The old joke goes like this: How many rabbis does it take to screw in a light bulb? The answer, of course, is one. But some say two. And some say three. Nowhere is this truism truer than in the remarkable work by Rav Yaakov ben Asher called the Arba’ah Turim (four rows). Commonly referred to as the ‘Tur’, this work combines the opinions of both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi Rishonim in any given matter of halacha, producing a collage of rabbinic views that gives the impression that nothing in Judaism is completely agreed upon. No matter what the issue, there always seems to be a ‘there are those who say’ saying something other than what was just said.
Nevertheless, the Tur remains one of the most influential works in Halacha ever written. It is still widely used as a research source to provide the halachic background for the Shulhan Aruch. The ‘four rows’ of the Tur correspond to four categories that cover pretty much all of Jewish law and custom that was still relevant at the time the compendium was written (early 14th century). The innovation of the Tur was one of focus. The Mishna Torah included all areas of Jewish practice, while the Tur concentrated only on those areas that were still currently practiced. Messianic goals and temple rituals may be important in some sense, but that did not affect the daily life of the average Jew.
Among the many laws and customs listed in the Tur are those dealing with the obligation to have children. This obligation is clearly enshrined in the Torah as a commandment to Adam (and Eve) and repeated as a blessing to Noah following the Flood. There is no disputing this fundamental commandment. It does appear that the mitzvah is not exclusive to Jews, unlike most other mitzvot. However, it is not listed as one of the 7 commandments that are incumbent upon the entire human race. The reason for this is not clear from the text of the Torah. The Talmud explains that the mitzvah was somehow repeated at Mount Sinai, making it unique to Jews. The Tur seems to want to bring back its universal scope in his description of the mitzvah. In the opening sentence to the section dealing with the laws of marriage, we find the following:
'The Holy One Blessed One be He, who desired what was good for His creations, knew that it wasn’t good for a man to be alone, therefore He made for him a helpmate. And furthermore, the intention of the creation of man was to be fruitful and multiply, and this is impossible without a mate, therefore He commanded him to cling to his mate that He made for him. Therefore, every man is obligated to marry a woman in order to be fruitful and multiply.'
Numerous questions can be asked on this fascinating introduction. First off, why all the extra description about God’s desires and intention of creation? Isn’t this supposed to be a work of Halacha? Aren’t halacha books supposed to be dry and legal-sounding? Second, is the commandment to get married, which happens to have the side benefit of facilitating propagation, or is the commandment to propagate, which should only be done through marriage? Third, is the commandment, whatever it may be, only directed towards men, or does it apply equally to women? It would seem obvious that the commandment has to apply equally to women, but the words of the text imply otherwise. Finally, is this really the purpose of creation?
Starting with the first question, there is no Halacha that says that works of Halacha have to be dry and legal-sounding. A little venture into the reason behind the law, into God’s intentions and our purpose in being here, doesn’t make the book non-kosher.
As far as the second question is concerned, we need a little background. The 613 commandments do not all stand as independent entities. Some are dependent on outside factors, such as the many mitzvot associated with the temple. Similarly, the mitzvah of propagation is dependent on another mitzvah, that of marrying. Each of these mitzvot could be accomplished without the other. For instance one could get married and not have children. Alternatively, one could have children without being married. The Tur, however, has integrally linked these two commandments, making the fulfillment of one dependent on the fulfillment of the other. Why is this so?
The answer takes us to the core of the mitzvah of propagation. Aside from the details of the mitzvah (number of children, their gender, etc.), there is a fundamental aspect of this mitzvah that is easily overlooked. It is not enough to simply bear the children. That is something an animal could do. The crux of this commandment is to bring children into this world who will be able to fulfill their own purpose in life. Without this, the part the man plays in propagation is purely sexual. He is doing nothing other than fulfilling his own desires. In other words, for the man to truly do something worthy of being called a mitzvah, he must do more than fertilize a woman’s eggs. He must raise a child who will be able to serve God. This cannot be done through a one night stand. It requires a solid chunk of a lifetime and a healthy dose of commitment.
