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An article in an Orthodox Jewish paper recently argued that couples should use contraceptives for the first year of marriage so as to get used to each other before children arrive. This will probably not strike many of you are either remarkable, unusual or in any way worthy of a second thought. Except that officially in Orthodox circles contraception is only allowed under certain circumstances and the very notion of emotional education for marriage, as opposed to ritual, is relatively recent.

The first year of marriage often reveals deep incompatibilities that either destroy or severely hamper it. Given social and religious pressure to get married couples often overlook a great deal in the enthusiastic rush to the altar or the chupah. Once children arrive it may be too late and often couples are then locked into a loveless union feeling compelled to stay together for the sake of their children. But usually children growing up in such a conflict ridden and unhappy home suffer just as much as those who have to cope with divorce.

In my youth, it used to be argued in “modern” circles that couples ought to live together and get used to each other sexually before getting married. And it is true that a lot of marriages do flounder on sexual incompatibility. But then the sexual liberation of the 60’s and 70’s produced vast numbers of couples who had plenty of sexual experience together without getting married and when many of them in the end did actually “tie the knot” (and that really is a loaded expression isn’t it?) they discovered that sex within marriage and sex beforehand sometimes involved very different emotional dynamics. Couples who lived together were even more likely to divorce as those who had no or little experience before marriage. It was obvious that sexual expertise was only one of many factors and not necessarily the predominant issue in the success or failure of married life.

Within very Orthodox families the issue of compatibility looms much larger precisely because in practice, or should I say “officially”, there is little chance of living together before marriage. So the argument has been put forward that, particularly where couples get married very young, they should use contraception during the first year.

There are other factors that constrain unhappy couples to stay together. In many cultures one is expected to go on trying to succeed and not giving up regardless of the problems. Marriage is a decision and once taken one is committed. And I do not mean “till death do us part” so much as “if you make the bed then lie in it”. Judaism accepts divorce, provided obligations are met and responsibilities accepted. The Talmudic folio dealing with divorce is twice as long as that dealing in marriage. Nevertheless, divorce is not usually undertaken unless there is a very valid reason. And certainly in very Orthodox circles there is still a measure of taboo and resistance which I believe owes more to Christian influences than Jewish ones. So a young couple is often compelled by convention to stay together, even without children.

Despite all this, I have noticed that an increasing number of couples divorce soon after marriage. And rabbis are much more willing to countenance a quick and easy divorce if there are no children. So surely as the numbers of divorces rise everywhere it must make sense to give young couples time to get used to each other or not before having children, if for no other reason than to try to protect any possible children from the traumas of divorce.

I am not for one minute suggesting that this has a cat’s chance in hell of becoming official policy. Anyway there is an obligation to get married and to try to have children as quickly as possible. Where contraception is allowed other than in extenuating circumstances, it is usually only where the couple have met Hillel’s very liberal ruling, for his time, that one must have one boy and one girl to fulfill the obligation. Not only, but having lots of children, once the natural response of the poor, has now been adopted by the very pious of all religions. In general, however, according The Economist (October 31st) the faster countries industrialize the quicker the size of families declines. Orthodoxy is the exception to the rule.

I do not expect rabbis to take the lead in recommending this, but I do expect sensible parents and counselors to try to take the initiative to protect their children. We all make mistakes. There are all kinds of pressures. Sadly, people are reluctant to tell the truth when shidduchim are in the air and too often crucial information is kept hidden, both physical and psychological. Under these circumstances we must not consign young couples to lives of pain and frustration. The Talmud gives a reason for allowing divorce. If the Torah insists we love our neighbors, we should try to increase the amount of love in this world. Compelling two people to share the same home when they just want to get away from each other only creates hatred.

There is of course a danger in allowing too easy divorce and thinking of marriage as a dispensable permit. Many marriages are political and even commercial, where both parties know in advance what the terms are and love is a bonus. Similarly, many successful couples I know started off marrying out of shared values and love came and grew as they matured. So sexual compatibility is by no means the only criterion. But certainly children complicate the issue. So I am supporting the argument that we should allow contraception and simply postpone procreation. There are many religious obligations we are allowed to postpone, or in which delaying is accepted post factum. And postponing pregnancy until after the first year of marriage may be an example where it is beneficial, if not in all cases then certainly in some.

