Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Birth Control

Jewish tradition ascribed the practice of birth control to the depraved humanity before Noah (Gen. R. 23:2, 4; Rashi to Gen. 4:19, 23). The sole explicit reference in the Bible to what may be considered as some form of birth control occurs in Genesis 38:9–10: the Lord punished Onan by death because he had "spilled his seed on the ground" to prevent the birth of a child from the *levirate marriage to his deceased brother's wife Tamar. On the strength of this passage, and as constituting a deliberate violation of the first commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28), the Talmud sternly inveighs against "bringing forth the seed in vain," considering it a cardinal sin (Nid. 13a). Legislation on contraception proper is to be found in a talmudic passage which permits (or requires, according to another view) the use of a contraceptive tampon by minor, pregnant, or lactating women, to prevent any danger to their own or their offspring's life resulting from a conception under those circumstances (Yev. 12b). A permissive ruling extended to women, but not to men, also allows for the use of a "cup of roots" or "potion of sterility" (Tosef., Yev. 8:4), probably some oral contraceptive known to the ancients, which was to produce temporary or in certain dosages even permanent sterility. While the medieval codes strangely omit any reference to physical birth control devices, they codify the permissive ruling on the oral sterilizing agent (Sh. Ar., EH, 5:12). It is in the rabbinic responsa, especially those of the past 200 years, that the attitude of Jewish law to birth control is defined and discussed in great detail. The many hundreds of rulings recorded in these responsa consider urgent medical reasons as the only valid justification for certain contraceptive precautions. Jewish law regards such decisions as capital judgments and it would, therefore, insist on dealing with each case on its individual merits and on the evidence of competent medical opinion. Where some grave hazard to the mother, however remote, is feared, as a result of pregnancy, the rabbinic attitude is usually quite liberal, all the more readily if the commandment of procreation (which technically requires having a son and a daughter) has already been fulfilled. Under no circumstances, however, does Jewish law sanction any contraceptive acts or safeguards on the part of the male, nor does it ever tolerate the use or distribution of birth control devices outside marriage. While the law proscribes sexual intercourse among spouses in times of famine (Ta'an. 11a; Sh. Ar. OḤ 240:12; 574:4), this is not to be taken as a recognition of the economic argument in favor of birth control. On the contrary, the restriction from which childless couples are in any case excluded is meant simply to curb the pleasures of marital indulgences at a time of great national suffering, just as conjugal relations are among the experiences of pleasure and comfort forbidden on days of national or private mourning. More characteristic of the spirit, if not the letter, of Jewish law is the story related in a famous 13th-century moralistic work: A poor person complained that he could not afford to support any more children and asked a sage for permission to prevent his wife from becoming pregnant again. The sage said: "When a child is born, the Holy One, blessed be He, provides the milk beforehand in the mother's breast; therefore, do not worry!" But the man continued to fret. Then a son was born to him. After a while the child became ill and the father turned to the sage: "Pray for my son that he shall live!" "To you applies the verse," exclaimed the sage, "'Suffer not thy mouth to bring thy flesh into guilt'" (Eccles. 5:5; Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. R. Margoliot (1957), no. 520). The sources of Jewish law and morals do not present the problem of "the population explosion" as relevant to birth control. According to some rabbinic authorities, the restrictions on birth control do not necessarily apply to non-Jews as the latter are not held to be bound by the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" (see Mishneh le-Melekh, to Maim., Yad, Melakhim 10:7). The threat of a "population explosion" is less likely to agitate a people that for most of its history has been threatened with virtual annihilation and is now haunted by the specter of "the vanishing Jew," due to the gross imbalance between a low natural increase and a high artificial decrease through drift, assimilation, and intermarriage. In recent times, the practice of birth control has invariably been more prevalent among Jews than other groups living in the same general society, as shown by the disproportionately low Jewish birthrates according to comparative surveys in America, in Europe, and notably in Israel. In Israel, fertility rates for Jewish women in 1995 were down to 2.6 children, as opposed to a high of 4.0 in 1950 and as opposed to 4.7 in 1995 among Israeli Arabs (and 7.4 in Gaza). The Jewish birthrate is appreciably higher only among the Orthodox who, for religious reasons, do not usually resort to birth control. In common with the attitude of most Protestant denominations, Reform Judaism would generally leave the decision on birth control to the individual conscience, recognizing social and economic factors no less than the medical motivation.


D.M. Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law (1969); E. Waldenberg, Ẓiẓ Eli'ezer, 9 (1967), 208–25 (extensive halakhic treatise); J.Z. Lauterbach, in: CCARY, 37 (1927), 369–84 (early Reform view); I. Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (1959), 167ff., and passim; idem, Journal of a Rabbi (19672), 146–7, 163, 213–20; J. Levy, in: No'am, 11 (1968), 167–77. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S. Della Pergola, "Demographic Trends in Israel and Palestine: Prospects and Policy Implications," in: AJYB (2003), 25–32.

[Immanuel Jakobovits]

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