My husband and I are expecting our first child in a few months, and I've seen very little written about the Jewish perspective on pregnancy. So much of the emphasis seems to be on the medical and physical. What does Judaism say about my most pressing questions:
What spiritual awareness does the fetus experience?
What things can I do to ensure that my child gets off to the right start spiritually?
Are there special prayers for pregnant women?
I'm sure there are many other pregnant Jewish women who would be interested in the Jewish perspective on this tremendous experience. Thanks so much, and may you continue to inspire so many!
Rebbetzin Faige replies:
Your question is an important one, and not a bit too early.
Legend says that a woman approached Sigmund Freud and asked him at what age should she begin the education of her child. "How old is your youngster?" he inquired. "Five months old," she replied. To which he retorted: "You're already 14 months too late."
The Jewish perspective views the impact of both an inner and outer environment as a major factor in the evolving and growing of a human being. A mother's womb is the first space in the life of a child. The sanctity of this first home is hallowed by the mikveh ritual before conception. Through immersion in the spiritual waters, the Almighty, as it were, is invited to join the husband and wife to become a partner in the conception and creation of this being.
The Talmud (Avot 2:11) relates that the great leader and teacher, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, identified the unique essence of his five outstanding disciples, citing specific attributes like: fear of transgression, dazzling brilliance, power of retention, and going beyond the call of duty.
When it came to assessing Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chanina, the great master declared: "Blessed be the one who gave birth to him." The commentaries explain that Rabbi Yehoshua was so sensational that his teacher was unable to single out any one prominent feature. Rather he was moved to exclaim a blessing on the mother who had produced such a great individual.
The reason his mother was deserving of this accolade, we are informed, is that throughout her pregnancy she frequented houses of Torah study and elicited prayers from the Sages that the baby she was carrying would be endowed with wisdom. After birth, she placed his cradle in the study hall where ― by osmosis ― he absorbed the sounds of Torah learning and Jewish ethics.
Angel in the Womb
The womb is the first critical environment for formation of the child. The Talmud relates that an angel is dispatched from above to study Torah with the fetus in utero for the duration of the nine months, to adequately prepare the unborn child for his future existence.
Upon birth, we are told, the angel, with a flick of a finger to the indentation of the lip, causes the child to forget all that has been learned.
Though we may not remember what we have learned, nonetheless at a subconscious level the information is there, programmed into the marrow of our being, waiting to be downloaded and recalled. All it takes is the desire and willingness to put forth the effort, to access the knowledge, and to bring it to a conscious level.
My daughter was in the latter stage of pregnancy as she was preparing for the Bar Mitzvah of her eldest son. She hoped that the baby would cooperate and come early, but the baby (predictably, with a mind of its own and supported by Murphy's Law) had no such intention. The due date came and went, and no baby arrived.
During pregnancy, a woman is not only connected with God as a co-creator, she is also hosting an angel!
Exasperated, my daughter called her brother to vent her frustrations. With the wisdom of an older brother, he hastened to point out that in all likelihood the angel had not completed his course of instruction with the baby. To this insightful suggestion, my daughter replied that she would be perfectly willing to compensate for the unfinished learning by hiring a tutor to fill in for the angel... just get this baby out!
Remember: During pregnancy, a woman is not only connected with God as a co-creator (so to speak), but she is also hosting an angel! Are our thoughts, words and actions truly worthy in the presence of an angel?
Through it all, always keep in mind the power of prayer. The lighting of the Sabbath candles is a very special time, a direct line for women to pray on behalf of their children. The siddur (prayer book) contains a formal prayer, asking the Almighty to give us the strength, clarity and vision to raise children that will be the fulfillment of our greatest hopes and dreams.
The Talmud (Brachot 60a) offers these guidelines for prayer during pregnancy:
• During the first three days of conception, one should pray that the pregnancy be accepted by the body.
• Until 40 days after conception, one may pray for the specific gender of the child. (However, the request must be qualified and put into perspective. "All things being equal, God, it would certainly be nice to have a little girl after all those boys! We would certainly prefer it. But as in all things, we defer to Your wisdom, knowing that only You understand the grand scheme of things.")
• From 40-90 days, one should pray that the child not suffer any deformity.
• From 3-6 months months, one should pray that the pregnancy not result in miscarriage.
• From 6-9 months, one should pray for a safe delivery.
There are many other beautiful prayers to say at various stages of pregnancy and delivery. These are complied in the book, "Joyful Mother of Children" by Rabbi Dovid Simcha Rosenthal (Feldheim.com).
