As a Shlucha I have often been presented with questions and
stories from professionals who are not accustomed to dealing with observant
women and their husbands during the process of childbirth. These people have
been trained to treat their patients with compassion and understanding while
dispensing their medical expertise. To that end they seek the knowledge to
understand their patients so that they may accommodate them accordingly.
This article represents the mainstream Orthodox halachic
(Jewish Law) view on the issues of giving birth. Please understand that this is
a brief overview for the purpose of providing clarification to medical
personnel who find themselves dealing with these couples and wish to be
sensitive to their needs. There are Rabbis who are experts in these areas (much
as a doctor who specializes in Gynecology and/or Obstetrics) and there are
times when a situation arises wherein such a Rabbi needs to be consulted.
First of all, let me explain that Jewish Law is determined
by Torah. What is Torah? It is often translated to mean Bible, however this
translation conjures images of some antiquated history book telling us stories
of the past. In actuality, the more accurate translation of Torah would be to
look at the root source of the word itself horaah meaning instruction or guide. It is interesting to note
that the word for parents in Hebrew is horim
plural for guides or instructors indeed parents are the childs primary
guide and teacher throughout their lives.
The Torah is our instruction manual, our guide to life. It
is not a history book of ancient stories, but a very contemporary book that
teaches us how to live our lives today, right here, right now no matter the
century. We believe that the Torah is a Divine code, every letter meaningful
and precious and as such is truth that is forever, a truth that does not change
but withstands the test of time. We are observing the same Torah in the same
way since it was given to us on Mount Sinai over 3000 years ago. It is as
relevant and essential today, and every day, as it was then.
G-d created all life and what is childbirth if not the
creation of life? It is certainly appropriate that we use G-ds manual so to
speak and follow His directive of behavior at this time.
Lets start from the beginning
the Jewish marriage.
The Hebrew word for marriage is Kiddushin which comes from the Hebrew
root word kadosh which means HOLY.
Holy in Hebrew means separate, special, set aside and set apart, belonging to
only one. This is the Jewish idea of marriage.
We believe that the letters of
the Hebrew alphabet contain the secrets of the world, the very essence of
creation, G-d used those letters to create every single thing in our universe.
The Hebrew name for man is Ish Alef, Yud, Shin. The Hebrew name for woman is Isha Alef, Shin, Hey.
Each of these names contain the Hebrew word for fire within them Aish Alef, Shin. The two remaining letters of these names are Yud and Hey letters of G-ds holy name. Together they are Aish Hashem the fire of G-d.
G-d created man and woman as
physical beings. These physical beings have physical needs and a physical
passion fire - for one another. When man and woman come together according to
the Torah way marrying and attempting to build a family, their physical
passion is not just good, it is holy. By following His laws in their
relationship, they make G-d the third Partner of their marriage, acknowledging
Him as their Father the Creator of everything - Who will bring blessing to
their home and their family.
History gave man many different
theories about physical intimacy. The ancient Greeks glorified the body, its
desires and needs, perfecting it as an end result of its own. Then came
religions that considered the physical body and its needs a necessary evil
forcing celibacy upon their highest clergy.
Judaism, however, does not say
intimacy is good or evil, rather it emphasizes that, done right, intimacy is
HOLY! Not just holy, but the holiest act we can be part of! Why? Because when
man and woman come together they have the ability to produce a child, a child
with a holy soul, a neshama. That
soul comes directly from G-d Who allow us to participate in an act that is as
G-dlike as possible, since only G-d can create something from nothing, yet here
we have the potential to join Him in creating a child!
So how do we make this act a
holy act? We follow the Torahs instruction. The Torah tells us who should be
intimate, namely a married couple, and when we should be intimate. The Torah
gives us times when we should abstain from intimacy, then immerse in a Mikvah
following a protocol dictated by Jewish law halacha then resume our intimate relationship.
