Talmud pages

Shabbat 136

The tragedy of pregnancy loss.

Today’s page of Talmud, which deals primarily with babies who do not survive long after birth, is rough.

Thanks to improvements in medicine, sanitation and standards of living, 21st-century children are much less likely to die than their ancient counterparts. But although infant mortality was tragically high in antiquity, the Talmud’s approach to this subject is likely to nonetheless strike us today as oddly legal and detached.

For example, consider this Tannaitic teaching on the bottom of the previous page that sets the parameters for much of today’s discussion:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Any child that remains alive thirty days after birth is no longer suspected of being a stillborn.

Yes, you read that right: the word used to describe a baby that does not survive the first few weeks of life is “stillborn” (נפל). This makes little sense to us today, but in a world where children born too early or with health problems were not likely to make it past the first month, one can begin to imagine why parents were discouraged from viewing those babies as viable.

Immediately after, we enter a legal discussion about whether a baby born early, and suspected of being a stillborn (meaning it will not survive more than a few weeks), should be circumcised on Shabbat — or whether the child’s uncertain status means that the circumcision should not override Shabbat. The Gemara concludes in the affirmative, with an oddly clinical explanation from Rav Adda bar Ahava, who notes that if the child indeed lives, it is good that he is circumcised, and if not, one is merely “cutting flesh” (meaning, one is not making a wound, so the ritual does not violate Shabbat).

We read through quite a bit more legal material on this subject before we finally come to a story that begins to grapple with the emotional dimensions:

A baby was born to the son of Rav Dimi bar Yosef. Within thirty days the baby died. He sat and mourned over him. 

His father said to him: Are you mourning because you wish to partake of the delicacies fed to mourners?

He said to him: I am certain that its months of gestation were completed.

It is clear from this story that pregnancy loss and stillbirth were not routinely publicly mourned in the ancient Jewish world in the same way that the loss of a child or an adult was. This isn’t to say these events were not painful. Indeed, the Hebrew Bible is full of examples of mothers who desperately mourned infertility, let alone pregnancy loss. Nevertheless, this kind of loss was not considered to be the same as a death.

In this short story, Rav Dimi bar Yosef’s son tragically loses a child in its first month of life and mourns him. His very own father then delivers a line that strikes us as outrageously callous, asking whether the bereaved father is putting on a display of mourning merely so he can “partake of delicacies fed to mourners.” The idea that one would weep for a dead baby merely for the sake of scoring gourmet food is scream-worthy. The contrast between the father who mourns his tiny child as a full-fledged human being, and the father who seems incapable of treating his grown son as one, is notable.

The son’s remarkably calm legal response to his father also suggests that perhaps no great relationship ever existed between them. The bereaved father merely points out that the child was born full-term and healthy, and not suspected of being a stillborn (in the sense of a baby who will not survive), making this a full death.

In a world with terribly high infant mortality, it seems that there were parents who could not help but attach to their babies, even knowing they were heart-breakingly likely to lose them. And there were those who were perhaps so fearful of that abyss of pain that follows infant loss that they never attached at all.

Read all of Shabbat 136 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 20, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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