The whole tractate studied right now throughout the world, Yevamot, deals with the perpetuation of the lineage of every man, giving every woman the opportunity to bear a child even if her husband dies at a young age, by being offered the opportunity to marry the dead brother’s brother, or to reject the offer (Deuteronomy 25: 5-6). The required offer is the antithesis of what happens with an abortion. This tractate of the Talmud is among the longest, 121 pages in length. But in light of the recent precedent shattering leak of the draft of the Supreme Court opinion that appears likely to overturn the precedent setting Roe vs. Wade (let alone the next election) and allow abortion to be forbidden once again by those who govern conservative states, the two pages of the daf yomi studied the two days before we went to press for this issue are particularly relevant as to the spirit of the law. The letter of the law is pretty clear, and pretty nuanced, even without the daf yomi!
First R’ Eliezer stated that “He who does not engage in the propagation of the race is as though he sheds blood” (Yevamot 63b), with a less than literal interpretation of Gen. 9: 6, which states: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” This is immediately followed by the first commandment in the Torah, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 9:7). The alternative, says Ben Azzai, is to act “as though he sheds blood and diminishes the Divine image.”
The rabbis cited a passage in the book of Numbers saying that when the ark rested, Moses would say, “Reside tranquilly, O HaShem, among the myriad thousands of Israel” (Numbers 10:36). One doesn’t have to be a mathematician to conclude, as the rabbis did, that the Divine Presence does not rest on fewer than 22,000—the minimum plural of rivavot, myriads (20,000), and the minimum plural of thousands (2,000). The Talmud asks, rhetorically, “Should the number of Israelites happen to be two thousand and two myriads less one (21,999), and any particular person has not engaged in the propagation of the race, does he not thereby cause the Divine presence to depart from Israel? The Divine presence dwells, interprets the Talmud (64a), according to the covenant between “God, Abraham and [his] offspring after [him]” (Gen 17:7).
The Divine presence also resides in lesser groupings, such as synagogues and minyanim, but on a different level.
At least one authority in the Talmud, however, goes a step further. Abba Hanan said in the name of R’ Eliezer, “He deserved the penalty of death, for it is said, ‘And they had no children’ (Num. 3, 4), but if they had children, they would not have died” (64a). So here the husband takes the blame. The rabbis talk in terms of “misaskin” in being fruitful—attempting to be fruitful. We are only obligated to do our best, to produce at least one child, to avoid certain consequences, though Hillel says ideally at least one boy and one girl, and Shamai says ideally at least two boys. Our rabbis do not hold people liable if God does not grant them “ideal” success. But people are held accountable for taking action in the opposite direction, if they try to destroy the fruits of their loins, or even just the seeds.
So getting back to the issue of abortions, those who are responsible for abortions can lead not only to the death of the unborn baby, but, in theory, the parent who deprives the world of the baby “deserves” the death penalty, according to the opinion just cited, and the Talmud focuses on the father, not the mother! So much for those who focus on the woman’s right to choose. (The right of men and women to choose other procedures and operations dealing with protections of the sanctity of life, the quality of life, and the risks of various medical procedures are beyond the purview of this discussion, but may be worth discussing, once the Pandora’s box is open, during a pandemic that seems to refuse to close.)
Of course, the ban on abortions is not absolute, even by strict Jewish law, as noted above. There are always loopholes, like to save the life of the mother.
Then there is the Gemara in Sanhedrin that says that if you teach a child Torah, it is as if the teacher bore the child.
Rabbi Shalom Rosner, in the OU Daf Yomi program, cites Rav Yosef Engel as saying, “It appears to me” (literally, to my eyes) that “there are those who can say” (note the double qualifiers) that a person who studies the Torah is “mei’ein” (tantamount to) fulfilling the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply.” Coming forth with a chidush—an insight in Torah study—has also been compared to giving birth.
But even if there are additional ways to fulfill the mitzvah, clearly taking action to snuff out a life—affecting the soul and/or a body (again, a discussion for another time) cannot be justified regardless of any of these ways.
Incidentally, the ultimate irony is that Ben Azzai did not even marry, so he was as far as could be from fulfilling the obligation to be fruitful and multiply in accordance with Jewish law. When confronted by this, with the not-so-subtle observation that “some preach well and act well; others act well, but do not preach well; you, however, preach well but do not act well,” Ben Azzai could only reply, “But what shall I do, seeing that my soul is in love with the Torah? The world can be carried on by others.” Maybe a man with the stature of Ben Azzai can get away with this. The consensus is that we cannot!
Rabbi Reichel is a grandson and biographer of Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, author of, inter alia, “Between the Lines of the Bible” on the 613 commandments. The first commandment, related to the topic discussed above, is excerpted in Zev Eleff’s documentary history of Modern Orthodox Judaism.