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Writing Jewish Characters: Conception/Preventing Conception/Birth Control

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

It’s time for another post in the Writing Jewish Characters series!

Now that we’ve finished holidays and groups in Judaism, it’s time to move on to what I’m calling “life cycle events” – though some of them are more along the lines of life stages.

We’re going to start with babies… but before we can get there, we have to cover everything that comes first.

A lot of my other posts have gotten a bit long (or, you know… a lot long), so we’re trying something new – this is the first post in what I’m calling the Pregnancy/Birth series, and it will only cover conception and preventing conception – i.e. birth control.

So let’s get started!

Jewish law has a lot of rules about sex. This shouldn’t be too surprising – Jewish law has a lot of rules about everything.

But the very first commandment given to humans in the Bible is in Genesis chapter 1 verse 28, when God tells Adam and Eve to “Be fruitful and multiply.” And, uh… that’s a Godly command right there. So a lot of the arguments you hear for why Christians are anti-birth control are used by Orthodox Jews as well – being fruitful, spilling seed, etc. It’s definitely considered a good thing to have lots of children, and I’m sure everyone has heard of or seen Orthodox Jewish families with a ton of kids. (Think about Tevye’s five daughters in Fiddler on the Roof – which is not a lot of children compared to some families I know.)

But – and there is a but – even the most right-wing Orthodox rabbi will not only allow birth control at certain times, they will actually require it in specific situations – to the point that use of a sponge as contraception is mentioned in the Talmud (which is also the oldest reference anywhere to sponges used as contraception).

Birth control is allowed when it truly would not be in anyone’s best interest for a couple to have children. For instance, I have a friend who is Orthodox (who currently has six children and will likely end up with more) who used birth control for a year after her marriage, because she and her husband got married just before their senior year of college and being pregnant would have been a problem. Similarly, some Jews will use birth control intermittently to space out pregnancies, or if having another child would harm the family. A lot of the time, these uses are temporary – eventually the couple goes back to sex without birth control. But it’s accepted, even by the majority of Orthodox Rabbis, particularly if the parents have already “replaced themselves” by having a boy and a girl, and especially if they have three or more children.

Birth control is required if the life of the mother would be at risk from getting pregnant. I have said this before and I will say it again: almost any rule in Judaism can be broken in the interest of saving a life. And the mother is absolutely a life. Abortion (which will be covered in a future post in this series) is also legal for this reason, but contraception is actually preferable in Judaism – a fetus has some standing (though it is not considered fully human), but a pregnancy that never existed was never a human in the first place, so of course the mother is more important than something that was never more than mere potential.

In addition, if all of the children would have severe birth defects, such as Tay-Sachs disease, birth control is allowed in order to prevent this from happening. However, the Orthodox Jewish community actually tends to try to avoid it in other ways – such as mate selection. For diseases that can be tested for in the parents (such as Tay-Sachs, which is caused by a recessive gene), many Jews will get tested as teenagers and reveal their genetic status very early in a courtship period, before marriage is truly discussed. If both members of the couple are carriers, they will no longer view each other as compatible mates and will go on to date/marry other people. There is in fact an entire organization devoted to making sure these diseases die out by keeping carriers from marrying each other.

Interestingly, many Jewish brides will take birth control in the period leading up to their weddings. This has to do with rules about when it is allowable to have sex (which I will discuss in more detail when I get to menstruation) and making sure that a woman is in the right stage of her cycle on her wedding night, so that the couple can in fact have sex that night.

In Judaism, the command about spilling seed falls on the man, so birth control methods that don’t force him to break that commandment are preferred. In practice, this means hormonal methods are most often used by Orthodox Jews, such as the pill or the patch or even an IUD. 

Interestingly, the morning after pill would count as a hormonal method and is thus technically allowed, particularly as an embryo in the first 40 days after conception has the least standing of any potential life (and thus it is considered birth control rather than abortion, which is stickier). In the case of rape, most rabbis absolutely permit the use of the morning after pill or Plan B, but they tend to be less blasé about its use as a general form of birth control.

