Fecund Slavery

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

Several weeks ago, we discussed an interesting prohibition with which both Joseph and Noah complied: Noah was forbidden to have sex on the ark, while the earth was submerged in the waters of the flood and “the world was steeped in pain”; and Joseph was careful to have sex (and children) only during the years of plenty, and before the years of famine set it.

Was it because Noah and Joseph were both spared the privations suffered by the rest of the world, and it would be wrong for them to indulge in sexual pleasure while those around them were suffering? Or is it a general principal that, in times of hardship, it is appropriate to reduce one’s sexual pleasure – perhaps for the same reason that we fast on sad days or when threatened with an imminent calamity, or that we decrease in joyous activities during the Hebrew month of Ave?

It is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that throughout their enslavement in Egypt, the Jewish people had sex like rabbits – privation or not.

The remarkable fecundity of the Hebrew slaves is emphasized in this week’s Parshah, Shemot, in several places.

First, the Torah relates that, even before the slavery began, “the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very very strong, and the land became filled with them.” Exodus, 1:7. Rashi immediately notes the Torah’s use of the unusual expression “and they swarmed” – an expression used in connection with the insect kingdom in Genesis (1:20) – and explains that the Children of Israel did indeed reproduce at a far more rapid rate than that to which humans are accustomed: they bore six children at each birth.

Indeed, it was this rapid reproduction that alarmed Pharaoh: “He said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and depart from the land.'” Exodus, 1:9-10.

Thus, Pharaoh implemented a shrewd plan that resulted in the ultimate enslavement of the Jewish people. What was he thinking? Pharaoh must have figured that the slavery would stop the Hebrews from having sex. Perhaps they would see slavery as the kind of calamity that suspends sexual activity indefinitely. Or perhaps they would be too fatigued to have the stamina for sex and procreation.

The result of Pharaoh’s experiment?

“As much as they would afflict them, so did they multiply and so did they gain strength.” Exodus, 1:12. Pharaoh’s plan was an utter failure.

Midrash is replete with tales of the many miracles that occurred in which the Children of Israel were assisted in preserving both their sex lives and the safety of the many children born as a result. However, one of the most powerful of such stories involves, not a miracle, but the steely determination of Jewish women to entice their husbands to sex and to arouse their flagging libido.

Later, in Parshat Vayakhel, as we discussed here, among the various vessels built for the Tabernacle was the washstand. The washstand was made of copper “and its base of copper was from the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions.” Exodus, 38:8. What was the nature of these mirrors? Rashi explains that the Israelite women had used these mirrors to beautify themselves and enhance their sexual appeal to their husbands. Moses was initially resistant to include such base objects in the holy Tabernacle, but G-d directed him to accept them, saying “these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions through the children they gave birth to in Egypt.” For when the men were weary from back-breaking labor, their wives would go and bring them food and drink and use the mirror to arouse their husbands’ desire. Then they would have sex with them there, and would ultimately conceive and give birth there as well, all as it is said: “Under the apple tree I aroused you.” Song of Songs, 8:5.

Thus, Pharaoh was unsuccessful in making the Children of Israel too tired for sex, and they kept multiplying.

So Pharaoh tried a new tactic: he directed the two primary Hebrew midwives to kill the male fetuses as soon as they emerged. The midwives defied him, however, and ensured the safe delivery of all Hebrew children. What is particularly interesting though, is that when Pharaoh summoned them and accused them of defying his command, he readily believed their explanation: that “Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are skilled as midwives (“chayot“); when the midwife has not yet come to them, they have already given birth.” The Talmud, however, explains that actually, the word “chayot” does not mean “skilled midwives” – it means “wild animals.” Thus, the midwives explained to Pharaoh that the Israelite women were fecund like the beasts of the field, and and did not require midwives to deliver their babies. As this was true, Pharaoh believed them.

Pharaoh’s last ditch attempt to curb Israelite reproduction was by ordering his guards to cast every male Israelite child into the Nile. Unwittingly, this decree led directly to (more sex) and the ultimate salvation of the Jewish nation. For shortly thereafter, Yocheved and Amram had sex, and six months later Moses was born. (Interestingly, Yocheved herself had been born just as Jacob and his family had entered Egypt. We know that the Jewish people were in Egypt for a total of 210 years, and we know that Moses was 80 years old when he led the exodus from Egypt. Thus, Yocheved was 130 years old when she gave birth to Moses. Although the Torah does not make as big deal about this miracle as it does when Sarah gave birth to Isaac at age 90, it does note that, not only was Yocheved 130, but she her physiology reverted to that of a young woman, which is why she is referred to as a “daughter of Levi.”)

Yocheved was able to hide Moses for several months, but because of Pharaoh’s decree, she ultimately placed him in the basket that would later be found by Bathya, Pharaoh’s daughter, who would raise Moses as a royal son in Pharaoh’s own palace, setting the stage for his later emergence as the leader of the Jewish people.

One final fascinating fact regarding Jewish fertility in Egypt. Not only did the slavery not diminish the Israelites’ procreative activities or their population growth, but it appears to have actually enhanced their rate of reproduction. The proof?

The single tribe that was, for various reasons, spared the servitude and slavery suffered by the rest of their Israelite brethren, was the Levite tribe. This is why Moses and Aaron were permitted to come and go while the rest of the Israelites labored. See Exodus, 5:4, Rashi. One might expect then, that in the absence of wearisome, back-breaking labor, the Levites would have the energy and the stamina for more sex than their brethren, and that the population of their tribe would be more numerous.

The opposite is true, however. When Moses takes a census of the number of Israelite men in each tribe just one year after the exodus from Egypt, the results are astonishing. The Levite is by far the smallest tribe of all of the Israelites, and is a full 10,000 less than the the second-to-smallest tribe. Not only that, but in counting the Levites, Moses included males from one month and up, whereas the census of the other tribes included males from twenty years and older. Additionally, the Levites were the only tribe not decimated after the earlier sin with the golden calf. Thus, even with the inclusion of a broader male population, and even without the losses suffered by the other tribes, the Levites were still the smallest tribe by a significant margin. This means that the one tribe that did not endure the rigors of slavery was the tribe with the least fecundity.

Perhaps this was a further example of Divine intervention. After all, the Levites were ultimately assigned the care and service of the Tabernacle – a task to which a large tribe would be ill-suited. But it is also true that G-d initially intended this service to be performed by the firstborn sons of each tribe, who were almost exactly equal in number to the Levites. It was only once the firstborn lost this privilege after the son of the golden calf that they were replaced by the Levites.

Or perhaps sex and fertility, as powerful as they are during a time of peace and plenty, are particularly powerful in the face of adversity. During times of stress, we are generally able to draw upon reserves and strength that do not ordinarily manifest in our normal state, such as are caused by adrenaline. This stress, however, typically does not bode well for our sexual stamina – perhaps because it is rare that a genuinely stressful situation requires sexual performance from us. Our ancestors, however, whose sexuality and procreative abilities were directly targeted by Pharaoh, were able to draw upon a deep well of sexual energy to sustain their high level of sexual and reproductive potency throughout their stay in Egypt. And who’s to say that this latent power is not itself an example of prescient Divine intervention?

Shabbat shalom!