain diseases. One more disadvantage is that sometimes the hormones lead to breakthrough bleeding, which may render the woman a nidda. Switching to a different pill usually solves this problem.

Nursing mothers need to take special birth control pills that do not adversely affect nursing. The problem is that these pills are more likely to lead to spotting and staining. Usually, taking an additional half pill a day stops the bleeding, but if it continues, an alternate solution must be found (see n. 17 above).

An IUD is inserted into the uterus by a doctor and prevents the egg from implanting in the uterine lining, although exactly how it works is something of a mystery. The advantages of the IUD are that it has neither the side effects of hormones nor the medical concerns. Additionally, a woman does not need to remember to take it every day as with the pill. Therefore, many women prefer to use an IUD instead of hormonal contraception.

The disadvantages of an IUD are that it is relatively expensive and must be inserted by a doctor. It is therefore normally used for a year or more at a time. Another major drawback is that the IUD can cause bleeding for an extended time following its insertion. Even after that, it can lengthen normal menstrual bleeding by one to three days, thereby reducing the number of days that a woman is pure. Additionally, if an IUD is inserted incorrectly, it can cause bleeding until it is replaced.[18]

[18]. If a woman has finished her period and then sees blood that, in the doctors’ assessment, was caused by the IUD, poskim disagree about her status. Some are lenient. Since she is presumed to be finished with her period, then the status of this blood is that of the blood of a wound, since it was caused by the IUD (Taharat Ha-bayit 1:5:10; Dibrot Eliyahu 6:36). Others are stringent, because it may in fact be menstrual blood (Shi’urei Shevet Ha-Levi 187:5 toward the end). Additionally, the claim can be made that any blood that comes from the uterus causes impurity. Still others see her status as uncertain, but are prepared to be lenient if there are additional grounds to justify a leniency (Be-ohala Shel Torah 1:24). It would seem that this blood should be considered a stain (ketem), which does not render her impure if it is found on a nonwhite substrate or is less than the size of a gris (approximately 19mm in diameter). If the IUD is the type that secretes hormones, we cannot be lenient, as it is possible that the hormones triggered a type of menstrual bleeding.

In cases in which an IUD causes a woman’s period to last longer than usual, we cannot be lenient. Even though it is clear that the IUD is responsible, it is too difficult to distinguish between menstrual blood and the blood caused by the IUD.

19. Spermicides and Diaphragms

There are two contraceptive methods that are halakhically controversial. One is the use of a spermicidal foam, gel, or suppository that a woman inserts into her vagina before sexual relations. The second is the use of a diaphragm, a shallow, dome-shaped cup that a woman inserts in the vagina to block the opening of the cervix to block sperm from reaching the uterus. Spermicide is usually placed on the diaphragm in order to increase the effectiveness of the contraceptive. When a woman knows how to properly insert the diaphragm, the chances that she will conceive are very slim, but few women know how to insert it properly. In practice, among women who use either of these two contraceptive methods while regularly fulfilling the mitzva of ona, more than ten percent can expect to get pregnant over the course of a year.

Poskim who are lenient maintain that since the woman is the one who inserts the diaphragm or spermicide, and since the couple has sexual relations without any barriers between their bodies, it is not considered a waste of seed, only a means of preventing the sperm from reaching the uterus and fertilizing the ovum. Those who are stringent maintain that using spermicide is, by definition, destroying seed.

When there is a real need to avoid pregnancy, and for whatever reason birth control pills and an IUD are contraindicated, a couple may use these two methods. However, if spermicides and diaphragms were more effective, it would be permissible to rely on the lenient views only under extenuating circumstances. It is precisely because there is more than a ten percent chance that a woman using these methods will get pregnant within a year that they may be used if necessary (Ezrat Kohen §37). This is on condition that a couple using them have reconciled themselves that should a pregnancy occur they will accept it with good grace.[19]

[19]. The Talmud presents a disagreement among Tanna’im: “Three women have intercourse using a mokh (absorbent material) – a minor, a pregnant woman, and a nursing woman…. These are the words of R. Meir. But the Sages say: Each of these women has intercourse normally, and God will have mercy, as it says (Tehillim 116:6), ‘The Lord protects the simple’” (Yevamot 12b). That is, it was acknowledged that getting pregnant entailed an element of danger for these women, but whereas R. Meir legitimates using a mokh to prevent pregnancy, the Sages disagree.

