Judith, the wife of Rabbi Chiya, having suffered in consequence [of pregnancy] agonizing pains of childbirth, changed her clothes [in disguise, in order to get an unbiased answer] and appeared before [her husband] Rabbi Chiya. ‘Is a woman,’ she asked, ‘commanded to propagate the race [fulfill the mitzvah of ‘Be fruitful and multiply’]?’–‘No’, he replied. Relying on this decision, she drank a sterilizing potion (Yevamot 65b).
The first mitzvah of the Torah, and a central tenet of Jewish family life, is the commandment of p’ru u’rvu – be fruitful and multiply. Upon noticing the large families common in many traditional communities, one might assume that proper observance of this mitzvah would render birth control taboo. However, as may be understood from the above passage, this would be an incorrect conclusion…
When discussing the permissibility of birth control in Jewish law, there are several important facts of which to be aware:
1) P’ru u’rvu is considered an obligation on men and not women (one reason being that one cannot impose upon a woman a mitzvah that entails the medical dangers of pregnancy and childbirth).
2) The sages quantify the mitzvah of p’ru u’rvu as producing one son and one daughter (the minimal opinion*) and note that “A man shall not abstain from the act of propagation unless he already has children” (Yevamot 61b).
3) There is a prohibition against a man “spilling his seed.”
4) Pikuach Nefesh, saving a life, is considered of foremost importance over all but 3 mitzvot.
While birth control is not forbidden under Jewish law, it is a decision that is not to be made lightly. (Many traditional Jews will consult a rabbi to discuss their particular situation.) Quite often, the critical factor in the discussion is the well-being (both physical and mental) of the mother. Additionally, not all methods of contraception are permitted. Condoms and other methods that prevent the flow of a man’s seed are problematic, whereas hormonal contraceptives are often permitted.
*In some opinions, one who is unable to have children is able to partake in this mitzvah by providing support and a Jewish education to an orphan or a needy child. To learn more about the Torah’s view on adoption, click here
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