Whether we choose structured formal prayers, Psalms, or spontaneous free-flowing dialogues with the Almighty, prayers are our best resource.
One of the landmarks of a visit to Israel is the Tomb of Rachel. The burial place of "momma Rachel" is the site of pilgrimages from near and far by Jews of all levels of commitment to pour their hearts out in prayer. Rachel was the primary beloved wife of the patriarch Jacob. In contrast to his other three wives, Rachel was childless. Consequently, her pain was unbearable, and despite the great love of her husband, she found no peace. She was consumed with the desperate need for a child. Finally her prayers were answered and she was granted two sons, but alas she died in childbirth with her son Benjamin.
Rachel's role as mother and advocate for her children continues uninterrupted in the eternal realm.
Her obsession with becoming a mother and having a child, short-lived though it was, flowed from an understanding that this was to be her contribution to the destiny of her people. Our sages poignantly observe that Rachel's role as mother and advocate for her children did not cease with her death, but continues uninterrupted in the eternal realm. She was not buried with her beloved husband Jacob in the ancestral burial place in Hebron. Instead, she was buried in Bethlehem so that Jews ― her children ― would have more immediate access to her in times of dispersion and travail. When her children would be exiled and banished from their land, they would encounter "momma Rachel's" grave along the way, on the road. She would serve as a comfort and provide a place for Jews to unburden their heavy hearts and gain solace.
"A voice on high is heard. Rachel cries for her children. She refuses to be consoled." Finally God says to her, "Hold back your voice from crying, because there is reward for your entreaties and hard work on their behalf." God's assurance is that the Jewish people "will return home to their boundaries" (Jeremiah 31:14).
Rachel is the paradigm of the Jewish mother who does not relent advocacy for her children, here and beyond.
Woven into the Fibers
The birth of the great prophet Samuel was the result of many heart-wrenching prayers and entreaties by his mother, Chana. The "barren" Chana promised God that if He blessed her with a son, she would dedicate the boy to the Temple and to the service of his people. She was asking for an average child who would blend well among people, a child who was neither too bright nor dull.
This sensitive articulation serves as a model for what should be worthy in our sight. Indeed Samuel, the son she was granted, was extraordinary, not because he was gifted with above-average natural abilities, but because his mother's vision resulted in the boy fully tapping into his potential.
True to her word, Chana weaned Samuel at two years of age and brought him to the High Priest, Eli. As she departed, all she left behind with her toddler was a small coat she'd personally made (and as he grew she would send him size-appropriate replacements). Samuel traveled among his people, serving, teaching and counseling for many years. Wherever he went, he wore the coat his mother made.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz comments that every fiber of this special garment was infused with the yearning, aspirations, hopes and dreams that Chana had for Samuel. As he wore it, her values were transferred to him and gave him the strength and inspiration to discharge his awesome responsibilities, and ultimately become the great prophet of Israel.
Chana's appeal to God has become the text for Jewish prayer. The tone, form and substance of her request, and the concluding gratitude, provide an inspiring and informative example of a real dialogue with God.
Some Final Words
To give life one must first be alive. To give joy one must be joyous.
Being a frequent flyer makes me all-too familiar with the flight attendants' instruction that in the case of loss of air pressure, one must first put on their own oxygen mask before assisting a child or others with theirs. To give life one must first be alive. To give joy one must be joyous. If one seeks to nurture, we must take care of ourselves, too. If one is depleted, there is nothing left to give. As idealistic as we might be, one cannot run on empty. So be good to yourself, eat well, sleep adequately ― and cherish every moment of pregnancy and the awesome miracle of birth.
Our sages encourage husband and wife to be especially mindful of their personal relationship during this time. Intimacy during the last trimester of gestation is encouraged, because among other goals, it "enhances the fetus." The expression of loving and caring between spouses creates a necessary positive energy, a beneficial inner environment in which the unborn child can thrive.
"With pain shall you birth children" (Genesis 3:16). Birthing refers to the broad process of raising our offspring and sending them out to the world as competent human beings. It is an awesome challenge. And there are times when we will feel totally inadequate and downright failures. Be assured that this is part of the parenting package. But there will be moments when you will clearly see the fruits of your labor and ― wow ― those moments will they be worth the input and the wait.
I wish you "mazal" ― good fortune ― as you set out on this journey into motherhood, bringing sacred life to the world. With your wonderful eagerness to invest in Torah-based parenting, your child will surely be nurtured and raised to give "nachas" to the Almighty, to his/her family, and to the world.