This is where marriage comes into the picture. The Torah describes the concept of marriage with the phrase ezer kenegdo, roughly translated as ‘a helper opposite him’. This puzzling expression is interpreted in many ways, but one of them, perhaps the most basic, is that a man and woman do help each other out, but are also opposites. Marriage was never meant to be an alternative to a guy hanging out with his buddies, or a girl chatting with her girlfriends. It is an altogether different experience. It is two people of opposite sexes, forging a relationship based on love and mutual assistance through thick and thin. It works, not despite the fact that men and women are different, but because they are different.
At the risk of stereotyping, and at the even greater risk of insulting sensitivities of those who disagree, we are going to go out on a limb and make the bold statement that men and women are different. We know there are exceptions, and we know there are infinite variations, but as a general rule, this is a biological fact. It is also a spiritual fact. Men and women have different spiritual needs. They have different emotional needs. They have different physical needs. Neither is ‘better’ than the other, they simply are different. It is those differences that generally attract the opposite sexes to each other.
Now we can explain the Tur. Propagation can only be truly fulfilled when the man and the woman are fully committed to each other, through love and through dedication to a common cause. It happens that the most natural and probably most fulfilling common cause for them is raising children. The children need those ‘opposites’, those two contrasting and sometimes conflicting outlooks on life to understand their place in the world. While it is true that single mothers or single fathers can do a wonderful job in raising a child, it is still not the same as a husband and wife doing it together. Which one brings home the bacon (for Jews, perhaps pastrami would be more appropriate) and which one changes the diapers can be worked out according to each couple’s situation. But two can do much more than double the amount of one.
So does this mitzvah apply to both men and women? Surprisingly, the universal rabbinic consensus from the Mishna onward is that the mitzvah applies only to men. The standard explanation for this apparent anomaly is that women do not need to be commanded in what comes naturally for them. Women, due to their own internal biological clock and powerful intuition, know that having children and forging a loving relationship with a spouse are two of life’s most precious gifts. Men, on the other hand, may lack the natural drive for one or both of these. Because of this difference, men have to be commanded to get the job done. Without the commandment, men might wile away the years, playing the field and never settling down. Men, unlike women, need to be reminded and pushed into doing what comes as a second nature to women.
As far as the final question – is this really man’s purpose in creation – the Tur leaves that one for us to think about. There are a few quotes from the Talmud that hint at what may have been intended, including the bold statement that one who does not engage in propagation has limited the amount of ‘image of God’ in the world. God’s presence may permeate the cosmos and God’s hand may be felt across the course of history, but God’s image is reflected only within the soul of a human being who allows it to shine through the haze. Every human being has the potential to be such a person. Unfortunately, that potential is not always manifested in life. To bring a child into the world, who can bring a little bit of God’s image into the world, is an achievement of the highest rank. To truly want that child, to love that child, to care for the child at times of physical and emotional need, to educate and guide the child into teen years and beyond, and finally to be able to let go of the child when he or she is no longer a child, is nothing short of Herculean. It is the task of a lifetime. It is a task that gives life.
There is nothing more practical than raising children. We all know the arguments against it – overpopulation, it’s cruel to bring a child into such a cruel world, who’s got the time, etc. But at the end of the day, there are few things in life that can match the satisfaction of helping a child get through the joy and pain of growing up. It can be extremely frustrating at times. It is not the least bit unusual to face the unsettling worry that this was one grand mistake that is too late to remedy. But at the end of the day, there is nothing that beats the feeling of looking at your child’s face asleep and safe under your protection. It’s probably the closest thing to looking at the face of God. To some degree, it gives the parents a unique window into the human experience of godliness.
If you want to do it right, find a partner to do it with. Even under the best of circumstances it is not all that good to do it alone. Having another person there to share in the difficulties and in the celebrations sure beats solitude. If done right its heaven on earth. Of course, all this is much easier said than done. Not everyone is really cut out for a long-term relationship with the opposite sex, let alone a marriage with children. Some cannot make the commitment. Some cannot handle the responsibility. Some have no desire for the opposite sex. Some cannot have children. Some face none of these issues but simply cannot find somebody to make it happen. There are a million and one obstacles to the most natural thing on earth. It seems as though as our culture evolves and we get more wrapped up in technology and more dependent on the very things that are supposed to make us independent, we lose touch with our most basic task. It is not good for man to be alone. Be fruitful and multiply.
Food for Thought
Bearing and raising children is unquestionably important. Perhaps it is indeed among the most important things in life. But at the end of the day, can it really be called the purpose of creation?
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