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.
We also recommend this video from G-dcast on the blessing for new moms:
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.
Women’s Prayers Before the Enlightenment
Recent years have seen the publication of women’s prayers that focus on childbirth in its many stages: Prayers for conception, for each of the months, for the beginning of labor, for the stages of childbirth, and for the postpartum. [Other] books… have again brought to light poetry and prayers which women shared for several centuries, but which fell into virtual darkness during the Enlightenment. These prayers have provided source material for recent efforts of Jewish women to sanctify childbirth in ways authentic to both Judaism and women’s history.
Chava Weissler, an expert on tkhines,observes that the male rabbinic tradition “collapses all women into Eve” and makes much of the association between sin and childbirth. The tkhines that seem to be authored by women, in contrast, plead for the health and safety of mother and infant and address the question of suffering. As Weissler writes, attention is paid to “the physical discomfort, pain, and danger women experience in menstruation and childbirth. The authors of the tkhines want to know why women suffer, not why they bleed.”
Contemporary Liturgy and Ritual
Tkhineliterature nourishes contemporary efforts to produce liturgy and rituals for childbirth…. Jane Litman’s “M’ugelet: A Pregnancy Ritual” uses a cord that had been wrapped around Rachel’s tomb. A group of women recite adapted tkhines and pass the pregnant woman around a circle, chanting personal blessings as she becomes entwined by the cord to which she may later cling while giving birth.
This ceremony resonates with some older customs…. [For example,] a woman in difficult labor was sometimes given the keys of the synagogue to clutch or the cord that binds the Torah….
Women have also borrowed images from the Jewish wedding in creating childbirth rituals. In Reconstructionist, Shoshanah Zonderman describes a ritual that she designed for 12 women on the last full moon of her pregnancy; it included a ceremony parallel to the wedding and a document parallel to the ketubah (wedding contract). The women used symbols and fruits, breathing exercises and chanting, and they completed a Jewish mandala upon which the mother focused during labor and which now has a permanent place in the family home.”
Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky has drawn on a variety of ancient traditions–Jewish and non-Jewish–in creating liturgical poems for pregnancy and childbirth. Schneider in Jewish and Female includes Nechama Liss-Levenson and her husband’s simple ritual for conception: The couple marked their decision to stop using contraception by making Kiddush (blessing over wine on Sabbath or holidays) and reciting the Sheva Berakhot (seven marital blessings) to reestablish the traditional connection between marriage and childbirth, and to sanctify their choice to wait until they were ready to conceive.
Several women who have created new prayer and ritual shift focus from the birth of the baby to the birth of a “mother.” Zonderman writes that she “thought of her advancing pregnancy as a passage through a constricting tunnel to emergence with a revitalized, fuller identity as a Jewish mother–a birth image. This is also the metaphor of the Exodus from Egypt–mitzrayim (Egypt) being a narrow (tzar) place of oppression–when the Israelites passed through the (birthing) waters of the Red Sea to accept new ethico-religious obligations at Mt. Sinai. In becoming a mother, I was accepting new responsibilities and a commitment to the future of the Jewish people.”
The Trends in New Rituals
These new religious expressions of gratitude are particularly effective in their appropriation of feminine biblical metaphors. The Exodus from Egypt through the parted Red Sea is the central moment in the drama of the Israelite past, and it remains the central metaphor for Jewish redemption. Only recently have we stressed that it is a birth metaphor, the passage of people into a new life of trials and triumphs through parted waters, after which nourishment in the form of manna [food that God provided to the Israelites in the desert] is bestowed like mother’s milk, various in its taste, and supply generated by demand.
The practice of ritual immersion might be reimagined in analogous ways by invoking, for example, Miriam’s well, the source of water for the Israelites in the desert. Amniotic waters can be seen as analogous to the tohu vavohu (hurly burly) out of which God labored in birthing the world. The bringing of first fruits to the Temple also finds a new vitality as a feminine image of birth per se when it is brought back to the experience of childbirth in new rituals and prayers. New as these compositions are, they can be especially poignant when they speak with the force of tradition.
For example, in many Jewish families, including my own, it is customary to add a candle to one’s Sabbath candelabrum for each new family member. A yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) candle is burned when a Jew dies and annually on the anniversary of a family member’s death. A ner neshamah (soul candle) is often lit at brit and naming ceremonies. Recognizing the candle as a Jewish symbol for the soul, a group of contemporary women liturgists has suggested a rite of conception in which an unlit candle is introduced to the Sabbath candelabrum. In the unfortunate event of a failed pregnancy, this candle would be ritually burned, like a yahrzeit candle, as an act of mourning. An abortion is marked by submerging the lit candle in water. Under happier circumstances, on the first Sabbath following the birth of the baby, the unlit candle becomes a light among its companions and its place is permanently filled on the candelabrum….
Reclaiming “The Body” of Tradition
Contemplating how childbirth can connect us to our foremothers has reminded me of one of the few details that I know about my paternal grandmother, who gave birth to eight children. My father, who was second oldest, recalls that the older children were made to leave the house when his mother delivered. Still, she screamed loudly enough that the frightened boy could hear.
I screamed my heart out when Samara was born and hoped at that moment that my grandmother’s screaming may have been like my own: Liberated, defiant of pain, awe-struck, thrilled. I have come to think of my screams as my foremothers’ and my Judaism’s presence in the delivery room. The work of naturalizing and assimilating women’s responses to childbirth is in progress. And there is much work still to do–to honor the laughter of Sarah, to sanctify the screams of our mothers, and to bequeath powers of articulation to our daughters as they labor in the creation of worlds to come.
Excerpted with permission from Lifecycles Vol. 1: Jewish Women on Life Passages & Personal Milestones (Jewish Lights Publishing).