Big Families: Desired or Undesirable?

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big-familiesBy Sara Yoheved Rigler

Living in the exotic Old City of Yerushalayim, and needing to make ends meet by renting out our guest room, I have hosted many young, accomplished American women travelers as my boarders. Over herb tea in my kitchen, some have wanted to talk about Eastern religions, some about Israeli politics, and some about feminist issues.

One young woman confided in me her shock and dismay at discovering that most religious families have half a dozen children, and some a full dozen! To her, this was a flagrant violation of her most cherished ideal of zero population growth.

“How can anyone who cares about the future of the planet go about brazenly overpopulating it like this?” she asked me with a combination of disbelief and pique. “I can understand such disregard for the problems of overpopulation in uneducated women living in third world countries. But in the religious community here, I’ve been meeting educated, modern women who make a positive ideal out of large families. Why are so many apparently intelligent women filling up their already cramped apartments and emptying their already depleted pocketbooks in an energetic effort to produce large families?”

Having married a month short of my 39th birthday, I felt blessed to have two children – one born when I was 41, another when I was 46. I certainly was not qualified to expound on the merits or demerits of large families. So I arranged for my vexed boarder to meet with one of my teachers from a Yerushalayim women’s seminary, an articulate mother of eleven children. Their encounter took place across my kitchen table.

Q: Given the dire state of overpopulation in the world, isn’t it socially irresponsible to give birth to eleven children?

A: It’s very easy to attribute all the things that are wrong with the world to external causes. But what’s really wrong with the world is violence, avarice, and callousness. All of the problems in the world could be solved if there were good people. It’s a qualitative, not a quantitative, issue. The problem isn’t that there are too many people. The problem is that there are not enough good, caring people.

If you see the world in purely physical terms, then the more people, the less each one gets. If you see the world in purely physical terms, then of course, the larger the population, the less resources are available to each person; each one gets a smaller sliver of the pie. But if you see the world in spiritual terms — that the planet is here to provide a setting for souls to learn and grow, and that each soul who comes into this world has a unique mission and shines a unique light — then the more people, the more light.

The issue really is: Do more children bring more light or more darkness? The answer is: It depends on how they are raised and what they are raised towards.

Certainly, the amount of spiritual light in the world is increased by the presence of more good people. Conversely, producing just two children whose basic self-definition is as materialists and consumers, using a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources for their physical satisfaction, may deplete the world more than it benefits the world.

Q: If this is indeed the goal of your community, then we should find numerous examples of adults who are significantly helping the world. Is this in fact true?

A: I can tell you about my own family. Of my children who have reached adulthood — all are in the helping professions. Two of my daughters and one of my sons are teachers. My second daughter directs a special education facility. Another daughter stays at home to raise her children, but volunteers a tremendous amount of time and energy finding good foster homes for children in emergency situations. My second son is still studying, but devotes a lot of time to outreach programs, reaching out to his fellow Jews in order to improve the spiritual quality of their lives, usually without remuneration. My next son is finishing his term of service in the Israeli army, and also gives classes in the evening to youth. By the way, my family is in no way exceptional.

Q: It cannot be that in a family of over ten children that each child gets the attention from the parents — in terms of time and energy — that a child from a smaller family gets. Given that, aren’t you depriving your children of the attention they need to develop optimally? And aren’t you also depriving them of the enrichments which, let’s face it, only money can buy?

A: When you talk about time and energy — as with any other resource, you have to ask how much is required to achieve your goal. If your goal is to heat a house for 24 hours, and you can heat that house with fifty gallons of oil, you wouldn’t need to worry about supplying that house with a hundred gallons of oil per day.

One way to gauge if parents are giving their children enough attention is to look at those children as adults. One way to gauge if parents are giving their children enough time and attention to produce well-adjusted, secure, reasonably happy, and altruistic adults, is to look at those children when they reach adulthood. If the children are well-adjusted, secure, happy, and altruistic, then whatever amount of time and attention the parents gave them was apparently enough.

Is it accurate to say that children who grow up in small families are happier? More secure? More altruistic? I certainly doubt it.

