The first communication between Hashem and man in history is recorded in Bereishit 1:28: "And Elokim blessed them and Elokim said to them be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and conquer it, and rule the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and all the life forms that crawl on the land." Created at the end of the sixth and final day of creation, man is portrayed as the pinnacle of the entire creation, charged with dominating the other creatures. While the birds and fish had also been commanded to "be fruitful and multiply," only man is commanded to "fill the land and conquer it." Our focus this week and next will be the nature of this first commandment in the Torah, that of producing children.

The first question that must be asked is what is the basis of this law? Procreation, in one form or another, is a natural act for all living beings, similar in that sense to the base action of eating. And yet, while there are commandments concerning how one should eat, there is no commandment to simply eat. Thus, there is room to ask why we need a commandment to perform an action that nature would lead us to do anyway (the fact that the Torah later on has laws regulating this base action serves to strengthen the question a bit).

The Medieval commentaries on the Torah seek to explain why this commandment exists, and the various answers suggested belie very different approaches to man's purpose on Earth. Abarbanel links this commandment to another statement made about the creation of man. The previous verse states that man was created in the "image of Elokim." This being the case, reasons Abarbanel, man may refrain from reproducing, as he may feel that engaging in base animal activities is not consonant with his exalted state of being. Even further, Abarbanel explains that the fact that we are created in the image of Hashem is not only not a reason to refrain from having children, but rather is the very reason that we should do so. Our job, he notes, is to serve as the emissaries of Hashem to the rest of creation and to thus aid Hashem, as it were, in ruling the Earth.

The Chizkuni offers a comment which may counter this idea of Abarbanel. He claims that since the commandment was for Adam and Chava to conquer "the Earth" and not "the garden," it must be that this commandment was actually made after they had already been kicked out of the Garden of Eden following their sin. While this could be merely a statement of chronology on the part of Chizkuni, one can speculate that perhaps this commandment was issued as an after-the-fact measure. Man was meant to live a certain type of life while in the Garden; only after he ruined his original pristine state of being was he commanded to assume a new lifestyle and populate the world and dominate it.

A more open-ended view is offered by Ralbag. His opinion is shaped by the debate in the gemara (Yevamot 61b) on how one fulfills this mitzva. As we will discuss later on, there is a debate as to whether one needs to have two sons or a son and a daughter in order to minimally satisfy his obligation. Ralbag rules that one must at have least one son and one daughter, since the commandment is to fill the Earth, and doing so requires that there be both males and females. For Ralbag, the key to this commandment is the continuation of the human race. He claims that there was a need for a commandment since man has it within his powers to put an end to the human race by agreeing to stop reproducing, and thus Hashem ordered that man should direct his efforts towards increasing, and not decreasing, the species.

The gemara in Yevamot already cited is one of the major troves of information for this topic. Among the discussion there are several more reasons behind the commandment to man to propagate his species. Rabi Natan cites a verse in Yeshayahu 45 that states that the world was not created to be confusion (tohu), but rather was created so it should be settled. He uses this to prove that having even one child accomplishes this goal, since it adds one more person to the total population of the world. Again, as by Ralbag, the focus seems to be on man himself.

A bit later on in the gemara there is a debate if one fulfills this mitzva if he has children who subsequently pass away. Within the view of Rabi Natan just cited it would seem that one does not fulfill the mitzva in this case, since the element of populating the world disappears with the death of the child. However, the gemara cites a peculiar statement of Rav Assi. He claims that Moshiach ben David will not come until all of the souls that are in "guf" have been used. As Rashi explains, "guf" is the place where all unborn souls are stored, and thus only once the entire cache of souls has been used can the Messianic age dawn. As such, even if a person loses a child, he has still done his role of decreasing the total number of souls that have to be born and has thus fulfilled the commandment. This reason is certainly one of the most interesting rationales suggested, as it places this mitzva into the context of a teleological historical worldview, seeing each generation as another step towards the final redemption and the dawning of the final age of time.

The final insight that we will offer now into the philosophical issues behind this commandment comes from Rambam. In the heading to his Hilchot Ishut, he lists the four commandments that he will discuss in the chapters that follow. The first three are that a man should marry a woman via a ketubah and kiddushin, that he should not have relations with any woman without fulfilling those two prerequisites, and that he should not deny his wife clothing, food, and marital relations. In writing down the fourth mitzva, Rambam writes that a person should "be fruitful and multiply from her." Seemingly, Rambam feels that the commandment to reproduce is intrinsically connected to the idea of forming a family unit, and not that marriage happens to be the only way to create a child who can halachically be a full Jew (and not a bastard).

Next week, we will take a look at some of that major laws involved in this mitzva, and we will trace how some of these reasons manifest themselves in the practical laws.

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