According to Rabbeinu Tam, this debate concerns the insertion of a mokh into the vagina after sexual intercourse, to absorb the semen and prevent pregnancy. However, all of these Tanna’im agree that it is forbidden to have sexual intercourse if the mokh was inserted beforehand, as the husband would waste his seed by ejaculating into the mokh. This is also the ruling of Responsa R. Akiva Eger §§71-72; Ḥatam Sofer, YD §172; Binyan Tziyon §137; and Rav Pe’alim YD 4:17.

In contrast, according to Yam Shel Shlomo (Yevamot 1:8), the disagreement in the Talmud concerns the insertion of a mokh before intercourse, and there is no problem of wasting seed because the couple has relations normally. The disagreement between R. Meir and the Sages is whether the three types of women must use a mokh or may use it. R. Meir believes a mokh is required, since pregnancy would be dangerous, but the Sages maintain that a mokh is not necessary since it is rare for these women to conceive naturally. This is the view of several Rishonim: Rid (Yevamot ad loc.), Rosh (Responsa Rosh 33:3), and by implication Ramban, Ra’ah, and Rashba’s student (Shita Mekubetzet, Ketubot 39a). This is also the ruling of Ḥemdat Shlomo, EH 46; Maharsham 1:58; Torat Ḥesed, EH 2:44; Ketav Sofer, EH 26; and Aḥiezer 1:23 and 3:24. Rav Kook is inclined this way as well (Ezrat Kohen §§34 and 37).

It would seem that R. Tam and those who agree with his view would forbid the use of a diaphragm or spermicide, just as they forbid use of a mokh. Nevertheless, many Aḥaronim who ruled leniently about diaphragms and spermicides, whose use has become common over the past century, reason that these forms of contraception are permitted even according to R. Tam’s view. R. Tam is strict about a mokh because the couple can feel it as a barrier between them, but these contraceptive methods allow for normal sexual relations, wherein the semen enters the woman’s body without the sensation of any barrier separating them (Maharsham 1:58; Maharash Engel 6:86; Si’aḥ Naḥum §94).

In any case, the mainstream position is the permissive one, which is the opinion of most Aḥaronim, and, in their interpretation, all Rishonim. Nevertheless, since some Aḥaronim prohibit the use of these contraceptive methods, it would have been proper to rule that they may be used only in extenuating circumstances, when there is a clear need to prevent pregnancy and the preferred methods of contraception are not options. However, in cases where the permit to prevent pregnancy is less apparent, it is proper to rule stringently and avoid these methods. But these contraceptives have a certain halakhic advantage over other methods, as they are less effective. Rav Kook writes that when the contraception is less reliable, it is possible that even those who are generally stringent would be lenient (Ezrat Kohen §37). Thus, permission can be granted more easily for spermicides and diaphragms, and a couple may use them if there is a real need to use these methods specifically. Of course, it is important for the couple to be aware that these methods of birth control are not fully effective, and they should be prepared to accept a pregnancy willingly should it occur. In such cases, contraception is like an “unintended” consequence (davar she-eino mitkaven), because it is neither absolute nor entirely desirable.

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.

21. Selling a Torah Scroll for the Sake of Marriage

Due to the supreme sanctity of a Torah scroll, the Sages say that it must not be sold, and that one who sells a Torah scroll will never see blessing from that sale (Megilla 27a). Even when the owner of a Torah scroll has barely enough to eat, he should not sell it. Even if he does not have the money to buy necessary mitzva items, such as tefilin and mezuzot, he should not sell it (SA YD 270:1). Nevertheless, there are two mitzvot that are so important that, if one has no way to fulfill them without selling a Torah scroll, he may do so and use the proceeds for these mitzvot: Torah study and marriage. Even a community may sell its Torah scroll to marry off an orphan (SA 153:6; EH 1:2).

The unique quality of these two mitzvot is that they actualize the purpose of the Torah. Studying Torah brings the Torah’s words to life in people’s hearts, while marriage brings about the birth of children who will uphold the Torah (Megilla 27a).

This law does not come up often nowadays, because it is uncommon for a person to be unable to marry due to extreme poverty. There are always generous Jews who will help provide the basic necessities that enable the couple to wed. Nevertheless, this law teaches us the tremendous value of the mitzvot of marriage and procreation.

