Traditional Sources on Artificial Insemination

Four texts dealing with non-traditional forms of insemination may--or may not--serve as meaningful precedents for the contemporary debate.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Artificial insemination is the oldest [modern] method couples and physicians have tried in their attempts to overcome infertility. Because it is the least invasive, the least dangerous, and the least costly technique available, it is still the first one used today when a couple cannot conceive through sexual intercourse because of sexual dysfunction, insufficient or abnormal sperm, or inadequate motility of the sperm.

jewish bioethicsFour sources within the tradition discuss insemination of a woman without sexual intercourse. Even though they do not reflect modern methods of insemination, they are commonly invoked in present‑day Jewish discussions of artificial insemination.

Conception in a Bath

The first occurs in the Talmud:

"Ben Zoma was asked: 'May a high priest [who, according to Leviticus 21:13, must marry a virgin] marry a maiden who has become pregnant [yet who claims she is still a virgin]? Do we take into consideration Samuel's statement, for Samuel said: "I can have repeated sexual connections without [causing] bleeding [i.e., without the woman losing her virginity]," or is the case of Samuel rare?' He replied: 'The case of Samuel is rare, but we do consider [the possibility] that she may have conceived in a bath [into which a male has discharged semen], and therefore she may marry a high priest…'"

However implausible such conception may seem to us, this talmudic source clearly contemplates the possibility of conception without sexual intercourse. Its simple meaning is that artificial insemination neither invokes the prohibitions nor leads to the illegitimacy connected with adultery or incest.

Some medieval and early modern rabbis had trouble imagining such a situation, let alone basing their legal decision upon it, and so they chose instead to interpret the passage metaphorically. Others, though, accept the possibility of such conception and interpret the passage at face value. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, for example, cited this source as one justification to permit donor insemination.

The Legend of Ben Sira

The second source generally cited is a medieval midrash [interpretative narrative] regarding Ben Sira, a second‑century B.C.E. author of a book of the Apocrypha cited in the Talmud. This legend, first mentioned by Rabbi Jacob Moellin Segal (1365‑1427) in his work Likutei Maharil, claims that Ben Sira was conceived without sexual intercourse by the prophet Jeremiah's daughter in a bath, the father having been Jeremiah himself who, coerced by a group of wicked men, had emitted semen into the water.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.