Having children: The privilege and the mitzvah

“Be Fruitful and Multiply”

It is a great mitzvah from the Torah to be fruitful and multiply; this was the initial objective of Creation – revealing and adding life to the world. Therefore, it is the first mitzvah mentioned in the Torah, as God said to Adam and Chava at the conclusion of Creation:
God blessed them. God said to them, “Be fertile and become many. Fill the land and conquest it. Dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks the land” (Genesis 1:28). Also, following the Flood in the Torah portion of Noah, it is written:

God blessed Noah and his children. He said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). And after warning not to murder, God added:

Now be fruitful and multiply, swarm all over the earth and become populous on it” (Genesis 9:7).

Through this commandment, man emulates the ways of God: comparable to God, who created and sustains the world, man also reproduces and brings life into the world. In this way, he becomes a partner with God, as our Sages said:

There are three partners in man, the Holy One, blessed be He, his father and his mother” (Nida 31a).

The Basic Divine Instruction

This was the first and most basic objective of Creation, as our Sages said in the Mishna:

And was not the world created for the sake of reproduction, as it says (Isaiah 45:18) “He made the world to be lived in, not to be a place of empty chaos” (Gittin 4b).
This verse indeed teaches that yishuv ha’olam (populating and settling the world) is God’s most basic instruction, as it is written:
For this is what the Lord says– he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited– he says: “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:18). Our Sages further said in the Mishna:
Anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world” (Sanhedrin 4:5).
If this is what our Sages said concerning one who saves a poor person from dying of starvation (Baba Batra 11a), how much more so do parents who produce a child save an entire world – all the more so, when they feed and educate the child as well.

Forsaking this Mitzvah is Akin to Murder and Diminishing the Divine Image

In the Talmud (Yevamot 63b), Rabbi Eliezer said:
He who does not engage in propagation of the race is as though he sheds blood”, for it is written: ‘He who spills human blood shall have his own blood spilled by man’, and this is immediately followed by the verse, ‘Now be fruitful and multiply, swarm all over the earth and become populous on it’ (Genesis 9:6-7). Man’s duty to have children and add life to the world is so profound and fundamental that whoever fails to fulfill this duty is considered as having killed his unborn children. Rabbi Yaakov said (ibid):
It is as though he has diminished the Divine Image”, since it is said, ‘For God made man with His own image’, and this is immediately followed by the verse: “Now be fruitful and multiply, swarm all over the earth and become populous on it” (Genesis 9:6-7). Every individual is unique, and therefore each person reveals an additional aspect of the Divine Image. Consequently, one who refrains from procreating “diminishes the Divine Image” – i.e., he diminishes the appearance of Divine revelation in the world.

King Hezekiah

At the time the mighty army of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, besieged Jerusalem seeking to destroy it, King Hezekiah fell ill, as it is written:
About that time Hezekiah became deathly ill, and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to visit him. He gave the king this message: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Set your affairs in order, for you shall die, and not live’” (Isaiah 38:1). We must understand that Hezekiah was well aware of the impending danger, since, as a result of Israel’s increasing sins, the kingdom of Assyria had already overcome the Kingdom of Israel in Samaria, and exiled the Ten Tribes from the land (Book of Kings II, Chapter 17), and thus, the threat to the kingdom of Judah was close by and real. In an attempt to prevent the evil, Hezekiah commanded the entire nation to repent and strengthen their observance of Torah.
He planted a sword by the door of the learning hall and proclaimed, ‘He who will not study the Torah will be pierced with the sword.’ A search was made from Dan unto Beer Sheba, and no ignoramus was found; from Gabbath unto Antipris, and no boy or girl, man or woman was found who was not thoroughly versed in the laws of cleanliness and impurity” (Sanhedrin 94b).

Hezekiah’s Difficult Hour

And here, in his difficult hour when the Assyrian army besieged Jerusalem and Hezekiah himself fell ill, the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came and informed him:
Set your affairs in order, for you shall die, and not live” – i.e., ‘for you shall die’ – in this world, ‘and not live’ – in the World to Come.” Hezekiah cried out, asking: Why is the punishment so great?! The prophet answered: “Because you refrained from marrying and having children.” Hezekiah explained that he did so because he had been informed by ruach hakodeh that his children would not be righteous. The prophet rebuked him, saying:
The secrets of Hashem are none of your business. You must do what you are commanded. And what is fitting in Hashem’s eyes, He will do for Himself.”

