For many generations it was assumed that only one embryo could be formed from a single act of conception. This assumption led to the conclusion that twins were the result of two separate conceptions, triplets of three, and so forth.
This erroneous conception made it difficult for people to understand the Torah’s uncharacteristically harsh intolerance for the wasteful spilling of male seed; for the Torah equates this act not only with murder of a single person – an act of the gravest consequences in and of itself – but with the destruction of a “world” full of people.
The Talmud teaches:(1)
“Anyone who spills his seed [intentionally] is deserving of death [from God], as it says: ‘[Onan] did evil before God (by purposefully spilling his seed), and He killed him’ (Genesis 38:9-10). It is as if he had spilt blood, as it says, ‘They inflame themselves amongst the terebinths, under every green tree, slaying the children in the valleys under the clefts of the rocks’ (Isaiah 57:5).”(2)
As part of the same discussion, it is also taught:
“Any man who holds his member while urinating is considered to have brought the Flood upon the world. (For this might lead to him to spill his seed. On the other hand, married men are permitted to hold themselves while urinating because the likelihood of spilling seed is much smaller).”(3)
The Talmud teaches that in the eyes of God, the Flood, which swept away the lives of countless human beings, and the needless spilling of seed are judged by the same criteria: both are acts equivalent with mass murder.
But why? Even if a man who spills his seed is considered a murderer because he has destroyed a potential child, why should he be considered a mass murderer? And what possible connection could there be between the Flood, which killed countless numbers of people, and the act of one man?
However, with the invention of the microscope, scientists uncovered an astounding fact that helps answer these questions.
There are approximately 120 million sperm in every milliliter of semen and each one has the potential to bring about conception. If this is true, then even a small amount of seed is enough to bring hundreds of millions of lives into the world!
These facts bring the teachings of the Sages into a completely different light. How could they have known this information over 1500 years ago!
It is important to recall that every scientific fact necessary for halachic rulings was revealed to Moses at Sinai. Rabbinic statements about the prohibition of the spilling of seed demonstrate clear knowledge that all male seed carries within it the potential for a near limitless number of human beings. Thus one who wastes seed is considered by the Creator as though he caused the Flood – on a spiritual level – which destroyed an entire world of people.
Such teachings are truly amazing.
In order to fully appreciate the Sage’s incredible grasp of the mysteries of reproduction, we must remember that most biological details about the conception of embryos were discovered only recently, thanks to the use of advanced electronic devices. Yet these details were known to the Sages in their entirety from biblical verses, following their traditional interpretations. Thus it says in the Talmud,(4) in a section dealing with conception:
“It is written [in the Tanach]: ‘You have girded me (vetazrany) with strength for battle. You have defeated the ones who rose against me’ (Samuel 2 22:40). It is also written: ‘God, who girds me (hame’azreny) with strength… for battle’ (Psalms 18:33-35).”
In the first verse, King David uses the word vetazrany. Though translated here as “girded,” it is specifically related to the Hebrew root describing the process of winnowing chaff from wheat. In the second verse, King David says hame’azreny, also translated as “gird,” but in this case, links back to the Hebrew root describing strength and quickness.
David’s choice of language sends a message about the process of conception, which should sound very familiar to us following the scientific discoveries about the nature of sperm. To paraphrase, King David said to God: “Master of the Universe, You separated me [from the countless other spermatozoa that were present at the moment of conception] and quickened me [so that the sperm cell would reach and fertilize the ovum first, and as a result, you implanted me the ability to fight and win my battles].”
Rabbenu Chananel – a Torah sage who lived more than 1100 years ago – explains this passage as follows: “The entire world is created from the choicest part of the seed.”(5)
This is exactly what scientific researchers have proven, and it is yet another example of the depth of the Sage’s understanding of nature and science.
An explanation for the Torah’s extreme intolerance for the spilling of seed, as well as halachic issues involved, can be found in the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer, Section 23).
It is important to remember that people who commit heinous acts without full knowledge of their implications are always granted the opportunity to repent. After all, God in His Mercy says: “Return to Me and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7). On the other hand, one must not be among those who say: “I will sin and then I will repent.” For more on this, see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 4:1.
Notes and Sources
(1) BT Niddah 13a. Beyond the Talmud’s uncharacteristically harsh appraisal of the spilling of seed, it is important to note that according to the Kabbalah, a person committing this act also loses all the good fortune he might have had, for he causes all the supernal beneficence that was destined for him to go to waste. This is suggested by the Hebrew word “fortune” – mazal – which is an acronym for the words: motzee zera l’vatalah (“spilling one’s seed in vain”). See Maimonides’ explanation in the Mishneh Torah, Mada, Section 4, 15:9: “Sperm is the power of the body and the light of the eye. The more seed is lost, the more life is lost… Old age comes quickly upon a person who spills seed… as well as much pain.”
It is also interesting to note that according to Chinese medicine, spilling seed leads to a variety of problems, including poor eyesight, dizziness, lower back pain, pain in the knees and more – all due to lack of energy in the kidneys (Dudi Perla and Shulamit Bar, Chinese Medicine (Hebrew) (Yediot; Tel Aviv, 1996), p. 62.) And of course, it makes complete sense that the substance from which life itself springs is not meant to be spilled in the same careless manner as tears or saliva. Sperm contains the essence of a person and its neglect results in a major loss of vitamins and minerals absolutely essential for bodily health.
(2) In other words, spilling seed is akin to killing one’s own unborn children.
(3) Although these statements pertain to a man who intentionally spills his seed, the Sages adjured us not to come to such an act even unintentionally, as in the case of one who views immodest sights during the day, which can lead to provocative dreams and nocturnal emission. So great is the spiritual damage caused by this act!
(4) BT Yoma 47a.