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:
- It is a mitzvah to marry, procreate, and have children.
- 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 halacha (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:
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.
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.
Absorbent (Moch) 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.
Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Jewish Sexuality, published by Jason Aronson Publishers.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.