Creating the Jewish Pregnancy
Making unique Jewish experiences before the baby is born.
Like a lot of couples, my husband and I felt conflicted about when to let our friends and family know our good news. I was so overjoyed that I couldn’t wait to tell, and even considered updating my Facebook status immediately, but my husband wanted to wait 40 days before telling our family and friends. Why that long? The Talmud states that at 40 days after conception, the embryo finally forms into a fetus (Niddah 30a). Whether or not the fetus receives its soul at this point was debated in the Talmud and the Mishnah, but having the 40-day guideline worked for us.
When we did finally announce the pregnancy, we noticed that we didn’t receive the joyous response of “mazel tov!” that we anticipated from Jewish friends. Rather, we heard people say, time after time, “b’sha-ah tova!” This literally means “in a good hour,” and expresses the impermanence of pregnancy and the potential for loss—in other words, "May your child be born at the right time." It did seem a bit superstitious to me, but many of the Jewish traditions surrounding pregnancy seem to come from an impulse to protect the parents from disappointment and grief should there be a birth complication or miscarriage.
I was told that many Jews don’t throw baby showers or buy the baby’s clothing or furniture before birth. Not feeling particularly anxious, but also not wanting to go against custom (you never know!), I decided to collect just a small box of baby items and wait until I was nearly due before getting fully equipped.
As we prepared for our transition to parenthood, my husband and I helped one another memorize the priestly blessing, which has became the traditional blessing for parents to give their children: “May God bless you and keep you; May God make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; May God lift up His countenance and give you peace.” We chanted it over my bulging belly so that our baby would feel comforted by it when she heard it again on her first Shabbat.
During these 9 months, I felt like I was wearing pregnancy-colored glasses. Hyper-alert to other expecting mothers, and super-attuned to any babies nearby, I was always seeking out allies in my journey to motherhood. As I observed Jewish holidays, I found myself re-interpreting biblical stories to fit my particular viewpoint.
With new appreciation, I relished the part of the Passover seder that describes when Pharaoh ordered the firstborn Hebrew babies killed. My new feminist heroines, the midwives Shifra and Puah, valiantly defied Pharaoh by helping to deliver and protect Hebrew children (who, encouragingly, came out very fast because of the innate strength of Hebrew women). I resolved to imagine Shifra and Puah on my right and left side during labor.
I also couldn’t help reframing the Exodus as the "birthing" of the Jewish people, who passed from the constricted, difficult Egypt through the birth canal of the Sea of Reeds and landed in the vast expanse before the Promised Land. I was hoping that I could bring that vision of the Red Sea to my labor and imagine my baby passing through easily, following Moses into the world.
Of course, some biblical stories were not as affirming to this pre-mama. I was reluctant to revisit the Genesis story that blames the pain of labor on Eve’s transgression in the garden of Eden. After the serpent entices her to eat the forbidden fruit, God says to her, "I will make most severe your pangs in childbirth; in pain you shall bear children" (Gen 3:16). What punishment! I decided to reject this passage and instead honor my birth as a huge gift and not a primordial payback.
I knew it wouldn’t be a comfortable experience, but I wanted to see the pain instead as an invitation to connect back through the ancestral line of mothers that started with our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, each of whom experienced this miracle of birth in her own, creative way.
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