Procreation and Contraception

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

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"Rabbi Bebai recited before Rabbi Nachman: Three categories of women may use an absorbent [in Hebrew, moch] in their marital intercourse: a minor, a pregnant woman, and a nursing woman. The minor, because otherwise she might become pregnant and as a result might die. A pregnant woman because otherwise she might cause her fetus to become a sandal [a flat fish‑shaped abortion due to superfetation]. A nursing woman, because otherwise she might have to wean her child prematurely [owing to her second conception] and he would die. And what is a minor? From the age of eleven years and one day until the age of twelve years and one day. One who is under or over this age [when conception is not possible or where pregnancy involves no fatal outcome, respectively] carries on her marital intercourse in the usual manner. This is the opinion of Rabbi Meir. But the Sages say: The one as well as the other carries on her marital intercourse in the usual manner, and mercy be vouchsafed from Heaven [to save her from danger], for Scripture says 'God preserves the simple' [Psalms 116:61]. (Talmud Yevamot 12b)"

Oral Contraceptives in the Talmud and Today

In the Talmud, there are several discussions of a so-called "cup of roots" or sterility potion. In the Talmud Yevamot 65b, we find the following: "Judith, the wife of Hiyya, having suffered agonizing pains of childbirth, changed her clothes [on recovery] and appeared (in her disguise) before Rabbi Hiyya. She asked 'Is a woman commanded to propagate the race?' He replied 'No.' And relying on this decision, she drank a sterilizing potion."

Elsewhere in the talmudic tractate of Shabbat 109b‑110b it states that a potion of roots may be taken on the Sabbath because it is a cure for jaundice and gonorrhea.Condoms, Birth Control

However, the imbiber may become impotent in drinking the potion. Thus, a woman may drink a sterilizing potion as a cure for jaundice. The Tosefta (supplemental Talmud), in tractate Yevamot 8:2, specifically states that a man is not allowed to drink any potion in order to become infertile because it is his mitzvah to propagate the race, whereas a woman is permitted to drink the potion in order not to conceive. This ruling is codified in the Code of Jewish Law (Even HaEzer 5,12) [16th century] unconditionally. Later rabbinic authorities, however, require some sort of medical indication in order to allow the woman to use the potion of roots.

Modern rabbinic authorities today seem to prefer the use of the birth control pill as the modern cup of roots. It allows intercourse to proceed naturally and unimpeded, allowing the fulfillment of the wife's conjugal rights. Also, in the case of the pill, there is no "waste of seed." Reform and Conservative rabbis are generally more lenient and permit the use of any contraceptive device for other reasons as well.

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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.