Hezekiah’s Reply

Realizing he had sinned, Hezekiah asked Isaiah to give him his daughter to marry – perhaps his merit and the merit of Isaiah combined would help them have righteous children. The prophet replied:
The doom has already been decreed.” King Hezekiah said to him: “Son of Amoz, finish your prophecy and leave! This tradition I have from the house of my ancestor (King David): Even if a sharp sword rests upon a man’s neck, he should not desist from prayer” (Berachot 10a).
Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, ‘Remember, O Lord, how I have always been faithful to you and have served you single-mindedly, always doing what pleases you.’ Then he broke down and wept bitterly.”
God heard his voice, and commanded Isaiah to inform him that He had heard his prayers and would add fifteen years to his life, and even save him from the Assyrian forces. During the night, an angel of God went out and smote all of Sennacherib’s forces, and Jerusalem was saved. Hezekiah married the daughter of the prophet Isaiah, and Manasseh was born to them. He reigned after Hezekiah and did evil in the eyes of God, worshiped idols abundantly, and also shed a great deal of innocent blood, until finally, the decree of the First Temple’s destruction was sealed (Book of Kings II, Chapters 19-21). In spite of this, the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply remains invariable, seeing as it is the foundation for the world’s existence. And even in the case of Hezekiah, by way of his evil son Manasseh, the Davidic dynasty continued, from which the Messiah the son of David will be born, may he arrive speedily in our days.

Ben Azai

On the other hand, we have learned about one of the great Tana’im (Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishna, from approximately 10-220 CE), Ben Azai, who did not marry and fulfill the mitzvah to have children. And thus it is told in the Talmud (Yevamot 63b), that Ben Azai derived from the verses that anyone who does not engage in procreation,
it is as though he has shed blood and diminished the Divine Image.”
The rabbis said to Ben Azai: Some preach well and act well, others act well but do not preach well; you, however, preach well but do not act well! Ben Azzai replied: What can I do, seeing as my soul is in love with the Torah? The world can be carried on by others.”
And the halakha was determined accordingly, that if a person’s soul desires to study Torah, and clings to it throughout his life without marrying, he is not considered to have transgressed – provided he does not succumb to his natural inclinations (Rambam, Hilchot Ishut 15:3; S.A., E.H. 1:4). Although, to be precise – he is not considered to have transgressed, but l’chatchilla (from the outset), one should not adopt such a practice (Taz 6).

Perhaps it can also be explained that since the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying necessitates being married, which requires listening and setting aside time to create a deep bond of love, Ben Azai knew deep down that due to his enormous diligence in Torah all his thoughts were devoted to its study, to the point where he would not be able to satisfy his wife properly, and therefore, he did not marry. Unlike other commandments that do not require emotional involvement, such as sukkah or lulav which he could fulfill, despite his thoughts being focused on the Torah.

The Importance of Torah

It follows that there is only one mitzvah which a person performs that can, in a time of distress, cancel the mitzvah of procreation – the mitzvah of Torah study. The reason for this is that Torah study adds life to the world. Despite the fact that Ben Azai did not engage in having children, nevertheless, he delved into the great importance of the mitzvah and expounded on its significance, and surely, by virtue of his learning, many children were born. But Hezekiah, who wanted to make the mitzvah conditional that his children not be wicked, invalidated its sacred principle expressing the absolute value of life, and therefore, was liable to a horrible punishment in both this world and the next. From this we learn that the foundation of life is of primary importance, since even the wicked can repent. Moreover, even from the actions of the wicked, the righteous can learn lessons. But when the mitzvah is annulled, the value of life in this world and the commandment of the Creator to add life to it, is denied.

Bringing the Redemption Closer

Great is the mitzvah of procreation, for on account of it, Israel was redeemed from Egypt, as it is written:
The Israelites were fertile and prolific, and their population increased. They became so numerous that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7).
Our Sages said that each of Israel’s generations consist of no less than sixty myriad, therefore, only after reaching this number did we become a nation, and were able to leave Egypt and receive the Torah (Zohar, Ra’aya Menhemna, Part 3, 216:2). Had the nation not striven to fulfill this mitzvah, and had there been even one person missing, they would not have merited receiving the Torah and leaving Egypt (D’varim Rabbah 7:8). Regarding this, our Sages said: “In the merit of the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt” (Sotah 11b).

It is not difficult for all to imagine, that if there were another three million Jews in Israel today, how vastly improved our situation would be facing all the internal and external pressures. Incidentally, if every family since the establishment of the state had one more child, there would be another five million Jews in Israel today.

Regarding this, our Sages said:
Just as Israel was redeemed from Egypt in the merit of proliferating; likewise, they will be redeemed in the future. From where is this learned? Know that this is true, for Israel will only be redeemed if they proliferate and fill the entire the world, as it is said:“For you shall break forth on the right hand and on the left; and your seed shall possess nations, and make desolate cities to be inhabited” (Eliyahu Zuta 14).

This article appears in the ‘Basheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed; The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper; His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English; Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
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