07 – Castration and Sterilization

01. Castration

The purpose of creation is to increase life in the world, as the Torah says at the end of the creation story: “God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it’” (Bereishit 1:28; similarly, ibid. 1:22, 8:17, 9:1, 7). As an extension of this, the Torah prohibits castrating any male, human or animal. It says regarding sacrificial offerings, “You shall not offer to the Lord anything [with its testes] bruised or crushed or torn or cut. You must not do this in your land” (Vayikra 22:24). The Sages understand “You must not do this” to be a prohibition on damaging the reproductive organs, and “in your land” to be an extension of the prohibition to any male, animal or human. The penalty for castrating is lashes. Although the Torah uses the words “in your land,” the Sages have a tradition that the prohibition applies outside Eretz Yisrael as well (Shabbat 110b; MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 16:10).

The male reproductive system has three main components: the testicles (which produce sperm), the vas deferens or sperm ducts, and the penis. Severely damaging any one of them causes sterility and violates a Torah prohibition. Even “castrating” someone who has already been sterilized is a prohibition. Thus, if one man attacks another and crushes his testicles, rendering the victim sterile, and afterwards another person comes over and cuts off the victim’s testicles, a third performs a vasectomy, a fourth smashes his penis, and a fifth cuts it off, each one transgresses a Torah prohibition and is punished with lashes (Shabbat 111a; SA EH 5:11).

Even drinking a potion which induces sterility is prohibited (Shabbat 111a; SA EH 5:11). We can derive this from the next verse, “For they are mutilated (moshḥatam bahem), they have a defect” (Vayikra 22:25). In other words, destroying (hashḥata) a man’s ability to have children is prohibited. However, since this type of “castration” is indirect (as it does not directly damage reproductive organs), many say that it is prohibited only rabbinically. Others maintain that the prohibition is from the Torah but does not incur lashes since it does not directly damage the reproductive organs.[1]


[1]. Some say that drinking a sterility potion violates a Torah prohibition. This is the position of Or Zaru’a and Ha’mek She’ala 105:9. Netivot La-shevet understands this to be the position of Rambam and SA as well. However, according to many poskim, including Yere’im (§342), the prohibition is rabbinic. Rashba on Shabbat 110b agrees that the prohibition is rabbinic, since the Torah prohibits only damaging the reproductive organs themselves. This is the position of Me’iri; Ḥatam Sofer, EH 1:20; Ḥazon Ish, EH 12:7; and Yabi’a Omer, EH 8:14.

Some say that one may castrate a man who has a history of sexual violence, in order to save women or children from rape and, in rare cases, murder (Responsa Menaḥem Meshiv 2:18). Temporary chemical castration is certainly permitted to prevent rape, even when there is no threat to life, although under normal circumstances it is forbidden rabbinically (see Yad Yehuda 5:11-12, p. 431; Responsa Asher Ḥanan 6-7:62). Chemical castration entails injecting female hormones (estrogen) into a man or giving him drugs that counteract testosterone and other androgens. This type of sterilization temporarily makes it impossible for a man to impregnate a woman and largely suppresses his sexual drive.

02. The Prohibition of Marrying a Petzu’a Daka

A saris (a man who is sterile because any of the three parts of his reproductive system does not function) may not marry a Jewish woman, as it says, “No one whose testes are crushed (petzu’a daka) or whose penis is cut off (kerut shofkha) shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” (Devarim 23:2). A saris may marry a convert or a freed slave, because the Torah prohibits marrying “into the congregation of the Lord,” meaning women who were born Jewish (m. Yevamot 76a). Even a married man who becomes a saris must divorce his wife (Otzar Ha-poskim 5:2).

The marriage prohibition is limited to a person who became a saris due to human action, whether intentional or accidental (for example, as the result of a traffic accident). In contrast, someone whom God made infertile, who was born that way, may marry into the congregation. True, he will be unable to have children, and in most cases, he will not be able to have sexual relations with his wife. Nevertheless, if he finds a woman who agrees to marry him, they are considered a married couple in all respects.

