P’roo Ur’voo–Jewish Attitudes Towards Procreation”

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

For some parents, the greatest gift in life is having children. For other parents, the greatest challenge, is having children.

Long before Jewish people existed, in fact, in the time of Adam and Eve, G-d blessed the human creations and said to them(Genesis 1:28), “P’roo ur’voo, oo’mil’oo et ha’ah’retz,” Be fruitful and multiply and fill up the earth. Although it is considered a Divine directive to populate the world, a number of commentators state that the ultimate objective of the mitzvah of “p’roo ur’voo” is simply to make the fulfillment of the word of G-d possible. Obviously, in order to fulfill the words of the Torah and the commandments of G-d, there must be people.

The Mishna, in Avot (5:25), states that at age 18 a person becomes subject to the mitzvah of marriage, as well as the mitzvah to have children. The Code of Jewish Law goes on to explain that in order to properly fulfill the mitzvah of procreation, a man must beget at least one son and one daughter, who are physically capable of bearing children of their own. When a person is fortunate enough to have both a son and a daughter, there is an additional mitzvah of “lashevet“–to populate the world, based on the verse in Isaiah 45:18 “Lo toh’hoo v’ra’ah, la’shevet y’tzah’rah,” G-d did not create the world to be empty and void. He formed it to be inhabited.

Although, children can be a blessing or a challenge, most often, they are a combination of both. Emil Fakenheim (1916-2003), noted philosopher of the Holocaust, stated that after the Holocaust a 614th “commandment” was given to the Jews to have children, and that perhaps the greatest act of faith for survivors of the Holocaust was to bring Jewish children into this world. Knowing what they had personally been subject to at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, and recognizing that there is no guarantee that their children would not be subject to similar persecution and murder, was not an emotion that the survivors could easily dismiss.

In a seemingly strange reading of the “p’roo ur’voo” verse, the Talmud in Yivamot 65b declares that only a man is commanded to fulfill the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply. Based on a interpretation of the word that immediately follows the commandment to be fruitful and multiply: “v’chib’shoo’ha,” and subdue it [the earth], the rabbis state that only men are expected to be conquerors, not women.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers an alternate explanation, suggesting that women are exempted from the mitzvah of procreation because the Torah would not command a person to fulfill a mitzvah that is life threatening. Since childbirth is particularly perilous, women can not be commanded to bear children. Nevertheless, according to many authorities, women who do bear children are rewarded for the mitzvah of populating the earth and for helping their husbands fulfill the mitzvah of p’roo ur’voo.

The mitzvah of “p’roo ur’voo” also raises several issues regarding the prevailing attitude of Judaism toward sexuality. Many Christian sects believe that humankind is tainted by the “Original Sin” that stems from the perfidious relationship of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Later in Christian history, when the celibate class gained control of the so-called “kingdom,” all sex was deemed bad, and only celibacy was considered proper. Judaism, in stark contrast, considers procreation a mitzvah. While there are many concerns regarding sexual acts performed with improper intentions, Judaism generally views sexuality as holy and pure, especially if it is founded on holiness and purity. The Talmud actually teaches that when a sexual act is performed in the spirit of holiness, G-d Himself is present.

That procreation is a foremost feature or purpose of sexuality is clear from the prohibition of onanism, which is the wanton spilling of seed. This prohibition is derived from the text that describes the death of the sons of Judah (Genesis 38) who spilled their seed, rather than consummate the sexual act with their brother’s widow, since they knew that the child would not be called by their names.

This, of course, raises many difficult issues. Is having sex with a sterile or menopausal woman a waste of the male seed? Is one allowed to have sex with his pregnant wife, since the relationship can not result in the birth of a child?

The answers to these questions lie in a well-known verse that is found in Exodus 21:10, concerning the law of the Jewish maidservant. The verse states that if the master or his son betroths the Jewish maidservant, he may not treat her as a second-class wife, “Sh’ay’rah, k’soo’tah, v’oh’nah’tah lo yig’rah,” her food, her clothing and her sexual pleasure may not be diminished. From here our rabbis learn that a wife has the right to demand sexual pleasure, irrespective of whether the act can result in the birth of a child. In effect, the positive commandment of sexually pleasing one’s wife, overrides the negative commandment of wasting seed.

We see from the law of the Jewish maidservant, that not only is the sexual act a mitzvah, but providing pleasure during that act is a mitzvah, as well. Although there have been “Victorian” periods of Judaism, especially in the late 19th century, mainstream commentators all regard sexuality in Judaism as a positive force.

In Jewish life there are two ways of achieving immortality. One may achieve immortality by bearing children who follow in one’s religious and ethical path. However, not all people are fortunate enough to have children, and it is in this context that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b) states: “Kol ha’m’la’mayd et ben cha’vay’ro Torah…k’ee’loo y’la’doh,” anyone who teaches Torah to his neighbor’s child, it is as if he physically bore that child.

As we celebrate on the festival of Simchat Torah that marks the conclusion of the study of the entire Five Books of Moses, and begin to read the Book of Genesis again, we recognize that the spiritual procreation of Jewish children is at least as important as physical procreation.

Obviously, without children, we have no Jewish people. But it is vital to acknowledge that without Torah, we may have people, but they will, unfortunately, not be Jews.

The celebration of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah begins at sundown on Monday, October 24, 2005 and concludes on Wednesday night, October 26, 2005. Happy Holidays.

May you be blessed