Word of the Day / Pundeka’ut: Checking in to a Fetal Inn

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Surrogate motherhood – pundeka’ut (POON-de-ka-OOT) in Hebrew – has been in the news lately, as lawmakers debate whether to allow same-sex couples the same access to surrogacy in Israel as heterosexual couples.

In English, “surrogate” means “substitute,” “one appointed to act in place of another.” When a surrogate mother carries a child that is not her own, then, she is by implication standing in as mother for the duration that the child is in the womb. But the Hebrew word – pundeka’it (POON-de-ka-EET, meaning “surrogate”) or em pundeka’it (“surrogate mother”) – reflects a different approach, one that is arguably more accurate, as well as more disturbing.

The word pundak, from which the Hebrew for “surrogate” and “surrogacy” are derived, comes from the Greek word pandocheion, meaning “inn.”

A pundeka’it, then, is not a substitute mother but the owner of a fetal inn, a place to temporarily feed and lodge an embryo as it grows into a baby. She is the innkeeper who hosts the guest in her third-party womb.

But there’s a darker side to the welcoming pundeka’it; this is a word that at one point was also used to refer to prostitutes.

In the Book of Joshua, the heroine of the fall of Jericho is a woman called Rahav, who hides the spies Joshua sends to scope out the city. The text describes Rahav as an isha zonah, a prostitute, but some biblical commentators say she was merely a pundekita, the Aramaic word for “innkeeper.”

This isn’t the contradiction it seems, writes Rabbi David Kimchi, a French commentator born in 1160 who is better known by the acronym Radak. Rather, he says, pundekita was just being used as a euphemism for “prostitute,” because “a prostitute is like a pundekita who gives herself up to everyone.”

Throw in a pregnant woman who’s not carrying her husband’s baby (and getting paid for it), and suddenly pundeka’it seems a lot more judgmental than “surrogate.”

Fortunately, I don’t think most Israelis read quite so much into the word. In any case, finding a surrogate for such a history-filled word would be throwing away the embryonic guest with the bathwater.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

A 'pundeka’it' is not a substitute, as in English, but the owner of a fetal inn, a place to temporarily feed and lodge an embryo as it grows.Credit: Dreamstime

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