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Pregnant Pause

Pregnancies are fertile ground for superstition, especially for those who assume their traditions and lucky charms are based in Jewish law

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Even a cell phone can tempt evil spirits. (Tablet Magazine)

The name was obviously perfect as soon as it came out of my mouth, during a sleepy bedtime conversation with my husband about what we plan to call our son. I spent months struggling to imagine using any of the perfectly fine names on our original shortlist, but this one was everything we wanted: classic without being archaic, familiar without being common, striking in its full form without being awkward in the diminutive. It’s a name I can’t wait to share—which is why I was surprised to find myself on a windswept street corner a few weeks ago, admonishing my husband for putting it in a text message as I shivered in the cold January night.

“Don’t do that! Bad luck! Shhh!” I tapped out in a frenzy.

“Can’t help it!” he responded.

A clammy wave of fear and irritation washed through me. “But what about the Angel of Death?” I typed, before promptly erasing it. The Angel of Death? In stark black-and-white pixels, on a screen powered by electricity and chemicals and human ingenuity, it looked crazy. I shoved the phone into my bag and slid my gloves back on.

I used to live firmly in the observable world. When it came to my physical wellbeing, I trusted the power of medical technology to establish cause and effect. Twisted ankle? A quick X-ray shows whether anything is broken. Sore throat? A culture determines whether or not it’s strep, and antibiotics cure it. Tests identifying a cluster of pre-cancerous cells? There’s surgery to scrape them away, and close monitoring to trigger a repeat if they return. Things are, or they are not, and that’s that.

Pregnancy, I assumed, would work the same way. After all, it was a litmus test that confirmed it in the first place: two pink dashes on a plastic stick, easy as handing over $12 at the drugstore. A few weeks later, we heard a heartbeat, transmitted via sonogram, and a few weeks after that got our first visual confirmation via ultrasound that the bump in my belly housed an actual baby, who has two arms and two legs, 10 fingers and 10 toes, two little ears and a tiny button nose.

Then came the genetic tests, which I was startled to discover offer results in the form of percentages, rather than certainties. Our numbers were good, but if we wanted guarantees, we were told, we needed to do an amniocentesis—a test whose chances of hurting the baby were higher than the outside possibility that something was actually wrong. In other words, it was riskier to pursue a definite answer than to trust the statistics—a choice that, for us, was no choice at all. But that little seed of uncertainty took root in my mind and has been steadily watered by a cascade of “wait and sees” on everything from how big the baby will be to how labor will go. Now, with less than a month before delivery, it’s blossomed into the idea that the baby is like Schrödinger’s poor cat: simultaneously perfect and afflicted, not one or the other but both, until he emerges from the black box of my belly into the world, where we can see him for ourselves. Knowing a little bit turns out to be as good, or bad, as not knowing anything at all.

The fact that we live with the uncertainty for nine whole months—and that the evidence of the mystery is always right in front of me—is why, I’ve discovered, pregnancy is a particularly ripe condition for spawning superstition. “Whenever you have a situation where there’s a lot at stake, and you’ve done everything you possibly can to make sure there’s a happy outcome but there’s still a lot of uncertainty, it’s a perfect circumstance for superstitions to emerge,” Stuart Vyse, a professor at Connecticut College who specializes in the psychology of irrational beliefs, told me. “Establishing some kind of ritual or lucky thing you do makes you feel better, because it gives you the illusion of control.”

And Jews have spent centuries accumulating a vast catalog of practices surrounding pregnancy and childbirth: a trove of off-the-shelf totems to fit any anxiety that, for someone as determinedly secular as I am, has the added appeal of coming wrapped in echt Jewish authenticity. “You can trace the magic to the Babylonians, the ancient Greeks, you can see the common denominators,” said Michele Klein, an expert in Jewish birth folklore and customs. “But the Jews have a written heritage and have channeled it and processed it and turned it into a way to maintain Jewish identity, separate from other peoples.” So, expectant Jewish parents can rely on charms like the hamsah to ward off the evil eye or tie red strings around their wrists for good luck—or resort to time-honored tricks like not saying a baby’s name aloud before it is formally bestowed at the bris, eight days after birth, to avoid attracting notice from vindictive spirits.

Which is why, despite there being nothing in the Talmud about my omnipresent Angel of Death, it felt like a distinctly Jewish thing to fear. Along with the evil eye—ayin hara—it’s a concept that has become woven into the warp of Jewish observance, so much so that it can be thought of as “superhalachic.” (Another is the habit of wishing a pregnant woman “b’sha’ah tovah”—“in good time”—rather than a standard mazel tov.) “The overwhelming majority of these things are not legally or textually based,” said Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, who teaches Jewish medical ethics at Yeshiva University. Superstitious habits like not revealing a baby’s intended name before the bris, or not outfitting a nursery until a baby is born, dovetail with other legally sanctioned practices, like not planning a funeral until a person has died. “There is a belief that you don’t want to prophesize or look to the future in ways that are inappropriate,” Reichman told me. “There’s nothing in halacha about not calling a mohel before a baby’s born, but you don’t want to anticipate God’s work—so you wait.”

