Yevamot 62

Be fruitful and multiply.

Genesis 1 tells us that after God created humankind, God commanded them to “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” Have babies and rule the world? Sounds good. 

But how many babies are men — whom the rabbis understood to be obligated in this commandment to be fruitful — actually supposed to have? We learned in a mishnah on yesterday’s daf that this is a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel

Beit Shammai say: Two males.

Beit Hillel say: A male and a female, as it is stated: “Male and female He created them.” (Genesis 5:2)

Beit Hillel’s position is explained, but: 

What is the reason of Beit Shammai?

We learn from Moses as it is written: “The sons of Moses, Gershom and Eliezer.” (1 Chronicles 23:15)

Moses had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. For Beit Shammai, to be fruitful and multiply is to walk in the steps of the righteous teacher par excellence, and so, like Moses, one must have two sons. Now, back to Hillel for a moment:

And Beit Hillel learn it from the creation of the world.

God initially created the world with one man and one woman. According to Beit Hillel, to be fruitful and to multiply are creative acts that reproduce God’s original creation, and so one must have a boy and a girl. 

Today’s daf offers beraita with an alternative version of the dispute: 

Rabbi Natan says that Beit Shammai say: The mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply is fulfilled with two males and two females. And Beit Hillel say: A male and a female.

In this version, Beit Shammai requires not only two male children, but also two female children. Why? Rabbi Natan explains that in addition to Cain and Abel, Eve also had two daughters. Beit Shammai requires everyone to follow in the footsteps of this paradigmatic first family. Presumably, Beit Hillel’s reasoning would remain the same as on the previous daf. 

Finally, we get a third version of the dispute:

Rabbi Natan says that Beit Shammai say: A male and a female.

And Beit Hillel say: Either a male or a female.

Rava said: What is the reason Rabbi Natan gives for the opinion of Beit Hillel? It is as it is stated: “He did not create it a waste; He formed it to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18), and one child has made the earth inhabited.

Here Beit Shammai seems to be following the logic of Genesis, where Beit Hillel insists that as long as one leaves behind one offspring, one has fulfilled the commandment to leave the world inhabited. 

All three of these versions, of course, apparently assume that a couple’s fertility can be controlled. These teachings require a man to have children, without recognizing the medical reality that even today sometimes it just isn’t possible. And so as we sit and debate the halakhah and the various kinds of reasoning that go into each position, let’s also sit with those who — like many of our foremothers and their spouses — so desperately want a child and are unable to conceive. Or those who are not in a position to bring children into the world for some other reason. 

In Sanhedrin 19b, Rabbi Elazar offers an important interpretation of a verse from Psalms:

“You have with Your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.” (Psalms 77:16)

And did Joseph sire all of the children of Israel?! Didn’t Jacob sire them? Rather, Jacob sired them and Joseph sustained them. Therefore, they were called by his name.

Rabbi Elazar argues that the Torah recognizes Joseph as a parent to all Jews — not because of his biological contributions, but because of his work sustaining the Israelites during the famine in Egypt and beyond. Using Rabbi Elazar as our model, let’s celebrate all the ways that we can leave the world inhabited after we are gone — including by working to make the world a better place for future generations, whether or not they are our biological children. 

Read all of Yevamot 62 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 8th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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