I have friends with one or two children who tell me that it’s a major problem in their neighborhood of a very few children to find a friend for their child to play with every afternoon. And if the friend rejects their child, as can often happen with children, their child’s whole self-image crumbles. In large families, where there’s always a playmate a couple years older or younger, the problem of making friends does not assume such importance.

The same is true about enrichments which cost money, such as lots of educational toys, computer programs, art lessons, etc. I could argue that these are replacements for having a set of live-in playmates. A brother or sister is a constant source of stimulation, which needs no batteries, never performs an illegal operation (well, not the computer kind, anyway), and teaches a lot about interpersonal relationships.

If you would interview the children of large families, and ask them, “Would you rather have more toys, or another brother or sister? Would you rather have your parents or your siblings sit down and play dominoes with you?” the answers might surprise you.

Q: But doesn’t a lot of the security in large families come from the older children raising the younger children? Is this fair to the older children, especially the first daughter, who often has to shoulder much of the responsibility for her younger siblings?

A: There’s a metaphysical rule in Judaism that, in terms of material things, the more you give, the less you have, while, in terms of spirituality, the more you give, the more you are. It may be accurate that the older children share the burden of raising their younger siblings, but this often gives them a stronger sense of self-confidence, achievement, and the ability to deal with life.

Older children who help raise younger siblings are more self-confident and able to deal better with life.

If you actually spent time with a large family, I think you would be impressed at how much joy there is. Of course, every family has their share of squabbles. But, in general, I see a lot of security, sharing, mutual inter-dependence, and laughter in my family and other large families I know.

Q: What about the women themselves? From the time you gave birth to your first child, at age 19, and for the next thirty years, you’ve had to work incredibly hard at keeping house, raising children, holding down a part-time job, not to mention fulfilling your other obligations. Didn’t you ever feel like having a little time for yourself?

A: Certainly the main part of my life has been spent raising my family. If you’re comparing me to career women or mothers of small families, the crucial question is: “Is a particular woman’s occupation satisfying to her, and does it develop her or leave her time for self-development?”

I can’t imagine an occupation which is anywhere nearly as satisfying as building people. Could building bridges, designing clothes, constructing advertising campaigns … could any of these be as personally satisfying as building human beings? Now of course, I could have been a social worker or a psychologist, who also are involved with people, but there my commitment would have been short-term. Isn’t a long-term commitment to particular people more satisfying than a revolving door-clientele?

Let’s say I had chosen to become a psychologist instead of a mother of a large family. The question remains: Would there be time for other interests? The answer is also the same: It would be difficult, but if I wanted to fit into my schedule an exercise routine, a hobby, or an occasional outing with a friend, I could. No one with a career pursues her own interests all day every day. And neither do I.

Q: You must admit to some level of physical exhaustion. Waking up in the middle of the night to feed a baby for years, or even decades, on end must take its toll.

A: Exhaustion is a real issue. And the fact is, again, that many other careers demand a tremendous expenditure of energy and time. One doesn’t stop brain surgery in the middle to play a round of tennis (hopefully, that is).

This is an issue that has to be dealt with through prioritization. Of course, taking care of oneself is as important as taking care of someone else. No matter what comes up in the afternoons, I give myself a nap from 2 o’clock to 3:30. Everyone in the family knows that mother is resting during that time, and no one dares disturb me. This is a matter of discipline.

A mother of a large family will work herself into exhaustion if she doesn’t learn how to prioritize.

Many women fail in this discipline. They feel the need for a nap, but then the phone rings, and they can’t resist answering it. Or the baby falls asleep, and instead of jumping into bed that minute, and getting a solid two hours’ nap, they decide to “just” do the dishes and “just” fold the laundry, and before they know it, their two hours have disappeared.

Women also have to learn not to sacrifice their rest on the altar of their self-image. In the above example, the mother might feel less of a homemaker if her husband comes home to a sink full of dirty dishes, or the laundry remains unfolded. But, so what? That’s what I mean by “prioritization.”

Q: Do you have household help?

A: I always had household help, because I work out of the house during the morning hours. I’m a teacher — this is for me a secondary career which I engage in for my own fulfillment. Most of what I earn goes to pay for household help. I don’t believe that the mother has to be the one who washes the dishes and folds the laundry.

Q: But you do believe that the mother has to be the one to raise the children. By working outside the home, aren’t you hiring someone else to raise your children?

