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Peninei Halakha > Simḥat Ha-bayit U-virkhato > 08 – Consolation for the Childless

08 – Consolation for the Childless

01. The Pain of Infertility and Its Causes

The suffering of the childless is intense. The Sages say, “A person who has no children is considered to be like the dead” (Nedarim 64b). They base this on the verse, “When Raḥel saw that she had borne Yaakov no children, she became envious of her sister; and Raḥel said to Yaakov, ‘Give me children, or I shall die’” (Bereishit 30:1). By making this statement, the Sages are trying to help people understand the depth of the anguish of the childless, so that they will pray for them (Tosafot ad loc.). Even couples who already have children but long to have more can become despondent, especially when they live in a community where large families are the norm.

The question is how we are to understand this suffering: As some kind of punishment for transgression, in which case a person must repent in order to merit having children? Or is one’s fate sealed even before he is born, in which he is blameless in his suffering?

The answer is extremely complex. Sometimes suffering stems from sin, sometimes from fate, and sometimes from a combination of both. Sometimes repentance and prayer help, and sometimes not. It depends on countless factors, as we will now explain.

The Sages say, “Life, children, and sustenance do not depend upon merit, but rather upon mazal” (Mo’ed Katan 28a). “Life” refers to length of life, “children” refers to the number of children, and “sustenance” refers to livelihood. These were all assumed to be determined by one’s fate at the moment of the person’s birth, and not by merit. The Talmud proves this from the fact that Rabbah and R. Ḥisda were both righteous people whose prayers were answered in a time of drought. Yet R. Ḥisda lived to be 92, while Rabbah died at forty. R. Ḥisda’s family celebrated sixty weddings, while Rabbah’s household endured sixty bereavements. R. Ḥisda’s household was so wealthy that even its dogs were fed high-quality wheat bread; Rabbah’s household was so poor that they sometimes did not even have low-quality barley bread on the table (ibid.). This accords with the Sages’ statement, “There is no reward for mitzvot in this world” (Kiddushin 39b). Reward for the mitzvot we fulfill and punishments for the sins we commit are not received in this fleeting world but rather in the eternal world of truth.

The term “mazal” used by the Talmud is what we would call “fate.” As we know today, a person’s genetic makeup is fixed at the moment of conception, and it is a major determinant of how tall, smart, or healthy one will be and what they will look like. The Sages’ statement that life, children, and sustenance are determined by fate at the moment of birth expresses a similar idea.

Yet this seems to be a matter of dispute among the Sages. According to R. Ḥanina, the Jewish people are subject to mazal, while according to R. Yoḥanan they are not (Shabbat 156a). However, the commentators explain that all agree that mazal has a strong influence, and all agree that the Jewish people, more than any other people, can sometimes change their mazal through prayer and good deeds. The disagreement lies in the question of whether it is common or rare for a Jew to change his mazal (see Tosafot on Shabbat ad loc.; Ritva and Ran on Mo’ed Katan 28a).

The idea is that every person has a specific destiny to fulfill in this world, and their mazal is determined accordingly. Sometimes one’s destiny requires him to be poor and wretched; other times, it may require him to be rich and healthy. Sometimes a person’s fate is set in stone and there is no escaping it (except in very rare cases). Other times, it is not absolute, and his actions will determine whether he suffers or flourishes. Sometimes, suffering purifies people and saves them from something even worse. In such cases, it is specifically the righteous who suffer. In any case, until the world reaches moral perfection, there will be human suffering, and the way people cope with their suffering can bring moral refinement to the world.

From a certain perspective, the pain of childlessness differs from other types of suffering. Since having children is a mitzva, righteous people make a greater effort to change their fate in this area, and sometimes the merit of the mitzva may help them alter fate. Even so, there have been righteous people who have been childless.

After this preface, we can now address the proper way to cope with the pain of childlessness.

02. The Effort of Repentance, Torah, and Kindness

It is a mitzva for every couple that has difficulty fulfilling the mitzva of procreation to avail themselves of all conventional medical methods in order to have children. While doing so, they should have faith that everything is under God’s benevolent supervision, refining and purifying them, to increase their joy in this world and the next, and to give them the privilege of improving the world.

