Even before the Talmud was written, the sages, while attempting to codify all aspects of life, virtually ignored the birth process. Except for questions pertaining to Sabbath observance (if a birth occurs on a Saturday) or to the Temple sacrifice required for a woman after childbirth, no specific procedures or prayers were set down. Because of this, Jewish women were freer to develop their own customs. They exchanged charms and prayers with each other and with women of other cultures, and borrowed amulets or stones believed to be helpful during pregnancy and labor.
In a time when childbirth was the biggest threat to the lives of women, any method—from fumigation with combinations of herbs, to eating or drinking special foods, to prayers and magic—might be used to insure an easy labor and a safe delivery. Some of these customs date back to biblical times when it was widely believed that Lilith was the evil spirit who snatched newborns from their mothers. Other customs were adapted later from pagan or Christian cultures.
Although some of the following methods may seem strange, even ridiculous, to a modern scientific mind, they were “tried and true ” to the many women who resorted to them, as well as to the sages, doctors and holy men who wrote them down in books for the benefit of others.
If you or someone you love is pregnant and you want to leave no stone unturned in insuring the safety of mother and child, try some of these favorites:
• To ease labor, get someone to run to a nearby synagogue and open the ark, symbolically opening the way for the baby. Even better, wrap the Torah scroll around the laboring woman’s body.
• Untie everything in the room or house for the purpose of opening the birth canal. (More sympathetic magic here—”like” encouraging “like.”) Unknot ropes, shoestrings, undo belts, open cupboards, closets, doors, windows.
• It was believed that it takes a lot of strength and sexual potency to deliver a baby. A woman in labor can “borrow” the strength from someone believed to have “excess” sexual power. She can hold a piece of clothing belonging to the stronger person, or, more intimately, she can drink the milk of a woman who has recently given birth.
• A birthing woman should drink water from seven wells. To prevent difficulties, never eat radishes while pregnant.
• Certain prayers aid delivery: Psalm 121 speaks of “going out” and thus parallels what one wants the baby to do; Exodus 11:8 helps because it ends with the words “go forth.”
• There is a magical arrangement of letters borrowed from the Christian magical charm Sator Square. Write the Hebrew letters shin, aleph, tet, vav, and resh (their significance has been long forgotten) five times on pieces of parchment or pottery, and place them under the woman’s head.
• Or, write these same five letters on the parchment of a deer and put it in her mouth while she’s in labor.
• Place a magnet or a metal coin on the mother’s abdomen to lure the baby out. (Iron was believed to possess magical power against demons.)
• Place a bowl of water under the birth stool to drive away demons. After the birth, lay the child on the earth, or rub the child with salt, or whisper the names of the three protecting angels (“Sanvi, Sansanvi, Samengalef’) in the baby’s ear.
• As soon as the baby is born, someone (preferably the father) should draw a magic circle around mother and child with a new knife with a black handle. This can be done even before the baby is born, or during the Saturday night havdalah prayers while the father is wrapped in a prayer shawl.
• To keep evil spirits away, light a candle for three nights before and three nights after the circumcision.
• Wash the newborn child in oil which you then send to the synagogue to be used in the eternal light.
Emily Taitz is co-author (with Sondra Henry) of Written Out of History: Our Jewish Foremothers (Biblio Press,), and several biographies. Her dissertation is on the Jews of France in the Middle Ages.
1. & 3. The images pictured here are from an amulet designed to ward off Lilith, the child-stealing witch. Plaques like these are still available today and can be purchased in a few Jewish bookstores in New York or in Israel. [Ask for a birth charm. ] In a concession to modern-day scientific development, the magic formulas are now written on paper instead of deer parchment, and are encased in plastic. (Photo: Tamar Taitz Fields)
2. This incantation bowl reads, “Blessed be those who enter beneath the wings of Shechina.” Potter Lia Lynn Rosen makes assorted bowls, blessing shields and seder plates all relating to emerging Jewish women’s spirituality. To reach her for commissions, slide lectures or hands-on .spiritual pottery workshops, write to the artist at 4524 9th St. N. W., Albuquerque NM 87107. (Photo: Denis Galloway)
4. This ceramic amulet, by artist Claire Sherman, is for protection against earthquakes. The text is the beginning of Psalm 125. Sherman also makes amulets for fertility, easy labor, and other occasions. To order, write to her at 1208 Milvia St., Berkeley CA 94709.
5. What did it feel like for our foremothers whose sense of time derived entirely from the moon? Did they visit menstrual lodges? Did they menstruate aligned with the moon’s phases (as some reasearch indicates)? Did they work, dance, make love according to crescent, or gibbous, moons?
If you’re interested in more deeply-felt explorations of the lunar year, try out ‘this haunting, beautiful calendar where time circulates in a spiral instead of marching across a grid. The 1992 lunar calendar is $15.95 from Luna Press, Box 511, Kenmore Station, Boston MA 02215.