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"Peru u-Revu" and "Shevet" (2)

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
13.12.1999

Summarized by Yitzchak Bart

Translated by David Silverberg

 

     In this shiur we will deal with the obligation to marry and have children even beyond the specific parameters of the mitzva of "peru u-rvu" and "shevet," as well as the question of to whom these mitzvot apply.

 

The Basis of the Halakha

 

     Commenting on the statement of the mishna, "One should not abstain from procreation unless he has children," the Gemara (Yevamot 61b) writes that there is also a mitzva to marry, independent of the requirement to reproduce.  The Gemara derives this obligation from the verse in Parashat Bereishit (2:18), "It is not good for man to be alone."  The Gemara in Kiddushin notes an additional reason for this mitzva, that without a wife a man is likely to entertain sinful thoughts.  Later, the Gemara (62b) cites the following comment of Rabbi Yehoshua:

 

"If one married a woman in his youth – he should marry a woman in his old age.  If he had children in his youth – he should have children in his older years, as it says, 'In the morning sow your seeds, and in the evening do not lay your hands down to rest."

 

What is the basis of this obligation, to marry and have children even beyond the strict requirement of peru u-rvu?  At first glance, we could explain this halakha as an extension of the mitzva of "shevet," which we derive from a verse in Yeshayahu (45:18), "He did not create it [the world] a waste, but formed it for habitation."  Let us consider, however, the Gemara's extrapolation of this halakha from the verse in Sefer Kohellet (11:6): "In the morning sow your seeds, and in the evening do not lay your hands down to rest."  This verse implies that one should beget more children because if some of them do not behave properly, he will have others who do follow the proper path, as the verse concludes, "for you do not know which is going to succeed, the one or the other, or if both are equally good."

 

     The Gemara later (Yevamot 62b) brings a comment of Rabbi Akiva who employs this same verse to teach a similar halakha only in a different area: "One who studies Torah in his youth – should study Torah in his older years, as it says, 'In the morning sow your seeds, and in the evening do not let your hand rest'."  A beraita in Avot De-Rabbi Natan derives from this verse that one should give charity both in the morning and in the evening (lest the poor man to whom he gave in the morning is a charlatan).

 

     All these passages appear very difficult to understand.  The obligation to study and teach does not serve merely as an "insurance card," lest it turn out that in the past one studied or taught improperly; it constitutes an independent obligation!  Clearly, the same can be said of the obligation to give charity, as well.

 

     Commenting on the Gemara in Yevamot, the Rif (19b) writes that although, as the Gemara observes, the mishna does not follow the view of Rabbi Yehoshua, halakha nevertheless accepts his position.  One must, therefore, continue begetting children even after he has fulfilled the mitzva of procreation.  The Rif adds that this obligation, to have children beyond the one son and daughter required to fulfill the obligation of periya ve-rivya, is rabbinic in origin; as far as Torah law is concerned, no such obligation exists.

 

     The Rambam follows this approach, as well:

 

"Even though a person has fulfilled the mitzva of periya ve-rivya, he is nevertheless commanded by force of rabbinic enactment not to refrain from procreation so long as he has the strength, for whoever adds a single life is considered as having built an entire world." (Hilkhot Ishut 15:16)

 

These comments of the Rif and Rambam require explanation.  Generally, when Torah law requires a certain quantity for the fulfillment of a given mitzva, and Chazal add a more stringent amount, the binding quantity is that established by Chazal.  In this context, however, both the Rif and the Rambam imply that Chazal did not introduce a more stringent requirement, but rather made a suggestion, they recommended that one have more children than required by Torah law.  A similar implication arises from the comments of the Ba'al Ha-ma'or (on the Rif, ibid.).  The Ba'al Ha-ma'or suggests that the question of the origin of this obligation will yield a practical ramification in a case of a remarried widower whose new wife has not born him children after ten years of marriage.  If the obligation to beget more children is de-rabbanan, then the man would not, the Ba'al Ha-maor claims, have to marry another woman to have more children.  The Ba'al Ha-ma'or clearly indicates that the definition of this mitzva differs if we view it as de-rabbanan than if it were a Torah obligation.  Amidst his discussion, the Ba'al Ha-ma'or writes, "Rabbi Yehoshua stated [his halakha] only as proper conduct ('minhag derekh eretz')."  The Ramban, in his Milchamot Hashem, explains the Rif similarly and adds a further ramification of the origin of this halakha: whether or not Bet-Din would coerce one to continue having children.  Irrespective of this question, the Ramban writes, there exists a real obligation for a person to marry, which would mean that, for example, one may sell a Sefer Torah if he needs the money for marriage, even if he has already fulfilled the mitzva of periya ve-rivya.  Clearly, he views the obligation to marry as a strict obligation.  By contrast, he describes the obligation to have children beyond the minimum requirement according to the Rif as "a mitzva de-rabbanan that is not an enactment, but rather the proper way of conducting one's life ['ke-ein yishuv derekh eretz']." 

     As for the halakha, the Shulchan Arukh writes (E.H. 1:5), "Once a person has a male and a female, he has fulfilled the mitzva of periya ve-rivya."  Three seifim later, he adds, "Although one has fulfilled the mitzva of periya ve-rivya, it is forbidden to remain without a wife."  The Shulchan Arukh thus appears to subscribe to the Ramban's distinction: the prohibition against remaining unmarried applies according to strict halakha, whereas no strict obligation requires begetting more children.

 

     So far we have seen that the obligation to marry constitutes part of the mitzva of pirya ve-rivya, while at the same time it possesses an independent status, as well.  We looked at the rulings of the Rif and Rambam in this regard, as well as that of the Shulchan Arukh, by which no strict requirement to have additional children applies, but there exists an obligation to marry even after fulfilling the mitzva of pirya ve-rivya, even not for the purposes of procreation.