The Sages say that a person who is suffering should scrutinize his actions. Perhaps if he corrects his shortcomings, his suffering will end. If he scrutinizes his actions and does not find any particular sin, he should consider that perhaps he sinned by neglecting Torah study. If so, strengthening his Torah study may allow him to realize his destiny and be spared from suffering. If he determines that he has not neglected Torah study, it must be that his suffering is “suffering of love” (yisurim shel ahava), that is, suffering whose purpose is the betterment of all, the perfection and refinement of the world (Berakhot 5a).

In any event, even when suffering results from sin or neglect of Torah study, if a person can correct it, he not only betters himself, but benefits the whole world, for the world is judged based on the deeds of the majority of its inhabitants. “If a person performs one mitzva, he is praiseworthy, for he has tipped the scales toward merit for himself and for the entire world. But if he commits even one sin, woe to him, for he has tipped the scales toward guilt for himself and the whole world” (Kiddushin 40b).

The Sages say, “Great is repentance, for it rips up the sentence issued against a person” (Rosh Ha-shana 17b). Not only does repentance rectify the sin of the penitent himself, sometimes it can even rectify sins of previous generations. It may be that a person has been sentenced to be childless because of those sins, and by returning sincerely to God, immersing himself diligently in Torah study, and performing acts of kindness, he can cause the sentence to be torn up, and then he will have children.

We learn a similar lesson from Ḥofni and Pinḥas, the sons of the high priest Eli, who desecrated the name of heaven in the Tabernacle in Shilo. Because their father did not object strenuously enough to their behavior, he was told, “A time is coming when I will break your power and that of your father’s house, and there shall be no elder in your house” (1 Shmuel 2:31). Indeed, for the next few generations, all of Eli’s descendants died young. As time went on and they married into other families, the only descendants who were affected were those who were named after Eli or whose souls were connected to him. Even a thousand years later, there were still descendants of Eli who carried on his legacy, and the curse affected them. The Talmud says that Rabbah and Abaye were both descendants of Eli, and were expected to die very young. However, they followed the Sages’ instructions and repented sincerely. Rabbah studied Torah diligently and was privileged to live to the age of forty. Abaye engaged in Torah study and acts of kindness, and lived to be sixty. This accords with the homiletic interpretation of the verse, “Assuredly I swear concerning the house of Eli that the iniquity of the house of Eli will never be expiated by [animal] sacrifice or [meal] offering” (ibid., 3:14). The Sages explain: “An animal sacrifice or a meal offering will not atone for the sin, but Torah and kindness will” (Rosh Ha-shana 18a).[1]

Similarly, our ancestors Avraham and Sarah gave birth to Yitzḥak in the merit of drawing people closer to Torah. Avraham reached out to the men and Sarah reached out to the women. They invited guests into their home and taught them about God, thus combining Torah study and acts of kindness. It was fitting, then, that they were entertaining guests when they received the news that they would have a child.

Moving to Israel – the land of life – and developing it can also help the childless to conceive and bring new life to the world (see Yevamot 64a).

[1]. It is worth noting that although Rabbah did not combine his Torah study with acts of kindness like Abaye did, and thus died younger, the halakha follows him in almost every disagreement in which he was involved (Bava Batra 114b). In contrast, Abaye combined his Torah study with acts of kindness, so although he lived to sixty, the halakha does not follow him in most of the disagreements in which he was involved (Bava Metzi’a 23b).

03. Prayer of the Childless

Prayer is so powerful that it can rip up a decree of childlessness and break through whatever is blocking conception, as it is written: “Yitzḥak pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rivka conceived” (Bereishit 25:21). The Sages say that Yitzḥak and Rivka recited many prayers and had the same goal in mind. The phrase translated above, “on behalf of his wife,” is “le-nokhaḥ ishto,” which can also be translated as “facing his wife.” These words teach us that:

Yitzḥak prostrated himself in one corner and Rivka prostrated herself in another. He said, “Master of the universe, may all the children You give me come from this righteous woman.” She made the same request: “May all the children You give me come from this righteous man.” (Bereishit Rabba 63:5)

Yitzḥak said, “Why were the patriarchs and matriarchs infertile? Because God craves the prayers of the righteous” (Yevamot 64a). This must be elucidated: The prayers of the righteous help open the gates of blessing for the entire world. Were the righteous to enjoy the good life they deserve, they would not pray for the rest of the world, which would be left to suffer. Since God wants the best for the world, He craves the prayers of the righteous, which connect the world to its source, thus changing reality for the better. The gates of heaven open, raining down blessing on the whole world. As a result, everyone dealing with the same type of difficulty as the righteous is delivered along with them.

