August 16, 2022

Ketubot 39

A beraita is cited in today’s daf (Ketubot 39a) which lists a number of at-risk situations (eg. a pregnant or nursing woman) where, according to Rabbi Meir, a woman is permitting/encouraged to use contraception. In contrast, the Sages rule that in such cases contraception should not be used and, instead, heaven will have mercy on such women because, as Tehillim 116:6 teaches: שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם ה – ‘The Lord protects the simple’ (or, as the Netziv explains it in his ‘Imrei Shefer’ commentary to the Haggadah p. 27b: ‘The Lord provides people with protection from the unexpected’).
Admittedly, this discussion is hard on the modern ear when autonomy is considered to be of paramount value, and even those who might concede that Jewish law has a view on questions like contraception, they may nevertheless find this debate objectionable given the absence of female voices in this debate.
Still, rather than exploring the nature of this entire debate, I would particularly like to address the view of the Sages who rule that contraception shouldn’t be used in the above-mentioned situations where a further pregnancy could risk the life of a mother and/or an unborn or already born child. This is because, as the Ritva and others point out, since we have a principle that any risk to life (ספק סכנה) overrides Torah prohibitions, why do the Sages rule this way and invoke ‘שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם ה?
The Ritva (ibid.) answers this question by citing Tosfot who interpret the view of the Sages to mean that a woman is not obligated to use contraception in those situations but she may do if she so wishes.
Others, like the Achiezer (1:23b) and Rav Eliyashiv (He’arot to Ketubot 39a), understand the view of the Sages as explained above. However, they note that the cases being discussed in the Gemara are low-risk, whereas were the risk to mother and/or baby to be high, contraception should be used.
Alternatively, Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shiurim 136) explains that ‘a person is not obliged to avoid activities things that are part of daily life, and since risks exist in our daily life, in such cases we will be protected by heaven. However, where a person has the capability of [living a normal life and still] avoiding danger, then those risks are not considered to be unexpected and if such a person does not protect themselves, whatever happens is their responsibility and they will not be protected by heaven [from such dangers].’
Ultimately, what we learn from this summary of opinions is that though a cursory reading of the Gemara seemingly implies that we can ignore risks to life and, instead, rely on God to protect us in all situations, a deeper reading of the Gemara, along with its commentaries, teaches us that it is up to us to evaluate risk and to act responsibly.
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