The law that a saris cannot marry is a divine decree whose rationale we cannot fully understand. However, it does teach us the great importance of the mitzva of procreation, which is the primary purpose of marriage – since a saris cannot have children, he may not marry into the congregation (Moreh Nevukhim III:49; Bekhor Shor; Rabbeinu Beḥaye; Ḥizkuni). Additionally, as a rule, a saris cannot fulfill the mitzva of ona, and there is concern that his wife’s sexual frustration may lead her to commit adultery. To prevent this, the Torah does not permit him to marry a Jewish-born woman (Moreh Nevukhim III:49; Raavad on Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 15:2). Another possible rationale for this commandment is that it has helped Jews stay far away from the practice of castration. In the past, kings would regularly castrate men, whom they would then assign to be ministers, officials, and guards for women, as the kings did not have to worry about their loyalty. Some men would castrate themselves, or parents would castrate young children, in order to qualify them for these royal jobs. Even today, some people undergo vasectomies and the like so that they can have sex freely without worrying about the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy. The Torah distances us from all of this by prohibiting castration. This explains why someone who is naturally sterile, whose condition is not the result of human injury or negligence, is not prohibited from marrying into the congregation (Sefer Ha-ḥinukh §559).

03. The Parameters of the Prohibition

As we have learned, a saris rendered sterile by human intervention may not marry a Jewish-born woman, but may marry a convert or a freed slave (m. Yevamot 76a).[2]

We have also seen that the prohibition does not apply to someone born sterile. If someone was rendered sterile as the result of illness, poskim disagree as to his status. According to Rosh, such a person may not marry a Jewish-born woman. Since humans play a role in the contraction of diseases, for example by eating unhealthy foods or by polluting the environment, such sterility is seen as being man-made. In contrast, according to Rambam and most Rishonim, a person who became sterile due to illness is considered to have been made sterile by God, and may thus marry into the community. The halakha follows this position (Yam Shel Shlomo; Mishkenot Yaakov; Birkei Yosef; Pitḥei Teshuva 5:7; Maharsham; AHS 5:18).

We learn an important principle from the law that a born saris may marry: Normally, the mitzva of ona is considered the foundation of marriage. Accordingly, if someone wishes to marry on condition that he is not obligated to fulfill the mitzva of ona, the marriage does not take effect (SA EH 38:5; above ch. 1, n. 2). Nevertheless, if due to circumstances beyond his control – for instance, he is a born saris – a man cannot have sexual relations with his wife, the marriage does take effect. We therefore see that it is possible for a couple to base a marriage on their emotional connection and their commitment to be good to one another.[3]

The prohibition is for a man who became a saris to marry a Jewish-born woman. However, a woman who underwent a procedure of sterilization (for example, a hysterectomy) is permitted to marry a Jewish-born man (Sefer Ha-ḥinukh §559; Otzar Ha-poskim 5:1:1). Nevertheless, a man who has not yet fulfilled the mitzva of procreation may not marry her, as doing so makes it impossible for him to fulfill his obligation to procreate (above 5:8).


[2]. It is normally forbidden for a kohen to marry a convert. However, a kohen who is a petzu’a daka or kerut shofkha may marry a convert (Yevamot 76a; SA EH 5:1). According to most poskim, all other laws regarding a kohen apply to him; therefore, he may not marry a convert who is divorced, he may eat food permitted only to kohanim (kodashim), and he recites Birkat Kohanim. This is the position of Me’iri, Beit Shmuel 5:1, Beit Meir, and Minḥat Ḥinukh §269. However, according to Ḥelkat Meḥokek 5:1, none of the kohen laws apply to him: he may marry a divorced convert, may not eat food permitted only to kohanim, and does not recite Birkat Kohanim. Nevertheless, he may eat teruma, as even the slaves of a kohen may eat teruma (see AHS 5:6).

