What is the nature of this commandment and how is it fulfilled? Are women obligated to have children? Are non-Jews obligated to have children? At what age is one obligated to get married and have children?

Introduction: The Source and Significance of the Mitzvah

In the first chapter of the Torah, in Parshat Bereishit, we read as follows:

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."1

Later on, in Parshat Noach, as Noach and his sons leave the ark - in which they were prohibited to procreate -G‑d reiterates this statement:

“And you, be fruitful and multiply; swarm upon the earth and multiply thereon.”2

The classical 13th century enumerator of the mitzvot, Sefer Hachinuch counts the statement to Adam, “be fruitful and multiply,” as the first commandment of the Torah.3 According to the Sefer Hachinuch it is this verse, in Parshat Bereishit, which serves as the source for the mitzvah. But why then is it repeated in Noach?

Unlike the Sefer Hachinuch, some authorities are of the opinion that the first verse in Parshat Bereishit is not in fact a command to be fruitful and multiply, but rather a blessing. According to this approach, it is the verse in Parshat Noach that serves as the source for the mitzvah.4 The language of the Talmud in a number of places supports this approach5 and Maimonides, in his Sefer Hamitzvot, also cites the verse in Noach as being the source for the mitzvah.6 The problem with this second approach is that the Talmud uses the verse in Bereishit as a proof text for its discussion of whether women are obligated in this mitzvah or not, a question that we will return to below.7 Rabbi Isaiah Horwitz (1555-1630), in his work Shnei Luchos Habris (Shelah), concludes that the statements in Bereshit and Noach are each to be read as a commandment.8 But this brings us back to our original question: Why does the commandment need to be stated twice?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe used this question as a platform to discuss the broader moral and ethical significance of procreation and parenting. As many earlier commentators noted, the purpose of this commandment is not simply that the world should be inhabited, but rather that humankind should recognize and serve their Creator.9 In the classical midrashic formulation, man’s purpose on earth is to create a dwelling place for G‑d in the lower realms.10

Accordingly, the Rebbe explained, the two iterations of this commandment can be seen as reflecting two distinct stages of this mission: At the beginning of creation man was empowered by G‑d to “fill the earth and subdue it.” But man was young and immature, and failed to internalize that power and to channel it constructively. In seeking to impose G‑d’s power and conquer the world, the nature of humanity was not refined or elevated, and evil remained firmly rooted in the world. Ultimately, the Torah tells us, “the Lord saw that the evil of man was great in the earth… and the Lord regretted that He had made man upon the earth.”11 Hence G‑d brought the flood of Noach, which nullified the commandment to procreate, in order to purify the earth and restart the mission of humanity anew. While the original source of man’s empowerment remained G‑d’s original commandment to Adam, Noach required a second commandment, renewing the mandate to procreate and parent with a new emphasis: Recognition and service of G‑d cannot simply be bestowed or imposed on the world from above, but must be properly internalized by humankind so that we can raise up the world from within.12

The central importance of this mitzvah was already underscored in the Talmud’s statement that “the world was created solely for the purpose of being fruitful and multiplying; in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, ‘G‑d did not create it (i.e the world) to be desolate, rather, He formed it so that it should be inhabited.’”13 As already noted, however, this really means that G‑d wants us to civilize the world, and to make it a place fitting for divine habitation too. Rabbeinu Bechayei writes that it is this higher sense of purpose that distinguishes the human from the animal.14 The Sefer Hachinuch similarly emphasizes the essential humanity and purpose that is at the core of the commandment to procreate: “It is a great mitzvah in that through it, all the other mitzvot can be performed, for the Torah was given to man, not to the heavenly angels.”

Indeed, this commandment is so fundamental that although generally it is forbidden to sell a Torah scroll, it is permitted to do so for the purpose of enabling a person to get married and fulfil the mitzvah of procreation.15

At What Age Is One Obligated to Engage in This Mitzvah?

