Ketubot 37

Rabbinic birth control.

As we have seen, chapter three of Tractate Ketubot largely deals with fines owed to young women who have been raped or seduced. Yesterday, we read a mishnah about young women who are not entitled to such a fine, including converts, captives and gentile maidservants. The rationale is that these women are presumed not to be virgins. And because (according to Deuteronomy 22:28-29) payment is due only to virgins, the rapist or seducer is not liable for a fine. 

Of course, we know that a consequence of rape or seduction might be conception. Today’s daf explores how, why, and what type of contraception women might use to avoid becoming pregnant.

Rabba said: Rabbi Yosei holds that a promiscuous woman has relations with a contraceptive resorbent so that she will not become pregnant.

According to Rabba, Rabbi Yosei believes that a woman who uses birth control — in this case, a resorbent device called a mokh that is described by Rashi and others as a type of sponge — is assumed to be promiscuous. A little later on our daf, Rabbi Yosei notes that such women also “turn over” after having sex, presumably to allow the sperm to trickle out of their bodies, which the rabbis believed would protect against pregnancy.

The Gemara, in contrast, brings other cases in which a woman might use contraception for different reasons. In doing so, it provides a look into the precarious state in which those mentioned in the mishnah might find themselves that would lead them to want to avoid becoming pregnant:

Granted, a convert (uses the resorbent); since it is her intention to convert, she protects herself. A captive too because she does not know where they are taking her. A maidservant too as she heard from her master (that he intends to free her). 

The Gemara notes that converts, captives and enslaved women also use contraception for various reasons. The captive woman likely does not want the responsibility of caring for a child in difficult circumstances and may fear for the safety of a child born into such a setting. Both a convert and an enslaved person were likely concerned about questions concerning the paternity of their offspring. 

Nevertheless, the Gemara eventually winds up back where we started, with the idea that birth control is indicative of promiscuity. 

However, (a maidservant who) emerges with (the extraction by her master) of her tooth or her eye, what is there to say? 

According to Exodus 21:26, if a slave owner strikes a slave and destroys her tooth or eye, the slave is to go free. So the Gemara here suggests that a female maidservant who is freed because her master has assaulted her couldn’t have known that this would happen in advance. Therefore, if she is using contraception, it is because she is promiscuous.

Of course, statistics show that men who beat women often engage in a pattern of violence, and so this enslaved woman might well have suspected that one day, her master’s actions would result in bodily harm. But the rabbis don’t go there. They make a clear demarcation between those they believe are using contraception appropriately (because they fear rape) and those who use it inappropriately (because they want to have sex without becoming pregnant). 

It remains the case today that responsibility for preventing pregnancy falls largely to women. And it’s equally as true today that those who take such precautions are likely to draw accusations of promiscuity. The suspicions Rabbi Yosei and Rav Sheshet have about contraceptive use among unmarried women, and the sensitivity with which the Gemara views its use among captive and enslaved women, point not only to the need for birth control, but to an understanding that women are not always in charge of what happens to them. Whatever value judgment the rabbis have regarding women as sexual beings, the Gemara provides remarkable understanding by describing birth control as a tool used by women to shape their destiny. 

Read all of Ketubot 37 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 12th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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