[3]. The mitzva of ona includes caressing, as well as anything which brings joy to one’s spouse, as we have seen above in 2:3. Thus, it is a mitzva for a saris to do whatever he can to bring his wife pleasure, including physically pleasuring her to the best of his ability. Even if we were to argue that without the possibility of sexual relations, foreplay and other affectionate behavior do not fulfill the Torah requirement of ona, they are still part of the obligation of “love your fellow as yourself.”

04. Practical Questions

A man’s reproductive organs may be damaged several ways; to determine whether a particular injury renders him a petzu’a daka, the general rule is that if he can sire children, he is not a petzu’a daka, and he may marry a Jewish-born woman like any other Jewish man. This determination is left to reliable doctors. In the time of the Rishonim, many doctors believed that a man lacking one testicle could not have children. Based on this, most Rishonim ruled that such a man had the status of petzu’a daka. Rabbeinu Tam and several other Rishonim maintained that he can sire children (SA EH 5:7). Nowadays it is clear to doctors that such a man can father children, so clearly he is not considered a petzu’a daka.[4]

Older men commonly experience swelling of the prostate gland, through which the vas deferens and the urethra pass. This makes it difficult to urinate. In some very serious cases, the prostate gland is severed to allow the excretion of urine. The problem is that severing the prostate prevents the flow of sperm through the penis during sexual relations. Instead, the sperm travels from the testicles into the bladder, and from there it is excreted together with the urine. Thus, even though his body produces viable sperm cells, the man cannot actually impregnate his wife, as he does not ejaculate sperm cells during sex. Some poskim claimed that since this person became sterile, practically speaking, as a result of human intervention, he may not marry a born Jew, and if he is already married, he must divorce his wife. In practice, however, there is general agreement that he is not considered a petzu’a daka. First, severing the prostate is a procedure performed as a result of an illness. As we saw in the previous section, according to most poskim such a person is viewed as having been made sterile by God. Additionally, the doctor performs the surgery to relieve his pain, not to sterilize him. Furthermore, he is not a petzu’a daka because, in fact, his sperm ducts remain intact. It is only due to a peripheral issue that the sperm are not ejaculated during sexual relations.

A more difficult case is that of a man who has his testicles removed to improve his chances of surviving prostate cancer (or another cancer), as the testes produce the hormones that accelerate malignant activity. Many maintain that even though technically his testicles are removed by a person, he is still considered to have been made sterile by God. As we saw above, Rambam (and most poskim) say that in a case where sterility is a consequence of illness, the man is considered to have been made sterile by God. Additionally, we might argue that even those who are stringent in that case (Rosh) would be lenient in our case; they might agree that it is only when the illness itself damages the reproductive organs that the man may not marry a born Jew, because he is considered to bear some responsibility for the illness. In contrast, if the illness does not damage the reproductive organs, but rather the doctors are forced to remove his testicles to save him from the illness, he may marry a Jewish-born woman (Ḥelkat Yo’av EH §3; R. Tzvi Pesaḥ Frank).

The same applies to someone who has cancer and undergoes radiation therapy that completely destroys his ability to produce sperm. Even though he cannot have children, since his sterility results from treatment of an illness, it is considered an act of God and he may marry a Jewish-born woman.[5]

When any doubt arises in such matters, halakha follows those who are lenient, for the general principle is that under pressing circumstances we rely on lenient opinions. These cases definitely qualify, as if we were to rule stringently, the man would not be allowed to marry a Jewish-born woman, and if married, he would be required to divorce. Additionally, according to many poskim, the law of saris is like the law of mamzer; under Torah law, the marriage restrictions apply when it is certain that someone is indeed a mamzer, petzu’a daka, or krut shofkha, but when there is any uncertainty as to his status, the restrictions do not apply. Therefore, in any case of uncertainty, the halakha accords with those who are lenient.[6]


[4]. The law of petzu’a daka and krut shofkha applies only when a man is rendered sterile. We learn this in Yevamot 75b, which cites the view that a man with a perforation in his testes is considered a petzu’a daka. This is challenged with an anecdote about a man who had a perforation in his testes and still sired a child. Those who ruled stringently countered that the child was not his; rather, his wife committed adultery and bore someone else’s child. We see that it is assumed that a petzu’a daka is sterile and could not impregnate a woman. This is the position of Rambam; Me’iri; Raavya; Yam Shel Shlomo, Yevamot 8:9; and Igrot Moshe, EH 2:3.