A notable difference between the mitzvah to procreate and all the other commandments of the Torah, is that this obligation begins not from the age of thirteen, as is generally the case, but from the age of eighteen, as per the statement of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot: “eighteen [is the age] for marriage.”16 There is discussion amongst the commentaries and codifiers whether this means that one is obligated to get married at seventeen, at which point one enters the eighteenth year of age, or if the obligation starts at eighteen years old.17 One of the reasons why one is not obligated before the age of (seventeen or) eighteen, is because one is obligated to study Torah at this age, and it would be difficult to do so once one is married and has the responsibility to support a family.18 Though the obligation begins at eighteen, the Talmud and subsequent Halachic authorities say that you are only considered to have abrogated the commandment to procreate if you have failed to get married by the age of twenty.19

Based on the above, the custom in certain circles is to be particular to try to marry around the age of eighteen or twenty. There are many other communities, however, where it is customary to delay marriage beyond the age of twenty. There are two major reasons for this:

1) The Talmud and subsequent authorities rule that if somebody is engaged in Torah study and is concerned that getting married, and assuming responsibility for the support of a family, will cause his learning to suffer, he is permitted to delay getting married past the age of eighteen, or even the age of twenty.20 But some authorities only extend this exemption until the age of twenty-four, at which point one can no longer defer marriage.21

2) The commandment to procreate is dependent on marriage, and marriage is dependent on finding a suitable life partner. Accordingly, one who delays procreating for the purpose of finding a suitable match is not considered to have abrogated the commandment.22

Additionally, based on Maimonides’ ruling that it is appropriate to first find a livelihood, then buy a house and only then get married,23 the contemporary Halachic authority, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, has argued that it is permissible to delay getting married and having children due to financial considerations as well.24 Despite the legal cogency of this argument, the Lubavitcher Rebbe often emphasized that financial considerations should never stand in the way of the mitzvah of procreation. Instead one should place one’s trust in G‑d that with every child comes great blessing, and that G‑d will provide all necessary resources to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of each child.25

How Many Children Is One Obligated to Bear?

In the Mishnah and Talmud there are a number of opinions regarding how many children one is required to have. The Mishnah records two opinions; Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel. Beis Shammai say that one is required to bear two male children, while Beis Hillel argue that one is required to bear one male child and one female child.26

The Talmud explains their reasoning as follows: According to Beis Shammai the ruling derives from the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu separated from his wife after having just two sons.27 Surely Moshe Rabbeinu would not have absolved himself from the Biblical commandment to procreate, and must have already fulfilled his obligation before separating from his wife. According to Beis Hillel the ruling derives from the fact that on the sixth day of creation G‑d created one male and one female, Adam and Chava. Beis Shammai reject this reasoning of Beis Hillel because at the beginning of creation it was necessary that there be at least one male and one female for the purpose of procreation, while now there will inevitably be many other women whom one’s sons can marry. Beis Hillel rejects the reasoning of Beis Shammai because the case of Moshe was unique, he only separated from his wife because he spoke directly to G‑d, as the Torah tells us, “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”28

There are a number of other opinions recorded in the Talmud:

1) One is obligated to bear two males and two females. In support of this, Biblical verses are cited implying that Adam and Chava were required to have two sons and two daughters.

2) One is obligated to bear either one male or one female. The verse in Isaiah that the world was created “to be inhabited” is cited as proof, since by having even one child one keeps the world inhabited.29

The halacha follows the opinion of Beis Hillel - that one’s obligation to procreate is satisfied once one has borne one male child and one female child.30

The Rabbinic Commandment to Continue Having Children

Although one fulfils the Biblical obligation to procreate once one has a male child and a female child, the Talmudic sages extended the obligation: “Rabbi Yehoshua said, if one marries a woman when one is young he should still get married when he is old, if he had children when he was young he should still have more children while he is old, as the verse says “in the morning you shall sow your seed but in the evening (i.e. when you are old) do not rest”.31