A: In Israel, children go to government preschools from the age of three. It’s true that I did leave my toddlers in the morning hours with hired help. But I carefully chose someone whose career was to take care of children, and I paid her a third or more of what I made. In fact, the woman who worked for us for twenty years was regarded like a member of our family. She was an older, childless woman, who treated my children like the grandchildren she never had. I paid her a significant portion of my earnings, far more than the going rate, because I considered top-quality childcare a priority. I considered my children an investment worthy of her.

Q: In almost all countries where people have large families, the government ends up giving large doles to support the children. I understand that the Israeli government gives quite generous child allowances. Isn’t this an unfair drain on the taxpayers?

A: The child allowances here are not what most people would consider “quite generous.” They amount to around $100 per child, so no family actually lives off the government grant. I would like to point out something about the government’s intent. The Israeli government realizes that its greatest resource is people. Israel is not Texas nor Montana. We do not have oil, mineable ore, or miles of rolling fields of grain from sea to shining sea. If Israel is going to succeed, we need highly motivated, able people. Nobody can provide the state with this manpower without having them.

Q: You had children at a rate of one every two years.

A: I certainly did sometimes feel like I was involved in a cycle of meaningful work that wasn’t always spontaneous or exciting, but I would say that this is true in every career. A doctor seeing her fourth earache of the day does not feel the same excitement and inspiration as when performing her first heart surgery. A professor marking the 37th freshman paper on Hamlet may also find it tedious.

I think that the concept of careers outside the home has been overly glamorized. Every career has its monotonous components. And every career has its peak moments of inspiration and creativity. Motherhood is second to none in the frequency of such moments. In all honesty, how could producing a book or a computer program be anywhere nearly as gratifying as producing a human being?


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  1. In a certain out of town community, a family of Bnai Torah had quadruplets, numbers 7, 8, 9, and 10. The secular media got hold of the story, and the talk shows had a “Bash the Orthodox-fest.” A neighbor of theirs, with more than a dozen children of her own, called in, and defended our lifestyle. She described the loving and sharing atmopshpere among her children. They went on, claiming that it’s not possible to give each child the attention that they need. Her clincher, which floored the radio hosts, was this.
    “My fifth grade child’s class was given an assignment, to write a paragraph titled, ‘The Best Day of My Life.’ Do you want to know what she wrote? ‘The best day of my life is everytime my mommy comes home from the hospital with a new baby!'”

  2. The article didn’t address the financial strain of a kollel family trying to pay basic expenses for a large family.
    I’ve been told by my siblings in Lakewood that chasanim are under a big misconception. They emphasize to them what is very often allowed, and a shailah must be asked. People still feel wrong about it, and don’t ask. They then go out of their minds trying to support a family with 6-10 kids.

  3. There are wonderful women in the orthodox community who successfully raise a dozen or more children. There are also families where the mother and some or all of the children are falling apart under the physical, emotional and financial strain of raising a dozen children.

  4. #8, Don’t give anything away, now!! I was deliberately vague, didn’t want to give away specifics. Ayin Hara, you know. As it happens, I am related to both families.

  5. Chaim, you’re wrong. Maybe some poskim assur it, but not all do. Have you actually asked a Rav the question, or are you just assuming? As I said, my brother, who learned in BMG in Lakewood, and learned his chosson classes from R’ Henoch Shachar, told me that they teach that it sometimes is ok, and a shailah needs to be asked.

  6. #6
    this is a very sensitive topic, but don’t say it’s
    assur min HaTorah. People should ask their rabbonim for guidance on this matter and not pasken on their own as a general statement. That is why we have rabbonim!
    If a person has children and is not up to it, it can be detrimental to everyone, including her sholom bayis. If she ever gets to that point (especially nowadays with a lot of postpartum issues) she must ask a rav and be honest with him.

  7. #6- I agree with #10 & #11; See Igros Moshe, it’s only ossur by most modern means miderabonon, if not mutar completely. Some people don’t even realize that they should ask a shaila. Then they deal with the consequences.Nearltll the major Litvishe robbonim in Lakewood will be matir in non- medical purposes.