41 thoughts on “Contraception

  1. "The Talmudic folio dealing with divorce is twice as long as that dealing in marriage." Isn't this like writing a manual for how to fix something rather than providing instructions for how to get it right in the first place?

  2. The application of common sense by so many of our rabbonim seems sadly lacking. This is not to say that all laws laid down in biblical/talmudic times need to be adapted but certainly ones which affect families need some adjustment for a modern world. Surely, it could only be beneficial to use contraception early in marriage, rather than risk the potential misery of having children in a home where there was no love or friendship, or worse.

    My mother's advice to me was that when I looked at the potential of marrying someone, I should think, "Will he be my best friend?" He was and it was wonderful advice.

  3. Yes, all of this rings true, regardless of whether you go in with the eyes starry, open or shut, whether you chose your partner yourself or the introduction was arranged for you. And in as much as you can ever know someone (and sometimes you never will), it's only when you get someone behind closed doors for a prolonged period that you find out what they are really can pretend to be something they ain't indefinitely, but a year is a pretty good indicator.

  4. Leila:

    That really IS excellent advice. But I have always been amazed how few people consider it.

    Marriage requires so much adjustment, compromise, and plain work that I can't imagine being willing to go through it for anyone *other* than my best friend.

    It took me a long time to realize that some people marry for very different reasons than what would motivate me. But then, sadly, many of them do end up dissatisfied.


  5. Son says to father: “Dad, how much does it cost to get married?” The father replies: “I don’t know son, I’m still paying!”

    In my bitter, twisted and cynical way, I have come to realise that the only way to avoid a divorce is total abstinence from marriage!

  6. The main problem with contraception in halachah has far less to do with delaying fulfillment of a positive mitzvah — procreation — than it does with knowingly violating the prohibition of zera l'vatalah ("wasting seed"). A cat's chance in hell is good compared to the chance of this ever "officially" changing.

  7. Don't Call Me Dave:
    As someone who failed once and succeeded (according to me, anyway) second time, I can quote with approval the words of Oscar Wilde that "marriage is the triumph of optimism over experience"!

  8. Leila:
    My problem is not with the laws, but rather with the way they are applied by men who ought to know better, or at least have a deeper level of understanding of the human predicament!

  9. Anonymous:
    Yes indeed, but I the very fact that so much fixing was needed seems to me both to indicate that fixing is good and even if it means dividing.

  10. Shmoo Snook:

    Yes, of course, there are different types of contraception, and the reason you gave of Hashchatat Zera is why female contraception is preferred to male. But that was not the subject of my piece. The fact is that contraception was used historically with approval and the Talmud refers both to Koss Ikrin and Moch used by women (some suggest the first was also used by men as well).

    If the cats are left to roast in hell it is only because some great ones refuse to help them out!!!

  11. Well, your piece is titled "Contraception," after all.

    I was not aware that any active contraception on the part of the husband is permitted if he knows for certain that pregnancy cannot result. Ideally the husband does not know his wife is using a method of contraception.

    But neither kos ikrin nor a moch was a foolproof form of birth control. Kos ikrin is analagous to birth control pills, and a moch is analagous to a diaphragm, neither of which — to the best of my knowledge — are foolproof to this day, which provides a basis for saying they can be used even when the husband is aware of it. (Condoms and vasectomies are also not 100% guaranteed, but they differ in that they require an affirmative act on the part of the husband.)

    As I see it, the zera that results from lovemaking between a husband and wife is never l'vatalah. For me, that is a much better explanation for why sex is permitted after menopause than, "Well, y'know, Sarah Imeinu …."

    I agree with you about delaying having children for a year (at the least). I don't see why the delay, on its own, would be a serious halachic problem. Generally speaking, we shouldn't let the opportunity to perform a positive commandment go stale, but I think the pressure to have children immediately is more cultural than halachic.

  12. For anyone interested in the safety rate of diaphragms, it is 92-96% according to the Family Planning Association. In London anyone can get one from a Margaret Pyke Clinic, where the (mostly female) staff are very pleasant and professional

  13. Well as a 30 year old single woman, I would hope, Bezrat Hashem, that I would not need to wait a year before having children! But I was not born frum. I think the most disturbing thing I see are the '3-months-from-1st-date-to-chuppa' that you see all too often. Maybe in chassidishe circles; where the community is far more tight-knit and everyone is more on the same page. But even in the Yeshivish world, there is too much disconnect from person to person to jump into marriage so quickly. Even in my Modern Orthodox community, if someone is dating for 6 months, then talk starts circulating, "Jeez, what is going on there?" My goodness, what is wrong with two people wanting to get to know each other! And being shomer negia is surely no excuse. Since when do religious Jews let their hormones dictate what is good for them? Marriage is more than a ticket to have sex and have babies. It is the creation of a new entity; a Beis neiman b'yisrael.

