Of Famines, Fertility, and Futility

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier

The Gemara in Ta’anis 11a offers the following ruling based on our Parsha, which is codified as Halacha by the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch:

אמר ריש לקיש: אסור לאדם לשמש מטתו בשני רעבון, שנאמר +בראשית מ”א+ וליוסף ילד שני בנים בטרם תבוא שנת הרעב

Reish Lakish said: A person is prohibited to have sexual relations in years of famine, as it says: “And Joseph had two sons before the years of famine came.”

Yosef had his two sons before the famine began in order to avoid this prohibition (or in order to teach us this prohibition).

What is the basis of this prohibition on sexual relations during the years of a famine? One might argue that it is a pragmatic measure for population control – why have a child during a famine if it means there will be one more mouth to feed? However, there are problems with this explanation: most fundamentally, theories of population control run afoul of the value system implied by peru u-revu and lo sohu bera’ah. Furthermore, this explanation does not seem to be applicable here, as Yosef seemingly avoided the prohibition by having his children before the famine took place. If he knew that a famine was coming, how would it be better to produce two children before the famine began – there are still the extra mouths to feed, and, being larger, they will want to consume even more food!

It is possible to offer three different ways of understanding this prohibition.

Midrash Tanchuma (Noach 11) fleshes out the prohibition as follows:

שבשעה שהעולם ניתן בצרה ובחרבן אסור לאדם להזקק בפריה ורביה שלא יהא הקב”ה עוסק בחורבן העולם והוא בונה

At the time when the world is in crisis and destruction, it is prohibited for one to turn to procreation, in order that it not be the case that while God deals with destroying the world he is building.

According to this source, it is unseemly to have man engage in procreation while God is depopulating the world. Even if the reason for God’s actions is irrelevant to man, one must follow God’s lead.

A second approach is presented by Rashi (Ta’anis 11a, s.v. asur). Rashi argues that a person must experience some צער, or pain, throughout humanity’s ordeal of famine; it is not right or sensitive for someone to completely enjoy themselves (e.g., if they have sufficient means) while others are suffering. This integrates well into the continuation of the Gemara, which emphasizes the theme of suffering along with the rest of the Jewish People.

I would like to suggest a third approach to this Gemara, based on the famous dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel about whether it is better for man (adam) that he was created or not. (See Eruvin 13b.) The Gemara does not arrive at a conclusion on the matter, although it is generally assumed in practice that one must procreate. In that sense, procreation is an act of faith in humankind, as the parents presume that the potential baby will be better off existing than not. If this is true, it provides a deep significance to the phenomenon of procreation, but it also renders it more fragile. What happens when there is a sign that procreation is not warranted?

Maybe the existence of a famine, which we interpret as due to human shortcomings (see Tractate Ta’anis), is meant to lead to an understanding of the world that presumes that man is better off not being created, at least at the present time. If procreation is an act of faith in man, a person’s faith in God must determine whether the current reality warrants faith in man. Interestingly, Tosafos (Ta’anis 11a, s.v. asur) argue that this prohibition only applies to those who generally act in a mode of chasidut. We might wonder why piety correlates to refraining from procreation. Tosafos’ position, however, works especially well with this approach. A pious person is expected to be more sensitive to God’s word. Thus, if God is sending the message that the world is not in a position where it deserves to grow, the chasid will respond correspondingly.

I am not convinced that this theologically ambitious approach is true, but if it is it might indicate that the Gemara about refraining from procreation has broader application despite our existence in a world where droughts do not threaten human life like they once did.

May we all merit to live in a world where God’s faith in humanity is manifest.

Shlomo Zuckier was an SBM Fellow in Summer 2012. He is currently Associate Rabbi and JLIC Co-Director at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, a PhD student in Judaic Studies at Yale, and a Tikvah, Wexner, and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellow, and Editorial Assistant for Tradition magazine.

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