'Be Fruitful and Multiply': Judaism and Childbearing

Procreation is considered the first commandment given by God and is thus of supreme importance to observant Jews.

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Procreation is considered the first commandment given by God: "And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein" (Genesis 9:7).

It is thus of supreme importance to observant Jews, yet neither the Bible nor the sages described in the Mishna and Talmud legislated much concerning procreation. In the absence of written laws, the various Jewish communities in the Diaspora developed different traditions, including to deal with maternal and infant mortality, which has only receded significantly in most of the world during the last 60 years or so.

Though the traditions varied from community to community, most pregnant Jewish women would perform certain acts, such as reciting certain biblical passages. Some would also put talismans or sanctified objects in the home.

Jewish parents hoping for a male child had a variety of prescriptions to try. A common practice was for the pregnant mother to recite the name the boy would be given every day of the pregnancy.

Protection from demons

Under Jewish law, a baby attains full human status once its head is out during childbirth. Yet even at that happy stage, anxiety could not subside, as it was common for infants to die during their first days until modern times, and is still quite common in the developing world.

Among many communities, notably among Sephardic Jews, it became a tradition to hold a vigil during the child’s first night, and sometimes until the circumcision ceremony on the eighth day (in the case of boys) to protect the infant from Lilith, a mythical Jewish she-demon (and Adam’s wife before Eve), who was believed to kill newborn babies. Other practices were carried out against the evil eye and various supernatural influences.

Today childbearing is relatively safe: Birthing may not have changed but during the 20th century, with the advent of modern medicine and as births largely moved  to hospitals in much of the world, both maternal and infant mortality rates were sharply reduced. Many of the old traditions came to be seen as superstition, and were discarded. But not all.

Some – especially those sanctioned by Jewish law – have remained. These include circumcision (the "brit" or "bris"), Pidyon Haben, and the Zeved Habat or Simchat Habat (or britah).