    I think a longer dated period, coupled with a "honeymoon" period where the couple learns about family planning would be good. Contraceptives are not a bad idea, but a woman can't get pregnant all throughout her cycle. If they are versed in taharat hamishpacha AND the biology of the female reproductive system, it could be several months and she not get pregnant. If it is realistic that a newlywed couple practice restraint, who is to say? But the community should not disparage couples who do not want to have a child right away.

  14. Shmoo Snook:

    I am confused. You seem to be implying that Judaism teaches that sex is solely for procreation. I know that has sometimes been a teaching of the Church, but I am not aware of it as a Jewish idea. In fact, I've learned just the opposite. Do you have sources for that, or am I misunderstanding your assertion?


  15. Miss S:
    I agree there is so much that is wrong with social attitudes to dating and marriage in all parts of the world let alone the Orthodox. There is so much double talk, dishonesty and duplicity and exaggerated emphasis on money and externals. I dont even know where to begin. It is only recently that some rabbis and Torah institutions have started to encourage youngsters to read about relationships. But in general the sort of books one reads published by orthodox publishing houses are so banal and even offensive (talk to her while she washes the dishes. Send her on treasure hunts, rub his back in the bath, anticipate his every wish, etc., etc.) I think it is, as the Gemara suggests a Divine Miracle every time a marriage works!!!!

  16. Shmoo Snook:
    Are you suggesrting that all female contraception actually requires the husband to be in blissful ignorance? The issue is one of obligation to keep the mitzva of Peru Urevu which inexplicably in my mind, is confined to men. But delusion and deception surely cannot be the Torah way!

  17. Miss S:

    I agree that we might be better off with longer dating periods, rather than contraception and easy divorce.

    There is an old saying to never a marry a man until you have summered and wintered with him. Perhaps a year-long engagement period would be better than a year to get to know each other while also dealing with the stresses of early married life (which are sure to color one's feelings!).

    After all, even when there are no children, the disappointment and pain of divorce, and the subsequent issues in finding a new shidduch, are not trivial.


  18. Jeremy:

    I don't think we can dismiss that kind of advice out-of-hand. The point is to be considerate and show love, respect, and caring for the spouse (best friend). Different people will respond to different kinds of attention, and one has to experiment and learn.

    My experience is that people having trouble in marriage tend to focus completely on their own perspective, and complain about how their spouse is not living up to their expectations and desires. Sometimes a book with that kind of advice can help someone shift the focus to "ask not what your spouse can do for you, but what you can do for your spouse".

    But maybe your complaint is that the consumers of such works have been trained by their education and upbringing to take everything in the most literal and simple-minded way, as if it were an incantation? In which case I can hardly argue. I am disgusted by the whole attitude.


  19. Rabbi Rosen —

    I think it is more of a subterfuge than a deception. Seems to me the chances of the husband having no clue about his wife's use of pills or a diaphragm are pretty slim. (In fact, I'd say that if he really is ignorant of it, he's not paying enough attention to her.)

    In any case, this is what couples in my community (including my ex and myself) were told when when asking the shailah.

  20. Hi, ss —

    Hi, ss —

    I'm sorry that my post left that impression. The Jewish view, as I understand it (ask two Jews, get three opinions), is not quite that narrow.

    Sex is recognized as a natural physical and emotional urge. The urge and its fulfillment are not considered "evil," so long as the context is proper; i.e., when it is between consenting adults who are husband and wife. Moreover, it has great significance within the mystical dimension of Judaism.

    This is not to say that there haven't historically been ascetic strains of Judaism that took a much dimmer view of human urges and appetites. An example, from somewhere or other: "When a man is engaging in intercourse, he should imagine there is a demon behind him, forcing him to do it." Talk about a stringent opinion … (The hole in the sheet, by the way, is a myth.)