Sadly, some people think that the
purpose of Mikvah is to remove some kind of dirtiness that is associated with
the menstrual period. This comes from the association of the two words used
regarding Mikvah immersion. One immerses in Mikvah to change ones spiritual
status from Tuma to Taharah simplistically translated to
Impure and Pure. The truth of the matter is that Mikvah is used to change
spiritual status. This has nothing to do with physical cleanliness.
The Kohen Gadol, High Priest, immersed prior to his service in the Bet
Hamikdosh the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The convert to Judaism immerses to signify the change in his status from
non-Jew to Jew. One who attends a funeral or visits a cemetery washes their
hands upon leaving the cemetery. According to Judaism, the spirit of death, a
form of impurity, rests upon our fingernails. We dont see it; it is not a
physical thing, but a spiritual issue. The same is true of the menstrual cycle.
The blood shed during the menses is the loss of potential life, a pregnancy
that could have occurred but did not. That potential for life is lost, dead
if you will. This spirit of death needs to be removed, the woman restored to
her holy, life giving status with the potential to be part of the creation of
a new life. By following the proscribed protocol and immersing in the Mikvah,
she removes all spirit of death, and allows the transition from connection to
death, to the source of life water is the source of life. Just as a fetus is
contained in the water of the womb and emerges as a new life, so a woman
emerges from the Mikvah as a new entity, undergoing a spiritual rebirth to
reunite with her husband and again be part of the holy union that has the
potential to be part of creation.
Torah has three different types
of mitzvot (commandments):
Statues Commandments that have no visible rationalization i.e. do not
mix milk and meat, the whole issue of Kosher and non-Kosher foods, etc
Testimonies Commandments that remind us of certain events and ideals
i.e. Shabbat, the Festivals, Mezuzah,
Judgements Commandments that govern the relationships of human beings
i.e. do not steal, do not kill, do not lie, etc
According to Chassidus every
mitzvah actually contains elements of all three of these categories. While
Mikvah falls into the Chok (singular
for Chukim) category, we are still
able to see many possible benefits from its observance.
The entire concept of Mikvah, the
intimate separation of a couple from each other and the reunion they have after
the Mikvah immersion provide advantages on the practical, spiritual and
Absence makes the heart grow
fonder - There is no question that a separation only heightens the excitement
of a reunion. Abstaining from all physical touch creates a newness that the
couple can experience when they come together again. That sense of renewal
stands them in good stead throughout the years of their marriage, keeping that
newness and excitement alive and well even into the later years of life.
Communication A couple
who observe Mikvah find themselves learning to communicate with one another on
many different levels from the very beginning of their marriage. When the
physical option is removed a couple must learn to use their words, their eyes,
their very expressions they cannot fight and make up in the bedroom!
Respect and Individuality
- Two beds and physical space give rise to respect for the person, their
personal space and individual needs. Boundaries are set and adhered to and the
result is an enduring respect for one another.
Observance of the laws of Mikvah give a woman a deeper and clearer
understanding of her body and its functions. Women are taught to learn their
individual bodies and be comfortable with themselves. They are able to discern
possibly unhealthy situations that may occur, often far earlier than their
Menstruation is the shedding of
the uterine lining that has built up to accommodate and nourish a possible
pregnancy. Once that lining is shed it takes seven days to regenerate. Some
physicians have discovered that intimate relations during that time can be
unhealthy until that lining has completely regenerated. The vagina is naturally
acidic, thereby repelling germs. During menstruation, however, it becomes
alkaline and more receptive to germs, less able to repel them. It takes seven
days for it to revert to its naturally acidic and protective state. Emotionally
as well, women are more receptive to intimacy and all it entails about seven
days after the period has ended, often coinciding with a womans most fertile
time of the month when she is by nature at the peak of her physical desire.
Spiritual Meaning - Mikvah is a mitzvah given to us by G-d, the Creator of all life. We live this
life in this world, we look to G-d, its Creator to guide us and give us
direction on how to live this life. We stand in the Mikvah waters where the
gates of heaven are open to our prayers and we pray for all we need, all we
desire. We emerge from the Mikvah spiritually renewed, ready to unite with our
husbands in holiness.