Historically, it likely would have been herbs or sponges rather than condoms, as using either herbs or sponges (which are inserted into the woman) still allows the man to, uh, not spill his seed. Abstinence has always been an option, but one which doesn’t fulfill Judaism’s other commandments and suggestions about sex

Breastfeeding has undoubtedly been used as birth control, though I admit I don’t know how much that was intentional and how much that was incidental – particularly since the requirements for it to be effective birth control can be a bit taxing.

If you’re writing a story about Jewish characters set before about 1950, I strongly suggest you look at this Planned Parenthood article about historical birth control for what might have been available/in use in your time period/location.

Reform and Conservative Jews are (unsurprisingly) much more liberal with their use of birth control. Yes, the commandments still exist, but even so… it’s a lot more about choice and the couple’s health – physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

Children are still considered a blessing, of course. But choosing to limit your family size is very normal – I’m not sure I can think of any Conservative or Reform Jews who I personally know who have more than five children, and one to three (or even zero) is more common. (As in, I can think of a few with four children and two with five, but dozens with three or fewer.)

Assuming birth control isn’t used, sex is strongly encouraged, at least within marriage. (It’s strongly discouraged outside of marriage – after all, one of the Ten Commandments is do not commit adultery). In Biblical times, sex often led to marriage (a rapist is required to marry his victim if she desires, which…is concerning and unfortunate and thankfully not really a thing nowadays). But sex before marriage is generally discouraged, particularly in Orthodox Judaism.

Within marriage, though, it is considered especially worthy to have sex on Shabbat despite the no work rules, because a) procreating is a commandment and b) creating intimacy in a relationship is considered important.

…Of course, this is all not even discussing the whole issue of menstruation (and post-birth) when a woman is considered unclean and her husband isn’t supposed to touch her for her period and seven days after the end of her period. I’ll definitely get into that more when I hit menstruation. Suffice it to say, most Orthodox Jews follow some variation on those limits, while most non-Orthodox Jews don’t.

Which, by the way, has been known to lead to a few effects – anecdotally, the timing of when Orthodox Jews start having sex again is the best time to conceive a boy, which is why their families tend to have more male children. I’ve seen conflicting scientific research on this, and even if there is a difference it’s small, but it does come up in discussion occasionally.

In addition, if a woman has a particularly short or fast menstrual cycle combined with a particularly long period, she may never have sex when she’s actually fertile, which can lead to issues of infertility. We’ll discuss the reasoning for that when we hit menstruation and some of the ways of dealing with it later in this series.

When it comes to writing, your characters’ use of conception depends on whether they are Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform – or one of the smaller groups.

Conservative and Reform Jews will straight up use contraception unless they want to get pregnant – the pill is downright likely and honestly condoms are too. 

Orthodox Jews will limit their use of birth control, but even then, they’ll use it in certain circumstances, particularly for the health of the mother. Hormonal is more likely than barrier methods (i.e. you’re more likely to find a woman on the pill than a man using condoms) but the latter may still be used if there’s good reason – no access to hormonal methods, a woman who cannot be on hormonal methods due to health reasons, STD prevention (though let’s be honest, you’ll be judged for having an STD if you got it from sex outside of marriage, and even if you didn’t… you’ll probably still be judged for it).

For historical writing, check out Planned Parenthood and figure out what would have been available – and which methods fit Judaism’s rules the best.

If you have a character who was raped, go ahead and use the morning after pill! But if they weren’t raped and your character is Orthodox, have them seriously think about whether they should use it before making a decision.

Make sure your Orthodox characters think about children when dating or thinking about getting married! The impacts can include choosing who to marry, use of birth control on/around the wedding night, and of course all the normal conversations most couples should have – such as how many children you want.

In conclusion, even among the most observant Jews, never discount contraception entirely! Preventing pregnancy and how to prevent pregnancy is an important part of the Jewish faith and is even discussed in several of our holy texts including the Torah, Talmud, and Midrash.

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