Few decisions in life can compare to that of having another child. In this regard, it is no secret that Jewish tradition encourages childbirth and observant Jews seem to follow suit.
The fascinating thing is that when examining the bare biblical law, a Jewish couple is able to fulfill the obligation to procreate by having one boy and one girl. This is seen by Torah as the minimum for it ensures the continuity of the human species as a whole. But a family of four is not what you imagine as the size of a typical Orthodox Jewish family, not by a long shot.
So what drives these parents to continue? A love for kids? The Holocaust? Some innate affection for Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna minivans?
The answer is both profound and fundamental. It reaches into the foundations of Judaism in its view of the human being in general and the Jew in particular. Like with most aspects of Jewish life, the writings of Maimonides are the go-to place for clarity and precision. Here is what he says about our subject:
“Although a person has fulfilled the Mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying, he is bound by a Rabbinic commandment not to refrain from being fruitful and multiplying as long as he is physically potent. For anyone who adds a soul to the Jewish people is considered as if he built an entire world.” (Rambam, Hilchot Ishut, 15:16)
An entire world. These words are famous, but what do they mean?
After a couple have already had children, the question of having another becomes one of value and necessity. Children take up huge amounts of parental resource and strength. So having another child means that this human being needs to be, well… worth it. Admittedly, this sounds terribly cool and calculated, but, let’s face it: it’s the truth.
As Maimonides puts it, the Jewish position is that the birth another child is the creation of an entire world: each potential child is endlessly valuable and infinitely necessary.
G-d created the physical world and the human being therein because He wants them as His ultimate place of belonging and revelation. This penetrates the deepest place in G-d and is His ultimate desire.
The spiritual world of the soul is not where G-d Himself can ultimately be found. He created the physical world because He wants to be here, with the physical living boy and girl, man and woman. We bring G-dliness to the physical by studying Torah and fulfilling Mitzvot. G-d’s final purpose of creation will be realized with the coming Moshiach. At this time, G-d will be fully revealed in this physical world.
Each individual life on earth plays an integral role in completing the grand purpose of creation. No one person can substitute for another. Our sages note that, as a result of this, the final redemption will only come when each soul descends to this earth. Each individual has a part on the purpose of creation that only he or she can fulfill. (Talmud Niddah 13b) This is why each life is an entire world, for the purpose of the entire world hinges on each and every individual person.
There’s more. Aside from what is achieved by a person in this world, the Torah tells us that G-d has an intrinsic and essential love to us that goes beyond what we do. His connection to us is about who we are. In other words, the value of each additional child is not just because of their purpose and necessity, but, ultimately, because of their infinite and intrinsic value in and of themselves.
This begins with mankind as a whole. The Torah emphasizes that each human being is created “in the image of G-d”. However this is understood, the idea is that each individual person has an element of G-dliness in the very fabric of their being. This is why human life is sacred and non-negotiable.
This idea is continued in the Torah in connection to the Jewish people. “Am Segulah” – “A treasured people” to G-d is the title given to the Israelites upon their emergence from slavery in Egypt (Devarim 14:2, 26:18). Rashi interprets the kind of “treasure” referred to here as “the kind of costly vessels and precious stones which kings store away.” The meaning in this is immense:
Treasures that are on display are a means with which to further the king’s honor and glory. This is a necessary part in the conduct of a king who must be held with distinction among his people. But then there are those treasures which are not on display. These are the items which touch the king on a deeply personal level. They are the treasures from which he derives content and pleasure privately, away from the public eye. They are not there to fulfill a certain function but are rather of intrinsic value; an end unto themselves. The Jewish people are G-d’s Segulah. To G-d, the Jew is not merely the means through which His deepest objective is fulfilled, the Jew is the objective in itself.
In a word, from a Jewish perspective, the birth of another child is the arrival at the be-all and end-all of everything – absolutely everything.
One of my favorite stories in this regard is that of a news reporter who conducted an interview with a particularly large Jewish family. At some point, the reporter asked the father to comment on what brought him and his wife to have so many children. In response, the father asked the reporter if he would have all the children sit around the dining room table. “Now,” said the father, “would you kindly point out which child here is extra?”
To be sure, there are certain considerations of health and wellbeing that, by Jewish law, take precedence over having another child. Jewish couples are mandated to be aware of their own situation and to act responsibly. These considerations are primarily that of physical and mental health, and the ability to properly care for children already born.
The time-honored custom has been for Jewish couples to consult with a rabbi who is both close to the family and erudite in Jewish law. Together, they will forge a wise and responsible way forward.
Having said this, however, the revolutionary stance of Judaism remains the same. While there may be many legitimate exceptions to the continuity of childbirth, these will always remain just that: exceptions, not the rule.
“For anyone who adds a soul to the Jewish people is considered as if he built an entire world.”