 

To Whom Does the Obligation Apply?

 

     The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Ishut 15:2):

 

"Men are commanded with regard to pirya ve-rivya, but not women.  When does a man become obligated in this mitzva?  From the age of seventeen.  Once twenty years have passed and he has not married, he has violated and neglected a mitzvat asei."

 

This ruling of the Rambam requires explanation.  Where in halakha do we ever find a mitzva in which a person becomes obligated only at a certain age?  Does not a person become obligated with regard to all mitzvot at age thirteen?  We cite here three possible explanations for this ruling.

 

     The Chelkat Mechokek (E.H. 1:10) writes that this obligation takes effect only when one reaches age seventeen because a person has an obligation to study Torah before marrying; consequently, the obligation to marry is delayed to a later age.

     We might also suggest that the delay results from the simple fact that one does not yet have the ability to fulfill the mitzva earlier, or the price is too high to pay.  It is commonly understood that one must pay as much as one-fifth of his possessions in order to fulfill a mitzva asei.  Perhaps marrying at the age of thirteen carries with it a price higher than one-fifth of one's property, and halakha therefore does not require one to marry immediately upon his becoming a bar-mitzva.

 

     Similarly, one might argue that the delay depends on the individual person.  A person must fulfill the mitzva of pirya ve-rivya at some point in his lifetime, thus allowing for some flexibility with regard to this mitzva, unlike other mitzvot, in which a person is obligated at every moment.

 

     Let us now try to understand why the age of twenty is specified as the deadline, so-to-speak, for the fulfillment of this mitzva.  The Rambam implies that the obligation to marry early is due to the obligation itself, not merely to the general value of zealous performance of mitzvot ("zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot").  The Rambam writes explicitly that one who does not marry until age twenty has neglected a mitzva asei.  The Talmudic source of this ruling appears in Masekhet Kiddushin (29b):

 

"Rav Huna said: One who reaches the age of twenty and has not married, he lives all his days in sin.  Rava said… until twenty years the Almighty sits in anticipation waiting for a person to marry.  Once he reaches [age] twenty and has not married, He says: May his bones blow up!"

 

However, Rav Huna here clearly refers to the issue of hirhurei aveira, not the obligation of pirya ve-rivya.  How, then, did the Rambam extract from this Gemara that age twenty marks the deadline for the fulfillment of this mitzva?

 

     Furthermore, the Rambam there adds that someone occupied in Torah who fears that marriage will force him to disrupt his studies to make a living may delay marriage, since "someone occupied in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva" ("oseik be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva").  The question then arises, until what age is one permitted to delay marriage out of concern for his Torah learning?  The Bet Shemuel writes that the Rambam applied no limit to this provision, and a person in this situation may therefore delay marriage as long as he wishes.  A person entirely engrossed in Torah study, such as Ben-Azai, who, the Gemara records, never married because of his intensive involvement in learning, clearly has no obligation marry (Rambam, Hilkhot Ishut 15:3).  But moreover, a regular student who fears the effects of the responsibilities of marriage upon his studies may likewise delay marriage indefinitely.

 

     A closer reading of the Rambam, however, implies otherwise.  The Rambam does not permit the student to neglect the performance of this mitzva entirely ("le-hibatel"), but rather allows him "le-hit'acher" – to delay fulfilling this obligation.  Seemingly, then, he imposes some limit on this provision, which allows for merely delaying the mitzva, rather than offering an exemption. 

 

     A further difficulty in the Rambam's comments involves his application of the halakhic principle, "oseik be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva" to this context.  We generally assume that the exemption granted to an "oseik be-mitzva" does not apply to one studying Torah.  How, then, does the Rambam permit a student to delay the mitzva of procreation on the basis of "oseik be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva"?

 

     One could, perhaps, argue that although involvement in Torah study does not exempt one from a conflicting mitzva, it can allow delaying that mitzva, such as in this instance, when one delays marriage to enable him to continue studying.  The basis for such a distinction would be the fact that learning must be geared towards performance ("al menat la'asot").  Therefore, if proper concentration on one's studies merely delays, rather than cancels, the fulfillment of the mitzva, then we do not consider this a situation of "learning not for the sake of performing."

 

     We will try to offer a different solution, by suggesting another criterion.  The Rambam writes in Hilkhot Talmud Torah (1:3), "One whose father did not teach him Torah – he must teach himself… Everyone among Yisrael is obligated in Torah study."  We see here a distinction between "learning" and "teaching oneself."  The Ba'al Ha-tanya (Kuntrus Talmud Torah in the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav) discusses two dimensions in the fulfillment of the mitzva of Torah study:

1.  Torah study for the purpose of molding the individual into a person of values, with a considerable amount of Torah knowledge and Torah values.

2.  The mitzva of Torah learning as an independent mitzva.

 

The first mitzva is, "You shall study them and ensure to perform them."  Just as one is obligated to build his child's spiritual world, so must he build his own.  This is "teaching oneself."  But additionally, a person bears an independent obligation to learn, a mitzva no different from any other.  It requires the act of Torah study, rather than the general goal of molding a spiritual character.

 

     In light of this distinction, we might suggest that the time limit set for the fulfillment of the mitzva of procreation relates to the molding of one's spiritual character.  True, the basic mitzva of Torah study does not exempt one from other mitzvot.  But the other dimension, the obligation to "teach oneself Torah," to fashion one's spiritual being, does, indeed, lend itself to the principle of "oseik be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva."  Therefore, one may delay fulfilling the mitzva of peru u-revu in order to concentrate on the development of his spiritual character.

 

     Clearly, nowadays the process of spiritual development ends later than it did in the past, when men would begin working already during their teen years.

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