Human overpopulation, as modern as it sounds, is not a new concept. The ancient Egyptian monarch, Pharaoh, was concerned about Egypt’s overpopulation of Jews and its detrimental effect on the regional stability. Pharaoh’s attempt at suppressing the Jewish birthrate leads us the topic of this week’s article. How important is the mitzva, the first given to humankind – to procreate? And what is the Jewish approach to family planning strategies? Fetuses will also be discussed in this week’s article – what is a fetus’ and premature baby’s halachic status? What is the halachic approach to prolonging life of a severely deformed fetus, and what happens to a miscarried pregnancy – does the soul merit eternal life and will his parents meet him at Techiyas Hameisim (resurrection of the dead)? Is it permissible to desecrate Shabbos to save the life of an unborn or premature baby? Of this and more in the coming article.
The Hebrew Midwives
In this week’s parashah, we find Pharaoh giving the Jewish midwives their murderous marching orders: “When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birth stool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live” (Shemos 1:16).
The Maharshal (Sanhedrin 57b) following the Gemara, explains that a ben Noach (non-Jew) who kills a fetus is punishable by death, whereas a Jew who does so, is not. Therefore, Pharaoh handed this mission to the Jewish midwives, hoping to escape punishment himself. The Baal Hahfla’a (Panim Yafos, Shemos 1:15) adds that while a Jew who kills a fetus can escape legal prosecution in a Jewish court of law, he is not exempted in the heavenly tribunal. The Zohar expounds (Shemos 3b) on the gravity of the sin of taking an unborn child’s life, even by a Jew. Hence, the passuk’s wording “The midwives, however, feared G-d” (Shemos 1:17) is explained – they feared Heavenly law, and therefore endangered their life by disobeying Pharaoh.
The Zohar (Shemos 3b) expounds on the merits the nascent nation had to be redeemed. One that he mentions is that they made every effort to prolong their born and unborn children’s lives, despite the Egyptians’ determination to chase down and kill every child. Although they could have fallen into numbing apathy towards their offspring in face of the horrifying reality, they did not succumb and continued conceiving and bearing children regardless of their outcome. In this merit, they were redeemed.
This week’s article will offer a general overview of the various halachic topics related to saving and prolonging life of fetuses and premature babies, some of which may be labeled by the medical profession as “unviable”. It is important to note that as always, for practical guidance, only a competent Orthodox rabbi should be approached.
Pharaoh looked on in horror as the Hebrews from the land of Canaan multiplied rapidly. He schemed of ways to shrink their demographic, or at least halt their rapid increase in numbers. Some of his methods were slave labor and killing of male children. His attempts were, thankfully, unsuccessful and the Jewish people multiplied and grew.
“Family planning” is a recycled term referring to Pharaoh’s ancient concept – stunting population growth for ulterior motives. Science claims that human needs exceed Earth’s carrying capacity; couples blame budgeting issues. Both fail to take in account the Sustainer of the world, Who brings every person into the world along with his sustenance. The Gemara (Niddah 31b) writes “When a male comes into the world, his loaf of bread (his sustenance), comes into his possession”. Every person comes to the world along with his financial needs and with every additional child, the family is granted additional income with which to feed and educate him.
The first mitzva given to mankind was the mitzva to procreate “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Bereshis 1:28). The Gemara (Yevamos 63b) tells us “Rabbi Asi said: The Mashiach will not come until all the souls that are destined to enter physical bodies will have done so. As it is stated: ‘For the spirit that enwraps itself is from Me, and the souls that I have made’ (Yeshayahu 57:16). It is taught in a Baraita that Rabbi Eliezer says: ‘Anyone who does not engage in the mitzva to be fruitful and multiply is considered as though he sheds blood, as it is stated: ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed’ (Bereshis 9:6), and it is written immediately afterward: ‘And you, be fruitful and multiply’ (Bereshis 9:7)”. This indicates that there are many souls that need to come into the world and until they do, the Mashiach cannot come – i.e. the world’s purpose will not be realized. Therefore, one who refrains from procreation is ultimately delaying the Mashiach’s arrival and as such – bears the responsibility for all the suffering of our exile. The Gemara likens this to murder and “also diminishes the Divine Image” (ibid). Hashem created the world with a purpose and goal – every person should procreate and bring about his ultimate purpose. One who refrains from procreation endangers himself as he is tinkering with the G-dly blueprint for the world.
