Procreation and Contraception

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

Onan refused to fulfill his fraternal duty and whenever he had relations with Tamar he would let the semen go to waste (presumably by coitus interruptus, although the term onanism can actually be applied to masturbation), thereby avoiding effective consummation of the marriage…

Rabbinic Sources of Birth Control by the Wife

Virtually all rabbinic rulings on the subject of contraception are based upon a key talmudic statement that has been called "The Beraita of the Three Women." It reads as follows:

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

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

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.