The Rishonim disagree as to the status of someone who had one testicle removed. According to Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot to Yevamot 75a, s.v. “she-ein”), since he can still have children, he is not considered a petzu’a daka, and he may marry into the congregation. Many Rishonim disagree with Rabbeinu Tam and disqualify such a person. This is the opinion of SA and Rema, EH 5:7. However, the Aḥaronim agree with Rabbeinu Tam, including Yam Shel Shlomo; Ḥatam Sofer, EH §17; Divrei Ḥayim 1:11; and R. Ḥayim of Volozhin, as cited in Pitḥei Teshuva, EH 5:7. The consensus among doctors today is that someone who lost a testicle can sire children. It would seem that those Rishonim who disagreed with Rabbeinu Tam did so based on the medical knowledge available to them at that time. Perhaps in the past, due to infection, a person who lost a testicle was generally unable to have children.

[5]. Poskim disagree about the status of a man who becomes sterile from medically unnecessary radiation treatment (the question arose vis-à-vis victims of Nazi experimentation). Some are stringent, as human action caused the infertility (Ḥelkat Yaakov, EH §30). Others say that even though such sterilization is prohibited according to Torah law, since the three parts of his reproductive system are intact, he is not considered to be petzu’a daka or krut shofkha (R. Isser Yehuda Unterman, Shevet Mi-Yehuda 4:17). He is no worse than someone who drinks a sterility potion. Just as such a person is allowed to marry any Jewish woman (Birkei Yosef 5:7; AHS ad loc. 24), this person is allowed to as well.

[6]. Even though someone with an uncertain status of mamzer is permitted to marry a Jewish-born woman according to Torah law, because of the severity of a status that is passed on from generation to generation, the Sages prohibited a mamzer of uncertain status and only permitted in cases of twofold uncertainty (sfek sfeika). However, the Sages did not apply this stringency to cases of uncertainty about the status of a petzu’a daka or krut shofkha. This is the approach of Responsa R. Akiva Eiger 3:63; Avnei Nezer, EH 17; Be’er Yitzḥak, EH 4; Beit Yitzḥak, EH 1:36; AHS 5:20; and others. R. Ovadia Yosef collects them in Yabi’a Omer, EH 7:8:10.

Thanks to advances in medical technology, a new question has arisen nowadays. What is the status of someone whose reproductive organs are damaged, and who in the past would not have been able to father children, but nowadays can, since doctors can extract sperm from his testicles and use them to impregnate his wife? It would seem that since his status is uncertain, we should follow the lenient opinion. In the future, another question may arise. What will be the status of a man whose reproductive system is damaged and cannot produce sperm at all, if doctors can fertilize his wife’s egg using a cell produced via cloning? This may not qualify as a case of doubt, for anyone who has sustained damage to his reproductive system and does not produce sperm is considered a saris.

05. The Prohibition on Female Sterilization

The prohibition of sterilization applies to women as well as men, but sterilizing a woman is a rabbinic prohibition rather than a Torah one. The Torah prohibits male castration, as it says, “You shall not offer to the Lord anything [with its testes] bruised or crushed or torn or cut. You shall have no such practices in your land” (Vayikra 22:24). All these actions damage the male reproductive organs, which are external, and not the female reproductive organs, which are internal. Similarly, the prohibition of a saris to marry applies only to a man who has been sterilized, as the verse states, “No one whose testes are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” (Devarim 23:2). Clearly, this refers to a man. In contrast, a woman who has been sterilized is allowed to marry freely. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of the mitzva of procreation, a man who has not yet fulfilled his obligation may not marry an infertile woman.

