In Are You My Mother?, the classic children’s book by P.D. Eastman, a nesting mother bird, sensing her egg is about to hatch, flies off to find food for her offspring. The baby bird is therefore hatched into an empty nest and instinctively sets off in search of his mother. After an unfortunate but thankfully non-disastrous tumble out of the tree, the fledgling, who is unable to fly, sets off at a trot, querying everyone and everything he passes if they are his mother. He is turned away by a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a car, a boat, a plane and a steam shovel, the last of which deposits him back into the nest. At this exact moment, his mother returns with a worm for her baby and, in this context, he instantly knows who she is. He had run past her in the first few pages of the book and been unable to recognize her. If feeding her child had not been such a labor-intensive task — or if she’d had a partner to help — the whole harrowing misadventure would never have taken place.
We learned in a beraita yesterday that, according to Beit Hillel, when parents are divorced, if the baby recognizes its mother, then the baby’s father can require his ex-wife to breastfeed but must pay her to do so. Since he is no longer married to this woman, he is not entitled to her labor — including the milk she produces and the time it takes her to feed their child.
By requiring the father to pay the mother for breastfeeding, the rabbis ensure that not only the child but also the post-partum ex-wife receive support.
The idea that the baby should recognize the mother suggests that this arrangement is best — but only when the baby has formed an attachment. Otherwise, if the mother does not wish to breastfeed, a wet nurse — or, in an alternate universe, a kitten or a steam shovel — would serve just as well.
Today’s daf asks when exactly a human baby can be said to recognize its own mother. The Gemara quotes three different rabbinic answers:
Rava said that Rav Yirmeya bar Abba said that Rav said: Three months.
Shmuel said: 30 days.
Rabbi Yitzhak said that Rabbi Yohanan said: 50 days.
One month, a month and a half, or three months? In a relatively rare turn of events, the Gemara offers us an actual decision:
Rav Shimi bar Abaye said: The halakhah is in accordance with what Rabbi Yitzhak said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan.
The intermediate answer: 50 days. But not so fast! Just as the Gemara announces this answer, we are interrupted with a surprise twist. Rami bar Yehezkel arrives from the land of Israel and insists:
Do not listen to those principles that my brother Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel! This is what Shmuel said: Whenever he recognizes her.
In Babylonia, it was taught that Shmuel said 30 days is the time of infant maternal recognition, but it seems that another version of Shmuel’s teaching existed in the land of Israel, in which he stated that each child develops the capacity to recognize their mother at their own pace. As we have seen elsewhere with regard to schooling, the rabbis recognize that, when it comes to children, one size does not fit all.
The Gemara then follows this statement by explaining how Shmuel would determine if each individual baby knew its mother by passing it across a lineup of women. The Gemara gives this version of Shmuel’s teaching the final word — and the later legal codes by Maimonides and Rabbi Joseph Caro take this to be the ultimate rabbinic position on the issue: A divorcee can be compelled to breastfeed her child if her child recognizes her, which can happen at different ages.
In the Talmud, the rabbis recognize that breastfeeding is labor and is deserving of compensation. Not actually “free,” breastfeeding costs the breastfeeding person huge amounts of time, physical effort and increased food supply. According to the Talmud — which, let’s not forget, was written in a world without baby formula — the courts can compel a divorced woman to breastfeed, but only if they also compel her ex-husband to compensate her for this work.
Read all of Ketubot 60 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 4th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.