We have discussed the issue of Mikvah and the spiritual
transition immersion in Mikvah brings. So how does this all work? How does this
affect an observant woman during childbirth?
Menstruation brings a woman into the status of Nidah
literal translation separation practically speaking, the time that a
woman separates physically from her husband until the Mikvah immersion changes
her spiritual status to non-Nidah Tahor.
This Nidah status and its
accompanying physical separation comes not only from actual menstruation, but
from any uterine bleeding, including the blood associated with birth
bleeding, mucous plug, bloody show, etc.
What does this physical separation entail?
Not only must an observant couple refrain from actual
relations during the time the wife in the nidah
status, but there are also restrictions of any physical contact, including hugging,
kissing, touching, passing or throwing things directly to one another. At that
time a husband is only permitted to see his wife in a modestly dressed fashion.
All parts of her body that are covered for the general public, are to be
covered in his presence as well.
Of course the reasons for this are rather obvious, once you
know that intimate relations are forbidden to the couple at this time. It only
makes sense that anything that may lead to arousal or pique physical interest
would be forbidden as well, truly as an aid to the couple to help them keep the
critical observance of forbidden intimacies at this time. So while intimacy
between husband and wife is of the utmost holiness at the proper time, it is
strictly prohibited at the incorrect time.
In terms of childbirth, a nurse or doctor who sees a husband
who does not hold his wifes hand in comfort or kiss her in jubilation may
think: What kind of relationship does this couple have?? What kind of parents
will they be if they cannot show affection to one another at such an emotional
The laws of Tzniut
modesty are to be carefully observed as well. This means that the husband
leaves the room, or at least stands behind the curtains during vaginal exams
and during the actual birth or at least at a distance or angle, where his
wifes modesty can be maintained. By giving him notice of these exams, you can
ease the situation tremendously. Helping a laboring woman, who may not always
be in full control of what is going on around her, maintaining her head
covering and keeping her elbows, knees and everything in between as covered as
possible, will ensure her comfort in often uncomfortable circumstances.
Observant couples not only love each other, but they share a
devout commitment to one another and to their Torah observance. They will
impart these strong values to their children as they raise them in the true
spirit of Torah and belief in G-d.
How does the Torah view a new mother? For the first 72 hours
post birth a woman is considered to be in the category of someone who is
seriously ill. Anything that needs to be done for her is permissible for
example she is permitted to eat on the holiest of holy days Yom Kippur
(the Day of Atonement where Jews fast for 25 hours). Even the Shabbat (Sabbath)
may be desecrated if there is no other way to meet her needs during that time.
However, a woman who is observant will of course try her utmost to maintain the
laws of Shabbat and the holidays. In this respect, the non-Jewish hospital
staff can help by doing these things for her, adjusting her bed, turning lights
off or on, etc as needed to ensure her comfort so she can get the rest she
needs to regain her strength and recover.
Another issue that arises while an observant woman is
confined to the hospital is keeping Kosher. Many are aware of the prohibition
against pork and its byproducts, however, the laws of Kosher are more complex
than the prohibition of pork. Kosher means that we may eat only meat from
certain animals, and that meat needs to be ritually slaughtered according to
Torah law. Not all fish are kosher, only those who have both fins and scales
When we eat kosher, it means that we not only follow very
specific laws of not mixing milk and meat, it is also means that we wait six
hours after eating any meat foods before we may eat dairy foods. We eat only
foods that have been prepared under strict rabbinical supervision and have that
rabbinical certification on the package. This includes all prepared fruits,
vegetables and grains. We also recite a prayer both before and after we eat,
blessing and thanking G-d for providing us with this food, asking Him to allow
this food to give us the strength and well being to continue to perform His
There are also many who observe Cholov Yisrael, dairy products that have been supervised by a
Jewish person from the very moment of milking to the final prepared product.
This too requires a symbol of rabbinical supervision, to allow consumption by
an observant woman.