The rabbinic prohibition of female sterilization is limited to cases where this is done directly, either through physical trauma or surgery. However, indirect sterilization, such as by drinking an infertility potion, is permitted. Even this indirect sterilization, though, is permitted only when truly necessary to sterilize her, such as if she has extremely difficult labor, or if her children turned out poorly and she is afraid to bring more children into the world, and accepted methods of birth control are not viable options for her (above, 5:17-19). However, when there is no particular reason, infertility may not be caused even indirectly, as there is a general prohibition on wantonly destroying anything in God’s world (bal tashḥit; Devarim 20:19). Certainly, then, one may not destroy a woman’s ability to have children.

Permission for a woman to undergo sterilization is also contingent upon her husband’s consent, because in agreeing to marry him she committed to be his full partner in the mitzva of procreation (Ḥatam Sofer, EH §20; above 5:14; see also 5:6).[7]

In recent years, the issue has arisen of sterilizing a woman by tubal ligation, a procedure, colloquially called “getting one’s tubes tied,” in which the fallopian tubes (through which the egg travels from the ovaries to the uterus, where it can be fertilized) are cut, tied, or blocked, preventing the eggs from reaching the uterus, making pregnancy impossible. The question is whether a woman who experiences difficult pregnancies and does not want any more children may ask her doctor to sterilize her via tubal ligation. Some say that tubal ligation is like drinking a sterility potion, since the sterilization is not visible externally (Si’aḥ Naḥum §100). Additionally, this type of sterilization is not irreversible; sometimes the tubes can be surgically repaired. Even if the reversal procedure does not work, it is still possible to extract an egg from the ovary and do IVF. Others say that since ligation is an act of sterilization performed on the reproductive organs themselves, it is rabbinically prohibited. Thus, as long as it is possible for a woman to take birth control pills or have an IUD inserted, tubal ligation is prohibited (Igrot Moshe EH 4:33-34 and 4:32:1). Today there is a procedure that blocks the fallopian tubes indirectly. This is permitted even according to the stringent opinion.[8]


[7]. The mainstream opinion is that the prohibition of female sterilization is rabbinic. This is implied by Rambam, who writes, “One who sterilizes a female, whether human or animal, is exempt” (MT, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 16:11). In rabbinic parlance, this means that he is exempt from punishment, but the act is still rabbinically prohibited (Magid Mishneh; SA EH 5:11). According to Taz (EH 5:6), this is prohibited because it causes pain to the woman; if there is no pain, it is not prohibited. Consequently, in a situation in which sterilization is necessary, it is permitted. According to the Vilna Gaon (EH 5:25), the Torah prohibition of sterilization does apply to women, but a transgressor does not receive lashes.

There are two possible explanations for the majority opinion that the Torah prohibition of sterilization applies to men and not to women. First, the Torah prohibition is limited to injuries to reproductive organs that are external, not internal. Second, a man is obligated in the mitzva of procreation, while a woman is not (even though she is performing a mitzva). Therefore, the prohibition of female sterilization is only rabbinic, and indirect sterilization is permitted.

At first glance, there seems to be a disagreement about the indirect sterilization of a woman as well. According to Beit Shmuel 5:14 and most poskim, a woman may drink an infertility potion even when there is no need. In contrast, Baḥ and Yam Shel Shlomo permit drinking an infertility potion only when there is a specific need. It seems that all poskim would agree that without any need at all, such an act is forbidden, because of the prohibition on wasteful destruction. The disagreement, then, is about how great the need must be. Must it be a case of great need, or does ordinary need suffice?

