Jewish Childbirth Protection

The dangers of childbirth, and fear of Lilith the temptress, led to the development of various Jewish practices designed to help women give birth safely.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Magic & Superstition in the Jewish Tradition (Spertus Institute of JudaicStudies).

Until very recent times many women and children died inchildbirth or shortly thereafter. The existent medical treatment was erraticand often caused greater damage than the illness. It is understandable,therefore, that people turned to magical sources for comfort. The charms andremedies developed were most often against the evils of Lilith and her cohorts.

According to Jewish legend, Lilith was created as Adam’sequal:

"And God created man in His image, in the image of Godhe created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said tothem: Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fishof the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on theearth (Genesis 1:27-28)."

Lilith on the Prowl

She demanded equality, but her plea was denied. Shetherefore pronounced a magical incantation of the name of God and removedherself from Adam’s presence. Three angels, Sanvei, Sansenvei, and Semangelof,were sent to retrieve her, but she refused to return. Eve was then created tobe a helpmate for Adam (Genesis 2:21-22), and Lilith vowed to become a predatorof pregnant women and infants (the children of Eve). The legends continue andreveal that Lilith consorted with demons and took on various demonic,serpentlike, and humanoid forms.

As it developed, the legend of Lilith revealed borrowingsfrom many sources and different periods of time. She is depicted as an amalgamof a succubus, a child-stealing witch, and a temptress. She derives in partfrom Lilatu (an Assyrian female nightspirit),  Lamassu (the Babylonian child-stealer), and the Lamiae and Strigae of Greece and Rome.

These various types eventually merged into Lilith, whoappears all over the world in different disguises, by day or night, as witch oryoung woman. The charms against Lilith are as varied as her appearances, thoughthere is usually some reference to the three protectors of mother and child.

Protective Angels

Sanvei, Sansenvei, and Semangelof are the three angels whotraditionally protect mother and child in the dangerous period afterchildbirth. They appear on walls of birth rooms, on Jewish charms, and onamulets, usually as cock-headed figures. This form is possibly a survival of atype called "Anguipede," commonly found during the Graeco-Romanperiod. The anguipede is a figure with a cock’s head and a pair of snakescurling outward below the body in place of legs. It often appears inassociation with the names Sabaot, Michael, Abraxas, and IAO.

The need for protection was common to all peoples, and oftenthe solutions were similar. The Jewish legend of the three angels and theprotection of mother and child has strong associations with the Avestitralegends of the Balkans and Russia, and is also found in the Middle East.

In addition to the three angels, the prophet Elijah is thehero of the Jewish version. His counterpart in the Balkans is frequently St.George; the three angels are represented as Sinoe,Sisinoi, and Sisyodorus, the brothers of Melita, in the European version.

Achieving & Sustaining Pregnancy

Many aids to induce conception, as well as to preventmiscarriage, were used. Some of the specifically Jewish techniques revolvedaround Jewish rituals. For example, the sight of a circumcision knife wasconsidered prophylactic. Mandrakes, given by Reuben to his mother Leah, wereused by women to promote fertility.

Various protective measures were relied on at the criticalmoment of birth. Iron, in the form of knives, horseshoes, and amulets, wasuseful, since demons were considered pre-Iron Age creatures and the sight ofmetal would scare them. Light, honey, salt, and the words of the Bible werealso considered protective.

Although childbirth is an easier and less critical ordealtoday, it is still a period of many uncertainties. Broadsides for theprotection of mother and child are still being printed and used today.

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