The laws of kosher, kashrut,
are detailed and complex and while it may be difficult to comprehend, the
understanding and respect given by hospital staff can only help the observant
patient feel comfortable in her surroundings and enable her to focus her
energies on getting strong and well.
Observance of the laws of kashrut, the laws of nidah, the
laws of tzniut and all the
commandments of the Torah bring spirituality to this physical world. We believe
that the entire universe was created to bring the glory of G-d and His will
from the highest heavens down to the mundane world we live in, thereby giving
all things physical, a spiritual significance.
SHABBAT AND JEWISH HOLIDAYS
Another important situation for the observant woman in
hospital is the observance of Shabbat and Jewish Holidays. Shabbat is the day
of rest that we observe each week beginning at sundown on Friday afternoon and
ending at nightfall on Saturday, a total of about 25 hours. G-d rested from His
creation of the world on the seventh day which, according to Torah, is
Saturday. On the Shabbat we refrain from doing many things you probably would
not consider work, but they are prohibited nonetheless. Use of electricity in
any form is prohibited; in terms of a hospital stay this has numerous implications:
Automatic bed adjustment
Also prohibited is writing and the handling of money
including credit cards - thus no forms can be completed and discharge must be
delayed until after Shabbat or the holiday.
The observant woman will wish to light the Shabbat and holiday candles,
if she is physically capable of doing so. If at all possible, provide an area
where this can be done safely.
The holiday of Passover will have your observant patient
eating nothing but whole, raw fruits or vegetables from the meal trays, most
waiting for family members to provide their food for them. The holiday of Rosh
Hashana will include a visit by some member of friend or family to blow the
Shofar, the rams horn, and Succot
will bring round a visitor bearing the palm frond and citron to be blessed.
BRIT MILAH/BABY NAMING
Completion of the birth certificate is a huge issue when you
take into account that Jewish girls are named only on Mondays, Thursdays or Shabbat
the days the Torah is read during the prayers. Baby boys are named only at
the brit milah circumcision
ceremony performed on the eighth day from birth. Once you are aware of this
fact you can easily understand that the observant couple anticipated their
childs birth with joy and most certainly thought long and hard about just the
right name for their baby they just cant make it official yet! The birth
certificate is often sent to the parents with just Baby Boy/Baby Girl in place
of the name and parents then submit the name at a later date and have it added
to the legal papers.
Todays society is accustomed to the concept of birth
control, however, observant women consider a large family to be the biggest
blessing! The commandment to be Fruitful and Multiply is one we take
literally. While Torah certainly has provision for those whose health or
circumstance requires a break, it is the exception rather than the rule. An
observant woman may be very uncomfortable with the concept. If necessary, this
is something to be discussed privately with her husband, her doctor and then
her rabbi, it does not have to be discussed by those tending her in hospital
during her recovery time.
Other things to keep in mind would be the Shir Hamalos cards that Jewish women of
all levels of observance may wish to place in the babys bassinet. These
cards contain Kabbalistic letters and words of protection for mother and child.
Some women may even wish to have these cards enclosed in envelopes for modesty
during their labor. Many women will place a sacred prayer book, the book of
Psalms or pictures of holy rabbis in the crib as well, in keeping with the
philosophy of surrounding the child with holy items from the moment of birth.
Any religious icons or symbols, frequently found in
hospitals, would be uncomfortable for Jewish patients. If at all possible,
either cover or temporarily remove those items during their stay.
One other important fact that is frequently misunderstood,
observant men and women do not shake hands or physically touch a member of the
opposite gender who is not a close blood relative. So do not feel rebuffed if
he/she declines shaking hands, it is nothing personal, just another aspect of
the laws of modesty. It is most comfortable for all to simply be aware of this
and refrain from extending your hand in greeting or casual touch.
The main requirement is understanding, respect and
compassion for actions and beliefs that you have never heard of and may not
understand. In this way you have taken your job as a caregiver to the next
level and you can be sure that the nurturing you provide will be appreciated by
This article was edited and revised by Chaya M. Klein, editor and administrator of mikvah.org, from a lecture given by Dvora Green.