[8]. We can infer from Responsa Devar Yehoshua, EH 3:7, that if the ligation is reversible, the procedure is not considered total sterilization. In contrast, Igrot Moshe, EH 4:32:1, rules stringently, since reversing the ligation requires surgical intervention. In practice, since the disagreement is about a rabbinic prohibition, under pressing circumstances, the lenient opinion may be relied upon. However, nowadays this is unnecessary, because a new method for indirectly blocking the fallopian tubes has been found. The blockage is achieved by inserting a coil into the fallopian tube. Within a few weeks, scar tissue forms around the coil, blocking the tube. Since the sterilization is indirect, it is like drinking a sterility potion, which is permitted when there is a great need. (This is based on an article by R. Yoel and Dr. Chana Katan, “Ḥasima Hafikha shel Ha-ḥatzotrot,” in R. Mordechai Halperin, ed., Metzi’ut U-refu’a Be-Seder Nashim, pp. 290-292.) Though some challenge this, claiming that this is direct, not indirect sterilization, it seems clear that the act is considered grama (indirect), especially considering that some maintain that even tubal ligation is not considered halakhic sterilization (Si’aḥ Naḥum §100).

06. “A Monument and a Name”: Daniel, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya

A saris has a choice: he can sink into the pain and despair of knowing that he will not leave anyone to carry his name forward, or he can link his life to the eternally holy, thereby gaining an everlasting name, better than sons and daughters. As the prophet Yeshayahu says:

Let not the eunuch say, “I am a withered tree.” For thus said the Lord: “As for the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to My covenant – I will give them, in My House and within My walls, a monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.” (Yeshayahu 56:3-5)

As long as sin exists, so will death and disease. Once the world is cured of all its sins, it will also be cured of all its illnesses. Certain sins in particular may cause infertility; one of them is dishonoring the Jewish people and the Temple. Following the miraculous recovery of King Ḥizkiyahu, emissaries of the Babylonian king visited him. Instead of drawing them closer to faith, he was arrogant and fawning, showing off all of his personal treasures as well as those of the Temple. The prophet told him, “Some of your sons, your own issue whom you will have fathered, will be taken to serve as eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon” (Yeshayahu 39:1-7).

The Sages say that this harsh prophecy was fulfilled in the lives of Daniel, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya, who were descendants of King Ḥizkiyahu. In childhood they were separated from their family and nation and taken to King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace to serve as attendants and advisors. In keeping with ancient practice, they were castrated (Sanhedrin 93b; Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 51).[9] By examining their character and deeds, we can learn about the life purpose of one decreed by fate to be a saris.

After Nebuchadnezzar brought these four youths to his city, he ordered that they be fed meat from his table and be taught the Chaldean language and culture, so that they would assimilate. However, they made great efforts to remain loyal to their faith. Since the meat was not kosher, they did not eat it; for years they survived on a variety of legumes. Had the king discovered their disobedience, they would have been put to death. But they were prepared to sacrifice their lives if it came down to it.

During their years of exile in the king’s palace, Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews to Babylonia. Nevertheless, Daniel and his friends, who by then were important officials, did not lose their faith. Eventually, Babylonia was defeated, and Medea became the ruling power. Darius, King of Medea, enacted a decree that required his subjects to pray exclusively to him. However, Daniel defied the decree and continued to pray to God. When he was caught, he was thrown into the lions’ den, but was miraculously saved by God (Daniel 6).

Although Daniel was a eunuch, he did not wallow in his grief. Rather, we are told that “Daniel, a beloved person, devoted himself to acts of kindness…. He helped brides prepare for their weddings and made them happy, accompanied the dead, gave charity to the poor, and prayed three times a day. His prayers were accepted with favor” (Avot De-Rabbi Natan 4:5).

