The Obligation to Propagate

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Bereshit: The Obligation to Propagets

My Jewish background makes it always jarring for me when I hear a man speak as if having children is a choice (for women, it still is a choice, as we will see). Rambam’s Obligation 212 lays out why a Jewish man must think of it as a commandment, not a choice.

Sustain the Human Race, Inhabit the World

Rambam says we are to “be fruitful and multiply,” and adds the intent should be to sustain the human race, an unusual addition, since he does not focus on reasons for mitzvot in this book. He adds a rule articulated in Berachot 16a, a groom on his wedding night need not recite Shema because he is involved in a mitzvah, proof this is a Biblical obligation (as well as demonstrating, although Rambam does not say it explicitly here, the mitzvah is in the trying, the act of a husband and wife living together constitutes an involvement with the mitzvah).

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 1 gives us the verse from which we took the phrase, Bereshit 1;28, God blesses Adam and Havah and says peru u-revu, be fruitful and multiply. His reason for the mitzvah is interestingly different, because God wants the world to be settled, as Yeshayahu 45;18 says, God did not create the world to be desolate, but to be inhabited [the verse is the source of a Rabbinic obligation to bear children beyond the bare minimum]. Rambam focused on the human race, Sefer Ha-Hinuch on the world.

Aruch Ha-Shulhan Even Ha-Ezer 1;1 throws in the obvious truth (Rambam said it in Mishneh Torah, too) the mitzvah is best fulfilled when married; Jewish men are not supposed to have children out of wedlock, although they fulfill the mitzvah if they do. Marriage is also important for the man himself, since Yevamot tells us there is no real joy in an unmarried life; Aruch Ha-Shulhan says an unmarried man is like half a person, and that as long as a man feels himself capable of having children (and has a wife of childbearing years available), he should have more (this last is a function of a Rabbinic reading of yet another verse, one we read earlier today, Kohelet 11;6, to plant in the morning and not stop in the evening.

[Perhaps this is the place to note that none of authorities, in this context, make points about being sure to be able to raise one’s children as well, but it is a factor  more than one authority has factored in.]

Conquering the World

Women are exempt, an idea Aruch Ha-Shulhan 1;2 attributes [based on the Gemara] to God’s having told Adam Ha-Rishon to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and conquer it. Conquest is a male preoccupation, the Gemara assumed, suggesting we should think of this mitzvah as a matter of conquering the world (as opposed to sustaining the human race or settling the world, for examples we have already seen).

[Gemaras elsewhere assume women want to have children anyway, perhaps a reason the Torah did not command them, although that takes a position on what the Torah did and did not command. I have heard others say the Torah did not command it because of the danger involved. Neither of those takes this Gemaras reason as “the” reason.]

Sefer Ha-Hinuch says anyone who neglects the obligation (does not try to have children) incurs severe punishment, because he demonstrates disinterest in fulfilling God’s Will to have the world be inhabited.

[More of a mouthful than we might notice. First, his certainty of the consequences for a refusal to do what a person knows God wants is not shared as widely today. I once saw a responsum of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, who also took for granted any human being is obligated to do what s/he knows to be God’s Will—we would have to define how we “know” God’s Will. In our times, I think many people rely on the more technical standards, and since procreation is “only” an aseh, an obligation, think we can be more casual about it. Second, the idea the mitzvah is about helping the world be inhabited can lead people to, erroneously, think they can decide when it is inhabited enough.]

Aruch Ha-Shulhan 1;1 brings up Berachot 10a, where the Gemara thinks Hizkiyahu, an unusually righteous king, almost was killed by God for refusing to have children.Despite Hizkiyahu correctly noting his children would be evildoers, the Gemara assumes Yeshayahu responded—words mori vi-rabi R. Lichtenstein zt”l quoted often, about mitzvot in general— bahadei kavshei de-rahmana lamah lach, what business is it of yours to delve into God’s secrets, you were commanded to do something, do it, and leave the rest to God.

At What Age

With changing times, the age at which we work on this mitzvah (by getting married) has shifted as well. Sefer Ha-Hinuch says it starts when the man/boy is raui, appropriate, defined by Hazal as the time to marry. Minhat Hinuch thought the time for the mitzvah was age eighteen (presumably because Avot 5;21 gives that as the time to marry), but one who marries earlier is praised (from Kiddushin 29b, where R. Hisda says he succeeded more in Torah than his fellows because he married young, and even younger marriage would have been better).

There are exceptions, such as if marriage would distract the young man from Torah study, an idea Minhat HInuch recommends for further study in Rambam and Maggid Mishneh. [In our times, we could certainly argue high school age marriage would interfere with Torah studies, and a year or two in Israel as well. For those who then choose to move on with their lives, without Torah study filling the majority of their day, the question of delaying marriage becomes more halachically complex. I will not try to resolve it, only to point out the question: there is a Torah mitzvah the young man needs to fulfill; there are some clear needs allowing him to delay involvement with the mitzvah, but not a blank check. How do we define when we urge/hope for our young men to marry?]

How Many Children?

Based on a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, Rambam and Shulhan Aruch agree the mitzvah is fulfilled only by having fathered a girl and a boy, each able to have children themselves. [Minhat Hinuch in many mitzvot brings up androginus, someone intersex; here, the possibility of such a person’s fertility affects whether we would include him/her in the mitzvah and/or in the father of such a child having fulfilled his mitzvah. I will leave the topic for others.]

