Daphne and daughters

Double Booked: If it’s Good Enough for the Matriarchs



In a recent conversation about raising families, I recounted the numerous times that I have been asked, often in an accusatory tone, why I have “only” two children. I guess because I am an Orthodox woman, people think this is an area into which they are allowed to pry. It is a question that I find incredibly personal, and deeply offensive – especially when it is followed with an admonishment that I am falling down on my religious duties by not abiding by the Biblical imperative “to be fruitful and multiply.” Yet one has to look no further than the Four Matriarchs – who no doubt did not have access to any modern birth control techniques – to see that the notion of large families (certainly not from one mother) is not always reflected in our history, even before hormone-based pills, patches or IUDs.  Indeed, our Scripture describes to us that Sarah struggled with infertility until the age of 90, when she birthed Isaac. Rebecca had a pair of twin boys, Esau and Jacob – and then no more. Leah, the most fecund, had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and a daughter, Dinah.   And finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph, and then after a number of years, had Benjamin, whose birth caused her death.

Beyond informing us of the number and names of children of various Biblical personalities, the Bible does not go into any detail about other related issues – miscarriage, still birth, babies who died shortly after birth, or even the number of infants and children who died from disease and malnourishment. So why was there a dearth of very large families? Did the matriarchs exercise other forms of birth control? The Bible doesn’t say, but of course, anything is possible.  What is clear is that though there was angst on the part of the matriarchs who wanted to plan out their families, there is no judgment about them having “only” one or two or seven children. None of us questions whether or not our ancestral mothers fulfilled their duty to “be fruitful and multiply.” (A side note:  Maimonides clarifies that this commandment applies only to men because a person cannot be commanded to do something that would jeopardize his/her life.)  The fact is that in so many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox circles, you will find countless Sarahs, Rebeccas, Rachels and Leahs – there can be no doubt that none of these women could be considered disappointments.

I’m not advocating for people to model their own families after those in the Bible; polygamy and concubines, among other Biblical traditions, are dated to say the least. I am suggesting that those who use religion as a basis to critique families that are smaller for any reason should look no further than the Bible as a rebuke to their argument.

Daphne Price is the development director of the RAC. Daphne is the lead advisor on use of Jewish text and tradition in the RAC’s social justice work. In her spare time Daphne sits on the board of the Melvin J Berman Hebrew Academy (where her children go to school) and is the Food Editor on www.challahcrumbs.com. You can also find her training for marathons throughout the year.

Comments are an important part of the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments section! This blog is part of a special RACBlog series, “Double Booked: A Conversation about Working Families in the 21st Century,” dealing with the many issues that affect working families, and featuring everything from personal stories to policy analysis. Visit the Double Booked portal to read more posts, or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #doublebooked.

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Daphne Price

About Daphne Price

Daphne Price is the RAC's Development Director.

6 Responses to “Double Booked: If it’s Good Enough for the Matriarchs”

  1. Sarina Lemkus Kopinsky Reply September 23, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    Adah and Tzillah (Genesis 4:19) are a fascinating pair of co-wives to Lemech. One commentary suggests that the family plan was for one wife to bear children while the other would remain attractive, using contraceptives known in those days. However both women landed up having two children.

  2. Excellent thoughts about the matriarchs and family size! Very interesting food for thought.

    It always pains me to hear about these prying questions. I’ve been asked about my family planning by people in line at Target, and once at Home Depot, and even by the receptionist at my OB-GYN’s office!

    I hope that people are becoming more aware of and sensitive to the challenges of infertility, and also the importance of people knowing their limits with family size!

  3. I think asking a woman about her choice in the number of children she has, is missing the problem. As you say, in many cases it is not a choice! There are so many medical factors that can not be seen by looking at a woman and can be so painful to the mother. This is no one’s business and more, can be a very hurtful question. Thank you for speaking about this, it needs to be a bigger conversation. I also believe people should not be ashamed to speak about infertility problems, there is no shame, but only if they want to.

  4. Also, when you have as great of kids as Daphne dose you dont need to compare them to anyone else.

  5. As always, Ms. Price brings wit, intelligence and a solid basis in Jewish texts to her blog post. Thanks for sharing your perspective with us.

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  1. Double Booked: If It’s Good Enough for the Matriarchs | The Torch - My Jewish Learning - March 24, 2014

    […] This post originally appeared on the Religious Action Center’s blog and has been reprinted here with permission. […]

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