American Reform Responsa

160. Predetermination of Sex

(Vol. LI, 1941, pp. 97-100)

QUESTION: A writer in leading magazines has submitted a question to me. She is preparing a manuscript that will include the attitudes of the various faiths toward predetermination of sex in babies. She says: "As the aim of scientific predetermination is not to limit families in any way, but to increase their happiness through having the sex they most desire, what does your group think on the subject?"

ANSWER: The question posed in the above statement, while avowedly premature, is not impertinent. In fact, the question is not as new as it sounds. The Rabbis of the Talmudic period gave some thought to it. They even sought to prescribe methods whereby nature, in such cases, might be guided to predetermined ends. Those were the days when parents showed undisguised elation over the birth of a male child, and accepted with due resignation the arrival of a female child. Rabbi Chiya Rabba, a Tannaitic teacher of the second century, in animadverting upon this parental preference, spoke rather approvingly of it. "There is need for wheat," he said, "and there is need for barley" (Gen. R. 26.6). Accordingly, some teachers endeavored to advise parents what to do in order to achieve the desired result. Rabbi Eleazar is reported to have recommended generosity to the poor as the best method, while Rabbi Joshua, with a keener sense of the relevant, thought that when the husband aimed to predispose his wife for the act of cohabitation, male progeny would ensue: "Ma ya-esh adam veyihyu lo banim zecharim? Rabbi Eli-ezer omer: Yefazer me-otav la-aniyim. Rabbi Yehoshua omer: Yesamach ishto lidvar mitzvah."

Other teachers thought that by the mere process of retarded ejaculation on the part of the husband, thus inducing the wife to reach the climax first, the birth of a male child would be assured. Thus, a Babylonian Amora of the third century, Rabbi Kattina, boldly asserted that he had mastered the art of coition which would yield him only male children (Nida 31b, "Vehainu de-amar Rav Katina: 'Yacholni la-asot kol banai zecharim."').

Informed by the same impression or conviction, another Babylonian Amora, Rava, declared that the immediate repetition of the act of coition, tending to retard the ejaculation of the male, could not but produce male children (ibid., "Amar Rava: 'Harotse la-asot kol banav zecharim, yiv-ol veyishneh"').

Various other methods, we find, were suggested. Thus, Rabbi Isaac is reported to have said that when the bedstead extended in a northerly-southerly direction the sex of the offspring would be male (Ber. 5b, "Kol hanoten mitato bein tsafon ledarom, havyin leih banim zecharim.").

And so, too, is Rabbi Johanan reported to have held that abstention from intercourse immediately before the menstrual period, would result in male issue (Shev. 18b, "Kol haporesh me-ishto samuch levistah, havyin lo banim zecharim."). And, as if to disown the implication of the psychological basis for his statement, he proceeds to add that the scrupulous use of wine in the Havdala ceremony will produce the same wished-for effect (ibid., "Kol hamavdil al hayayin bemotsa-ei Shabbat, havyin lo banim zecharim").

There is also the citation of an anonymous authority, which would make the determination of the sex of the offspring conditioned by the moral and social fitness of the union, as well as by the spirit in which the act of cohabitation is performed (Nida 70a, "Amar lahem: 'Yisa isha hahogenet lo viykadesh atsmo bish-at tashmish"').

Of course, all these suggestions partake more of the nature of magic than of pure science. But whatever the value of the methods suggested, they are certainly "moral, simple and safe," even though not quite effective. Above all, they clearly indicate the Rabbinic attitude toward the question raised. The desire of parents to predetermine, if possible, the sex of their progeny, is not a reprehensible desire. The objective sought is a legitimate objective. The issue then resolves itself into this: Will the absolutely reliable method anticipated, though not too hopefully, by the author of the question, be as moral, as simple, and as safe as those projected by the early Rabbinic authorities? Judaism, it is well to state here emphatically, is not a religion that teaches the doctrine that the end justifies the means. In this case, therefore, if the means, yet to be discovered, will prove scientifically sound and morally unassailable, the Jewish teachers of that far-off day will find ample basis for their endorsement of the enterprise in the thought and tradition of their past.

Israel Bettan and Committee

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.