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An Exploration of Jewish Sources on Perinatal Loss

In writing this article, I do not claim to give ‘the Jewish reason’ why someone may have suffered perinatal loss. This is something we cannot know. I simply intend to explore & explain some classic Jewish texts, which may be difficult to access, & through them outline some Jewish approaches to the topic. More original sources can be found here; they are mostly not translated from Hebrew, & have not been expanded upon.

First, it is useful to clarify the vast difference between the way that secular medicine views pregnancy loss, & the Jewish viewpoint. Secular medicine distinguishes between miscarriage & stillbirth, depending on the gestational age of the baby¹, while in Judaism, any infant who passes away before he/she is 30 days old is classed as a ‘nefel נפל ’ – lit. ‘fallen’ – whether before or after birth. There is no point in the pregnancy when a foetus moves categories²; and the pain of loss is the same, regardless.

Life before birth

Judaism defines life by spiritual acheivements, not physical ones, & so it considers a baby to also be ‘alive’ before birth. The following source is one of a series of conversations between the Roman Emperor Antoninus, and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (also called simply ‘Rebbi’), the redactor of the Mishna & leader of his generation.

Antoninus also said to Rebbi, ‘When is the soul placed in man; from the moment of decree, or the moment of formation?’ He replied, ‘From the moment of formation’. He (Antoninus) objected: [...] Rebbi said: ‘This thing Antoninus taught me, and Scripture supports him…’ (Sanhedrin 91b)

The medieval commentator Rashi explains that the ‘moment of decree’³ is the moment of conception, while the ‘moment of formation’ is when an embryo is already fully formed with all its sinews, bones & flesh (by around 12 weeks gestation). According to Jewish thought, then, a baby receives his or her neshama (soul, or unique spiritual life) at conception. A baby thus does not have to be born to have a relationship with G-d, or to make a spiritual impact on the universe. Even a very early miscarriage, which in secular medicine is not yet considered a ‘baby’ but just a collection of cells, has a unique ‘spiritual footprint’; a relationship with G-d which noone else before or since can ever share. When this soul returns to its Source, the feeling that something special has left the world is real, & is shared by G-d.

The Talmud (Niddah 30b) gives us further information about an embryo’s experience in the womb:

A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other, as it is said, “Then his lamp shone above my head, and by His light I walked through darkness (Job 29:3)” [...] And there is no time in which a man enjoys greater happiness than in those days, for it is said, ‘O that I were as the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me’… these are the months of pregnancy. It is also taught all the Torah from beginning to end, for it is said, “And he taught me, and said to me: Let your heart hold fast my words, keep my commandments and live (Prov. 4:4)”.

Whether or not one understands this literally, I believe the message is the same. A baby in the womb is living an idyllic, spiritual existence in a physical world. He/she does not have to eat or drink, for all its nourishment comes automatically, precisely as much as needed and precisely when it is needed. Like the Rabbis tell us about the manna in the desert, the food of an embryo creates no waste products at all. The description of a baby seeing from one end of the world to another is the same as that of Adam in the garden of Eden before he sinned, and connotes a complete understanding of all of creation. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91b) also teaches that a baby has no desire to do wrong (yetzer hara) until he/she is born. According to Torah, therefore, the baby in the womb is a perfect being; no physical desires, perfect understanding of both Torah (the spiritual world) and of the whole of the physical world. And so, although we perceive life after birth as the only real experience, these sources combine to teach us that not only is a baby alive before he/she is born, but his/her spiritual life is far richer.

This explanation can help us to one way of coming to terms with the loss of a pregnancy. Kabbalistic sources explain that there is a finite number of different souls. By now, every soul has been born into the world at least once; souls that are being born now are reincarnations, which need to complete their spiritual task in the physical world. Some souls are so close to perfection that they don’t need a lifetime to achieve their full potential. They only need to be carried by a caring mother, in complete selflessness and love, to complete their divine mission. It is taught that these are the souls of stillborn and miscarried babies. After this pure experience, the baby’s soul has nothing left to achieve by being born, and returns to his/her Source in purity, unsullied by life in the lower world. It can be a comfort to know that our baby has not ‘lost out’, but lived all the life he/she needed, and has returned to the highest possible rank in the spiritual world.