  8. Before this devolves into a dogfight about the permissibility of family planning, most frum families, even with spaced kids WILL be larger than the standard 1. whatever it is now. I know when I go to medical practices that don’t see a lot of frum families that you can be the eight wonder of the world with 6 kids. So this still pertains to most people, and is good food for thought.

  9. tzippi, So what? And if we eat less chazir than the shkotzim than it is okay? No! And having “more” kids even than shkotzim, with family planning, does not make family planning okay.

  10. A Groysser Yasher Koach to Mrs. Rigler, her wonderful mentor from the Yerushalaiyim seminary, and to Matzav for this totally superb presentation!

    It seems that this topic is a sore point that people do not want to talk about. I well remember how at one of the conventions of Agudath Israel, Rav Chanoch Ehrentreu, Shlita, mentioned that there had been no discussion of this important subject; even he apparently felt compelled to not say the subject title openly but to allude to it with a quote of the Lashon HaKodesh words of a possuk. When he completed his remark, the audience did not seem to take kindly to it, as it sat there in stoney silence until he went on to talk about something else.

    Yet this great article here grabs the problem head on and perfectly lays out and answers the false arguements often brought in this issue.

    Any person who listened to lectures of Rav Avigdor Miller, ZT’L, well knows that this issue certainly IS one of his most favorate subjects. Countless times he empathetically decried this disgusting practice that is ruining Klall Yisroel and the people that do it. Yes, neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood was ruined because of it. A certain part of a major city was a beautiful high class section with mostly fine Jewish families. However, these Jewish couples, had each just one or two children. Twenty years latter or so, each couple’s one or two children are now grown up, with their own developed careers; as soon as they get married, they move out of their parent’s home and out of the whole neighborhood. Several years after that, the old parents are close to the 120 year limit that HaShem now gives us in Olam HaZeh – in this world and soon they are Niftar.

    So who is now going to use their house??? Yes, that is a good question — a very, very good question: who is now going to use their house? The parents are dead! The one or two children that they had, are not around! The one or two children that maybe their one or two children had, are certainly not around! Children or grandchildren of some of the other Jewish couples that were in this community? Well remember, All the Jewish couples here had just one or two children, and just like this couple’s one or two children, when they grew up they moved out of the neighboehood, so all the other one or two children and grandchildren of all the other Jewish couples, when they grew up, they too moved elsewhere!

    So we still did not answer the question: who is now going to use this house of the deceased Jewish couple?

    Of course, the answer is that it will be sold. The problem though, is that this answer is not so simple. Unlike when these couples first came here 50 or 60 years ago, this area is no longer the “new” “place to be” section of the city. It is getting run down and the houses are greatly aging; the old school building is closed and boarded up; just walking down its streets, everything feels so “dead.” So, unlike 50 or 60 years ago, refined upper class people are not going to be buying homes here; instead, unrefined lower class people are the ones who will buying homes here. So the neighborhood deteriorates more and more until it becomes one of those parts of the city that even the police will not walk into!

    By sharp contrast, when a neighborhood is filled with fine familes which each have a large number of children, these problems do not happen. In such a family, yes, a few of the children, when they grow up will move to other places; however, there will still be a good number of children of that family who will NOT go off. One of them will probably — with his or her new family — actually stay in the house with the parents (and thus offer the aging parents around the clock care so there will never be a need for a nursing home!). The other siblings, whom all are now making their own new families, will look for homes in the close vicinity of the parents’ house. As almost all of those dwellings though are being used by the growing families of their parents’ friends and neighbors, there may very well be no openings across the street or down the block or in the next block over. So they may very well put their names on the lists for the row of new homes that are going up on the new street off of “Tenth Avenue.”

    So the neighborhood is not “going down” and “dying”; on the contrary, it is the exact opposite! It is growing and expanding! When you walk down its streets, you do not feel “dead”! And how could you? All over, there are mothers pushing baby carriages! There are big children riding bicycles! There are little children riding tricycles! There are fathers leading their middle children to school! There are Botei Medroshim packed with men learning our Torah! There are stores packed with customers buying food for their families! There are jobs! Business is flourishing! The community is vibrant and alive!

