Rosh Hashanah greeting card depicting schoolboys and their teacher reciting the Shema‘ at the bedside of a woman who has just recently given birth. It is a custom for children to come to the home of a newborn boy to recite this prayer on the night before his circumcision ceremony in order to ward off evil. (Collection of Shalom Sabar, Jerusalem. Courtesy Dov Noy, Hebrew University, Jerusalem)

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Birth and Birthing

The birth of a child in the premodern period was accompanied by many fears, anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness. There were many possible dangers for both the mother and the baby. In traditional Jewish life, these dangers were perceived as connected not only to objective difficulties, but also to the influence of the world of demons and evil spirits.

Amulet to protect a woman and her newborn son, with invocations of Adam and Eve, Lilith, and several angels; Podolia or Ukraine, late nineteenth or early twentieth century. (The Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg, Russia)

The demon Lilith (Yid., Lilis) was considered the most damaging and threatening force to the mother and baby. According to ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith—known as the first wife of the first man, Adam—fled from her husband, and when she refused to return to him, 100 of her children died. Consequently, she seeks to steal the children of others. Lilith in Jewish tradition rules the night, particularly for babies and their mothers, and especially during the first 8 days after the birth of a son, or 20 days following the birth of a daughter. Often the fear was that Lilith would snatch the newborn, leaving a straw doll in its place. 

Many customs developed whose purpose was to defend against such hidden demons. While these customs are known from seventeenth- and especially eighteenth-century East European sources, they are likely much older. Practices included surrounding the mother and baby with objects that emphasize a close connection to the Torah and faith in God. Magical methods were employed as well. A mother and infant were not to be left alone, but if they were, the mother was to keep a knife nearby. The males close to her were to pray in her home and recite chapters of psalms.

During labor, a woman would hold a key to the synagogue. A Torah scroll was placed in her room; candles were lit; a circle was drawn around her bed; and sacred spells that were believed to have the power to obstruct the influences of evil spirits were written in her proximity. Sections of the Pentateuch were placed in the child’s cradle, particularly the book of Leviticus—the first book of the Torah that children study. At times, particular Torah passages of kabbalistic significance were referred to, such as sections on manna, incense, or sacrifices; in addition, copies of Psalm 121 (“Shir ha-ma‘alot”; Yid., “Shir hamales”) were placed in the room. The use of amulets, books of charms, and divine names was widespread in early modern Polish Jewish society. Many of these were intended not only to guard the mother and the baby but also to ease the pains of labor. 

The time immediately following the birth was filled with festivities. Honors were bestowed upon leaders of the communal administration, members of the family, and midwives. The baby’s parents would “purchase a mitzvah,” that is, provide honorary roles in the synagogue for leaders of the community. In exchange, the honorees would visit the home of the baby on the Sabbath, the day on which daughters’ names were announced. Girls’ names could be announced on any day when the Torah was read, but the common custom was to announce them on the Sabbath, because of its festivity. The Hollekreisch ceremony, which had originated in Central Europe, survived in Eastern Europe only for calling out a male child’s colloquial vernacular name, together with his Hebrew name, at the circumcision ceremony.

Rosh Hashanah card depicting a circumcision ceremony (Yid., bris; Heb., berit milah). The fruits on the “tree of life” are labeled (left to right), “luck,” “life,” and “joy,” and the Yiddish verse reads: “A child, boy is born / May he have happiness and live long! / A child, a joy, sugar-sweet / Today was his bris.” Published by Verlag Central, Warsaw. (YIVO)

The birth of a son was celebrated on the night before the circumcision ceremony or, according to sources from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, on the Sabbath night closest to the circumcision, and was known as lel ha-shimurim (Yid., vakhtnakht; guarding night), a time when fear of evil spirits was at its peak and culminating the weeklong period in which the danger to the child’s welfare was great. It is also known as sholem-zokher (Yid., literally, peace of the male [child]). This night’s celebration, for which female relatives and friends would prepare a festive meal, was a vestige of a practice in late antiquity; traditionally, chickpeas and fava beans were served. Also called yeshu‘a ha-ben (the saving or sparing of the child), it marked the child’s successful passage into the world.

During the circumcision ceremony, the sandek (godfather) earned an honorary role in the synagogue and arranged a festive meal. Those who carried the child to the ceremony were called kvater (m.) or kvatern (f.). When a girl was born, the mother marked the Sabbath following the birth, when she first left her home for the synagogue. In honor of this event, or in honor of the circumcision, the mother would send food (fish, cakes, meat) or simple gifts to the midwives, female friends and relatives, and prominent women: the wives of the synagogue treasurers, the rabbi, and the preacher. The father was called up to the reading of the Torah in honor of the occasion. The communities’ takanot (ordinances) warned against excess in terms of the financial expenditures surrounding these events.

Midwives were licensed by the communal administration. Following a successful trial period, the midwife and her family would receive ḥazakah (authorization) by the community and even tenure in their work for a long period or for a lifetime, as in the minute book of the Jewish community council of Tiktin (Tykocin) in the early eighteenth century. At times, women would take an oath during childbirth—a vow to give charity—in the presence of the midwives. Following the payment, for example in Poznań in the late seventeenth century, the midwife would transfer the donation to the almsbox for poor mothers.

Care for the baby was generally conducted in the parents’ home. Nourishment in the child’s first two years was based on breastfeeding. Generally, the mother was obliged to nurse her child but wet nurses were employed if there was a health problem. Additionally, high-ranking social and economic status would bring mothers on occasion to relinquish nursing and hire a wet nurse. Actual dilemmas concerning the nursing of babies are raised in the responsa literature when widowed or divorced mothers of babies under the age of two seek to remarry: they are forbidden out of fear that she will become pregnant by her new husband and neglect the nutritional needs of her baby. These deliberations are found in abundance in the rabbinic literature of the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries and reflect the conflict between the strong impulse to remarry and the need to guarantee the welfare of the child.

Suggested Reading

Lawrence A. Hoffman, “Rituals of Birth in Judaism,” in Life Cycles in Jewish and Christian Worship, pp. 32–54 (South Bend, Ind., 1996); Elliot Horowitz, “The Eve of the Circumcision: A Chapter in the History of Jewish Nightlife,” in Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, ed. David B. Ruderman (New York, 1992); Gershon David Hundert, “Children and Childhood in Early Modern East Central Europe,” in The Jewish Family: Metaphor and Memory, ed. David Kraemer, pp. 81–94 (New York, 1989); Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (Philadelphia, 2004).



Translated from Hebrew by Carrie Friedman-Cohen