The injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28) is regarded as the first commandment of the Bible. As a consequence of the disobedience of Eve in the Garden of Eden,
the pangs of childbirth were foretold (Gen. 3:16). References to pangs of travail as the most intense of pains are very frequent in the books of the prophets (e.g., Jer. 6:24; 22:23; 49:24; 50:43; and Micah 4:9–10). Midwives assisted in the delivery (Gen. 35:17), and it seems that a birthstool, called ovnayim, was often used (Ex. 1:16). The Bible records the deaths of Rachel (Gen. 35:18) and the daughter-in-law of Eli (I Sam. 4:20) in childbirth. The Talmud states that Michal (II Sam. 6:23) also died during childbirth (Sanh. 21a).
Biblical law regarding birth is confined to laying down the period of ritual impurity of the mother (Lev. 12). The mother of a male child is unclean for seven days, followed by a 33-day period of impurity; these periods are doubled in the case of a female child. At the conclusion of these periods a sin-offering and burnt-offering were brought by the mother. According to the Talmud, the sin-offering is incumbent upon her because during the anguish of childbirth, she foreswears any future relations with her husband, which she later regrets (Nid. 31b).
In the Talmud and the Midrash
The sages attributed death during childbirth to neglect of the laws of family purity, failure to separate the dough-offering, and carelessness in kindling the Sabbath lights (Shab. 2:6). Viability began from the time the fetus was six months and one day old, although it was considered as a fact that an eight-month-old fetus was not viable (Tosef., Shah. 15:7; see
). However, many midrashim and later commentaries report births of a seven-month-old fetus. Thus, according to the commentaries, many of Jacob's sons were born at age seven months. Before birth, it is permissible to perform an embryotomy when the mother's life is in danger, since "her life comes before that of the child." Once the greater part of the child has been born, or his head alone has emerged from the birth canal, he is considered a living being and the mother's life no longer takes precedence (Oho. 7:6). The child is not considered viable until it is 30 days old. No death penalty is therefore incurred for killing a newborn child unless it is certain that he could otherwise have lived for 30 days (Nid. 5:3, Nid. 44b). All work necessary for the delivery of a child may be performed on the Sabbath (Shab. 18:3); if the mother dies during labor, the Sabbath must still be desecrated and all attempts made to save the unborn child (Ar. 7a).
For the purposes of birthdate and setting the time of circumcision, birth is determined by the projection of the fetus' head out of the birth canal (Nid. 42b). Midwives were considered reliable witnesses for accounting for the hour of the birth. The delivery of a child by Caesarean section was not regarded as "an opening of the womb" (Ex. 13:2), and the child had neither the privileges nor the obligations of the firstborn (Bek. 8:2).
Throughout Jewish history, male offspring were desired. However, despite differing opinions, Bet Hillel's position that the birth of a son and a daughter constituted the fulfillment to be fruitful and multiply was eventually accepted (Yev. 62a). In addition, despite contrary opinions in the Talmud, it became accepted that the injunction to be fruitful and multiply was a male and not a female responsibility.
Customs and Folklore Among Ashkenazi Jews
Most of the customs surrounding birth belong to the category of popular folklore, much of which is not specifically Jewish but was adapted from local cultural surroundings (Tosef., Shab. 6:4; Sh. Ar. YD 178). The following biblical selections were recited for a woman in labor: Psalms 20; I Samuel 1; Genesis 21:1–8 or Exodus 8:11. Precious stones and a variety of herbs were used to facilitate delivery, which was usually supervised by an experienced midwife and friends and relatives of the parturient. A magic circle was drawn with chalk or charcoal on the floor of the room to guard against evil spirits. As a good omen for easy and speedy delivery, all the ties and knots in a woman's garments were undone and in some societies all doors in the house were opened wide. If her travail was difficult, the keys of the synagogue were placed in her hand, she was girded with the band of a Torah Scroll, and prayers were recited at the graveside of pious relatives. In extreme danger, prayers were said for the parturient in the synagogue and a Torah scroll was brought to the house and was left in the corner of the birthing chamber. At times the circumference of the cemetery walls was measured and according to their length a number of candles were donated to the synagogue. Mother and child were surrounded by various charms and talismans from the moment of birth until the circumcision (see
). Most of these charms were to guard them against the female demon
and her counterparts, such as Frau Holle, and they were known by different names, such as kimpetsetl (from kindbet, "child bed" and tsetl, "a note"), Shir Hamalos-Tsetl (from Shir ha-Ma'alot – the Song of Degrees), and Shmir-Tsetl (from shemirah, "guarding"). They were placed above the bed of the woman and above the doorposts of the room. In medieval and early modern Germany, it was customary for the woman to keep an object made out of iron (BARZEL – an acronym of Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah and Leah, Jacob's wives) with her at all times during the weeks following the birth, to protect her from evil spirits. Some of these amulets used kabbalistic names of God, especially the 42-letter name beginning with ABAG YATATZ, which is derived from the abbreviation of the prayer hymn Anna be-Kho'aḥ.
A popular custom until modern times, in the case of the birth of a male child, was the vigil ceremony which was performed every night. In Oriental communities it was called taḥdid. Friends and relatives nightly gathered at the home of the newborn to recite the
in order to protect the child from demons. Schoolchildren led by their teachers also participated in this ceremony and were rewarded with apples, nuts, and sweets.
Whereas a boy is named at the circumcision, there is no evidence concerning the naming of girls until the 15th century. In early modern sources, we hear of a naming ceremony in the synagogue or at home. In Germany and Western Europe the naming took place in a home ceremony on Sabbath afternoons.
