Procreation and Contraception

The Jewish tradition encourages procreation, but some forms of contraception are less problematic than others.

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The following article mentions several rabbis from the Mishnah and Talmud. These rabbis lived during the first few centuries of the Common Era. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Jewish Sexuality, published by Jason Aronson Publishers.

There has been much discussion in recent years among rabbinic authorities on the rights and wrongs of birth control. Almost all of the legal discussions on the subject are concerned with whether it is ever possible to disre­gard these two Jewish principles: 

1. It is a mitzvah to marry, procreate, and have children.

2. It is forbidden to “waste seed” (i.e., emit semen without purpose).

Since birth control negates the first principle cited above and is generally assumed to violate the second principle of wasting seed, there is a great need to clarify whether birth control is ever permissible in Jewish tradition.

The duty to have children is based on the rabbinic interpretation of a verse in the Book of Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply.” The Talmud (Mishnah Yevamot 6:6) cites the following: According to the school of Shammai, being fruitful and multiplying is interpreted as having a minimum of two sons, while according to the Hillel school it is interpreted to mean a son and a daughter (because the Bible says “male and female He created them”). The rabbis established the halakhah (Jewish law) according to the view of Rabbi Hillel and his school.

In a most remarkable ending to the Mishnah of Yevamot, there is a disagreement cited between an anonymous teacher and Rabbi Yochanan ben Berukah. The anonymous teacher (whose view is accepted Jewish law) states that women are not obligated to be fruitful and multiply. In traditional Jewish law, it is a man’s duty to marry and have children, whereas a woman is free to remain childless…

The second prohibition relates to the transgression of discharging semen in vain. This prohibition is often referred to by the term “onanism,” derived from the biblical narrative of Onan (Genesis 38:7‑10), son of Judah, who “spilled” his seed “on the ground.” Onan (second son of Judah and Shu’ah) was instructed by his father (after the death of his elder brother Er) to contract a levirate marriage with his childless sister‑in‑law Tamar.

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.

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