    Even though procreation is not generally considered to be the sole function of sex, there is in Jewish law a prohibition of "destroying sperm for no purpose" — "purpose" here being understood to mean at least some possibility of a resulting pregnancy. The prohibition is derived from the brief story in Genesis of Onan, who, after levirate marriage to his childless late brother's wife, "spilled his seed on the ground," rather than make a baby who would be considered his brother's child, not his own.

    (Personally, I think the reason G-d punished Onan had a lot more to do with his selfishness and lack of compassion than with his "wasting" of sperm cells.)

  21. Thanks, Shmoo Snook.

    The only part of your overview that I differ with is this:

    >"purpose" here being understood to mean at least some possibility of a resulting pregnancy

    I had always learned that the issue (so to speak) was not that there had to be a chance of pregnancy. I had learned that as long as the "seed being spilled" was part of marital relations, it didn't matter whether there was a chance of pregnancy.

    For instance, sex is not forbidden in the case of a woman who has had a radical hysterectomy, although without a uterus and ovaries there is no chance whatsoever of pregnancy.

    My understanding was that the "purpose" could be related to the bond of love between spouses, and their mutual pleasure within that relationship.


  22. I see what you're saying, and I have heard others discuss it in those terms.

    It seems to me, though, that if that were the case, zera l'vatalah — as a distinct prohibition, and not in the sense that it relates to the fulfillment of p'ru u'r'vu — would never have become a halachic issue for married couples. And yet it did, especially as it relates to the use of condoms.

    Also, Onan's seed-spilling was within the context of marital relations, but I've never heard anyone suggest that [fill in cumbersome Latin expression here] is permissible.

    Tzarich iyun …

  23. Shmoo Snook:

    I tend to agree with your previous comment that it was not Onan's coitus interruptus, per se, that was the problem.

    This has, of course, been debated on both sides by the rabbis over time. But even those on the stricter side allow that seed is not wasted as long as it is deposited in the "natural" place, whether or not the woman is capable of conceiving.

    So that question really only pertains to the *form* of contraception used. The permissibility of using it at all involves a different mitzvah (procreation).

    As a side note, my Rav told me the opposite of what yours did–that there definitely *should* be agreement on the part of the husband. In fact, I was insulted at the time that he would think it could possibly be otherwise! But based on what you have said, I now understand why he might have emphasized it!


  24. Shmoo Snook:
    So sad, but the case, that the impression you must have gained from your Rav was that ignorance is bliss. He'd never say that of Torah and yet this is the sort of mixed and ethically problematic message that much of the Torah world perpetuates. The message is Divine but it's the human interlocutors who mess it up!

  25. If the key factor is whether the act contributes to the couple's mutual love and pleasure, why should the method of contraception be relevant? It shouldn't matter at all where the "seed" ends up — and condoms wouldn't be so frowned upon.

    Then again, thinking back on it, maybe the reason my rav said that ideally the husband should not know had to do with how he viewed the husband's voluntary participation in thwarting his own fulfillment of a mitzvas asei. I don't remember him going into any great detail — he pretty much just delivered his bottom line.

    My rav passed away several years ago but, coincidentally, I was just on the phone with his son. I asked him about his father's take on the whole birth control issue, and he said he doesn't remember his father talking about it. He added that he had never asked his father about it.

    As I mentioned in an earlier comment, my gut tells me that the natural results of lovemaking between a husband and wife should never be deemed l'vatalah.

  26. Shmoo Snook:
    Yes, there is objection to condoms as a general rule (there are exceptions) and that is because the condom is a male proactive destruction of seed as opposed to an indirect one, and halkacha recognizes the difference in, for example, grama on Shabbat as well. And also because the halacha mandates the Basar Basar connection between man and wife and, as I'm sure you know, the halacha allows all sorts of things between a man and his wife that result in haschatat zerah. The case of Onan is hashchatat zera in defiance of the wife and therefore taking it out of the realm of intercourse into masturbation.

  27. Well . . .

    The defiance wasn't as much of the wife as it was of the obligation to provide his late brother with an heir. For all I know, Onan loved his wife, she loved him, and they both got pleasure out of the deal. Is that still masturbation?

    I'm not trying to be a drei kop here . . .

  28. You've all used a lot of very complicated biblical/halachic terminology to explain pros and
    cons of religious sexual observance, so much so that my eyes are crossing.

    May I make a plea for saychel in the matzoh pudding
    of life?

