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)

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Along with a value system that encouraged reproduction, various social and demographic factors prevailing in the East European Jewish community led to an extremely high rate of childbirth (until the nineteenth century). The marriage rate in Jewish society was much higher than that of the surrounding Christian population, as was the rate of remarriage among the widowed and divorced. In addition, the marriage age was relatively low, as was the woman’s age at first birth—most Jewish women had their first child before the age of 20. Books of charms from the period, such as the popular Sefer zekhirah (Book of Remembrance) by Zekharyah ben Ya‘akov Simner, mention a few formulas for avoiding pregnancy. It would appear, however, that even these were reserved for cases in which a woman’s health was at risk and were not intended to limit the birthrate.

Statistics on infant mortality before the late nineteenth century are difficult to estimate, but according to most opinions there were very few families in the middle ages and early modern period in which more than four children reached maturity. Prosperous families enjoyed a lower rate of infant and child mortality as they could provide food, cleaner surroundings, and protection against the elements, and they were able to relocate in times of plague and contagion.

From Tsemaḥ Szabad in Vilna to Jakob Lestschinsky in Berlin or Prague, 13 February 1933, about a statistical study of fertility rates among Jewish women in the Vilna region before, during, and after World War I. Szabad asks Lestschinsky's advice on finding data and comparative studies. Yiddish. Polish letterhead: Dr. Cemach Szabad, Wilno, Styczniowa 8. RG 339 Jacob Lestschinsky Papers, F72. (YIVO)

It is estimated that the average annual birthrate among Polish Jews from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century was 5.5 to 6 percent, while the annual death rate was 3.5 to 4 percent. Thus the natural rate of increase might have been approximately 2 percent. This demographic trend shifted for East European Jews in the course of the nineteenth century. Although the rate of childbirth remained high, the infant and child mortality rate declined as the result of improved nutritional and medical conditions. During this period, the size of the Jewish family grew, and it was not uncommon for seven children to reach maturity.

From the end of the nineteenth century until World War II, there was a significant decline in the Jewish birthrate in Eastern Europe. In Russia in 1900, the annual number of births had dropped to 35 per 1,000 Jews. By 1930, that rate had fallen to 20 per 1,000. The rise in the marriage age in the Jewish population played an important role in this change. Family planning and contraception were also more common, as were (to a certain extent) abortions. The background to this change included trends such as urbanization, secularization, the spread of higher education, and changing concepts of the family and the woman’s role in it.

Before the modern era, medical knowledge about childbirth was limited. Historical sources and folktales mention many cases of barren couples who turned to ba‘ale shem, or folk healers, or asked prominent rabbis or Hasidic rebbes to pray for them. Subsequent conceptions after years of childlessness were considered to be miracles. Barrenness was not always “blamed” on the woman; it was understood that the man could also be responsible. Explanations were diverse, ranging from physical problems with either parent to punishment for sins, the evil eye, or even the actions of female demons who stole the man’s seed. The many charms and amulets relating to procreation published in widely circulated books, such as Sefer toldot Adam (The Book of the Generations of Adam; 1720), testify to the centrality of this subject. In addition, tkhines (women’s prayers) were recited to encourage fertility and children who would survive birth. Charms and prayers to bring about the birth of a son were particularly popular.

It was believed that through her thoughts and actions the mother-to-be molded the baby she was carrying; she was therefore expected to devote more time than ever to prayer, good deeds, and pious behavior, and to abstain from impure thoughts. Instructions in this regard were provided, for example, in Meynekes Rivke (Rebecca’s Wet Nurse), by Rivke bas Me’ir of Tykocin (1609) and the popular Brantshpigl (Burning Mirror) by Mosheh ben Ḥanokh Altschul, first published in 1602. The time was one of danger for her and her fetus, and the lack of medical knowledge contributed to the proliferation of charms and folk remedies throughout the pregnancy and to the many popular beliefs surrounding the subject of pregnancy and childbirth.

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)

Childbirth took place in the home under the guidance of a midwife and with the assistance of female neighbors and family members. Men were not present. Once again, charms and amulets were employed to protect mother and child from demons and evil spirits. Many women died during or shortly after childbirth, succumbing to infections and other complications. It is difficult to calculate numbers, but it was only toward the end of the nineteenth century that more and more women gave birth in hospitals and that the rate of death during childbirth began to drop.

Breastfeeding was standard practice in Jewish society, as it was among the general population. Popular belief held that a woman’s first milk was poisonous, and mothers were advised not to nurse their babies during the first 10 hours after birth. Books of charms like Mif‘alot Elohim (The Works of God; 1720) and religious-moralistic tracts instructed nursing mothers to eat only light foods to avoid harming the infant. Most women nursed for one or two years or even longer (some children were old enough to say the blessing over their mother’s milk!).

A number of beliefs were associated with mother’s milk. It was thought to have healing power, and sometimes the holy “names” (of God) were written in ink on the breast, so that the ink would “mix” with the mother’s milk and the suckling child would develop a thirst for the Torah. Wet nurses were employed in the event that the mother died or the family was wealthy enough to afford such a service. Usually the wet nurse was Jewish, although Christians were sometimes hired.

Childbirth outside wedlock did occur in Jewish society, usually among women who worked as domestic servants. The fact that such childbirth was considered deviant may be seen in the practice, mentioned, for example, in Ya‘akov Emden’s Birat migdal ‘oz (Strong Tower; 1748) of not circumcising sons of unwed mothers in the synagogue.

Suggested Reading

Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. 16, Poland-Lithuania, 1500–1650, 2nd rev. and enl. ed. (New York, 1976); Paul Ritterband, ed. Modern Jewish Fertility (Leiden, 1981); Usiel Oskar Schmeltz, Infant and Early Childhood Mortality among Jews of the Diaspora (Jerusalem, 1971); Shaul Stampfer, “Gidul ha-ukhlosiyah ve-hagirah be-yahadut Polin-Lita’ be-‘et ha-ḥadashah,” in Kiyum ve-shever: Yehude Polin le-dorotehem, vol. 1 Pirke historyah, ed. Israel Bartal and Israel Gutman, pp. 263–285 (Jerusalem, 1997); Bernard Dov Weinryb, The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland from 1100 to 1800 (Philadelphia, 1973).



Translated from Hebrew by Anna Barber