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Did the Rabbis Invent a Prohibition?

It is a mitzvah to marry by the age of twenty and no later than twenty-four Postponing pregnancy is similar to postponing circumcision to the ninth day.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed


Accusation of Rabbis Concerning the Question of Postponing Pregnancy

Recently there appeared in the media accusations against "the rabbis" who, out of a desire to advance their social agenda, invented an issur hilchati (a prohibition of Jewish law), according to which it is forbidden for a young couple to prevent pregnancy before having a child and fulfilling the mitzvah of puru u'revuru (procreation), when in fact, according to halakha, there is no such prohibition.
According to the argument, the status of this mitzvah is the same as that of a father who is commanded to circumcise his son on the eighth day, namely, although there is a hidur (embellishment of the mitzvah) to perform the circumcision early in the morning, many people delay it until the afternoon. Likewise in the case of puru u'revuru, the mitzvah indeed is to procreate, but there is no halakhic problem in delaying the fulfillment of the mitzvah for a couple of years. Critics claim that the rabbis use the halakha in order to promote a social agenda, thus transgressing the severe sin of hiding the truth from those who ask them.

They also claim that the rabbis, functioning as part of the "rabbinical establishment", do this in order to extend their control over other areas, particularly those related to the lives’ of women. Since women are exempt from the mitzvah of procreation, they cannot be obligated to become pregnant in the name of halakha, so the rabbis' are exploiting their status and authority without any halakhic justification.

In the wake of these accusations, it is important to clarify three questions:
1) According to halakha, is there a specific age in which one must fulfill the mitzvah of puru u'revuru, and anyone who postpones it past this age negates the mitzvah?
2) Are women exempt from the mitzvah of puru u’revuru?
3) Can a married woman tell her husband she is not interested in assisting him fulfill the duty of procreation?

Our Sages Determined an Age for Marriage

Ostensibly, a young Jewish man should get married at the age of thirteen, for this is the age when he becomes obligated to fulfill the mitzvot. However, our Sages instructed postponing marriage until the age of eighteen and no later than the age of twenty, as they said in the Mishnah (Avot 5:21): "Eighteen [is the age] for the [wedding] canopy, Twenty [is the age] for pursuing [a livelihood]". This is also explained in the Talmud Tractate Kiddushin (29b).

Two reasons for Postponement

There are two reasons for postponement:

1) In order to prepare for the enormous task of establishing a family by studying Torah, as our Sages said in the Mishnah of Avot: "Five years [is the age] for [the study of] Scripture, Ten [is the age] for [the study of] Mishnah, Thirteen [is the age] for [observing] commandments, Fifteen [is the age] for [the study of] Talmud, Eighteen [is the age] for the [wedding] canopy" (Avot 5:21).
Our Sages also said that a man should study Torah before getting married, for if he marries first, the burden of raising a family may prevent him from learning Torah appropriately (Kiddushin 29b). This was codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 246:2).

2) Parnasa (livelihood). The custom was that during the years the young men learned the fundamentals of Torah, they spent part of the day helping their father work, and in the process, learned the trade from which they could make a living, build a house, and save money to purchase tools for making a living. Thus, our Sages said in the Talmud: "The Torah has thus taught a rule of conduct: that a man should build a house, plant a vineyard and then marry a wife"(Sotah 44a). This is also what Rambam has written (Hilchot De'ot5:11), and is also explained in detail in Zohar Chadash (Breishit 8:2).

The Prohibition of Postponing Marriage on Account of Procreation

Incidentally, another accusation hurled at "the rabbis" is that the main reason they encourage young men to get married at an early age is because of the yetzer ha'ra (evil inclination) which overwhelms them. Instead of educating them to overcome their urges, they educate them to marry in their early twenties, and of course, to also have children as soon as possible after the wedding, at the expense of women's personal development.

Let's examine the foundation of the halakhic obligation to marry by the age of twenty. It is explained in the Talmud: "Raba said, and the School of Rabbi Ishmael taught likewise: Until the age of twenty, the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and waits. When will he take a wife? As soon as one attains twenty and has not married, He exclaims, ‘Blasted be his bones!’ (Kiddushin 29b).
The reason is because he negates the mitzvah of puru u'revuru, the importance of which our Sages said: "But was not the world only made to be populated, as it says 'He created it not a waste, He formed it to be inhabited"(Mishnah Gittin 41b).

It is also explained in the Midrash: "A time to give birth, and a time to die," our Sages also said: "From the moment a man is born, the Holy One, blessed be He waits for him until the age of twenty to marry a woman. If he reaches the age of twenty but has not married, He says to him: The time for you to give birth to a child has arrived, but you did not want to, it is nothing more for you than the time to die" (Kohelet Rabba 3:3). From here we see the reason our Sages said "blasted be his bones" is because he was negligent in begetting children.

