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Parshas Noach (5778)

Pru U'rvu: What They Never Taught You in Hebrew School

The very first commandment in the Torah, given to Noach and his descendants just as he left the Ark, is the mitzvah of Pru U’rvu, to “be fruitful and multiply” (see Genesis 9:7).

According to Jewish law, one must (try to) have at least one boy and one girl in order to fulfill this commandment. Even after having a boy and a girl and fulfilling one’s biblical obligation of Pru U’vu, there are additional rabbinical reasons to have more children (if possible). So, for example, Rabbi Yehoshua in Yevamos 62b states that if one had children when he is younger he should continue to try to have children when he is older because one never knows the outcome of his children.

Technically, women are exempt from the mitzvah of Pru U’rvu (see Yevamos 65b). Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843–1926), in his classic Bible commentary Meshech Chochmah, suggests that the reason the Torah exempted women from this mitzvah is because having children is potentially dangerous and the Torah wouldn’t obligate them to put themselves in danger. [Obviously, most women are born with an innate desire to have children anyway, so men can still fulfill their mitzvah obligation, just that the Torah, whose ways are peaceful and pleasant, would never command women to do so.]

If one is physically unable to have children, some Halachic authorities suggest that the act of adopting a boy and a girl and raising them as Jews can serve as a secondary form of fulfilling the mitzvah of Pru U’rvu. This view is based upon the Talmudic statement that "the Torah considers one who raises another's child as if he himself had given birth to that child." [Indeed, stories abound about couples with infertility issues who adopt children and later merit to have their own biological children.]

The Maharsh”a, in his commentary to Shabbos 31a, suggests that marrying off orphans, and otherwise being involved in shidduchim (matchmaking), can also be considered an act of Pru U’rvu, and is very meritorious.

The mitzvah of Pru U'rvu is considered by the Talmud to be more important than most other mitzvos. A couple who decide not to have children – for no halachically justifiable reason - are in clear violation of this most fundamental biblical mitzvah. Moreover, if a wife refuses to have any children, her husband has the right, and even the obligation, to divorce her, and he need not pay her Kesubah (alimony).

[The issue of Birth Control and “Family Planning” as it relates to the mitzvah of Pru U’rvu in Jewish law is complex, and can’t be done justice within the parameters of this Z-mail. Suffice it to say that there are circumstances when birth control is not only permitted, but advisable. To determine the practical application, a competent rabbinic authority must be consulted to clarify: (1) Does this particular case justify using birth control? (2) What kind of birth control should be used? (3) For how long should it be used?]

One thing that always bothered me about the mitzvah of Pru U’rvu was the English translation generally given for the Hebrew word Rvu, “multiply”. The word “multiply” conjures up images of hundreds of babies increasing at a high rate. Yet as mentioned previously, according to Torah law, one fulfills his obligation to be fruitful and multiply by having just two children! This you call “multiplying”?! Sounds more like “addition” to me!

Then I saw the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 1:28 which gave me a whole new perspective on how we are meant to “multiply”. Rav Hirsch writes:

The word Rvu means to multiply and duplicate yourself… The parents are to multiply themselves by their children. They are to repeat themselves in their children. The children are to be replicas not only of the physical bodily traits of their parents, but also of their spiritual, intellectual and moral selves. Accordingly, the parents have to plant the spiritual and moral best of themselves in their children, and carefully nurture and mature its development. In short, they have to form, educate and cultivate them. Only so have they reproduced themselves in their children and discharged the duty of Rvu.

It turns out that “Pru”, having the kids”, is the easy part. It’s Rvu, “raising the kids” and duplicating the best of ourselves in them is the hard part. Who knew?

The Talmud in Shabbos 31a teaches that when a person’s neshamah (his conscious soul) is brought in front of the Heavenly Court of Judgment after he dies, it is asked six questions about what he did during his life on earth (a sort of “final exam” before the soul can “graduate” to the Next World.). The third question the neshamah will be asked is “Have you fulfilled the mitzvah of Pru U’rvu?”

Let’s hope we pass the test!

[Sources: Ask the Rabbi on]

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