  11. (continuation of above comment # 19)

    Rav Avigdor Miller, ZT’L, put the point quite bluntly: If the Jews in America would have NOT practiced family control, then today there would have been more Jews than, L’Havdil, Afro-Americans!

    Regarding Eretz Yisroel, he put it much, much sharper. As is well known, the modern secular State of Israel with its secular Zionest philosophy, with its desire and goal of following and even outdoing the secular anti-religious ways of the modern western world, has severely
    downgraded the importance of human life, and has thus ‘very strongly encouraged and directed its people to practice family control to the fullest degree.

    The Arab peoples though, are not such devoutees of this new anti-religion religion, and thus they do not adhere to the holy, holy, holy laws of family control. They ARE — all the way — being “fruitful and multiplying”! So it does not require any advanced mathematical calculations to realize that in thirty years from now in the State of Israel — IF THE STATE OF ISRAEL IS STILL IN EXISTENCE — THE ARABS IN ISRAEL WILL BE THE MAJORITY!!!!

    They will not have to have any wars! They will not have to have any terrorist attacks! They will not have to have any peace treaties where Israel gives up everything! It is just totally simple: the Jews are (Rachmona Liztlan) holy, holy family controlling themselves out of existence, and the Arabs are having plenty of children. So sooner rather than latter, the Arabs in Israel are going to be in the majority — and will take over!!

  12. We need to remember that especially in our time, modern society has extremely severely degraded and negated the importance of human life. This has has been shown in numerous areas:

    In how throughout the horrific Holocaust bloodbath, almost all of the major Jewish secular organizations purposely ignored and sometimes even thwarted repeated opportunities of saving the lives of millions of the dying Jews in Europe.

    In the current issues of patient assisted suicide, voluntary euthanasia, and NOT SO VOLUNTARY euthanasia.

    In the current passage of the holy “health care reform” bill and the policies and directives of medical rationing that will inevitably have to come along with it.

    In the women’s holy, holy, holy “right” to choose.

    In the academic/medical proposals that even a born child should not be permitted life unless he or she can convincingly demonstrate that he or she will be a viable functioning person.

    In the modern woman by whom her life is her career: the MD, the PhD, the LLP, the CEO, the marketing representative, the systems analyst, etc., etc.* As she climbs the educational/professional/corporate ladders, having children, even marriage itself, will be frequently put off and put off and put off. At such a point when there might be a feasibility of allowing an opening in her heavily tight schedule — of course with the most extensive of extensive “family planning” — she will make the arrangements to have the one (or maybe two) child(ren).

    Of course, that child’s schedule will also be pretty tight: with the nanny and the day-care and the television and the pre 1A and the pre-pre 1A and the pre-pre-pre 1A. He or she will get to see his or her mother for maybe 37.45216 minutes a day — oh yes, it will be “quality time”!

    Those women who do not do even this and have no children at all, are hailed by many as being the really “liberated” ones!

    (* These are not my words. Several years ago, I did some computer programming work at a major insurance company. One of the people there, whose desk was near mine, was a young Italian woman. I had never spoken with her until one day she revealed to me that she was going on maternity leave. She thus had a long talk with me about her dilemma of interrupting her career to have a child. At the end of the conversation, she leaned backwards, stretched out her hands and arms pointing at her desk, and with a slight smile exclaimed: “I FEEL LIKE MY LIFE IS BEING PUT ON H-O-O-O-L-D!!”)

    The root behind all of this is atheism, plain and simple. Do people today really believe there is a G-D? They are not so sure! Do they believe that G-D created the world? Do they believe that G-D created man? Of course not! In today’s modern society, everyone is inducted into the service of holy, holy, science, which teaches everyone the holy doctrine of the holy, holy, holy evolution: that the world, which was always here by itself, “evolved” from a primeval state into its current state. For a person to dare say, or to even dare imply, that the world was CREATED by G-D, is a very most serious crime!!!! He or she is “unscientific” and a nut! He or she is a raciest and a bigot! He or she has broken the holy doctrine of the holy, holy “Separation of Church and State”! He or she is a fanatic from the “religious right”!

    Yeap, this is the “Chinuch” – the “education” and the “training” of the modern velt! With such a “Chinuch,” it is certainly understandable that statements of facts like:

    Each human being is a “Tzelem Elokim” with a Neshama that is a “Chelek Eloka MiMa’al” with a special Divinely ordained mission in the world.