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Risky article indeed! It is not the Angle of Death we fear, it is the daemons who might hear that you’re pregnant and come to steel your baby. The most dangerous demon that Jewish women must keep away, they say, is called “Lilith”. To frighten her you should write names of the angels: Snvi, Snsvi, and Smnglof on a small talisman on the baby’s wrist. Good luck!

Etrog jam, don’t forget the etrog jam. I used to find jam jars on the windowsill from protective neighbors. Makes the baby slide out, they promised. Good Tu B’shvat food, too.

b’sha’ah tovah! to you!

b’sha’ah tova, allison! demons be gone!

When my mother and father sought to have a child, my mother’s sister walked around Rachel’s tomb (this was pre-1948 war) with a trailing red string, and then gave the string to my mother to wear (it was quite long I am told) to assist in her becoming pregnant.

And a bit more than 9 months later I was born.

Lindsay Simmonds says:

Interesting article and hope all goes well. Saddened that the word ‘baby’ actually just meant boy, as in:
‘time-honored tricks like not saying a baby’s name aloud before it is formally bestowed at the bris’ or ‘There’s nothing in halacha about not calling a mohel before a baby’s born’.
Perhaps the reason we don’t call a mohel before the ‘baby’ is born, is because it might (imagine!) be a girl.

rachael says:

regarding not stepping on a toenail, there is a kabbalistic basis for this- basically it is believed that the yetzer hara remains in the “dead” part of a person’s nail that is cut off…im sure there’s more to it, but im not an expert.

You forgot about the candle above the baby’s head and the angel sitting with him or her in your womb teaching him Torah. In Jewish belief a pregnancy is a spitually elevated state. You are host to angels and sublime wisdom all inside that oversized tummy. May the baby arrive besha’a tova, in a good propitious moment and don’t forget that the moments of birth, from the very first contraction the gates of heaven are open and you can achieve great heights with your own heartfelt prayers–you don’t need any text, just the text of your own heart. Best wishes.

Jessica in NJ says:

I thought I was the only Jewish pregnant woman who doesn’t have any of these superstitons. We’re not telling the world our baby’s gender or the name because I enjoy the secret I share with my husband and because I don’t want to invite anyone else to share their opinions or make assumptions about him/her before he/she has the chance to be born.

The majority of articles about pregnancy focus on things to avoid and make you fearful of all that could go wrong. Thank you for writing about the silliness of these superstitions. I think its time we start a new jewish tradition of celebrating ourselves and our bodies during these 9 crazy months.

David Zarmi says:

My (Lakewood-educated) brother and sister-in-law pointed out that biting the etrog is actually bad luck nowadays… Since you’re ingesting pesticides that were sprayed on the plant never meant for human consumption.

As for nails. It’s true that in the Middle Ages Europeans believed that witches could use nail cuttings (or hair) as a way to curse you (using a former part of your body), but being fair, you never know if these things are coincidence or if Jews got it from them. I believe it’s in the shulkhan arukh, which is not a European text at all. This isn’t my field of expertise, though, if someone else can address this issue.

Sophi Zimmerman says:

When I hear someone is pregnant, I offer this blessing, Baruch HaShem. Because more than luck, more than medical history or testing, G-d’s help is what got me through my pregnancy. I was 38 and I had 2 miscarriages before we had testing and then gave up. The world’s children would all be our children. When we found out we were pregnant, my husband and I decided there would be no testing, no amniocentesis, no corionic villi, just the monthly blood tests, sonograms and the ultrasounds my doctor required. Whatever baby G-d gave us–that would be our child.

I Jazzercised, walked the malls, ate lots and lots of good food and strenuously avoided alcohol. I also scrupulously celebrated Shabbat, and the holidays, most notably Rosh Hodesh.

Only once did superstitionn ever come into play, when our doctor’s partner asked to do the “needle and thread test.” He thought it was just as good an indicator as the heartbeat. He predicted a girl.

We were a little nervous when the birth date of December 10 came and went. After another week went by, we asked for an ultrasound. “Damn, this is a BIG baby” was the technician’s response. So we asked for a Caesarian for the next day and got one.

My son was born by Caesarian section December 21, 1990. He weight NINE AND A HALF POUNDS. Bartlett Memorial nurses remarked at how spry I was and young women who had just given natural birth told me to stop getting out of bed–I was making them look bad. My doctor apologized for messinng up on the birth date and also said she’d accidentally delivered an 11 pound baby before. Glad I had that Caesarian!

My son by the way scored 10 out of 10 on the APGAR scale as he was wailing the moment he was born. He was a good baby and has been an excellent son. He’s 21 now. Baruch HaShem!

As I am quiet new in Jewish, looking around for some Jewish information> Got something important here. Nice to get it.
This piece http://goo.gl/DT6FN of video helped me forgive and let go of my frustration.

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Pregnant Pause

Pregnancies are fertile ground for superstition, especially for those who assume their traditions and lucky charms are based in Jewish law