Similarly, the Sages say, “When Sarah conceived, many barren women conceived as well. Many deaf people started hearing, many blind people started seeing, and many of the insane became sane” (Bereishit Rabba 53:8). This explains Sarah’s statement, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Bereishit 21:6). For, to a certain extent, all were healed with her.

There are times when it is a person’s destiny to bring a brand new soul into this world, a soul whose mission is to move the world forward. Since this soul is so new that it has never entered the world, it faces many obstacles. The angels in heaven object that the world is not worthy of advancing to another level. Therefore, the people who are meant to give birth to these souls suffer from infertility. Through their process of purification via repentance and prayer, they open the gates of heaven and are privileged to give birth to new souls.[2]

[2]. This is why it was so difficult for Yitzḥak to be conceived. Avraham’s outstanding trait was that of ḥesed (kindness), while Yitzḥak’s outstanding trait was that of din (judgment). Up to that time, people associated with judgment were evil. Now it was necessary for a righteous soul to be born with the trait of judgment. Not only that, but these seemingly contradictory traits needed to be linked. Avraham was to have Yitzḥak as a son, which would teach that the purpose of judgment is to empower kindness. This is why there were so many obstacles and objections to Yitzḥak’s birth. When he was finally born, the gates of blessing were opened. Many barren women conceived, and many sick people were healed.

The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 45:4) presents another perspective on the difficulty the righteous have in conceiving. To explain why Hagar conceived Yishmael immediately, while Sarah had to wait a long time to conceive Yitzḥak, R. Ḥanina b. Pazi offers an interesting image: “These thorns are neither planted nor tended, yet they grow rapidly of their own accord. In contrast, how much pain and toil are necessary to make wheat grow!”

04. Ḥanna’s Prayer

Ḥanna, who was barren, suffered so much that on the holidays she could not bring herself to rejoice before God in the Mishkan at Shilo. While her family ate the meat of the sacrificial offerings and rejoiced, she withdrew and cried. “Her husband Elkana said to her, ‘Ḥanna, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?’” In response, Ḥanna joined the feast.

After they had eaten and drunk at Shilo, Ḥanna rose. The priest Eli was sitting on the seat near the doorpost of the sanctuary of the Lord. In her wretchedness, she prayed to the Lord, weeping all the while. And she made this vow: “O Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant, and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.” (1 Shmuel 1:8-11)

From the depths of her bitter pain she was able to offer a heartfelt prayer. This opened the gates of heaven and enabled the birth of the soul of Shmuel, the greatest prophet of Israel after Moshe Rabbeinu.

The Sages say (Berakhot 31b):

From the day that God created His world, no one referred to God by the name Lord of Hosts (Tzeva’ot) until Ḥanna did. She said before Him, “God, Master of the universe, out of all the many hosts that You have created in Your world, is it difficult for You to grant me one son?!”

Appropriately, the name that Ḥanna introduced in her prayer was actualized by her son, the prophet Shmuel. He was the one who had the privilege of revealing holiness to the masses (tzeva’ot) of Israel in its land, as well as establishing generations of prophets, founding Israel’s monarchy, and planning the building of the Temple.

There is another powerful description of Ḥanna’s prayer:

As she kept on praying before the Lord, Eli watched her mouth. Now Ḥanna was praying in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard. So Eli thought she was drunk. Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!” (1 Shmuel 1:12-14)

In other words, Ḥanna’s prayer was so extraordinary and innovative that even the high priest Eli initially thought that she was drunk.

Ḥanna replied, “Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Do not take your maidservant for a worthless woman; I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress.” “Then go in peace,” said Eli, “and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.” (ibid., 15-17)

Not only did Ḥanna’s prayer lead to the birth of the prophet Shmuel, but the Sages derive several laws from her prayer: supplicants must pray with intent, must form the words with their lips, and must not raise their voices (Berakhot 31a). From the depths of her pain of childlessness, Ḥanna revealed new laws and uncovered new understandings of prayer. This is an example of how the pain and distress of infertility can bring blessing to the world.

05. Comfort for the Infertile

Sometimes all the prayers, repentance, intense Torah learning, and kind acts do not solve the problem of infertility. Months pass, years go by, and the couple does not conceive. It may be that their fate is sealed and cannot be changed, because the soul which they would conceive belongs to a more perfect world whose time has not yet come. Perhaps if they would manage to change their fate, their child would be profoundly evil, because he would be incompatible with his time period. Thus, God is being kind to them by sparing them the birth of a child who would cause them great pain and send them to the grave in misery. Along these lines, the Sages state that after the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people, the dignitaries of the other nations mocked them and said that they were infertile and could not have children in Eretz Yisrael. The Jews retorted, “When evil rules the land, it is better to be barren rather than give birth to evil children who will end up in hell, like you” (Berakhot 10a). This explains the verse, “Rejoice, O barren one, you who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused, said the Lord” (Yeshayahu 54:1).

Some writers go so far as to say that the infertile should be careful not to pray excessively. Instead, they should say that if their having children is not what God wants, then they retract their request, because sometimes heaven knows that were this couple to have children, they would be evil or undergo terrible suffering. To minimize the couple’s pain, heaven does not grant them children (Shevet Musar 24:19).

Even so, the infertile should know that all the prayers that they recite, the good deeds that they do, and the Torah that they study are not going to waste. Even if they do not produce the hoped-for result, they may help other childless couples conceive. In any case, these practices certainly improve the world and bring it closer to the day when those children’s souls can be born.

06. The Value of Their Love and Joy

A couple that has not been blessed with children face a great challenge. Will they wallow in their pain, and lose their faith and joie de vivre? Or will they overcome their pain, increase their love for each other, fulfill the mitzva of ona with extra joy, and constantly think about how to bring goodness and joy into the lives of their families and friends? Though they have not been blessed with children, there is great intrinsic value in their intimacy.

The Sages ask why our matriarchs were barren. One of the Sages answers, “So that they would endear themselves to their husbands through their beauty.” Another explains, “So that their husbands take pleasure in them, for when a woman is pregnant, she loses her looks and is neglected by her husband.” During the ninety years that Sarah did not give birth, Avraham treated her like a bride under the wedding canopy, and all the women inquired about her (Bereishit Rabba 45:4). Thus, from one perspective, childless couples can increase and intensify the love, passion, and joy they share.

That is the meaning behind the kabbalistic statement that each time a husband and wife unite sexually in love and passion, an abundance of life and blessing is added to this world. As Shlah states:

Each and every act of intercourse, when undertaken in sanctity, will have a positive impact. Even if the wife does not conceive…[the husband] is not wasting seed; rather, a holy soul comes into existence as a result…. For a soul comes into being with every act of intercourse, and the offspring of others are then endowed with these souls…. This is why Avraham could sleep with Sarah even though she was barren. It was not, God forbid, a waste. (Sha’ar Ha-otiyot, Kedushat Ha-zivug §402)

Shlah goes on to cite Zohar, which explains that the perfect love and devotion that infused the intimate relations of these two righteous people, Avraham and Sarah, led to the creation of souls in the supernal realms, which then descended to this world, and with which children of various families were endowed. When those children grew up, they were drawn to Avraham and Sarah, who brought them close to God. These are the souls referred to in the verse (Bereishit 12:5), “The souls they created in Ḥaran” (Zohar III 168a). Thus, when husband and wife overcome their sadness and unite with devotion and passion, they become partners in drawing down souls into the world and create sparks of souls through their sexual union.

Furthermore, when a childless couple manages, despite their pain and suffering, to strengthen their faith, deepen their love for each other, and bring one another pleasure through the mitzva of ona, they add life and blessing to the entire world. There is a special purity in their love, which is unconditional and does not depend on the children they share. Their loving unity gives expression to divine unity, revealing it in this world. Although they cannot have children, they can reveal the intrinsic value of life, thus adding vitality and continued existence to all the worlds. As Arizal explains, there are two kinds of sexual intercourse – one serves the purpose of creating souls, while the other sustains worlds and keeps them alive (Sha’ar Ha-Mitzvot, Bereishit, p. 7). It is true that even couples who have children may experience the second type of intercourse, for example when the wife is pregnant, nursing, or menopausal. However, since this is the only type of union a childless couple have, it has a greater influence on the world. All this is assuming that the love and happiness they share indeed enable them to break through the barriers of sadness and have a positive view of the world; to rejoice in the joy of relatives and friends, contribute to the world, and be kind to others as best they can.

07. Adoption

The Sages say, “One who raises an orphaned boy or girl in his home is considered by the Torah as if he gave birth to them” (Megilla 13a). This refers not only to an orphan who has lost both parents, but also to a child whose parents are unable to meet all his basic physical and emotional needs, as the source for this assertion is a midrash that extrapolates that Moshe Rabbeinu is referred to as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter Bitya even though his biological mother, Yocheved, was alive and nursed him. Since Bitya raised him, he is regarded as her son as well.

The Sages also say (Ketubot 50a) that one who raises an orphaned child and marries him off is considered by the Torah as one of those “who do righteous deeds at all times” (Tehilim 106:3). According to the Midrash, God has treasure houses full of rewards for the righteous. Among them is a special warehouse with rewards for those who take in orphans and raise them (Shemot Rabba 45:6).

Some even maintain that a couple who raises an orphan actually fulfills the mitzva of procreation. This approach takes literally the Sages’ statement, “He is considered by the Torah as if he gave birth to them” (see Ḥokhmat Shlomo, EH 1:1). Even according to the poskim who maintain that the equation is not literal, from a certain perspective, this couple performs an even greater mitzva because they act voluntarily.

Similarly, we find that even though adopted children are not technically obligated in the mitzva of honoring parents vis-à-vis their adoptive parents, Torah ethics obligate them in everything that is incumbent upon biological children. Perhaps they must do even more, since their parents adopted them voluntarily. Similarly, it is a mitzva for adopted children to mourn for their adoptive parents and recite Kaddish for them. The only difference between an adopted child and a biological one is that the latter may not perform a medical procedure on a parent if it would cause bleeding, while the former may (Peninei Halakha: Collected Essays – Mishpaḥa 1:24-25).

Someone who would find it difficult to raise or help raise an orphan can donate money to help abandoned children, provide for their needs, and get them on their feet. In doing so he is a partner in raising them, and from a certain perspective it is as if he has given birth to them. The more significant the help he gives, the truer this is.

People who help parents care for and educate their children are also considered parents on some level, as it says (Ruth 4:17), “The women neighbors gave him a name, saying, ‘A son is born to Naomi!’ They named him Oved; he was the father of Yishai, father of David.” The Sages explain that the reason that Oved, son of Ruth and Boaz, is also called Naomi’s son is because she was involved in caring for and educating him (Sanhedrin 19b).

08. Teaching Students

The Sages say, “One who teaches Torah to someone else’s child is considered by the Torah as if he gave birth to him.” Whereas Aharon gave birth to his sons, Moshe Rabbeinu taught them Torah, so they are called his sons as well (Sanhedrin 19b).

Similarly, it is written in Shema, “Teach them to your children” (Devarim 6:7). The Sages interpret:

“Your children” – refers to your students. We find that students are referred to as children in many other places as well, as it says, “Then the sons of the prophets at Beit El came out to Elisha” (2 Melakhim 2:3). Were they the prophets’ children? Rather, they were their students. We derive from this that students are called children…. Just as students are called children, so too teachers are called parents. Thus, we read (ibid., 2:12), “Elisha saw and cried out: ‘Father, father! Israel’s chariots and horsemen!’ Then he did not see him again.” (Sifrei)

This notion has halakhic significance as well. If someone finds two lost objects, one belonging to his father and the other to his teacher, and he is unable to return them both, his teacher’s lost object takes precedence, “because his father brought him into this world, while his teacher, by teaching him Torah, brings him into the next world.” However, if his father is also a Torah scholar, then his father’s lost object takes precedence (Bava Metzi’a 33a).

According to Zohar (I 187b), in the verses we saw above (7:6), the prophet Yeshayahu addresses those who are not privileged to have children:

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 56:4-5)

A story is told about how R. Yoḥanan was distraught after all of his children died young and he had not fulfilled the mitzva of procreating. Then an elder comforted him by saying that his students were considered his children, and in their merit he would have a place in the next world and an everlasting name (Zohar Ḥadash, Ruth, 108b).

Those who support Torah students are also considered their teachers, for without them, the students would be unable to learn.

According to Sefer Ḥasidim (§367), sometimes God does not want to deplete a person’s heavenly account. Therefore, he does not get to enjoy both Torah and children in this world. It is because he is not blessed with children that he can be blessed with Torah, which will give him an everlasting name.

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