Jews: Births, Babies And Motherhood
Children are a blessing to the whole community, and are welcomed by everyone. Marriage in Judaism is considered to be a union between the souls of a man and a woman, and children are the fruit of that union. In fact, the first mitzvah of the Torah calls upon Jews to 'be fertile and increase'.
Although Jews consider that children are born free from any sin, the mother is considered unclean (in niddah) for a time after the birth because she is not capable of continuing to carry out one of her key duties – she cannot conceive again at this point. To be cleansed of niddah, she must go to the synagogue to be immersed in the ritual bath there – the mikveh – which will return her to a state of cleanliness again. She must wait seven days after the birth of a boy to carry out this ritual, and 14 days after the birth of a girl.
Orthodox Jewish women will try to keep the laws of modesty as far as they can, and therefore may be uncomfortable with male medical staff examining them during pregnancy and especially during labour. They will also try to remain covered up for as long as possible.
Orthodox Jewish men, although they may choose to be present during the birth, might adhere strictly to certain rules concerning niddah. During the birth they will not touch their wives or pass objects directly to them. This is because of the rules about niddah, otherwise they will be as supportive and helpful as they can.
If a mother miscarries after the first 40 days of pregnancy, then the child is considered to have had life, and must be treated as though it had been born. There is an injunction to treat any baby that has a 'human form' as though it were a full-term stillbirth, but even a baby that is less well developed may be considered by parents to have had life. Thus, the family may wish a rabbi to be called, or the local burial society. The body will be washed and later buried in the usual way. It is important that great sensitivity and compassion are shown at this point. Do not refer to the child as an 'it' or mention 'spontaneous abortion', but instead treat the mother and family – and the child – as though a full pregnancy had resulted in a birth but the baby had not survived. Do not offer the mother a lock of hair; the child must be buried intact. The placenta and other fluids from the miscarriage can be disposed of.
The situation for a stillbirth is very much the same as that for a miscarriage; a baby with 'human form' is treated as any other deceased Jewish human, and buried accordingly. Again, do not offer the parents a lock of hair, but do make provision for footprints or photographs to be taken if they would like these. The family may wish a rabbi to be called and may also wish the baby to be collected by the local burial society. Family members will want to visit the parents to pay their respects; make sure a quiet room is set aside for friends and family to mourn in peace.
Under Jewish law, a child gains full human status as soon as the head of the child leaves the womb, whether this is by natural birth or Caesarean section. This fully alive status applies to premature babies as well. Boy babies are usually required to be circumcised within eight days of birth if they are healthy enough; obviously, this is a matter of discussion for the parents and medical staff, and circumcision will happily be delayed until the premature baby receives the medical all-clear. However, other ceremonies such as naming the child, presenting it to the family, and even the presence of a rabbi and friends to recite healing prayers may need to be accommodated.
Breastfeeding is seen as entirely natural and there are no laws forbidding it. New mothers may be reluctant to feed their children in front of men, or to discuss problems with male staff.
There are no specific rules about postnatal care or care of the mother under Jewish law, except those that relate to the mother's niddah status and her immersion in the mikveh, and the circumcision of male children. Circumcision usually takes place at home and is carried out by a mohel – a man fully trained in this ritual practice. It is not a medical procedure, but a religious one that initiates the child into the Covenant between G-d and his people, the Jews. If for some reason the child is still in hospital, circumcision can be postponed for medical reasons until the all-clear is given. If the ceremony does take place in hospital, set aside a quiet room for the family and any friends they invite; this is a time of celebration as well as reverence.
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