Women have been creating new rituals that use traditional images and texts to reflect their experiences of childbirth.
Excerpted with permission from Lifecycles Vol. 1: Jewish Women on Life Passages & Personal Milestones (Jewish Lights Publishing).
Until very recently, few birth ceremonies were practiced. Susan Weidman Schneider, in her now classic book, Jewish and Female, writes with reference to giving birth that "there has been scant traditional ritual around the women in the picture--whether as mothers or daughters." She echoes Blu Greenberg's question: "Could it be that if men had been giving birth all these centuries, some fantastic ritual would have developed by now?"
Instead… [books] that… identify themselves as comprehensive of the stages of Jewish life… begin describing life rituals not with fertility, conception, pregnancy, labor, or even birth itself. [They] begin with brit milah (covenant of circumcision ritual) and sometimes with the conferral of a name for a daughter. Given high rates of infant mortality, Judaism may have cautiously waited to celebrate birth at brit when one could be more confident in the baby's viability.
Psalms and Blessings
The mandate of the tradition around birth has been limited. Psalm 126 has long been associated with birth, likely due to the verse "Those who sow in tears will reap in joy" (Psalms 126:5). Psalm 118, which begins "Out of the narrow place I called upon God, who answered me in spaciousness" has been paraphrased in Yiddish and recast as a tkhine [prayer or devotion for Jewish women] for childbirth. It tells of coming close to death, but not succumbing, and of trusting in God.
Brief blessings of thanksgiving at birth itself are increasingly usual in Orthodoxy: The birth of a son commands the blessing Hatov Vehametiv (naming God as good and doer of the good), and a daughter is greeted with the Sheheheyanu prayer, expressing gratitude for sustaining the lives of the parents to this moment. Postpartum, a mother, or her spouse on her behalf, bentshes gomel (recites the prayer of thanksgiving for coming through danger in safety) in the synagogue.
Traditions and Conception
While the legal mandate is small, folk traditions have been sustained through the ages. Monthly ritual immersion can be understood as signifying readiness for motherhood. In addition, Jewish mystical tradition encourages lovemaking on Friday night, and considers a conception on the Sabbath particularly blessed, since Shabbat (Sabbath) is said to reunite the male and female aspects of God. From the fervent prayers of the barren mothers of Scriptures, until our own century, Jewish women have maintained traditions of petition to God for conception. Women hopeful of fertility have long invoked the names of Rachel and Hannah, the classic "barren mothers," and have wept beside Rachel's tomb in Israel.
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