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Barrenness and Fertility

BARRENNESS AND FERTILITY, the inability or ability of man and woman to procreate. Procreation is considered a blessing in the Bible and it is a commandment (Gen. 1:28; 9:7; Rashi, ibid.) applicable to all Jewish men, although not to Jewish women (Yev. 65b–66a). The world was created to be inhabited (Isa. 45:18) and God's blessings bestowed on Israel always included fecundity (Lev. 26:9; Deut. 28:11) and the absence of barrenness (Ex. 23:26; Deut. 7:14). Children are seen as the greatest blessing: "a heritage of the Lord" (Ps. 127:3–5); "Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine… thy children like olive plants…" (ibid., 128:3–4). The prodigious fertility of the Israelites in Egypt antagonized the Egyptians (Ex. 1:7, 12) and is interpreted by the Midrash (Tanh. and Rashi ad loc.) to imply that the women bore "six (children) at once." Procreation is one of the main purposes of marriage, and in later times an offspring (especially a male offspring) was also prized because it meant that Kaddish would be recited in one's memory; hence the popular phrase "to have a Kaddish" for a (male) child. Barrenness was a curse and a punishment (Lev. 20:20–21; Jer. 22:30, and MK 27b); Abimelech and his wives were punished, though only temporarily, with barrenness (Gen. 20:17–18), and so was Michal, Saul's daughter and David's wife (II Sam. 6:23). Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson's mother, Hannah, and the Shunamite woman were all barren at first, but God, who holds the key to fecundity (Ta'an. 2a; cf. Men. 98a), granted their and their husbands' prayers (cf. Ps. 113:9). The Midrash fully acknowledged the domestic suffering of childless women: even if the barren wife had no religious obligation to fulfill, she had failed to fulfill the primary expectation of her social role, since "it is children who assure a wife's position in her home" (Gen. R. 71:5). The childless matriarchs became important metaphors for consolation and comfort. Enumerations of these seven barren women whose yearnings for children were ultimately fulfilled included the personified Israel of some future time, based on the characterization of Zion as a barren woman in Isaiah 54:1 (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 20:1).

Rachel preferred death to childlessness (Gen. 30:1), which prompted the comment of the amora Joshua b. Levi that to be without children is death (Ned. 64b). A childless scholar is not eligible to sit on the Sanhedrin (San. 36b. However, teaching Torah to the son of another person is equivalent to having fathered him (Sanh. 19b, 99b). Ben Sira said that it was better to die childless than to have children who were without the fear of the Lord (Ecclus. 16:1–4). According to a rabbinic story, King Hezekiah had refrained from procreation because he had foreseen that his children would be sinners but was rebuked by the prophet Isaiah, "What have you to do with the secrets of the All Merciful? You have to do your duty and let God do what it pleases Him" (Ber. 10a). The cause of sterility may lie as much with the husband as with the wife; this is suggested by Abraham (Gen. 15:2) and by the Talmud for both Abraham and Isaac (Yev. 64a; cf. Num. R. 10:5). A husband should divorce his wife after ten years of childless marriage; though she may marry again (Yev. 6:6; Sh. Ar., EH 154:6). Some men in childless marriages chose to take a second wife rather than divorce an apparently infertile spouse (Yev. 65a). Conversely, the Talmud records instances of childless wives who successfully petitioned rabbinic courts to compel their unwilling husbands to divorce them after 10 years of infertile marriages based on their fears of an impoverished widowhood and old age without the support of offspring (Yev. 65b). Aggadic texts generally deplore dissolution of marriages, even when male procreation is at stake, presenting preservation of a loving childless marriage as a situation where human needs and feelings overrule legal prescriptions. Such midrashic traditions emphasize instead the efficacy of prayer and the necessity of faith in God (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 22:2; Song R. 1, 4:2).

Distinction ought to be made between accidental sterility and congenital or self-inflicted impotence or barrenness. Deuteronomy 23:2 prohibits an impotent man to marry a free-born Israelite (see Yev. 8:2) when the impotence is self-inflicted (ibid., 75b; cf. Jos., Ant., 4:290). A priest who "hath his stones crushed" is unfit for Temple service (Lev. 21:20). The Talmud defines an eilonit ("ram-like, barren") as a woman who by the age of 18 or 20 is without the symptoms of feminity (ET, 1 (1947), 243–46 and ref.). According to some authorities, marriage to an eilonit, when contracted in ignorance of her condition, is invalid. Impotence and sterility may be only temporary, due to undernourishment (Ket. 10b). Certain foods, such as eggs, fish, garlic, wine, milk, cheese, and fat meat increase sexual potency (Ber. 40a; Sot. 11b; Yoma 18a–b, BK 82a), while salt, egg-barley, sleeping on the ground, bloodletting, and crying are detrimental to it (Git. 70a–b; ARN1 41:132). The duda'im (mandrakes, "love-flowers"), which Reuben brought to his mother Leah, who gave them to her sister Rachel (Gen. 30:14ff.), have been interpreted to be an aphrodisiac flower, though this is far from certain (see B. Jacob, Genesis, ad. loc.). The Talmud suggests that the suppression of the urge to urinate is a cause of sterility in men, and many pupils of the amora Huna (third century) became sterile on account of his over long lectures (Yev. 64b). See also *Birth Control ; *Castration ; *Vital Statistics .


J.R. Baskin. Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (2002); M. Callaway. "Sing, O Barren One": A Study in Comparative Midrash (1986); J. Cohen. "Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It." The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Verse (1989); J. Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice (1998).

[Alexander Carlebach /

Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.