Some say that permission to sell a Torah scroll is limited to the case of someone who has not yet fulfilled the mitzva of procreation by having a son and a daughter (SA EH 1:8). According to many others, even someone who has already fulfilled the mitzva of procreation by having a son and a daughter may sell a Torah scroll in order to marry and have more children. This is the position of most Rishonim and Aḥaronim. Even if selling a Torah scroll will not provide a man with enough money to marry a woman of childbearing age, but only enough to marry a woman who cannot have children, some say he may not do so (Nimukei Yosef; Ritva), but others maintain that he may, as being married will enable him to become complete, fulfill the mitzva of ona, and protect himself from sinful thoughts (Ramban; Ḥelkat Meḥokek EH 1:10).[21]

[21]. According to Rambam, the general rule against selling a Torah scroll applies not only to one owned by a community, but even to one that is the property of an individual. In contrast, according to Rosh, an individual may sell his own Torah scroll unless he has made it available for communal use. SA 153:10 mentions both opinions. However, even Rosh would agree that it is improper for an individual to sell his Torah scroll; after all, the Sages said that one will never reap any benefit from the sale (Olat Tamid; Eliya Rabba; Mishna Berura 153:60). Accordingly, I state above that a Torah scroll should not be sold, without distinguishing between one owned by an individual and one owned by a community.

If one is selling a Torah scroll for the sake of marriage and children, it is more complicated. Several Rishonim understand Rif to say that a Torah scroll may be sold only to enable the fulfillment of the Torah commandment to have a boy and a girl. Indeed, this is the ruling in SA EH 1:8. Most Rishonim, though, maintain that a Torah scroll may also be sold to allow a person to have additional children. This is the opinion of She’iltot, Behag, and Rosh. Ramban agrees with this and thinks that the Rif does as well. Beit Shmuel 1:16 advocates this in practice. If selling a Torah scroll will provide a man with only enough money to marry a woman who cannot have children, then according to Nimukei Yosef and Ritva, he should not sell it. According to Ramban and Maharshal, he should. Ḥelkat Meḥokek, EH 1:10 agrees that the Torah scroll may be sold in this case, to save him from sinful thoughts. Terumat Ha-deshen §263 states that avoiding sinful thoughts is more severe than populating the world (shevet). This position is also reflected in Responsa Meshivat Nefesh 1:41, Pnei Yehoshua §42, and others.

Just as a Torah scroll may be sold to enable a man to marry and have children, it may also be sold to enable a woman to marry and have children. This is the case even if she already has children from a previous marriage. Although Ḥelkat Meḥokek, EH 1:1 states that we do not sell a Torah scroll to enable a woman to marry, since she is not obligated to procreate, Beit Shmuel, EH 1:2 permits the sale based on the mitzva to populate the world, a sweeping mandate that applies equally to both genders. This is the ruling of Responsa Maharam al-Ashkar §72, Knesset Ha-gedola, MA 153:9, Eliya Rabba 153:12, and MB 153:24. Additionally, a female orphan is married off before a male orphan, because she experiences the shame of poverty more acutely (Ketubot 67b; SA YD 251:8).

22. The Blessing of the People and Inheriting Eretz Yisrael

Great is the mitzva to procreate, for through it comes the fulfillment of God’s blessing to the people of Israel, and through it the people of Israel inherit the Holy Land. God said to our patriarch Avraham:

Raise your eyes and look out from where you now are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. (Bereishit 13:14-16)

God also told Avraham after the binding of his son Yitzḥak:

I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. (ibid., 22:17)

Similarly, our patriarch Yitzḥak was told:

I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and give to your descendants all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring. (ibid., 26:4)

Likewise, God told our patriarch Yaakov in Beit El (before he left for Ḥaran):

The ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. (ibid., 28:13-14)

Upon Yaakov’s return from Ḥaran, God said to him:

I am El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply. A nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you. Kings shall issue from your loins. The land that I assigned to Avraham and Yitzḥak I assign to you; and to your offspring to come will I assign the land. (ibid., 35:11-12)

Similarly, God promised Israel that if they follow in His ways they will merit an abundance of blessing, including: “I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you, and I will maintain My covenant with you” (Vayikra 26:9).