The Abarbanel (Bereshis 380) explains that Er, Yehuda’s son, who sinfully took action to prevent his wife’s pregnancy, was interfering with G-d’s plan to multiply Yaakov’s offspring. He opposed Hashem’s plan and therefore died.
Even a child who didn’t merit being born and living in the world is important and is part of G-d’s plan for the world. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Yore Deah, Volume III, 138) discusses the status of those souls who died before birth – if they will rise with Techiyas Hameisim and merit eternal life or not. He quotes a debate in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 110b) from when one earns eternal life: five different opinions are mentioned, but halacha follows Ravina who rules that a soul merits eternal life starting from the moment of conception. Even if the soul never makes it into the world, even if it was stillborn – the soul merits eternal life and will rise to meet its parents at Techiyas Hameisim. This is learned from a pasuk quoted in the Gemara (Kesubos 111a): “May Your dead live, My corpses shall rise…” (Yeshayahu 26:19). The double reference to the dead indicates that both those who lived and died, and those dead who never lived at all, will eventually rise.
Many times, parents of failed pregnancies feel that their efforts, pain and suffering were futile if they have no child to show at the end. Here we learn that indeed, while currently there is no baby to raise and nurture, the child – a holy soul whose goal for life in this world was realized and no longer needs a physical body – is certainly alive, and grateful to his parents who enabled him to reach his place in Gan Eden.
Parents of two children who died in infancy due to genetic disorders, presented a question to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Even Haezer volume I, chapter 62): The doctors had informed them that all their subsequent children would likely carry this genetic mutation, and they may never have healthy children. Therefore, the parents asked for a ruling regarding use of contraceptives. Rav Moshe ruled that any contraceptive that would kill the sperm was forbidden because even a child who is born ill and dies in early childhood will merit eternal life, and it is for his benefit to come into the world. This is in addition to the hastening of the Mashiach with every child. However, a contraceptive that prevents conception may be permitted for up to 4 years, when compounded with the horrible pain of watching a child pass away in infancy. Refusing contraceptives, though will be a great merit for them.
After 4 years, Rav Moshe instructed they try again to fulfill the pasuk “In the morning, sow your seed, and in the evening, do not withhold your hand…” (Koheles 11:6) in hope that time might heal them, or a cure would be discovered.
Obviously, this ruling is only mentioned for educational purposes since every case is different, especially with current remarkable genetic breakthroughs.
Does saving a fetus or premature baby permit desecration of Shabbos? While there is almost no scenario where refraining from saving a fetus would not endanger the mother, this topic is mentioned in the Mishna Brura (330:7) along with its interesting halachic debate.
This subject is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch at all. The Mishna Brura mentions the Bahag’s opinion permitting it, alongside quoting the Ramban’s mention of two contradicting opinions, one of which forbids it.
The difference in opinion is rooted in several inferences mentioned in the Gemara, permitting desecration of Shabbos to save a life. One of the opinions is that of Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia: “It is stated: ‘And the children of Israel shall keep the Shabbos, to observe Shabbos’ (Shemos 31:16). The Torah said: Desecrate one Shabbos on his behalf so he will observe many Shabbasos” (Yoma 85b). According to this opinion the life of a fetus also falls in the category of one who will keep many Shabbasos. However, Shmuel in the Gemara learns it from a pasuk “And he shall live with them” (Vayikra 18:5) – and not that one should die with them. Saving a fetus, since not independently alive, cannot be deduced from this pasuk.
The Ramban learned that since l’halacha, even a far possibility of saving a life permits Shabbos desecration under Shmuel’s ruling, therefore only his ruling is accepted, and the other opinions are not accepted l’halacha.
The Bahag, however, rules that l’halacha all options are accepted, and therefore a fetus is included in the permit to desecrate the Shabbos in order to save it. His opinion is accepted l’halacha in the Mishana Brura. This ruling is mentioned accordingly in the Minchas Yitzchak and Shevet Halevi as well as other contemporary poskim.
A further ramification of this discussion permits desecrating Shabbos to save a Jew from spiritual danger (shmad). This opinion was accepted l’halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chayim 306:14).
The Shulchan Aruch writes (Orech Chayim 330:7) that a baby born after 6+ or 8+ month of gestation is fully alive and Shabbos is desecrated when necessary to save his life. A baby born after 7+ months of gestation — if his hair and fingernails are complete – saving his life overrides the Shabbos, and if not – not.
Chazal knew that in their time there were two kinds of babies – those whose pregnancy requires 7 months (even part of the seventh month) and those who require the full 9 months. (Of those who are born early, Chazal indicate that they are righteous individuals.) Of those born in their eighth month, a small percentage of them should have been born in the seventh but they stayed a little longer and could survive but the regular eight month old baby could not survive.