There is an interesting ruling of Maimonides32, which is codified by the Shulchan Aruch33 that even if one’s wife forgoes her right to conjugal relations, one still needs to engage in relations, but only as long as one has not fulfilled one’s Biblical obligation of having one male and one female child. The classic commentator on the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Shmuel ben Rabbi Uri Shraga Feivish of Vidislav (1640-1698), in his work the Beis Shmuel, questions why this is the case: Surely even if one has borne a male and a female one still has a Rabbinic obligation to continue having children and as such should be obligated to engage in conjugal relations?34 Rabbi Chayim Yosef Dovid Azoulai, known as the Chidah (1724-1806), suggests that once one has a boy and a girl it is sufficient if one engages in procreation occasionally. In other words, the rabbinic extension does not require you to pursue the goal of procreation with the same urgency as the Biblical requirement does, rather it requires you not to abandon the G‑d-given mandate to bear children and make the world into a place of habitation and civilization. The opinion of Rabbi Azoulai is cited as an applied halachic ruling by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908) in his work Aruch Hashulchan.35

What Is The Nature of the Obligation?

Does one fulfill the commandment to procreate in the very act of engaging in conjugal relations with your spouse with the goal of bearing children, or is the commandment only fulfilled later, once you have actually borne viable children? If the latter is true, then engagement in conjugal relations would be understood to be merely a necessary preparation for the actual fulfillment of the commandment. Rabbi Yosef Babad (1801-1874) in his classical work, the Minchas Chinuch, brings a number of proofs to the view that the commandment is only filled once you have borne viable children:

1) The halacha is that if one bears children who then pass away, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah to procreate.36 If the obligation is to engage in conjugal relations with the purpose of bearing children then the subsequent death of one’s children should not change the fact that you have fulfilled your obligation.

2) Conversely, the halacha is that a convert who had children while he was a gentile and then subsequently became Jewish has fulfilled the obligation and does not need to bear more children.37 If the obligation is to engage in conjugal relations and bear children, then how can the obligation be satisfied by virtue of activities and events that took place when the individual was not yet Jewish and not yet commanded to procreate. (The question of whether or not non-Jews are obligated to procreate will be returned to below, but most authorities agree that they are not obligated by the same commandment that obligates Jews.)

3) The halacha is that if one bears children from an illicit union one has fulfilled the obligation to procreate.38 Now, there is a rule that any mitzvah whose fulfillment is done through a transgression (mitzvah habaah beavera) is not a mitzvah at all. It follows that since the conjugal union through which these children were born was prohibited, an illicit conjugal act alone cannot satisfy the mitzvah obligation. We must therefore surmise that the conjugal act is simply a necessary preparation, while the obligation to procreate is fulfilled passively, by the mere fact that one has borne living offspring. 39

Other authorities take issue with the Minchas Chinuch, arguing that every commandment is by nature an obligation to engage in, or desist from, a certain activity. The obligation cannot simply be reduced to the passive results of conjugal activity. Moreover, bearing viable progeny is not always a matter of choice, and certainly one cannot simply choose to bear a boy and a girl. So it would seem nonsensical to obligate a person to achieve that outcome. Rather, as Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein both explain, the mitzvah consists of an obligation to engage in conjugal relations with one’s spouse with the specific goal of having children. Once one has borne a boy and a girl one is no longer obligated to engage in conjugal relations with that goal in mind.40 (There is, however, a separate obligation on the part of a husband to engage in conjugal relations and satisfy his wife sexually.41)

Following this understanding of the commandment, if one’s children die then one again becomes obligated to try and have more children. Similarly, when the Talmud and codifiers say that somebody who had children while he was not Jewish has satisfied the obligation, they do not mean that he has actively fulfilled the commandment, but rather that he is not obligated by the commandment due to the fact that he already brought children into the world. Likewise, one who had a child from an illicit union has not actively fulfilled the mitzvah, but is nevertheless exempt from having more children. In other words, we can distinguish between a) being obligated to fulfill the commandment, b) having actively fulfilled the commandment, and c) not being obligated to fulfill the commandment due to a specific set of circumstances.

Are Women Included in the Commandment to Procreate?

