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The Sages Say… “A Hollowed-Out Etrog a Sheep Gut Lubricated with Honey, Plenty of Sex…”

AT first glance it seems odd that Judaism has no rituals for an occasion as momentous as birth. Traditionally, even birthdays are ignored. The omission is even more perplexing when we see what a mass of legal and medical literature is to be found in the Talmud and later traditional works on the subjects of conception, pregnancy, birth, lactation and childrearing.

The explanation is that in the halachic (Jewish law) view, birth is merely one of a series of events that are essential to the beginning of life. In the framework of Jewish law, there is no concept of a moment when a human comes to be. A fetus has differing legal status, depending on its stage of physical development. In the event of a miscarriage before the 40th day of gestation, the embryo has virtually no status as an individual; the event is just another menstrual period, and the next child is considered a firstborn. A fetus at full term which threatens to kill the mother because of the difficulty of birth is to be crushed, if necessary. But when either the entire head or the greater part of the body emerges from the mother, no such action can be taken, even if the mother is threatened. At this point, the baby is considered a person equal to the mother in its right to survival. Nevertheless, the murderer of a child less than a week old is not given the death sentence in a Jewish court, as is the murderer of an older person. And even a child as old as 29 days is not accorded a funeral.

This is not to say that the tradition ignores the sacredness of less-than-fully-developed life. In fact, even the potential of life — non-human life too — is considered essentially holy. The Torah forbids the castration of humans and animals, male or female. Sterilization is permitted only in the rare case when pregnancy would threaten a woman’s life and other means of contraception are medically inadvisable. Sperm and ova are very special parts of the body and their “death” in the form of nocturnal emission or menstruation is followed by the renewing ritual of mikvah immersion.

“Be fruitful and multiply” is the very first commandment of the Torah. Because it is a time-dependent positive commandment, it applies, strictly speaking, only to men. Yet the wife who would deny her husband its fulfillment would be guilty of transgressing the mitzvah (commandment) of “love your fellow as yourself,” an essential tenet of Jewish marriage. The mitzvah of procreation is fulfilled only when a couple has a boy and a girl and each of them grows to maturity and has a boy and a girl.

Childlessness is considered the ultimate punishment for both men and women, in a sense worse than death itself. The childless couple, however, is not automatically assumed to have sinned. In his commentary on Genesis, Rashi explains Isaac and Rebecca’s infertility by saying simply that God loves the pure, heartfelt prayer of the righteous who desire children.

The couple who desire worthy children are advised to have this in mind even as they have intercourse. The finest children are conceived, the Talmud relates, when the wife initiates sex.

The discomforts of pregnancy are seen as one of the three curses of Eve. The other two discomforts are the pain of childbirth and the troubles of raising children. These curses, however, are not immutable. Every woman is advised to seek the aid of the best midwives and physicians to help ease the first two curses. And righteous acts can overturn even divine decree. Other advice from the Talmud to the mother-to-be: eat generous amounts of protein, vary your diet, eat and drink in moderation and have plenty of sex.

Labor and the pain of birth are grand themes in the books of the Prophets. The birthing mother is the central metaphor for Jewish history. Just as the agony of a painful birth is certain to have a joyous end, so will the pain of the Exile inevitably end in the coming of the Messiah.

In the latter Middle Ages many customs developed to alleviate the pain of childbirth, including various rites in which items from the synagogue were given for the mother to grasp while in labor. These have virtually disappeared in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities in this century, partly because women are more educated in childbirth techniques and partly because the rabbinate railed against rituals which had a basis in custom, not halacha. Customs which remain widespread include giving the husband the honor of p’ticha (opening the curtains of the Holy Ark) at synagogue services just before the due date; the distribution of charity at any time; and the recitation of the 20th Psalm during labor by the husband or anyone in the labor room.

Childbirth is considered a time of utmost physical danger for the mother. She must prepare for this event as one prepares for any “time of judgment” (such as Yom Kippur) by repentance for sins and by spiritual renewal.

The Talmud attributes the mother’s death during childbirth to negligence in three mitzvot: those of ritual purity, lighting the Sabbath candles and removing the challah (a piece of dough that symbolizes an offering) when baking bread.

Modesty during birth is important for the mother’s sense of dignity. Thus Orthodox women will keep their hair covered even while their vaginal areas are exposed for the birth. Only those aiding the birth should watch it. Jewish tradition is opposed to childbirth as a spectacle and both the father and the mother herself should not watch the birth unless it is necessary for some medical reason.

It is a great mitzvah to assist in birth, and the midwife has a most honored position in Jewish history. Husband-assisted childbirth has an enthusiastic following among traditional couples.

No matter how easy and healthy the birth, the mother has the status of mortally ill for three days after the birth. Unless she is actually very sick from the delivery, she is considered “ill” until the seventh day after birth. She has the status of “somewhat ill” for 30 days after the birth. These states excuse her from various religious obligations.

A new mother is niddah (cannot be physically touched by her husband) for seven days after the birth of a boy or fourteen days after the birth of a girl. (The Talmudists considered the birth of a girl to be more physically demanding on the mother than the birth of a boy.) However, any uterine bleeding renders the mother niddah, so practically speaking, most women remain in this state for about a month after the birth. After seven days in which there is no more bleeding, the mother goes to the mikvah (the ritual bath), and the couple can resume sexual activity.
The Torah commanded new mothers to bring an offering to the Temple 40 days after the birth of a boy or 80 days after the birth of a girl. A sin offering is also brought at this time — because in the throes of labor, the mother may have sworn never to have sex again! The sin offering absolves her of her vow.
The physical well-being of mother and newborn have always been of prime concern in Jewish cultures everywhere. Recently, Hassidic communities in Brooklyn pooled resources to open a “rest house” for new mothers. A resort hotel was purchased where new mothers can spend several post-partum weeks regaining their strength while paid housekeepers tend to their large households. The sliding-scale fee encourages all mothers to take advantage of the service.
Breast-feeding was the only means of nourishing babies until this century, and the Jewish tradition recommends it highly. The Talmud even relates the miraculous tale of a saintly man finding an abandoned infant and being able to nurse it.
The Talmud recognized the fact that nursing lessens — but does not eliminate — the chance that the mother will become pregnant. The Mishna’s discussion of birth control devices centers around this phenomenon. Mothers were advised to space their children. It was said that a woman’s body needed two years to recover fully from the trauma of childbirth. Two years were also deemed essential for a child to nurse; the Talmud recommends three years for sickly children. Therefore, contraception was used during this time.
The most common contraceptive was the moch, an early diaphragm made of sheep gut and lubricated with honey, which is spermicidal. Also used was a cervical cap made of the hollowed-out half of an etrog (a citron), the rind of which is somewhat spermicidal. Rarely used because of their dangers, but highly effective, were “cups of roots” — herbal teas which caused inhibition of ovulation (also used by the Aztecs!) — and the insertion of small objects such as stones into the uterus — precursors of the IUD.
Contemporary standards of health and nutrition permit most women to bear children at closer spacing with no ill-effect, and extended nursing is not considered necessary for even weak children. Therefore, no modern Orthodox Halachic authority routinely permits birth control for the purpose of spacing children. However, a couple that has decided to use birth control will have little trouble finding halachic loopholes to permit it.
Gila Berkowitz is the author of The New Jewish Cuisine (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1986). Her novel, The Brides, will be published in 1990 by St. Martins Press.