When the Jewish people were poised to enter Eretz Yisrael, it was not part of the divine plan that they inherit the land on the east bank of the Jordan River. It was only following the request of the tribes of Reuven and Gad that permission for this was granted. It seems reasonable to ask, if the land on the east side of the Jordan is also part of the Eretz Yisrael, why did they not originally intend to settle it? The answer is that since the Israelites did not sufficiently procreate during their forty years of wandering in the desert, they did not have enough people to populate the east bank of the Jordan adequately. Therefore, God’s plan was that they would first populate the heartland of Israel, on the west bank of the Jordan. Once the population increased sufficiently, they would settle the east bank as well. God describes this process similarly:

I will not drive them out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild animals would be too many for you. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you have increased and possess the land. I will set your borders from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of Philistia, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hands, and you will drive them out before you. (Shemot 23:29-31)

The price for not having enough Israelites to settle the entire land was that their enemies remained, and so they experienced what the verse warned of:

But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live. (Bamidbar 33:55)

Thus, when Moshe addressed Israel before his death and instructed them to conquer Eretz Yisrael, he bestowed upon them a blessing of increase:

Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arava, the hill country, the Shefela, the Negev, the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, as far as the Great River, the river Euphrates…. Go, enter the land…. The Lord your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars of the sky. May the Lord, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as He promised you [for thus you will be able to inherit fully the entire land]. (Devarim 1:7-11)

The delay of the proper fulfillment of the mitzva of procreation was one of the reasons that more than 300 years passed from Israel’s entry into the land until the establishment of the Kingdom of David and the building of the Temple in Jerusalem.

23. Redemption Depends upon This Mitzva

Great is the mitzva of procreation, for through it Israel was redeemed from Egypt, as it says: “The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them…. The more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out” (Shemot 1:7, 12). The Sages said that there will never be a generation of Israel with fewer than 600,000 people. It was only when Israel reached that number that they became a nation and could leave Egypt and receive the Torah (Zohar, Ra’aya Mehemna III 216b; Tiferet Yisrael ch. 29). Had they not made efforts to fulfill the mitzva, had they been even one person short, they would not have merited leaving Egypt or receiving the Torah (Devarim Rabba 7:8). That is what the Sages meant when they said, “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt” (Sota 11b). In reward for their efforts to ensure continuity, they raised “all this proliferation” (Tanḥuma Pekudei §9; above, 1:8).

It is important to add that after the Holocaust, in which we lost six million of our people, it is a greater mitzva than ever to have families which are as large as possible. We must recreate what was destroyed, so that the Jewish people can realize its divine mission (see Ramban on Devarim 30:2).

The Sages say that just as Israel was redeemed from Egypt because they procreated, so too they will be redeemed in the future because of their procreation, as it says (Yeshayahu 54:3), “For you shall spread out to the right and the left; your offspring shall dispossess nations and shall people the desolate towns” (Eliyahu Zuta 14).

Likewise, R. Assi states, “The (messianic) son of David will not arrive until all the souls of the body have been finished, as it says (Yeshayahu 57:16), ‘For I will not always contend; I will not be angry forever. For the spirit that enwraps itself is from Me; it is I Who made souls’” (Yevamot 62a). This means that there is a storehouse of Jewish souls, and each Jew who is born reveals a spark from it. Even if a baby dies immediately after birth, its soul reveals something in this world and brings the redemption nearer. Thus, even if the Jewish people do not repent properly (God forbid), once all the souls are born, all necessary correctives will be achieved. The process of redemption will advance, and as a result the Jewish people will repent. If, instead, we wake up earlier and repent fully, God will speed up the redemption. First, every woman will have the privilege of giving birth to more children (Tosafot to Nidda 13b, s.v. “ad”). Second, every Jew who is born will reveal many sparks rather than just one (Maharsha, Nidda ad loc.). This will use up all the souls in the warehouse, so the redemption will arrive speedily.

Thus, by fulfilling the mitzva of procreation we draw the redemption nearer, and through its blessings the redemption will be realized, as it is written:

I myself will gather the remnant of My flock from all the lands to which I had banished them, and I will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and multiply. (Yirmiyahu 23:3)

Likewise, it says:

You, O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near. For I will care for you; I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown. I will settle a large population on you – the whole House of Israel; the towns shall be resettled, and the ruined sites rebuilt. I will multiply men and beasts upon you, and they will multiply and be fruitful, and I will resettle you as you were formerly, and will make you more prosperous than you were at first. And you shall know that I am the Lord. (Yeḥezkel 36:8-11)


Thus said the Lord, God: Moreover, in this I will respond to the House of Israel and act for their sake. I will multiply their people like sheep. As Jerusalem is filled with sacrificial sheep during her festivals, so shall the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people. And they shall know that I am the Lord. (ibid., vv. 37-38)