The Mishnah records a dispute regarding whether a woman, in her own right, is obligated to procreate, or if only men are obligated. The Talmud gives two possible explanations for the opinion that women are not obligated:

1) When G‑d said “be fruitful and multiply,” the verse continues “and fill the world and conquer it.”42 Since men generally have a more aggressive nature and are the ones who go out to war, the implication is that only men are obligated to procreate and “conquer” the world.

2) When G‑d later blessed Jacob saying, “I am the Almighty God; be fruitful and multiply;”43 he said it in the singular and not in the plural, implying that the obligation applied only to Jacob, the man.

Rabbi Yochanan Ben Berokah dissents from this view and maintains that women are obligated to procreate, just as men are. He explains his reasoning based on the fact that the Torah says, “And G‑d blessed them and he said to them be fruitful and multiply.”44 Clearly G‑d was addressing the commandment to both Adam and Chava.45

The halacha follows the first opinion, that women are exempt from the Biblical commandment to procreate,46 yet this ruling is complicated by the implication of another Talmudic passage, which says that although a woman can appoint a proxy to accept a transaction of marriage on her behalf, it is better if she fulfils the mitzvah herself (mitzvah bah yoter me-bishluchah).47

Assuming that the mitzvah of marriage is intrinsically linked to the mitzvah of procreation, some medieval commentators (rishonim) point out that the Talmud’s characterization of marriage as a mitzvah seems to contradict the ruling that women have no personal obligation to procreate, nor, by extension, to marry.48

A number of explanations have been suggested:

1) Although women are not obligated in the Biblical commandment to procreate, they are nonetheless obligated to do so by rabbinic precept.49 According to some authorities this precept derives from the principle articulated by Isaiah “that the world was not created to be desolate, but rather to be inhabited.”50

2) Even if women are not obligated by certain commandments, they still have license to fulfil those commandments and are rewarded if they choose to do so. For example, even though women are not obligated to sit in the sukkah on Sukkot, they may nonetheless choose to fulfill that commandment and are rewarded for doing so. Similarly, although women are not obligated to procreate, in doing so they are nonetheless fulfilling G‑d’s commandment, as the Talmudic statement suggests.51

3) Another explanation offered is that since a man cannot perform his obligation to procreate without his wife’s participation, the woman is intrinsic to the fulfillment of the commandment and receives a share of the man’s reward.52 According to this explanation, the reward that the woman receives for participating in the commandment to procreate is greater than the reward she receives for other commandments that she is exempt from (such as sitting in the sukkah), for in this case she is participating in a commandment in which her husband is obligated.53

Some authorities note that according to answers 2 and 3, it is implied that women have no obligation of their own to bear children, not even by rabbinic precept. It is rather a mitzvah that they participate in of their own volition.54

The Beis Shmuel infers from the authoritative glosses of Rabbi Moshe Isserles (known as the Rema 1530-1572) to the Shulchan Aruch that he is of the opinion that women are under no personal obligation whatsoever to procreate.55 On the other hand, Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, (1633-1683) known as the Magen Avraham, after his commentary on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim, is of the opinion that women are obligated to do so by the rabbinic precept cited above. Therefore, the Magen Avraham argues, it is permitted to sell a Torah scroll in order to raise a dowry for female orphans - including women in the provision that allows one to sell a sefer Torah for the purpose of getting married.56 This ruling is cited approvingly by Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, (1839-1933), the Chafetz Chayim, in his work Mishna Berura.57

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk offered two very different explanations as to why women are exempt from the biblical commandment of procreation:

1) Since pregnancy and birth involve a lot of pain for the mother, the Torah whose ways are “ways of pleasantness and peace”58 could not obligate a woman to endure such an ordeal.

2) Since women generally have a stronger natural desire to bear and raise children than men do, the Torah did not need to command a woman to engage in procreation, as it is unnecessary to impose this commandment on them as an obligation.59

This second explanation is also advanced by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.60

Are Non-jews Included in the Commandment to Procreate?