    Every moment of every human life in this world, no matter how much the person is suffering, and no matter how much of a cripple the person is, is of infinite value.

    The first “Mitzva” – the first “instruction” that HaShem gives us in His Torah is that of “P’ru U’rvu” – “Be fruitful and multiply”: continue to physically bring more and more human beings into the world. Our Torah further explains this Mitzvah that HaShem did not create the world for it to remain desolate; rather, he created it for it to be inhabited by human beings.

    Even the most famous one, which until very recently was at the foundation of human civilization: “Thou shalt not kill!”

    For most people in today’s society, these statements are all filled with words and facts and principles that are just simply not in their vocabulary!!

  13. (continuation of above comment #21)

    #10 & #11 & #13: Mr. Chaim in #6 is 100% right — excuse me, please let me correct that: Mr. Chaim in #6 is 1,000% right!!

    We need to fully know: what are these issues that we are dealing with? What is “Family Planning”? What is “Limiting the Size of a Family”?

    These are the actions of purposely holding back from physically bringing children into the world and purposely preventing the process of physically bringing children into the world, except at a few very specific times that the parents decide — that they “planned” — that they Do want to have a child.

    This is involving in very extremely serious issues. It is obviously a straight affront to the very first Mitzva in our Torah of “P’ru U’rvu” – of being “Fruitful and Multiplying” and helping HaShem’s world to become more and more inhabited by human beings.

    Yeah, it is a straight affront to the very supreme importance and infinite value of human life. Yeah, the very act of “preventing the process of physically bringing children into the world” involves the terrible crime of “Hashchasas Zera” – of destroying the beginnings of a human being!

    In other words:


  14. (continuation of above comment #22)
    Now, of course, with all the Mitzvos of our Torah, when there are, Chas V’Shalom, problematic situations that interfere with our ability to properly perfom a certain Mitzva, there are numerous lienencies in what is required of us to do in the rules of the Mitzva.

    For example, one of the Mitzvos in our Torah is the Mitzva of Sukka, that throughout the Yom Tov of Sukkos we must live, and especially be careful to eat all of our meals, in a Sukka. Now, if there is a heavy rainstorm with rain heavily dripping into the Sukka, it is, obviously, going to be extremely difficult to stay there and eat our food. So the rules of the Mitzva of Sukka actually lay out certain lieniences for us that at certain points, we ARE PERMITTED to leave the Sukka and go eat our meal in the house!

    This does not mean that we are now AGAINST the Mitzva of Sukka; it is just that in this particular problematic situation, the laws of the Mitzva of Sukka themselves state that we are not required to remain in the Sukka.

    Furthermore, we are not “happy” that we do not have to be in the Sukka and can now go eat the house. On the contrary, the Mishna about Sukka states that we have to be SAD that we cannot be in the Sukka.

    Similarly with the Mitzva of P’ru U’rvu. There are numerous problematic situations that, Chas V’Shalom, present people with severe difficulties with having children. So, for these certain problematic situations, the rules of the Mitzva of P’ru U’rvu also lay out certain lieniences for us.

    Again, this does NOT mean that we are now against P’ru U’rvu. It does not mean that Family Planning is “permitted” or is “OK” or is “a good thing.” It is just that in these particular problematic situations, the laws of the Mitzva of P’ru U’rvu themselves state certain lieniences.

    And again, we are not “happy” that we now get to do these lienient things. On the contrary, we have to be SAD that we cannot more fully do the Mitzva of P’ru U’rvu.

  15. Mr. Feldman, you can say what you want. I’ve asked shailos about it, and as I said, the Rabbonim in Lakewood teach it to every chosson and kallah now – it isn’t against the Torah, and a shailah needs to be asked.
    To fulfill the mitzvah of pru u’revu, you need to have one boy and one girl. What does that mean? A family with 10 children might not have fulfilled it, while a family with 2 kids will have.

  16. Re 22: it’s thou shalt not murder, not “kill.”
    And re 24, and sadness at not being able to perform a mitzvah: to what degree is this sadness? Surely it can’t pervade our lives and the simcha we should feel all the time.


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