Although I am thoroughly sleep-deprived from a three week old baby that has been eating nearly every hour round the clock (I didn't know that the circles under my eyes got this dark), I wanted to take a moment to discuss the topic of Orthodox Jews and birth control, since regular readers of this blog know that I have two young daughters in addition to my new baby boy.
Most people assume that we religious Jews have such large families because birth control is prohibited and we're left with no other choice, but I have news for you – we do this to ourselves. On purpose. (Oy, my low grade headache is coming back, and I think I hear the baby starting to stir!)
Birth control is not used carte-blanche, but there is definitely an idea of spacing out children in order to allow the mother to recover from one kid to the next. (Not all families necessarily decide to do this, but the concept exists for those that choose to). And although you've seen or at least heard of very large Orthodox families, Jewish law doesn't require us to have "as many children as God gives us". The Torah, in the book of Bereishis (Genesis) instructs us to "be fruitful and multiply," but that commandment can minimally be fulfilled by having just one girl and one boy. (It should be noted, however, that if a couple keeps trying but is unable to have both a girl and a boy, most Jewish authorities, to my knowledge, would agree that the couple can stop having kids once they've reached the limit of what they can handle.)
For more specific details as to the particulars of these laws, speak to your LOR (local Orthodox rabbi), but now onto the bigger question: If we don't have to have so many kids, why do we do it? Please note that I'm about to answer this question despite the fact that I was woken up last night by all three kids (one bad dream, one trip to the bathroom, and of course Baby No No, who gets hungry every hour).
We did not, in fact, name our son "Baby No No", but my older daughter, who's five, made up a song called "Baby No No" which consists of the words "Baby No No" and "I love you" repeated over and over again to the tune of "Frère Jacques". When I asked her what it means, she explained that she just thinks that Baby No No sounds cute. My theory is that she calls her brother Baby No No because every time she and her sister get too close to him (which is basically every time they're all in the same zip code) they hear me say, "No, no, move back, you're going to hurt the baby!"
Anyway, as I was saying, you'll have to remember that I'm answering this question in a state of mild duress, but I think that the most basic answer is that we believe in the intrinsic holiness of life. It's perhaps one of the holiest things in this world. It's what the world was created for – to be lived in. So we go on and create as many good inhabitants as we can, to fill it up.
Also, although having a large number of children might not make for the most relaxing or party-filled life, we find it rewarding. It says in the Talmud, "l'fum tzara agra" - "according to the struggle is the reward," and boy are kids a struggle. I never knew frustration, exasperation, or exhaus-tation like I have since I started having children. Then again, the nachas that a child can give her parent is unmatched to any other joy in this world.
Finally, I wanted to point out that not all Orthodox families have children by the dozen. In our circles, most people have four to five, sometimes six kids. (I'm quite sure that Brangelina will end up having more than us when all is said and done.) But in the meantime, Baby No No is ready for the next feeding!