Being that the commandment to procreate precedes the revelation at Sinai, it would therefore follow that it is incumbent on all of mankind. This is in fact the opinion of the Sheiltot, the earliest post-Talmudic work of Jewish law,61 and is implied by the Talmud in tractate Yevamot.62 However the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin takes it for granted that non-Jews no longer fall under this obligation.63 The reason why they are exempt, despite the fact that the commandment was given to all of mankind, is because there is a rule that any commandment that was taught before the revelation at Sinai and not repeated afterwards, applies only to the Jews and not to non- Jews.64

The opinion of the Talmud in Sanhedrin is considered to be normative, and the vast majority of commentators and authorities are of the opinion that non-Jews are not obligated in the mitzvah of procreation.65 That being said, even amongst these authorities, there are many who maintain that non-Jews are nonetheless still obligated to procreate by the rabbinic precept articulated by Isaiah to keep the world inhabited.66

This was also the opinion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.67 In a talk he delivered in 1980 as part of a series of talks encouraging families to prioritize raising children above financial and career considerations, the Rebbe explicitly included non-Jews as well, emphasizing that they too are obligated to prioritize the civilized habitation of the world. Moreover, as with all universal mitzvot, it is the Jew's’ obligation to encourage the general population in this regard.68

Around the same time, the previous Sadigora Rebbe visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe and mentioned his concern that the benefits given by the Israeli government to encourage large families would be given to Arab families as well. The Rebbe responded that since non-Jews are also obligated to keep the world inhabited, we as Jews should not withhold funding which will encourage them to procreate. When the Sadigora Rebbe pointed out that a growing Arab population could lead to a serious threat to the safety of the Jewish population, the Rebbe responded that such considerations did not absolve Jews of their obligation to encourage and aid non-Jews in their obligation to raise children.69

Expanding The Mandate of Procreation, Physically and Spiritually

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein argued that the commandment “be fruitful and multiply” extends beyond merely bearing children, and includes supporting them and taking care of them. He reasons that since one whose children pass away has not fulfilled his obligation (as discussed above) it follows that one must make sure one’s children do not die by providing for their food, medical needs and the like.70

In an even broader extension of this commandment, the Talmud states that one who adopts an orphan and raises him is considered as if he bore him.71 Based on this there are authorities who suggest that one can fulfill the commandment to procreate by adopting an orphan and raising him.72 Even according to those authorities who argue that one who adopts a child does not fulfill the commandment to procreate, it is still a big mitzvah to adopt a child. It must be noted however that as the Lubavitcher Rebbe and others have pointed out, adoption involves various Halachic complications which should be addressed on a case by case basis.73

In a similar vein we find that the Torah refers to the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, as “the descendants of Aaron and Moses.”74 The Talmud explains that although they were in fact Aaron's sons and not Moshe’s, the Torah considers them Moshe’s sons as well because anyone who teaches another Jew Torah is considered as if he had borne him.75

Based on this teaching of the Talmud, the Chabad Rebbes spoke of the “spiritual” commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” according to which the obligation to “make another Jew” obligates you to inspire another Jew to deepen their commitment to Torah study and to the practice of the mitzvot.76

Yet, even in its original sense of physical procreation this commandment is vested with supreme spiritual and moral value. The Talmud states that one who does not engage in procreation is considered to be like a murderer.77 Conversely, Maimonides writes that “anyone who adds a soul to the Jewish people is considered as if he has built an entire world.”78 Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi taught that bearing children derives from “the radiance and vestment of G‑d’s infinite light, which gives birth and sustenance from nothing to something (ex nihilo),” in that “from one person many generations can be produced” which is a reflection of G‑d’s infinite power.79

Moreover, although it is well known that Moshiach will come as a result of all our Torah and mitzvot that we do whilst in exile,80 the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash specify that in the merit of the mitzvah of procreation, especially, we will merit the coming of Moshiach.81

I would like to thank Rabbi Chaim Rapoport who made me aware of some of the sources cited in this article.