An Introduction to the Obligation of Procreation

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Noach, 5784: An Introduction to the Obligation of Procreation

Even HaEzer is where Shulchan Aruch discusses marriage and related topics. Shulchan Aruch itself emphasizes the importance of having children, but Aruch HaShulchan expatiates at much greater length, to me raising the question of why, although I have no evidence for an answer.

Torah Expressions of the Importance of Having Children

AH notes the Biblical obligation is expressed twice, in the original creation of humanity, 1;28, and again in Parshat Noach (as it happens, our parshah), 9;1, according to Rashi to make clear these words are first a blessing and then also a commandment. Besides, Yeshayahu (45;18) was told Hashem did not create the world to be desolate, lashevet yetzarah, He created it to be settled.

As if those are not enough, AH points to Yirmiyahu 29, where the prophet instructed the Jews exiled to Bavel to marry and have children, to emphasize exile does not excuse them from God’s commands. The connection to lashevet leads Yevamot 62a to require a father to have more children should his first children pass away, because he still needs to fulfill the mitzvah. Berachot 10a thinks the story of Chizkiyahu’s illness, where Yeshayahu tells him he is going die, started with the king’s refusal to have children, because he knew they would be evil (as Menasheh was).

[The response, which mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein z”l cited often, was bahadei kavshei derachmana lama lach, loosely, it’s not your business how Hashem runs the world. R. Lichtenstein thought the Gemara meant to remind us not to try to outthink God, that if Hashem sets up an obligation, we have to fulfill it.]

Yevamot 63a highlights the juxtaposition of Bereshit 9;6-7. Verse six bans murder, because humans are created in the image of God, and the next obligates people to be fruitful and multiply. The Gemara infers that one who does not have children is similar to one who commits murder and reduces the divine image in the world. In doing so, the person also costs the Jewish people some aspect of the Divine Presence, because Hashem promised Avraham, 17;7, to be God for him and his descendants (so the fewer descendants…).

When We Protest Much

The se’if, paragraph, isn’t over yet, because AH also briefly cites sources on the importance of marriage itself (see below). I pause here because he has provided us a perfect example of the kinds of issues I am trying to understand in our study of his work. Before reading this paragraph, I might have said there is a Biblical mitzvah of having children and left it at that. (If I knew Shulchan Aruch, I’d know it is thought to reduce the demut, although not the source of the idea).

AH has expanded and blurred the issue. Not only is it a Biblical mitzvah, to which Hashem added a berachah, Chazal’s understood Tanach to teach us it is central to God’s goals for the world, our obligation to ensure the world not be desolate meaning the mitzvah could reappear should one’s child(ren) pass away, God forbid, reminded Jews exile was no excuse to desist from the mitzvah (a passage in Baba Batra 60b also raised the possibility, without offering any of our verses as a disproof), thought it could be a reason to be taken from this world (Chizkiyahu), and lessened God’s connection to the Jewish people.

All valid sources, with citations of verses, although mostly not in a legal context. I suggest it shows this is a deep value, although the halachic applications are not precisely defined, and therefore more malleable to circumstance. Men are supposed to have children (we will discuss women in se’if 2), a legal obligation as well as an overarching value, part of building God’s world.

Marriage, Too

Although procreation necessarily requires contributions from a man and a woman, the discussion so far has not addressed why this should be in the context of marriage. I could have imagined and would have expected him to give reasons related to procreation, since that has been his topic until now. He could have said it’s better for the children to grow up in a two parent family, as is commonly assumed today, or it makes lineage easier to track, both so children can know who their parents are and treat them properly and to avoid incest of various sorts. Instead, he goes for reasons related to the marriage itself.

In Yevamot 62b, R. Tanchum in the name of R. Chanilai adduces verses to demonstrate the Torah’s implication that a man without a wife cannot be fully happy, have full blessing, goodness, peace, Torah, or protection. Bereshit 5;2 says Hashem created humans as man and woman, a unit, meaning a man without a wife is half a full human [and vice verse, although in AH’s time, I think the idea of  a woman choosing to remain single was fairly foreign].

daf later, R. Chama b. Chanina thinks Mishlei 18;22—matza isha matza tov, ve-yafek ratzon me-et Hashem, a man who has found a wife has found good, and will reap goodwill from God—tells us marriage atones. AH thinks it is because it removes [perhaps: lessens] his sexual thoughts, connects him to his wife, whom Hashem designated to be an ezer, Bereshit 2;18.

A long but illuminating se’if, a very good demonstration of the error in thinking of halachah as a purely legal system. To introduce this central Jewish institution, in a book on Jewish law, AH mixes pure law with exhortations of various and unclear levels of obligation. When we need to tease apart the aspects of a case to answer a specific question, the provenance of each idea becomes important. For much of life, it can remain fuzzy, mixing homiletics with exhortation with strict law.

Women Are Not Obligated to Procreate

Yevamot 65b told us women were not obligated in this mitzvah, because God linked the having children to ve-khivshuha, conquering the world, which women tend not to do. [Another of my questions: were we 1) to accept the view of R. Elchonon Wasserman, that a future Sanhedrin, if sufficiently qualified, could treat the Gemara like an earlier court, and reverse its rulings in certain cases, and 2) were women to join combat units with sufficient regularity that we would think women do conquer, would we think they also become obligated in procreation?].

Perhaps not, because Yevamot 65b also notes Hashem called on Ya’akov to be fruitful and multiply, 35;11, in the singular, he had to have children, not his wives. For reasons we need not summarize here, Tosafot showed why the plural form addressed to Adam and Noach does not include women past that first generation (when the women around were the only women around, so they had to be partners in procreation; once there are enough women that men can find wives, women were not obligated.)

AH mentions in passing that marriage and bearing children is more natural to women, perhaps another reason Hashem saw no need to obligate them. However, Rema in par. 13 reported the view among some (including Rambam) that a woman should not stay single, lest she be suspected of promiscuity.

In this case, AH himself makes the point I would have, that’s purely a factual issue, if she will not be suspected of anything, she can rely on Tosefta Yevamot 8, which explicitly allows her to choose to remain single. His se’if 4 also completely rejects the view women are included in la-shevet, the need to populate the world, even if not the specific mitzvah of piryah ve-rivyah.

It is important enough that women should have the opportunity, he argues, but not a requirement. So, too, when a non-Jew partially converts to Judaism to serve in a Jewish household. Although we usually say even male such servants/slaves have the same obligations as women, in this case AH is sure they will be included, because they are benei kibbush, relevant to conquest (it seems like a physical issue in AH, women are not physically set up for conquest, an idea that would again raise questions in our times, when many women are physically capable of being part of a conquering force. Also, notice that no one brings up the idea of being half a human to say women should marry, showing that some homiletical sources are used only in one of the contexts where they could be relevant.)

To close on a positive note, se’if five asserts a kelal gadol, an important general principle, anyone who has children is performing a mitzvah, including women, including non-Jews, a reason for a surprising halacha, that a non-Jew who has children and then converts will be considered to have fulfilled his obligation of piryah ve-rivyah.

Much more to say. I think we’ll take next week to make more progress on this siman, then move on to Choshen Mishpat, and return to our cycle. Meanwhile, we have a solid reminder of the importance of marriage and children in halachah’s view of a Jewish life.

About Gidon Rothstein

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