Note that the children must have children or be able to have children for the father to have upheld the mitzvah. Minhat Hinuch uses the examples of a son or daughter who sustain injuries rendering them incapable of having children; in our times, sadly, a parent might have a son and daughter who choose not to have children until the daughter is no longer able to. Her father will not have fulfilled the mitzvah.

If a man’s son and daughter already had children, Rambam ruled the grandchildren must include a boy and girl, born to different parents, although if a man’s daughter had a son and his son a daughter, that would be fine as well. Tosafot thought the grandchildren could all be of one gender (for the grandfather’s mitzvah; his son(s), of course, will have to have a boy and girl him/themselves for their own mitzvah).

Exempt From Mitzvot, Not Excluded

On the other hand, if the father has a child whose disadvantages mean s/he is not obligated in mitzvot, the father can still have fulfilled his obligation. A deaf-mute is a more complicated example in our times, but a shoteh, someone suffering from severe mental illness such that s/he is not considered a competent adult, is generally exempt from mitzvot. I might have thought, therefore, the child also does not count as someone inhabiting the world.

Not true, Minhat Hinuch tells us. While halachah does not obligate such people to fulfill mitzvot, they are part of the mitzvah community; for example, it is prohibited to feed them prohibited items or otherwise encourage them to violate the Torah. As long as such a child is physically capable of childbearing, the father has fulfilled the mitzvah.

And, he says later, if a currently exempt person later becomes obligated—the mentally incompetent man is healed—children he fathered while exempt still count.

[This is an opportunity to mention R. Yoni Rosensweig’s Nafshi Be-Sheelati, a very well-done book presentation of how halachah responds to mental health concerns, as well as developmental disabilities; I am about a third of the way through. He echoes Minhat HInuch’s point about the value of including such people in mitzvot where possible, even if they are technically exempt, as well as of not bringing them to violate the Torah other than where necessary for their treatments.]

Who Wants More Mamzerim?

Minhat Hinuch at first agrees a mamzer—born of a seriously illicit relationship, such as a woman’s extramarital affair—counts towards his/her father’s obligation of piryah ve-rivyah, having children. A mamzer counts as an ordinary Jewish adult for almost all purposes, so the father would seem to count as having produced a Jewish boy or girl.

However, a mamzer is not allowed to marry ordinary Jews and all of his/her Jewish descendants are mamzerim.Minhat Hinuch first discusses why it would or would not be a mitzvah ha-baah be-averah, a mitzvah fulfilled through a sinful vehicle, usually disallowed, a technical discussion with many applications I leave for other venues. His next certainty is specific to mamzerim and piryah ve-rivyah, and offers an example of one of my current fascinations.

Technical issues aside, he says, how could it be the Torah would allow fulfilling the obligation with a mamzer child, contributing to the proliferation of pesulim, invalid people, in the nation. (Later in his discussion, he notes Peri Megadim had brought up the question, too.) The mamzer is allowed to marry a convert, but their children will be mamzerim. And Minhat Hinuch cannot imagine the Torah fostering that.

Again later, he is befuddled why the Torah would legislate producing problematic people, when deracheha darchei noam, her ways are ways of pleasantness.

[See his certainty? Whereas I see a response: Sure, the mamzer’s marriage and procreational life is complicated, and we can imagine him/her wishing to help any offspring avoid that, such as by having children only with a non-Jewish wife who converts afterwards—although it is not clear the mamzer will have fulfilled his obligation. But it is largely only in marriage where it is an issue, except that culturally, we have lots of distaste for such people.

Would we resist a male Moabite convert having children because all his sons will count as Moabites, forever? I think Minhat Hinuch is sure the answer is yes, without clear sources I know; to him, a marriage ban indicates something broader, and therefore not something to propagate within the Jewish people.]


Minhat Hinuch points out an interesting detail of the mitzvah, if a man has children while non-Jewish and then converts with the children, those children count for his mitzvah. Since they were considered his children while he was non-Jewish, despite the halachic truth a convert becomes a new person, with none of his/her old relationships, here the procreation holds.

That would not be true if the non-Jew impregnated a Jewish woman, because her child is Jewish from conception and therefore does not link, halachically, to the biological father. In addition, Minhat Hinuch suggests the father continue trying to have children if the ones he converts with are minors, because minors who convert have the right to opt out of the conversion when they reach adulthood.

Some authorities thought the convert has fulfilled his obligation with the children he bore while a non-Jew even if they do not convert, but Rambam and Shulhan Aruch did not accept that view.

The Rabbinic Obligation

We brought it up earlier: Hazal added an obligation to marry and have children even if one has already fulfilled the basic mitzvah, based on Kohelet 11;6 as well as a further obligation based on the verse in Yeshayahu we saw above. While la-erev, the verse in Kohelet, focused on never being sure which of our children will be more successful, la-shevet, in Yeshayahu, was concerned with population growth.

Remarkably, many authorities assume women are included in this last obligation. While Aruch Ha-Shulhan 1;4 rejects the idea, because they are all a matter of settling the world, these other authorities imply there are nuances. [I suggest they would see this obligation as being about populating the world, pure and simple, regardless of number or gender; the Torah obligation of piryah ve-rivyah directs our attention more to conquering the world, as we saw earlier, by reproducing at least the parental unit, a part of making sure the world continues as it was before.]

Lots more to be said, but I have run out of room. For now, we have procreation, an obligation of populating God’s world, incumbent on Jewish men from the time they’re eighteen, maybe younger, or maybe delayable until older.

About Gidon Rothstein

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