This was also codified in halakha, as Rambam wrote "The mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying is incumbent on the husband… If he reaches twenty and has not married, he is considered to have transgressed and negated the observance of this positive commandment" (Hilchot Ishut 15:2). And thus wrote Rosh (Rabbenu Asher) (Kiddushin 1:42): "It cannot possibly be he is negligent in fulfilling the mitzvah of puru u'revuru all his life" - and therefore it is necessary to determine the age at which a young man can complete preparations for his wedding, and then must marry. And thus wrote S'mag (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Positive Mitzvah 49): "And since twenty years passed and he has not married – behold, he has transgressed and negated a positive commandment" (many other poskim have written similarly, such as Lavush, E.H. 1:3; Maharam Fadawah 45; Maharit Y.D. 47; Shiurei Knesset HaGadola Y.D.236 note 44; Yafeh L'lev sect.4 E.H.1:12. And even according to Rashba this is the halakha, but in his opinion the obligation at the age of twenty is rabbinic, and an oath applies to a rabbinic mitzvah).

How Significant is the Fear of Sinful Thoughts?

Our Sages added another reason for not postponing marriage – so a man’s yetzer (inclination) does not overcome him, as Rav Huna said: "If a man reaches the age of twenty, but has not married – his entire life is in thoughts of sin" (Kiddushin 29b). However, this point is not mentioned as an obligatory halakhic reason, rather, it complements the main reason which is fulfilling the mitzvah of procreation.
We are obliged to say so, for if not, a young man would have to get married at the age of fifteen, seeing as the yetzer has greater domination at the age of fifteen than at the age of twenty. Moreover, even if we are informed of a teenager who transgresses the sin of masturbation excessively – we do not instruct him to marry before he is prepared in terms of Torah learning and responsibility for earning a livelihood.

The Status of the Mitzvah

The obligation to get married at the appropriate age is so severe that it falls under the category of a mitzvah in which Beit Din forces its fulfillment, as ruled in the Shulchan Aruch, "and under no circumstances should a man be older than twenty years without marrying a woman. And one who is older than twenty years and does not want to marry, Beit Din forces him to marry, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of procreation" (E.H. 1:3).

In the opinion of Rif (Rabbenu Alfasi) and Rambam ,the coercion is done by flogging, and according to the Ba’alei Tosefot and Rosh, rebuke and penalties are applied, i.e. not to trade or employ him, but he should not be beaten or ostracized for not marrying (S.A., E.H. 154:21). This was agreed upon as halakha by all the Rishonim. Nevertheless, Rivash (paragraph 15), R’ma, and many other poskim wrote that in practice, marriage should not be forced, so as not to increase quarrels.

The Possibility of Postponing Marriage until the Age of Twenty-four

According to the explanation in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a), several prominent Achronim wrote that when there is a need for a few more years of preparation before marriage, it can be postponed to after the age of twenty, but no later than the age of twenty-four (Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin 1, 57, according Rosh; Chida on Birkei Yosef E.H. 1, 9; Pitchei Teshuva, E.H. 1, 5; Rav Pe’alim Y.D., Section 2, 30).

This is the accepted teaching for our times, since our lives are more complex, and the preparations required for married life take longer. Furthermore, nowadays the mitzvah of military service delays the age of marriage for several years. But marriage should not be postponed beyond the age of twenty-four, because this was the final limit set by our Sages for postponing the tremendous mitzvah of marriage and procreation.
Nevertheless, a man who strives to marry by the age of twenty-four but fails to find an appropriate woman, is considered ah’nuce (beyond one’s control), and is not criticized that he should have married a woman who is not appropriate for him.

The Separation between Man and Woman

Also, the argument that women are exempt from the mitzvah of procreation and therefore can postpone pregnancy despite this being forbidden for a man is incorrect. First, a woman is also commanded to be fruitful and multiply - which I will write about, God-willing, in the future. Second, after the decree of Rabbeinu Gershom was accepted, forbidding a man to marry two wives, and forbidding him from divorcing his wife against her will, man became totally dependent on his wife to fulfill the mitzvah, and by agreeing to marry her husband, a woman consents to be a partner with him in fulfilling the obligation of the mitzvah (Chatam Sofer, E.H. 20).


The blatant accusations against the rabbis therefore, are slanderous. Anyone who studies the words of Chazal, the Rishonim and Achronim, will find that the rabbis faithfully fulfill their duty by teaching and instructing that the mitzvah of procreation requires marrying by the age of twenty, and in pressing situations, until the age of twenty-four, and that it is forbidden to prevent pregnancy because it is forbidden to postpone the time of the mitzvah’s fulfillment. Nevertheless, in the case of a special problem, there is an occasional heter (permission) for postponing the mitzvah, and in order to clarify the halakha, rabbis are asked.
Additionally, it is clear that the delaying of a brit milah from the morning until the afternoon cannot be compared to postponing the mitzvah of puru u’revuru. The mitzvah of brit milah is that it takes place on the eighth day, and performing it in the morning is only a hidur. If in the afternoon the brit will be more joyful, and more people will be able to attend, l’chatchila (from the outset) it is proper to perform it in the afternoon. However, the postponement of fulfilling the mitzvah of puru u’revuru is more like postponing brit milah to the ninth day, which is forbidden by the Torah. And in a certain respect, the circumstances of one who postpones fulfilling the mitzvah of puru u’revuru is even more severe, for the curse of our Sages "blasted be his bones" applies to him.


Ashreinu (how fortunate we are), that God chose us from all of the nations and gave us His Torah, and along with it, the mitzvah of raising a family, thanks to which it can be plainly seen how observant families merit establishing good and beautiful families, to the point where it is difficult for those who have not merited fulfilling the instructions of the Torah to contain their pain and jealousy.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.
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