The Shulchan Aruch rules that Shabbos may be desecrated to save a baby born in the seventh or ninth month, if necessary. However, a baby born in the eighth month with unfinished nails and hair cannot be considered viable, and Shabbos may not be desecrated to save him.
However, the Chazon Ish (Yore Deah, 155:4) writes that some mistakenly believe that a baby born after 7+ month of gestation is inviable and don’t take steps to save him. This is a grave mistake, and everything must be done to save such babies, even actions that cause desecration of Shabbos, since nature has changed nowadays and even children born in the eighth month can go on to live.
Contemporary poskim (Minchas Shlomo 86; Shevet Halevi volume III 141) write that since modern medicine has found a way to save even smaller babies through the use of incubators, Shabbos is desecrated for every baby regardless of age, and everything must be done to save all.
Every Life — A World
In Koheles we read: “In the morning, sow your seed, and in the evening, do not withhold your hand, for you know not which will succeed” (11:6). Rashi explains “We find in the case of Boaz [Ivtzan]: ‘And thirty daughters he sent abroad, and thirty daughters he brought in for his sons,’ and they all died in his lifetime (Bava Basra 91a), but in his old age, he begot Oved, the grandfather of Dovid Hamelech, who survived him.” Had Boaz refrained from marrying Ruth, the House of David and the Mashiach would not have been born.
We read in Ma’ase Tzadikim, (Shivchei Hachida, alef) that in 5464 the Chida was born prematurely, in the seventh month. He was very small and did not breath, and everyone was sure he was dead. He was placed on the ground and covered with a vessel, waiting for burial, when his grandmother, a wise, righteous woman, entered the room. She lifted him up, swaddled him and warmed him and resuscitated him until he was warm and began breathing on his own. With her actions she gave the Jewish nations one of its giants, with his 72 momentous Torah works.
Ma’ase Ish (volume I, chapter 1) recounts that the Chazon Ish’s mother was advised not to have any children. Her father, Rabbi Shaul Katzenlbogen, suggested his daughter and son-in-law divorce, but his daughter refused, insisting that her mission was to bring children into the world. Indeed, she merited mothering the 9 children of the royal Karelitz family. (This obviously cannot serve as a general directive to ignore doctor’s orders.)
The Steipler’s father was widowed at 60, and didn’t think of remarrying. However, the Horonsteipler Rebbe encouraged him to remarry. It was then that his wife gave birth to the Torah giant of recent times, the Steipler, who gave the world the entire Beni Brak Torah dynasty.
Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein (Shiuri Torah L’rofim, volume 4, p. 218) told of a woman who had 9 children and didn’t want to have any more because it was difficult for her. She came to Rav Shach to ask for his opinion. Rav Shach told her that his parents had 10 children and when his mother was pregnant with him the doctors recommended she abort the pregnancy. His mother ignored the doctor’s instruction and gave birth to him. In WWII, all first 8 children were murdered, and only he and his sister, numbers 9 and 10 in the family, survived.
Rabbi Zilberstein added another story of a family in Bnei Brak with 7 children, who suffered a terrible car accident. The mother and 6 older children were killed in the accident, and only the baby survived the crash. At the funeral, the Shevet Halevi eulogized them, and told that during the baby’s pregnancy, the mother contracted measles. The doctor warned her that the fetus would likely be deformed and encouraged her to abort the pregnancy. The Shevet Halevi forbade her to do so, and the mother accepted his orders. In that merit, this one child, a healthy boy, remained.
Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein explains that one of the evil practices of the Generation of the Flood was that they would marry two wives – one to whom they would give a sterilizing potent so as to retain her beauty, and the other for the purpose of bearing children. Tzila was Lemech’s wife who was supposed to remain childless, but the potion didn’t work, and she bore Tuval Kayin and Na’ama. Rashi (Bereshis 4:20) explains that Na’ama, the child born “by mistake” ended up Noach’s wife, from whom all humankind descended.
From the first moment of conception, the zygote is home to a holy soul that will merit eternal life in the next world and arise with the resurrection of the dead. Even a miscarried pregnancy or a child that only lived briefly plays a part in G-d’s creation and goal of bringing the world to the Mashiach. Every effort must be made to save a pregnancy and the child, and one can never know what great soul was saved.
Desecrating Shabbos is permitted for every fetus, and as nature has changed today, everything must be done to prolong life even of an extremely premature baby.