Monday, January 1, 2024

Ask Chaviva Anything: How Can I Get a Heter To Stop Having Kids in Judaism?

I received an interesting Ask Chaviva Anything submission in September that has been on my mind since it popped into my inbox. I've been tossing around how to answer it for ages and I'm still not 100% positive that I know how to answer it but I feel like I have to try. 

Here's the question:

How did you manage to get a heter (Rabbinic permission) to stop having children after only 3? I'm a convert to orthodox Judaism too and even after 6 kids I can't get a break. Sorry if it's too personal a question, you obviously don't have to answer.

So, before I can answer this question, let's talk a bit about the commandment (mitzvah) to have children in Judaism. The origin of this mitzvah comes from two verses in Torah:

"And G‑d created man in His image; in the image of G‑d He created him; male and female He created them. And G‑d blessed them, and G‑d said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth." (Bereishit/Genesis 1:27-28) 
Later on, after the flood when everyone leaves the Ark, the Torah says:

“And you, be fruitful and multiply (known as periya u-rviya); swarm upon the earth and multiply thereon.” (Bereishit/Genesis 9:7)

There are many discussions around why this mitzvah is repeated, but we won't get into that here. In the Talmud, there are deep discussions around the age of marriage and when the mitzvah to procreate should be fulfilled, but we also won't get into that here. Interestingly, the commandment to bear children only applies to men, not to women, but without a woman, it's a bit of a non-starter so we also won't get into that here. 

Let's look at the requirements around the volume of children a Jew is obligated to have according to the Talmud. 

In the Mishnah (aka the Oral Torah), there are two opinions coming from the houses of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Those who are familiar will note that we typically hold by the rulings of Beit Hillel, but not always. In this discussion in Mishnah Yevamot 61b, Beit Shammai says that one is required to bear two male children, and Beit Hillel says one is required to bear one male child and one female child.

In Shulchan Aruch Even Hoezer 1:5, Beit Hillel's approach wins the day. If you've had one male and one female child, you've fulfilled the Biblical command to procreate. Mazal tov!

So why are there people who don't stop at two or have a dozen kids of all genders anyway? This originates in rabbinic texts and understandings, particularly la-erev, which means to continue having kids even after you've hit your Biblical requirement. It originates in this verse
“In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening [la-erev] do not desist.” (Ecclesiastes 11:6)
Although some rabbinic authorities say that la-erev is obligatory, others do not see it as a strict requirement. 

Ultimately, although Jewish law strongly encourages large families, contraception is permitted! In fact, it's even required in certain situations. There are many instances in which birth control is permitted. The founding rabbinic adviser of Nishmat, for example, ruled the following:
Rav Henkin z”l generally permitted a couple that had already fulfilled the mitzvah of piryah v’rivyah (the Torah commandment to be fruitful and multiply) and had compelling reasons not to have more children (e.g., concerns about the woman’s health, finances, or shalom bayit), to practice contraception indefinitely. (B’nei Banim II:38)
So, it's important to do two things:
  • Study the halachot (laws) with your spouse so you know what the reality is
  • Speak with a rabbi you trust who understands you, your family dynamic, and your needs
Obviously, you can't shop around for a rabbi who will tell you what you want, but not all rabbis are deeply knowledgeable on every single aspect of the laws of family and family planning. It's crucial to find a rabbi who knows the laws inside and out and that will truly listen to your needs. 

If the problem is with your spouse (i.e., you want to stop having kids for whatever reason and your spouse refuses), then you need to have some very hard conversations with a rabbi and perhaps a therapist you trust to work through those. 

Thus we arrive back at the original question. My answer? I didn't get a heter to stop having kids. I had a boy and then a girl and my third child was the bonus! You don't need to get a heter to stop having kids. Ultimately the decision is between you, your spouse, and HaShem. For us, it was an issue of shalom bayit and finances. 

I'm sorry you're feeling trapped and like you have to keep having kids despite being done having children. You can gain guidance and advice from your rabbi, but if you're being told you must keep having kids, then I advise you to seek guidance from someone you trust or to reach out to Nishmat for help. 

Do you have a question for me about Judaism? Life in Israel? Something else? Submit it to Ask Chaviva Anything! Also, don't forget to follow me on Instagram, where I am much more active these days!