What Does “Be Fruitful and Multiply” Mean? By Eitan Cooper


A couple of years ago Prof. Alon Tal, a leading Israeli environmentalist, wrote a controversial book called “The Land is Full” in which he challenged the Biblical “be fruitful and multiply” by raising what in Israel is a taboo question: Israel is already one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Is this sustainable? What are the potentially destructive implications of our extraordinarily high birthrate?

The religious question aside, the book prompted a plethora of angry reactions and strong counterarguments. “We lost a third of our people in the Shoa, and it’s up to us to replace them”. “If we don’t have large families, the Arabs will overwhelm us demographically.” “Your claim was used by the British 80 years ago to justify the limiting of Aliya. It’s been refuted by experience – Technology and economics provide the solutions to dilemmas posed by the growing population.”

These arguments can’t be ignored, but I ask, would the changing current policies that encourage large families necessarily oppose Judaism? When in Genesis God first says “be fruitful and multiply”, it is pronounced as a blessing. According to Rashi, only the final time is the commandment given, to the children of Noah before they emerge from the Ark. They are told “And you, be fruitful and multiply, swarm on the earth, and multiply in it. This is actually the first Commandment in the Torah!

The Commandment states “Swarm on the earth and multiplies in it”.  What is it to swarm, why not “fill the earth and conquer it” as in the earlier blessing? Why repeat the word “multiply on it” (Urvu va)? In his commentary, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch cited a Midrash that celebrates the diverse cultures produced by different climates. He noted that the word “urvu” from the Hebrew root “resh” “bet” “heh” can also mean “diversify”. Our modern Hebrew word for culture “tarbut” is from the same root. God commands diversity. Genetically, socially, politically, healthy cultures are diverse and should celebrate difference. The Tower of Babylon tale that follows the Flood story can be understood as the proof text for this. People didn’t swarm and diversify as commanded, and the Tower was only a symptom of the problem: their homogeneity posed a threat to God’s intent for humankind.

The Mishna states that having two children is enough to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Most Sages also decided that the commandment applies to men only. At a glance, this seems silly if not downright misogynistic, but it also has its practical side. In another Midrash, a Sage’s wife, who had borne twins with difficulty, on learning from her husband that it doesn’t apply to women, takes a drug to make herself sterile (yes, there were birth control drugs in the Talmud). She can do it because it is he who is commanded, not her. In other words, the decision to have more children is hers.

“Celebrate difference in society, have two kids. Your wife will decide when and whether to have more” seems to me to be a good way to reconcile the profound and wonderful Commandment to the Children of Noah with addressing today’s need for environmental sustainability. Prof. Tal tells me he has on occasion been invited to speak at Haredi academic colleges, and to his surprise, he hears young religious women questioning whether to have so many children as their mothers did. While their concerns are related more to the dynamics and economics of child-rearing than to environmental issues, it seems most likely that in the end, the answer to Prof. Tal’s controversial question will come from them.

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