Procreation and Contraception

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

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Absorbent (Tampon) as a Contraceptive

Rabbinic commentators are divided as to the exact meaning of the talmudic passage "The Beraita of the Three Women." Does Rabbi Meir mean that the three women may use a moch [absorbent], and the sages that they must not use one? Or does Rabbi Meir mean that they must use a moch, and the sages only disagree with him in that the three women are not obliged to use a moch but may do so if they wish? The medieval commentator Rashi states that Rabbi Meir means "may use" and the sages mean "may not," whereas his grandson Rabbenu Tam reports that Rabbi Meir means "must" and the sages mean "must not but may."

Moreover, what precisely is meant by the word moch? Is it a device used to absorb semen during intercourse or only after unimpeded intercourse has taken place? Adopting the strictest interpretation, some rabbinic authorities in the early part of the century refused to permit the use of artificial means of contraception in any circumstances. But the majority of authorities interpret the passage as permitting the use of a contraceptive when the doctors are of the opinion that a pregnancy will do serious harm to the wife.

Other Contraceptive Methods

For situations of pregnancy hazard, the diaphragm is allowed by numerous rabbinic authorities, even though it does interfere with the normal act of intercourse. Chemical spermicides and douches are generally permitted by later rabbinic authorities in cases where pregnancy would be dangerous to the mother.

Rabbinic Sources For Male Birth Control

Coitus interruptus refers to "spilling of semen" in vain. The biblical sources this prohibition is based on are not entirely clear, although many consider the act of Er and Onan (Genesis 38:7‑10) to be the classic case of coitus interruptus. The Talmud (Yevamot 34b) however, views the act of Er and Onan as unnatural intercourse.

According to Maimonides' [medieval] Law Code (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biya 21:18), it is forbidden to expend semen to no purpose. Maimonides rules that masturbation is strictly forbidden and is regarded as equivalent to killing a human being. A similar prohibition is found in the Code of Jewish Law (Even HaEzer 23:5), as well as in other codes of Jewish law…

Since the commandment of procreation rests primarily on the man, according to most traditional rabbinic authorities, any contraceptive method employed by him, such as coitus interruptus, the condom, or abstinence, would be prohibited. Traditional Jewish law also prohibits the sterilization of a male, whether by vasectomy or with drugs, based on the biblical verse: "No one whose testes are crushed or whose member is cut off shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 23:2).

Many liberal rabbinic authorities allow for the use of condoms, especially in cases where unprotected sexual intercourse poses a medical risk to either spouse. Such authorities believe that condoms do offer some measure against the spread of some diseases, and the duty to maintain health and life supersedes the positive duty of the male to propagate.

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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.