Called Hollekreisch, the custom originated in German folklore and superstition. This custom, which was observed for boys and girls, included the lifting of the cradle and the giving of a name. For boys, this was a non-Jewish name, a shem ḥol, whereas for girls, this was the only naming ceremony. This ritual took place on the afternoon of the Sabbath when the parturient left her home for the first time, about a month after the birth. During the 16th and 17th centuries, in some communities, it became a customary to name girls in the synagogue when the father was called to the reading of the Torah. This custom is still commonly found today. More recently, many families in Israel and the Diaspora have adapted the Sephardi custom of having a special ceremony, often called Zeved ha-Bat or Simḥat Bat, at which the girl is named.
[Elisheva Baumgarten (2nd ed.)]
Middle Eastern Customs
Among the methods utilized to protect the mother and infant from evil spirits – particularly Broshah, the female demon who steals newborn children – was the hanging of a hamsikah, an
in the shape of the palm of the hand with fingers, or a seven-branched candelabrum. Amulets containing biblical verses were also used, and it was customary to place sweet-meats under the bed so that the evil spirits would be occupied with eating them. In Salonika it was customary to leave the doors of the house and all its cupboards open during pregnancy to ensure that the mother would not miscarry. It was also customary to measure a string seven times around the grave of a renowned rabbi and then bind it around the stomach of the pregnant woman to ensure an easy pregnancy. The mother and her relatives also prayed at the graves of pious men in the fifth month of her pregnancy. To ensure that the child would be a male, the mother pronounced the intended name of a boy every Friday. She was guarded for 15 days after birth, and blue beads or pieces of ivory and coral were hung above the cradle of the child. Garlic and other plants were hung in the room, and an open hand was painted on the door. An attempt was made to keep the mother awake for the first three days after birth to prevent Lilith from harming her. In Yemen, a festive meal, at which the name was given, was held on the third day. In Kurdistan the mother was not allowed to leave the house after nightfall for 40 days. Since delivery usually takes place now in modern hospitals, most of these traditional customs at childbirth have tended to disappear, particularly since they were primarily based on medieval superstitious folklore. Naming a daughter at the synagogue, however, has been retained in traditional, Conservative, and Reform Jewish practice.
Contemporary Developments in Birth Rituals for Girls
The Jewish feminist movement that began in the 1970s encouraged the development of ceremonies to publicly sanctify the entry of Jewish baby girls into the covenant. By the beginning of the 21st century, public welcomes for baby girls had become normative in American Judaism. Numerous versions of Brit Bat (the covenant of a daughter) or Simḥat Bat (the joy of a daughter) rituals were available for home and synagogue use by parents and rabbis from all Jewish religious movements. Some of the ceremonies made use of symbols such as candles (brit ha-nerot). Although ceremonies for baby girls are most often held in synagogues during services where the Torah is read, many are now conducted at home like those that accompany circumcisions. In Israel the ceremony or party celebrating the birth of a daughter is sometimes called brita (a feminization of the word for covenant).
Simḥat bat ceremonies may include a formal welcome by those present as the baby girl is carried in; spelling the child's Hebrew name out with biblical verses; bestowing the priestly benediction and traditional Friday night daughter's blessing; a naming prayer including both father's and mother's names in that of the daughter; explaining the rationale for the name; an expression of thanks for return to good health by the mother (birkat ha-gomel); a series of short blessings including the one over wine and sometimes in the format of the seven benedictions (sheva brakhot) of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony; and special added benedictions to the grace after meals after the festive meal (se'udah shel mitzvah) which follows the ritual. Often, booklets are printed and distributed which announce the name and provide a "script" for the ceremony so that all present may participate. These manuals serve as vehicles for innovation and as educational tools to enable assimilated Jews and the growing number of non-Jews who attend Jewish life cycle rituals to understand and follow what is going on before them.
Another evolving aspect of contemporary rituals connected with birth is the inclusion of the mother in ceremonies for sons and daughters. Until the last quarter of the 20th century mothers were often absent from the ceremonies for their sons and the naming of their daughters in the synagogue. Today, in some circles the family waits to name the daughter until the mother is able to be present. She may have a Torah honor in the synagogue and recite the prayer for a safe recovery. Both boys and girls may be named as the children of both mother and father. At a circumcision, the mother as well as the father may be in the room and say the prescribed benedictions.
[Rela Mintz Geffen (2nd ed.)]
I. Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (1959), 170–91; M. Perlman, Midrash ha-Refu'ah, 1 (1926), 18–25; E. Ilinson, in: Sinai, 66 (1969/70), 20–49. CUSTOMS AND FOLKLORE: Y. Yehoshua, Yaldut bi-Y'rushalayim ha-Yeshanah, 2 (1966), 79–91; Molcho, in: Saloniki, Ir va-Em be-Yisrael (1967), 188–93; M. Zadok, Yehudei Teiman (1967), 213–4; N.B. Gamlieli, Telman u-Maḥaneh "Ge'ullah" (1966). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: R. Barkai, A History of Jewish Gynaecological Texts in the Middle Ages (1998); E. Baumgarten, Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe (2004); R.M. Geffen (ed.), Celebration & Renewal – Rites of Passage in Judaism (1993), 12–31; E. Horowitz, "The Eve of Circumcision: A Chapter in the History of Jewish Nightlife," in: Journal of Social History, 13 (1989/90), 45–69; M. Klein, A Time To Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (1999); I.G. Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage From Biblical
To Modern Times (2004); R.L. Millen, Women, Birth, and Death in Jewish Law and Practice (2004), 70–108; S. Sabar, "Childbirth and Magic. Jewish Folklore and Material Culture," in: D. Biale (ed.), Cultures of the Jews: A New History (2002), 671–722.
Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group.
All Rights Reserved.