Never meant to be:

There is another important point in the Talmud (Niddah 16b). We are taught that at the moment of conception, the angel responsible for souls takes the fertilised egg before G-d, Who then decrees the nature of this baby – his/her strengths and weaknesses, wealth and health – everything pertaining to his/her life, including for sure its length. At the moment of conception, a soul is attached to this small collection of cells, and it lives before G-d as a complete spiritual and physical being, with all its life mapped out before him/her. There is nothing a mother could have done differently which would have prevented this baby from dying before birth; before you even knew you were pregnant, G-d had determined how long this soul would live for and when it would be returned to Him.

Rebbetzin Twerski (a speaker & writer who is much sought-after for her wise advice) wrote that a friend of hers was speaking to a great sage about the loss, many years ago, of a stillborn baby girl. She told the sage that she had two sons, and also had a daughter, Esther, who would have now been eight years old.

“The sage gently but very sternly and empathetically corrected her. “No,” he said, “Esther would never have been eight years old. She wasn’t meant to live or have a presence in this world.”.

Often our thoughts can follow a never-ending cycle of ‘what should have been’; women are especially good at punishing themselves for what they think they should have done differently. A woman who has lost a baby has done nothing wrong; G-d, for His reasons, intended things to be this way. It is, if anything, His ‘fault’, not yours.

Eternal impact

The Mishna in tractate Niddah, 5:3, lists all the ways in which a baby who lives only a short time affects society and his close family relationships. It can be easy to feel that a baby who is lost so early has had no chance to achieve anything, but this is not so: a baby who lives for even a few hours changes the world.

In fact, Jewish thought goes further than that. In the eyes of the Torah, a woman who has carried a child is forever a mother, regardless of how long that child has lived. It is a cornerstone of Jewish faith that there will soon come a time of redemption, when the dead will be resurrected for eternal life. The Talmud (Yevamot 63b) describes how all the souls that will ever be wait in a heavenly ‘soul-bank’ until they are attached to a body. A soul that is never linked to a physical body cannot be part of the future resurrection. But even a baby lost in early pregnancy has redeemed his/her own soul from the supernal soul-bank; at resurrection, this soul will be able to return to life. Had it not lived for even this short time in the womb, it would not be able to access future life in the messianic era.

Below are extracts from a letter written by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Rav Moshe lived in the Lower East Side of New York; he died in 1986. He was a world-renowned posek (Jewish legal arbiter); he ruled on the most complicated cases; his was one of the most authoritative voices of world Jewry. He wrote the following responsa*:

On the topic of whether nefalim (miscarried or stillborn babies or those who died in early infancy) will live again when the dead are raised (in the Messianic era), with the help of G-d. 12th Nissan 5738 (19th April 1978):

In the matter of your question, whether nefalim will be raised up when the time comes soon for the dead to be raised, behold (the talmudic sage) Ravina, whose opinion is decisive in all disputes, says in tractate Sanhedrin 110b that a child merits coming to the next world from when his seed is sown. (The medieval commentator) Rashi explains that this means from when the seed is collected in the bowels of the mother; even if the foetus is miscarried, he/she still has a share in the future [...] And so it is clear that when the time comes for the dead to be resurrected, the nefalim will live like grown & righteous adults, since they are certainly clean & pure of all sin [...]                                                           And I bless you with tranquility of spirit & of body, & to grow in Torah & good deeds.

Moshe Feinstein.

This lofty idea has an emotional reality. No couple who has lost a baby feels that the world is the same as it would have been had they never had a pregnancy at all. For better or worse, the baby they lost – both before and after the loss – changed their lives. A woman who has carried a baby is not the same as a woman who has never conceived. Her baby’s soul was brought into this world – even if his/her body never fully was – and that has changed the world.

Amanda Bradley

London, May 2009


¹A pregnancy lost before 24 weeks is termed miscarriage; after 24 weeks it is classed as stillbirth

² Masechet Shabbat 136a:                                                                                                                                        רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר כל ששהה שלשים יום באדם אינו נפל שנאמר ופדויו מבן חדש תפדה                                                 It was taught, Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel said: Any human being who lives thirty days is not considered a nefel, as it says, ‘And those that are to be redeemed of them, from a month old you shall redeem’.

³ Rashi, Sanhedrin 91b: From the moment that the angel takes the drop and brings it before G-d asking ‘what will be for this drop?’ as it describes in Niddah 16b; immediately the soul is placed within it & it lives.

*Igrot Moshe, YD 3:138  








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