Protecting the Mother & Newborn: folk methods

Birth is a mysterious and powerful experience that inspires awe and anticipation, but is also ridden with anxiety. Earlier societies responded to the risks and wonders of childbirth with a wide variety of customs aimed at increasing human control of the situation to the extent possible and protecting the mother and child from harm. In many cases, Jews adopted and adapted customs borrowed from their neighbors and gave them specifically Jewish contents and emphasis.

Folk Methods for Reducing the Pain of Childbirth

The problem of relieving the pains of childbirth found many solutions. In medieval Europe, besides the purely magical treatments, there were many folk remedies of a dubious character, e.g. the suggestion that the woman be fed mother's milk, the idea probably being that it may transmit to her another woman's success in surmounting the ordeal. Several prescriptions suggest primitive attempts at anesthesia; one such requires that a strong frankincense be burned before the parturient woman (but it must be in a "new clay bowl"); another that she inhale the smoke of burning felt. The effect of this last, however, is thus naively described: "The woman will sneeze and expel her infant!"[1] During difficult labor, Ashkenazi Jews would sometimes put a Torah binder around the belly of the woman, or put the keys to the synagogue in her hands.[2]

Folk Methods for Protecting the Baby After Birth

blackboard Placing the circumcision knife under the pillow of the mother the night before the Brit, to protect her from demons. Follows similar customs in other cultures where weapons of iron are kept near newborns.

Amulets to ward off evil spirits are used in many traditions, but Jewish amulets contain verse from Psalms, especially the verse, "The sun shall not smite thee by day, neither the moon by night." (Psalm 21:6).

The custom of not announcing a child's name until the circumcision or naming ceremony comes from the Talmudic concept that the baby is not entirely viable until the eighth day.

Garlic and red ribbons were placed on the baby's crib to protect it from the evil eye, or demons. Lilith, one such demon, is specifically suspected of stealing small children for herself, since, as legend has it, she is forever bitter about her own inability to bear children.

Yemenite Jews place sweets under the bed of the new mother to occupy the evil spirits and to draw attention away from the baby.

In ancient Israel, it was customary to plant a tree for the new baby.

Even today, anxiety informs behavior during pregnancy. One woman confessed that she responded to any and all charity solicitations during her pregnancies. "That's the time when you really can't fool around," she said.[3]


[1] Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (New York: Behrman's Jewish Book House, Inc., 1939 paperback edition published by Atheneum and reprinted by arrangement with the Jewish Publications Society of America, 1974), p. 188. [back]

[2] Rabbi Douglas Weber and Jessica Brodsky Weber, The Jewish Baby Handbook: A guide for expectant parents,) New York: Behrman House, 1990), p. 12. [Back]

[3] ibid. pp. 12-13. [back]




Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend