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Shiur 13: Women And the Mitzva of Procreation

  • Rav Chaim Navon

I. The Parameters of the Mitzva


            Let us open our discussion of the mitzva of procreation (peru u-rvu) with a review of the parameters of the mitzva. When does one fulfill the mitzvaof procreation?


A man shall not abstain from [the duty of] procreation unless he already has children. [As to the number,] Beit Shammai says, “two males” and Beit Hillel says, “a male and a female,” as it is stated: “Male and female He created them” (Bereishit 1:27).…


It was taught that Rabbi Natan stated: Beit Shammai says, “two males and two females,” and Beit Hillel says, “a male and a female.”…


Elsewhere it was taught that Rabbi Natan stated: Beit Shammai says, “a male and a female,” and Beit Hillel says, “either a male or a female.” (Yevamot 61b-62b)


The Mishna and Beraitot record four opinions regarding when a man fulfills the mitzvaof procreation:

1) when he has a son or a daughter;

2) when he has a son and a daughter;

3) when he has two sons;

4) when he has two sons and two daughters.


The simplest position is the first, which speaks of a son or a daughter. According to this view, as soon as a man has his first child, whether it is a boy or a girl, he has fulfilled the mitzva. It is also easy to understand the view that requires a son and a daughter; according to this opinion, a man fulfills the obligation when he has a unit that would allow for the continued existence of the human race. In order to further our existence as a race, we require, at minimum, one man and one woman. Thus, a man who has contributed both a son and a daughter to the world has done his part for the human race. Indeed, the halakha follows this position (Shulchan Arukh, Even Ha-ezer 1:5).


It is also possible to comprehend the view that requires two sons and two daughters. In order for the human race to continue multiplying, there must be more children than there are parents. This being the case, each couple must produce four children, thus contributing not only to the preservation of the human race, but to its expansion as well.


            The only position that is very difficult to understand is the viewpoint of Beit Shammai in the Mishna, that the mitzva is only fulfilled when a man has produced two sons. The Gemara explains that Beit Shammai learns this from Moshe, who separated from his wife after having two sons. Perhaps Beit Shammai maintains that since only men are obligated in the mitzva of procreation, one can only fulfill his obligation if he has two children who are similarly bound by this mitzva, and as a result will subsequently marry and have children. This reasoning is nevertheless difficult: According to Beit Shammai, it would theoretically be possible for the entire world to fulfill the mitzva of procreation through the birth of males, and the human species would still disappear owing to the lack of females.


            The Gemara records a disagreement regarding the law governing a man whose children die before producing children of their own:


If a man had children and they died, Rav Huna said: “He has fulfilled the mitzvaof procreation.” Rabbi Yochanan said: “He has not fulfilled it.”

Rav Huna said: “He fulfilled it, because [he follows the tradition] of Rav Asi.” For R. Asi said: “The son of David will not come before all the souls in Guf will have been disposed of…”

And Rabbi Yochanan said: “He has not fulfilled the mitzvaof procreation, because we require [the fulfillment of the text]: ‘He formed it to be inhabited’ (Yeshayahu 45:18), which is not the case here.” (Yevamot 62a)


At first glance, it seems that in such a case the person has indeed fulfilled his obligation, for he had children, and at that moment he fulfilled the mitzva of procreation. How can his fulfillment of the mitzvabe retroactively cancelled? It is interesting to note that even Rav Huna, who maintains that a person whose children have died has fulfilled the mitzva, does not present the argument just proposed. He puts forward an entirely different argument, namely, that the future redemption will only come after all the souls that are supposed to come down to this world do so. According to him, the mitzva of procreation is meant to bring the redemption closer by bringing as many souls as possible into the world. As a result, anyone who has had children has contributed to this goal, even if in the end they died.


Rabbi Yochanan (whose position the halakhafollows) disagrees with him, arguing that a person whose children have died does not realize the purpose of the mitzva– “He formed it to be inhabited.” Rabbi Yochanan's words indicate that the mitzva is not focused on a particular act, but rather a situation. The mitzva is that a man should have descendants, and through them contribute to the preservation and expansion of the human race. When this does not happen, he has not fulfilled the mitzva.


            It should also be noted that even Rav Huna accepts the principle that the mitzva of procreation is focused on the situation, rather than on the act. He only differs in that he maintains that the mitzva is focused on the number of souls meant to be born that are left in heaven. Even if one’s children die, he has still contributed to the reduction of the number of souls waiting to be born, thus hastening the redemption.


            The Gemara establishes that, according to Rabbi Yehoshua, a man must not desist from having children even after he has reached the minimum number needed to fulfill the mitzva:


Rabbi Yehoshua said: “If a man married in his youth, he should marry again in his old age. If he had children in his youth, he should also have children in his old age, for it is stated: ‘In the morning sow your seed and in the evening withhold not your hand; for you know not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they shall both be alike good” (Kohelet 11:6). (Yevamot 62b)


Following Rabbi Yehoshua, the Rambam rules:


Although a man has fulfilled the mitzva of procreation, he is bound by a Rabbinic commandment not to refrain from being fruitful and multiplying as long as he is physically potent.For anyone who adds a soul to the Jewish people is considered as if he built an entire world. (Hilkhot Ishut 15:16)


The commentators on the Rambam cite Rabbi Yehoshua’s statement as his source. Notably, the Rambam adopts a tone that is very different from that of the other Rishonim who comment on Rabbi Yehoshua’s pronouncement. According to the Ba'al Ha-ma'or and the Ramban, the injunction of “in the evening withhold not your hand” is not even an actual Rabbinic commandment, but only “a custom of proper conduct.” According to a simple understanding of his words as well, Rabbi Yehoshua is merely offering advice to a person who wishes to fulfill the obligation to procreate; even after a person has fulfilled the mitzva, he should continue having children, for should one of his children die in the future, it will turn out that he has not fulfilled the mitzva. It is even possible that Rabbi Yehoshua is offering advice that is wholly unconnected to the mitzvaof procreation; a person should continue having children because it may be that some will not survive, irrespective of the mitzva.


            In contrast, the Rambam implies that we are not dealing here merely with a concern that perhaps some of a person's children will not survive, but rather with a purpose that has independent value. Even if all of a person's children survive, “anyone who adds a soul to the Jewish people is considered as if he built an entire world.” It should be noted that even the Rambam limits this law, saying that the law only applies “as long as he is physically potent.”[1] Clearly, even the Rambam agrees that we are not dealing with an absolute halakhic obligation.


            To conclude this section, let us mention one more issue: At what age does a person become obligated in the mitzvaof procreation? The Mishna in Avot states: “Eighteen years [is the age] for the bridal canopy” (5:21). The Rambam (Hilkhot Ishut 15:2) rules that a man is obligated in the mitzva of procreation from the age of seventeen. The Maggid Mishneh comments that the Rambam is referring to a person who has reached the age of seventeen and is now in his eighteenth year, and that this is the intent of the Mishna as well.


            Another source concerning the appropriate age for marriage and procreation can be found in a Beraita in Kiddushin:


The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: “Until the age of twenty, the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and waits. When will he take a wife? As soon as one reaches the age of twenty and has not married, He exclaims: ‘Blasted be his bones!’” (Kiddushin 29b)


Following this Beraita, the Rambam rules that if a person has reached the age of twenty and has not yet taken a wife, “he is considered to have transgressed and negated the observance of this positive commandment.” There is a difference between non-fulfillment and negation of a positive commandment. If one has not yet donned tefillin one morning, he has not yet fulfilled the positive commandment. But if he does not don tefillin for the entire day, he has negated a positive commandment, in such a way that the matter can no longer be rectified. According to the Rambam, the time of the mitzva of procreation (or, to be more precise, the time of marriage as a means to fulfill the mitzvaof procreation) is the age of twenty. Before that, it is possible to say that the person has not yet fulfilled the mitzva of procreation, but it cannot be said that he has negated the mitzva. It is difficult to understand the source of the Rambam’s formulation regarding the negation of a positive commandment. Chazal merely imply that the age of twenty is significant with regard to sinful thoughts, without any connection to the mitzva of procreation.


            Furthermore, Chazal’s statement that eighteen is the appropriate age for marriage is very difficult. Surely a person becomes obligated in the observance of mitzvot at the age of thirteen. Why, then, is one not immediately obligated in the mitzva of procreation, but only at the age of eighteen? Some Acharonim argue that Chazal put off fulfillment of the mitzva of procreation so that a person will learn Torah during his adolescent years. But according to the halakha, a person must interrupt his studies in order to fulfill a mitzva that cannot be performed for him by somebody else, and the mitzva of procreation certainly falls into this category! It would seem, then, that one should be obligated to fulfill the mitzva of procreation immediately at the age of thirteen, even if this would lead to neglect of Torah study.


            Rav Yaakov Ariel answers this question as follows:


It is necessary to say, then, that indeed the mitzva of procreation does not depend on a fixed time. Just as there are mitzvot whose time extends, for example, for the entire day, and the obligation to fulfill them in the morning is only because of [the principle that] the zealous perform mitzvot at the earliest possible opportunity, so too with respect to the mitzva of procreation: Its time is a person's entire life, only that there is a mitzva to be zealous and fulfill it as early as possible. However, this is not an immediate obligation, and therefore for a justified reason one may delay marriage, and with it the mitzva of procreation, to a later time.[2] And all the more so when the reason is Torah study, which is equivalent to all the mitzvot. Just as we find that a mitzva that can be fulfilled by way of another person can be put off for the sake of Torah study, the same is true about a mitzvawhose time will not pass, that it can be put off for the sake of Torah study.

It is understandable, then, why there is no obligation to marry a woman immediately when one reaches the age of thirteen, as argued by the Chelkat Mechokek, because fifteen is the age for Talmud study. (Rav Yaakov Ariel, Sefer Assia 4)


According to Rav Ariel, the mitzva of procreation has no fixed time, but rather a person must fulfill it at some point in his life. Chazal decided, in accordance with the circumstances of their time and place, that one should start to fulfill the mitzva at the age of eighteen, and at the latest by the age of twenty. Delaying marriage even further has no justification, and therefore involves a negation of the mitzvaof procreation. It is very reasonable to say that this age limit depends on the particular circumstances of each period.


II. The Obligation of Women in this Mitzva


            The Mishna cites a tannaitic dispute as to whether or not women are obligated in the mitzva of procreation:


A man is commanded concerning the mitzva of procreation, but not a woman. Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka says: “Concerning both of them, it is said: ‘And God blessed them: Be fruitful, and multiply’” (Bereishit 1:28).” (Yevamot 65b)


Following the first opinion in this mishna, the Shulchan Arukh rules that women are exempt from the mitzva of procreation (Even Ha-ezer 1:13).


            If a woman has children, does she fulfill the mitzva of procreation, despite not being obligated? The simple answer is that, according to the position that women can recite a blessing over time-bound positive commandments, she indeed fulfills a mitzva. Even though women are not obligated in these mitzvot, they may fulfill them if they choose to do so. So writes the Ran in his responsa (in the name of Rabbi Dan): “Even though we maintain that a woman is not obligated in the mitzva of procreation, in my opinion she fulfills a mitzva, even though she is not commanded, but simply does it” (Responsa Ha-Ran, no. 32).


            The Gemara in Yevamot 65b further states that even though a woman is not commanded in the mitzva of procreation, she may nevertheless demand of her husband that he father children with her, so that they may support and take care of her when she grows old. It follows from the Gemara there that since a woman is not obligated in the mitzva of procreation, it is permitted to sterilize a woman chemically. So too rules the Shulchan Arukh (Even Ha-ezer 5:12; and see Beit Shemuel, ad loc., no. 14, who says that the allowance is limited to chemical sterilization, but lekhatchila one may not sterilize a woman through a surgical procedure).


            Why are women exempt from this mitzva? The Meshekh Chokhma, Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk,proposes several answers to this question (Bereishit 9:7). First, the Torah did not want to command and force women to do something that is dangerous for them. And second, women yearn for children by their very nature, and therefore there was no need to impose an obligation upon them. (This is similar to the argument that the Torah commands children to honor their parents, but it did not have to command parents to love their children). Later in the passage, the Meshekh Chokhma proposes another possible explanation:[3] If a man who is commanded in the mitzva of procreation finds that his wife is infertile, he can, according to Torah law, take an additional wife. But if a woman were obligated in the mitzva of procreation, and she were to find that her husband is infertile, she would have no alternative but to get divorced, and this is not what the Torah wants. As the Meshekh Chokhma formulates the matter: “To command a woman that, should she marry a man and he be found infertile, she must leave the love of her heart and take another husband – would be against nature, to love that which is hated, and to hate that which is beloved.”


III. “He Formed it to be Inhabited” (Yeshayahu 45:18)


            The Talmudic passages that deal with procreation mention in four different contexts the verse: “He did not create it a wasteland; He formed it to be inhabited” (Yeshayahu 45:18). What are these four contexts, and what is the significance of the verse in these settings?


1) The Gemara cites this verse as the rationale for the position that one son or one daughter suffices for the fulfillment of the mitzva of procreation (Yevamot 62a). If the reason for this mitzva is that “He formed it be inhabited,” that is, to add to the human population of the world, a man accomplishes this when he fathers a son or a daughter.


2) According to Rabbi Yochanan, a person who had a child that subsequently died has not fulfilled the mitzva of procreation, because “He formed it to be inhabited.” Rabbi Yochanan understands the verse as the underlying reason for the law of procreation. Therefore, if a man has not contributed to the population of the world, he has not fulfilled the mitzva. In the previous paragraph we saw that the verse narrows the demands of the law; here we see that it expands them.


3) Rava maintains that if a man has a son and a daughter, and they die after producing children of their own, the grandfather is regarded as having fulfilled the mitzva of procreation. The reason for this is that “we require ‘He formed it to be inhabited,’ and we have that here” (Yevamot 62a). Once again, we see that the verse defines the nature of the mitzva of procreation. If the son has contributed to the world's population by having his own son, then, as far as the mitzva(of the father/grandfather) is concerned, it is as if he himself fulfilled the mitzva, for the essence of the mitzvahas been accomplished.


4) The Mishna in Gittin deals with a man who is half slave and half free. Such a situation can occur when the slave had been jointly owned by two people, one of whom manumitted him. How does such a person conduct his life?


One who is half a slave and half free works for his master and for himself on alternate days. This was the ruling of Beit Hillel. Beit Shammai said: “You have made matters right for the master but not for the slave. It is impossible for him to marry a female slave because he is already half free. It is impossible for him to marry a free woman because he is half a slave. Shall he then remain unmarried? But was not the world only made to be populated, as it says: ‘He did not create it a wasteland; He formed it to be inhabited?’ Therefore, his master is compelled to liberate him and he gives him a bond for half his purchase price.” Beit Hillel thereupon retracted [its opinion and] ruled like Beit Shammai. (Gittin 41a-41b)


Such a slave cannot have children, as he cannot marry a female slave, since he is already half free, and he cannot marry a free woman, since he is still half slave. Chazal therefore demand of the owner of his “slave half” to liberate him completely, so that he can fulfill the obligation of procreation.


            The Tosafot on that passage raise a difficult question. Chazal say that such a slave must be liberated because he cannot fulfill the obligation of procreation by marrying a female slave. But the Gemara in Yevamot says that, in any event, a slave cannot fulfill the mitzva of procreation, as his children are not regarded as related to him, nor are they called by his name! If so, we should conclude that every slave must be liberated (and not only one who is only half slave) so that he should be able to fulfill this mitzva!


            The Tosafot answer that an ordinary non-Jewish slave can marry a female slave. Though he does not fulfill the mitzva of procreation optimally, as his children are not regarded as related to him, he nonetheless fulfills the principle of “He formed it to be inhabited,” that is, he contributes in some way to the population of the world. The obligation to populate the world is portrayed by the Tosafot as a mitzvathat is, in a certain sense, different from that of procreation. The mitzva of populating the world can be fulfilled even by slaves, regardless of their children’s status.


            Another novel idea emerges from the words of the Tosafot. We stated previously that women are exempt from the mitzva of procreation. Therefore, while it may be that they fulfill the mitzva upon having children, they are certainly not obligated to do so. According to the Tosafot, however, the halakharequires women to engage in child bearing, not because of the mitzva of procreation (as they are exempt), but because of a separate obligation to populate the world.


            Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has suggested that since, according to the Tosafot, populating the world is a separate mitzva, it may be that this mitzva depends on the state of the world. If the world is populated to the brim, the mitzva of populating the world would not be relevant, and we would be left only with the mitzva of procreation, which is more focused and unequivocal.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] According to the Terumat Ha-deshen (no. 263), this phrase refers not only to actual physical potency, but to the man’s ability to support his children and maintain domestic peace as well.

[2] Rav Aharon Lichtenstein proposed this explanation, and the following explanation as well: According to the halakha, a person is obligated to sacrifice only up to a fifth of his assets in order to fulfill a positive commandment. The obligation to marry at the age of thirteen demands a sacrifice of more than a fifth of the person's assets, and therefore he is not obligated to make such a sacrifice in order to fulfill the positive commandment of procreation.

[3] He formulates it as sort of a continuation of the second explanation.