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Rabbi Yoseph Karo on the Essential Public Purpose of Marriage

December 21st, 2010

Dr. J has often discussed the essential public purpose of marriage.  Many of our commenters have dismissed her account of that purpose because it emphasizes the procreative aspect of marriage as the public purpose.  They seem to think that this purpose was made up in order to exclude certain non-favored groups from marriage.

Well, here’s a definition of marriage that has been with us since time immemorial, encoded in the Yoseph Karo’s immortal Shulchan Aruch, the basic code of Jewish Law.  It’s the very first paragraph in the very first chapter in the volume containing the laws of marriage (emphasis added.  The Rem”a, by the way, is a slightly later gloss added by a different author, Rabbi Moshe Isserles).

1. Every man is obligated to marry a women in order to be fruitful and to multiply and anyone who doesn’t engage in being fruitful and multiplying is as if he spills blood, and lessens the appearance, and causes the divine presence to depart from Israel. Rem”a: He who does not marry is not allowed to make a blessing or to engage in Torah etc. and he is not called a man, and when he marries a woman his sins are cast into doubt, as it is said: “One who has found a wife has found goodness and obtains favor in the eyes of God.” (Prv. 18:22)

While this purpose somewhat differs from Dr. J’s purpose in detail (and somewhat in practice as well), I think the case that marriage is about procreation (and always has been) is well nigh overwhelming.

Lest you think the sentence, “anyone who doesn’t engage in being fruitful and multiplying is as if he spills blood” is wholly without basis, I quote from a recent article about our nation’s second least fruitful city:  Seattle.  “There’s something missing from many Seattle neighborhoods: the sound of children’s laughter.” The same thing would likely be missing following a general massacre.  Surely, Jewish Law does not literally consider a childless person a murderer.  Nevertheless, it is essential to note that childlessness and murder share some practical results.  (Seattle is the second least fruitful city.  Any guesses as to the very least fruitful?  No points for correct guesses.  That one was just too easy).

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  1. December 21st, 2010 at 16:03 | #1

    So, Jewish law must be really pleased with people who donate their sperm and have twenty or thirty children, then? And Jewish law is pleased with incestuous couples, and adulterous couples?

    Clearly, the idea is that procreation is supposed to be reserved for marriage, marriage approves and allows the couple to procreate together, and couples that are not allowed to procreate are not allowed to marry.

    Perhaps this is so obvious that you don’t realize when you omit it, but since we are trying to make airtight logical arguments here, we shouldn’t omit it. There are too many people who think it is OK to procreate outside of marriage, using donor gametes, and who think that it would be OK if marriages were prohibited from procreating together. We need to protect the right of every marriage to procreate with the couple’s own genes, to be fruitful together, not just be fruitful however they want to.

  2. Ari
    December 21st, 2010 at 16:07 | #2

    I quoted Even ha Ezer 1:1. You raise complex questions. They are best answered by in-depth study. And no, Judaism does not approve of procreation no matter how it’s done.

    For instance, a child born of an adulterous or incestuous union is called a “mamzer” and disallowed from marrying in almost all circumstances.

    The post here was about the purpose of marriage. Not about the limits of the institution.

  3. Mark
    December 21st, 2010 at 16:07 | #3

    Yes, I especially this line:
    “A man may marry a number of women provided that he has the means to sustain them and what we find is that the sages gave worthy suggestion that a man marry no more than four women so that he may fulfill his sexual obligation once a month.”

    Kinda shoots the whole “one man-one woman” thing, now doesn’t it?

  4. Ari
  5. Mark
    December 21st, 2010 at 16:40 | #5

    Air, so your Wikipedia article is in opposition to the “definition of marriage that has been with us since time immemorial, “? Or are you picking and choosing which lines to accept as gospel?

  6. Sean
    December 21st, 2010 at 16:55 | #6

    This sounds like it would make a good religious reason for marriage. What about marriage for the non-religious? Are they allowed to marry? It appears so.

    As always, whatever you believe marriage to be, it can be that, even when same-sex couples get married.

  7. Ari
    December 21st, 2010 at 18:28 | #7

    As I said, I have some minor disagreements with Dr. J. That said, these differences are mostly theoretical.

    The point made in my post is that marriage is a mating institution for purposes of procreation.

    Now, Polygamy has previously been permitted to Jews. But it is no longer practiced. I would get into the details of why and when it was banned and whatnot, but I fear I cannot for want of brainpower on your part. Sorry.

  8. Mark
    December 21st, 2010 at 20:39 | #8

    Ari:” …but I fear I cannot for want of brainpower on your part.”

    LOL, you are SO predictable! When you can’t come up with an answer, you resort to insult. Shows the real weakness in your arguments.

    May I advise you that, in the future, when you post something to attempt to support your position, make sure that there is not a contrary remark clearly visible in that posting. It really leaves you looking ridiculous.

  9. chrisse
    December 21st, 2010 at 22:50 | #9

    Ari’s position is clear – he was showing that the public purpose of marriage as defined by Dr Morse is not a recent innovation, and goes back to ancient times. No one has argued that it has been in exactly the same structure across all times/groups – just that it has involved man/woman for the purpose of procreation of genetic bonded children.

    One man/multiple women never had any real popularity for the simple reason that male/female birth rates are roughly 51/49. It was primarily confined to wealthy and/or powerful men, kings, tribal rulers. Obviously, with the natural male/female birth rates, there’d be a lot of unmarried males around who would cause a lot of trouble. So not practical.

    There was also the other tribal configuration of one woman/multiple husbands. The principle here is that the children stay with the wife, who stays with her family. With the fathers in the surrounding tribes (this one doesn’t guarantee genetic offspring to the male, just increases probability), there is less likelihood of tribal wars. These tended to be comparatively peaceful. Pre-Islamic Arabia was based on this matrilineal arrangement, and there are still a few in Africa today.

    Generally speaking one man/one woman was the norm for the majority of the population across all time/civilisation.

  10. Ari
    December 22nd, 2010 at 07:51 | #10

    Thanks for the advice. But please not that I wrote in my post: “While this purpose somewhat differs from Dr. J’s purpose in detail (and somewhat in practice as well), I think the case that marriage is about procreation (and always has been) is well nigh overwhelming.”

    I think you have just made my point about not possessing the requisite brainpower to have this disucssion.

  11. Mark
    December 22nd, 2010 at 08:36 | #11

    Ari, oh, you seem to (as always) have missed the point but nice try at insulting me again to cover up your own weakness.

    No, I was pointing to the link where you crow about support that “marriage is about procreation (and always has been)” and, in that same link, it talks about men having no more than 4 wives. So, the problem is, why is one no longer followed but the other one is? Sounds a LOT like cherry picking your favorites to support your weak position.

  12. Ari
    December 22nd, 2010 at 09:11 | #12


  13. Mark
    December 22nd, 2010 at 12:31 | #13

    LOL, another “witty” response. Pitiful. Maybe you should have your wife look over your next post. She may be able to catch these glaring inconsistencies.

  14. Ari
    December 22nd, 2010 at 14:54 | #14


  15. Mark
    December 23rd, 2010 at 09:34 | #15

    Ari, ever the 3 year old. Sad.

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