Let us return to the time when Babylonia reigned. The Jewish nation was in crisis. An evil kingdom ruled the world. The Temple lay in ruins. The Jewish people were exiled from their land, and it seemed that there was no hope left for the Jewish faith. Consequently, many of the exiled Jews abandoned Torah and mitzvot, as they felt that within a generation or two, assimilation was inevitable. Nebuchadnezzar decided to erect a large golden idol to symbolize the power of his kingdom and his rule. He set a time for an impressive ceremony, during which all attendees would prostrate themselves before this idol. It seems that many Jews were among those who bowed down. Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya, who were senior officials in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, could have justified bowing down by claiming that it was not an idol, merely a statue to glorify the king (Rabbeinu Tam in Tosafot, Pesaḥim 53b s.v. “ma”). However, because the statue looked like an idol, they decided it was better to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than bow down to it publicly and desecrate God’s name. A great miracle occurred; they emerged from the furnace unscathed. God’s name was sanctified in front of everyone, Jews and non-Jews. (Daniel was not present at the time, as explained in Sanhedrin 93a.)

The Sages say that at that dark time, when the Jewish people abandoned their faith and heritage to prostrate themselves before the image, “God sought to transform the entire world into night…and blood…but He looked at Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya, and He was placated” (Sanhedrin 93a). In their merit, the Jewish people remembered their covenant with God, returned to their land, and rebuilt the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem.

Instead of giving up on life, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya chose to identify with God’s wishes and laws, and as a result were able to accomplish great things. As the Sages said, “Make His will into your will, so that He will make your will into His. Subordinate your will to His so that He will subordinate the will of others to yours” (Avot 2:4). While they could not participate in the covenant of brit mila, so strongly connected with continuity, they embraced the divine covenant with the Jewish people, the Torah, and Eretz Yisrael. This enabled them to reveal the inner value of life when it is connected to its divine source. Thus, they are described as “those who hold fast to My covenant” (Yeshayahu 56:4).[10]

From the lives and deeds of Daniel, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya, we can learn that sometimes it is precisely the infertile who can use their faith to connect to the essence of life. For most people, the here and now is riddled with worry about family and children, but the infertile can focus on pure unconditional faith in God. This allows them to dedicate their lives to giving expression to the covenant between God and the Jewish people. This sustains the entire world and allows the Jews to return to their land and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. As it says, “I will give them, in My House and within My walls, a monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish” (Yeshayahu 56:5).


[9]. There is a disagreement about this in Sanhedrin 93b. “Rav says: ‘They were actual sarisim.’ R. Ḥanina says: ‘Idolatry was emasculated during their lifetime.’” The Talmud then explains that R. Ḥanina maintains that Daniel, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya had children who predeceased them, so they needed the consolation of an everlasting name, better than sons and daughters According to Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 51, Daniel, Ḥananya, Mishael, and Azarya were actual eunuchs, whom the king presumably had castrated to ensure their loyalty to him. Otzar Midrashim (Eisenstein) tells a more complicated story:

“Esther summoned Hatakh” (Esther 4:5). Hatakh is Daniel. Why was he called Hatakh? Because he had cut off (Hebrew, ḥatakh) his manhood during the reign of the evil Nebuchadnezzar. Jew-haters told Nebuchadnezzar, “The Jews you brought are having illicit relations with your maidservants and the wives of the ministers!” Upon hearing this, Daniel and his friends Ḥananya, Mishael and Azarya immediately emasculated themselves. As it says: “For thus said the Lord: ‘As for the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths …’” Nebuchadnezzar was immediately filled with rage against them and commanded that they be brought to him and killed. They said to him, “Our lord, the king! We would never do these things, for Jewish law prohibits adultery and sexual immorality. As the Torah says, ‘Do not commit adultery.”’ They showed him that they were eunuchs. Nebuchadnezzar was immediately overjoyed. (Midrash Megilla, in Otzar Midrashim, p. 60)

Toward the end of his life, Daniel/Hatakh helped Esther and Mordechai save the Jewish people. Esther, like Daniel and his friends, sacrificed herself to save the Jewish people.

[10]. Shabbat, too, is mentioned as a merit of the sarisim, for Shabbat connects weekday life to its source and perfects it. The prophet says that the sarisim “keep My Sabbaths.” The use of the plural hints at two aspects of Shabbat. First, Shabbat sanctifies the previous workweek. Second, it infuses the upcoming workweek with holiness and blessing.