  29. Shmoo Snook:
    I think if someone, as I understood you to say, was encouraging a couple not to tell each other the truth, that conflicts with Torah values. Now if I misunderstood what you said then of course am prepared to be corrected!

  30. You have over-generalized.

    There is a difference between lying to your spouse and not saying anything. If a husband and wife were to tell each other everything, it would do more damage to the relationship than good.

    It is not in conflict with Torah values, for instance, for a woman to keep from her husband that for 20 seconds that afternoon, she fantasized about being in bed another man. Or for a husband to remain silent rather than tell his wife that yes, that dress does make her butt look huge.

    I have paraphrased what my rav told me as best I can after the passage of some 30 years. If you want to characterize him as encouraging dishonesty, delusion, and deception, and giving a p'sak halachah that flies in the face of Torah values, well, then, you go right ahead. It's your blog.

  31. Shmoo Snook,

    I think you have over particularlised. All that has been criticised is an encouragement of the idea that 'ignorance is bliss'. You are clearly not ignorant so I doubt you'd think ignorance an ideal. As you cannot remember precisely what your rabbi said and so have not quoted him precisely, nobody has criticised him, precisely. I do hope you agree, that is a more precise understanding of the situation.

  32. Um … Sorry, no.

    You're right that I'm not ignorant and don't consider ignorance to be ideal. While I may not have quoted my rav word for word, he was not ignorant, either, and he didn't encourage the idea that ignorance is ideal.

    My rav was a highly respected posek with many decades of experience. His position essentially was that the husband is on safer ground halachically if he doesn't know his wife is using contraception. I trust that he didn't just pull that out of his hat; perhaps, if I had asked him for his sources and analysis, he would have explained them to me. I did not ask.

    That is the position being criticized here as promoting dishonesty and running contrary to Torah values. I can't help but perceive it as criticism of the man.

    I am 30 years older, even if no wiser, than I was then. If my rav were still alive, I'm certain there would be many things — including contraception — about which we would not see eye to eye.

    In any case, he is in the World of Truth and doesn't need me to defend him.

  33. What I said up above was this: "There is a difference between lying to your spouse and not saying anything."

    As I mentioned in another comment, though, I don't think it likely that a husband would remain unaware.

    In an amirah l'nachri situation, both the Jew and the non-Jew are perfectly aware of what's going on. The whole point is for the non-Jew to do something on Shabbos that the Jew cannot outright tell him to do.

    It makes a difference, in halachah, that the Jew says, "Boy, it sure is dark in here," rather than,"Turn on the lights."

    I see this as similar. You may not.

    Shavua tov!

  34. Shmoo Snook:
    I confess I have never felt comfortable with Amira LeAkum or the Shabbes Goy, but I see where you are going and in purely halachic terms there is some logic to it, as there is to Chatzi Melacha, etc. It's just that I do indeed put the relationship between a man and his wife on a very different level.

  35. Oy. This is a hard issue to deal with. mine is a long story. I was terified of marriage, and delayed it till late in life. Then I started getting lonely & desperate. So, when a Shadchan set me up with a woman, and she went crazy over me, I went along even tho I wasn't all that attracted. All along I had my doubts about her, but I felt like a leaf in the wind. We got permission to use a diaphragm, and well, our relationship was not so good, 'cause she wasn't crazy for me, just plain crazy. After 2 yrs, we had a beautifull child. It didn't save the marriage, but I wouldn't give her up for anything! She was worth all the pain, and I've had to do a lot of growing up because of her. The point I want to make is; Some people are just so messed up that G-d has to force the issue so that a life can come into this world, and we have to make their lives better than ours were. I hope I don't sound like a fool.

  36. Anonymous:

    Wow. I don't think you sound like a fool at all. There are even a lot of traditional commentaries about how certain pairings took place for the purposes of bringing the particular souls into the world, not anything to do with the happiness of the parents at all.

    But I wish you much personal happiness going forward.

  37. Anonymous:

    Thank you for that very moving response. You are of course right there are so many exceptions and that is precisely why in law we are reluctant to give blanket answers. I would not for one moment suggest that everyone responds to the challenges of marriage and childbearing in the same way. I only argue for the possibility of alternative rulings where the circumstances seem to warrant it, and mainly of course with younger people getting married.

    As for your predicament, I completely identify!


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