The last few pages of our tractate have focused on various aspects of the mitzvah of procreation. This mitzvah comes from the very first chapter of the Torah, in which God commands Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28)
Towards the end of today’s daf, the discussion turns to the rabbis’ view of the detriment of failing to procreate.
First, a beraita (early rabbinic teaching) by Rabbi Eliezer is brought:
Anyone who does not engage in the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply is considered as though he sheds blood, as it is stated: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6), and it is written immediately afterward: “And you, be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 9:7).
Next, we have this teaching from Rabbi Yaakov:
It is as though he diminishes the divine image, as it is stated: “For in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6), and it is written immediately afterward: “And you, be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 9:7).
Then Ben Azzai chimes in:
It is as though he sheds blood and also diminishes the divine image, as it is stated: “And you, be fruitful and multiply,” after the verse that alludes to both shedding blood and the divine image.
You might notice that these teachings are all derived from two adjacent verses in the Torah. Genesis 9:6 talks about the negative commandment of murder, followed by the positive commandment of procreation in Genesis 9:7. To the rabbis, the fact that these two verses are read together is meaningful, and the meaning they attach to it is that childlessness equals murder.
The Gemara here does not address one obvious issue with these statements: that for couples experiencing infertility, such comparisons may be extremely painful. But the rabbis do address another issue: the person who is childless by choice. They do so by challenging their colleague Ben Azzai, quoted above, whom the other rabbis basically accuse of hypocrisy for joining them in condemning the childless when he himself isn’t married and doesn’t have children.
They said to Ben Azzai: There (is a type of scholar who) expounds well and fulfills (his own teachings well), and another who fulfills well and does not expound well. But you expound well and you do not fulfill well.
Ben Azzai’s answer is fascinating:
Ben Azzai said to them: What shall I do, as my soul yearns for Torah. It is possible for the world to be maintained by others.
Way back on Sukkah 25, we learned that someone on their way to perform a mitzvah is exempt from sitting in a sukkah. On Megillah 29, we learned that one can take a break from studying Torah to attend a wedding or a funeral but is not commanded to do so if there are others that can take her place. In other words, someone doing a mitzvah has no obligation to do another one, particularly if others are available to do it.
Ben Azzai seems to be channeling these two precepts. Since he is engaged in the mitzvah of Torah study, others can do the marrying and child-bearing. It doesn’t have to be him.
But Ben Azzai also raises another, potentially more significant, challenge: His soul belongs to Torah — not to a potential marriage partner. If all he wants is to study Torah, that’s not fair to a potential spouse or the children they might have.
Although this might seem like a modern take, there are commentators who take Ben Azzai’s side, including Maimonides, who rules that a person whose soul is completely consumed with the study of Torah “does not have a sin on his hand” if he refrains from marriage.
None of this changes the fact that it is a mitzvah to have children. But by seemingly accepting Ben Azzai’s statement, the rabbis do appear to make an exception for scholars that express their passion in other ways.
Read all of Yevamot 63 on Sefaria.