A Jewish View of Pregnancy and Childbirth

People often wonder what Judaism has to say about pregnancy and childbirth. Some women are disappointed by the relative lack of comment on this issue, whereas others are able to find a wealth of information from sources beyond the Tanach and the Talmud, such as segulot (beliefs in activities or objects that will make something easier, like eating etrog – a large citrus fruit – in the ninth month for an easy labor), customs, and prayers composed by women and for women. As one can imagine, the attitude toward childbirth in Judaism is quite encouraging, since the very first commandment given in the Torah is “be fruitful and multiply.” This is one of the reasons many Jewish families tend to be large (Hashem be blessed), because many traditional couples want to abide by this commandment to the fullest.

According to Jewish law, one fulfills his obligation (interestingly, it is men who are required to fulfill this commandment, although they need a woman to do so), by having at least one child of each gender. Obviously, not everyone is able to accomplish this. The great sage, Rashi, had two daughters and no sons, and yet, through his daughters’ marriages to Torah scholars, they built one of the greatest Torah “dynasties” that has ever existed. The Torah expresses great sympathy toward pregnant women, and one moving passage in the Bible features Rebecca crying out to G-d and asking him why her pregnancy is so hard. G-d responds that she has two nations (Esau and Jacob) struggling inside her womb. Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin, and her self-sacrifice is one of the reasons Rachel has such a special place among the matriarchs.

A lot has been said about the troubling curse to Chava or Eve “In pain will you bear children.” Rabbi Manis Friedman points out that this is the reason many women were burnt as witches in the past; the Puritans took this verse so literally, that anyone who wanted to ease the pain of labor (i.e midwives, who used herbs) were accused as witches and executed. Rabbi Friedman explains that this is a curse and not a commandment, and is meant to be contrary to the way things should be—there really shouldn’t be any pain in labor. As we come closer to the time of the Messiah and the Redemption (which the Lubavitcher Rebbe and others has said will happen in our generation), we will go back to the conditions in Gan Eden, and these curses will be reversed. Both the development of the epidural and the natural childbirth movement have given women ways of easing the pain of labor and are signs that this ideal age is approaching.