Nine Months Pregnant: Counting Down the Shabbatot

I have twenty-one dapim left in Masekhet Shabbat and twenty-one days until my due date, which means that if I and my unborn children both stay on schedule, I should be able to finish the Masekhet before they are born. These past few weeks have been a race to cover as much ground as possible out of fear that once our twins are born, my time will no longer be my own. I have spent many early mornings and late nights lying atop my bed propped up with pillows, which is the only way I can lie comfortably these days, since my stomach is so enormous. When I learn, I try to focus on the text and ignore the kicking inside my belly and the deadline that looms before me. These past few days, however, so many of the dapim have dealt with matters relating to pregnancy and childbirth that I am constantly reminded of what lies ahead – and inside.

            Last week I learned the eighteenth chapter of the Masekhet, which concludes with a discussion about giving birth on Shabbat (128b). Shmuel, a sage who was known for his medicinal skills, asserts that so long as the womb is open, one may desecrate Shabbat in order to fulfill all the wishes of a pregnant woman – including lighting a candle for her and carrying oil through the public domain to bring to her. However, once the womb has closed, one may no longer desecrate Shabbat to satisfy her needs. The Talmud then goes on to ask the obvious next question: When is the womb considered open? Abayey says that it is from the moment the woman sits on the birthing stone. (My equivalent of the Mashberwould be the big inflatable exercise ball from Target which I lay on during the worst of my contractions in my last pregnancy, and which my husband Daniel just blew up again.) Rav Yehoshua says it is from the moment that blood begins to flow. And others say that it is from the time that the woman can no longer walk, and her friends must carry her – just as Daniel and mother had to lift me up and carry me to the car so I could get to the hospital in time to deliver Matan a year and a half ago.

The word used in the Talmud for womb is Kever, which also means grave. This analogy goes back at least as far as the book of Proverbs (30:16), where we are told that “Three things are insatiable…Hell, a barren womb, earth that cannot get enough water.” These are also the three matters which are controlled exclusively by God, as we are taught in the first page of tractate Taanit: “Three keys are in the hands of God and are not entrusted to any messenger: The key to rain, the key to childbirth, and the key to revive the dead.” That is, only God can control when rain falls, and when a woman goes into labor, and when the Messiah will come and revive the dead. I may think that I have it all planned out, and I may be confident that I’ll finish the Masekhet before the babies come, but it’s all in God’s hands. As the old ladies at the pool keep reminding me, it is most important that it should happen in a propitious hour, b’sha’a tovah — even if that means that I have to lug this heavy Masekhet to the hospital with me.

At least I can rest assured that I am out of one of the danger zones, since I’m now into my ninth month. The rabbis teach that any baby born in the eighth month of pregnancy will not be viable, but is regarded as inanimate as a stone (135a). On the other hand, any baby born in the seventh or ninth month is assumed to be healthy. Apparently this was a well-known medical principle in the ancient world, though it is not clear on what it is based. In any case, I am grateful that I did  not give birth in the eighth month (or the seventh month for that matter, which I daresay would have been far worse).

In the same sugya about helping a woman give birth on Shabbat, the rabbis discuss whether it is permissible to tie the umbilical cord on Shabbat (129b). They disagree about whether it is preferable to tie or to cut the cord; which is less of a desecration of Shabbat? But all the sages concur that in the case of twins, one must cut the umbilical cords lest the babies continue to be connected to one another, which would be dangerous. Given that we are expecting twins, it sounds like even if they are born on Shabbat, I won’t have any trouble convincing the midwife to cut the cords. This will be a disappointment to Matan, however, who likes to play only with things that can be plugged in. He spends most afternoons (including Shabbat, for that matter) plugging in and out our immersion blender (which he calls “the noises”), our portable radiator (“the cham”), and Daniel’s desk lamp (“a lamps”). The most exciting thing about our new babies (which he’s already named “hairdryer” and “screwdriver,” after two of his other favorite household items) would surely be the prospect of plugging their umbilical cords into an electrical socket – perish the thought.

While Matan was inserting plugs into sockets this morning, I finished the nineteenth chapter of the Masekhet, which deals with the issue of performing a bris on Shabbat. All the sages agree that a baby born on Shabbat is circumcised on Shabbat, and Rabbi Eliezer says that it is even permissible for the Mohel to carry the knife along with any other equipment necessary to perform the circumcision on Shabbat (130a). However, if there is any doubt about whether the baby is in fact due to be circumcised on Shabbat, or if there is any doubt about the baby’s gender, then one must wait until the next day to perform the circumcision. There are also those who say that if a baby is born by C-section, then the bris is not performed on Shabbat – though this is a minority opinion. The rabbis also discuss whether a baby who has already been circumcised may be treated on Shabbat: Is it possible to wash the baby? To sprinkle cumin (which was thought to have medicinal properties) on the site of the bris? To replace the bandage? During this discussion about caring for infants, Abayey interjects with a series of folk remedies that he learned from his mother (134a): First, his mother taught him that if a baby refuses to nurse, it is because its mouth is too cold, and one must bring hot coals to put on its lips. If a baby doesn’t breathe properly, one should bring the mother’s placenta and place it on the baby’s chest. If the baby is ruddy-complexioned, it has not fully absorbed its blood, and one should wait before circumcising it. I am not sure if any of these practices are part of the protocol in the maternity wards at Hadassah, but I hope I never find out.

By the time I am lying in that maternity ward, perhaps I will have reached my favorite sugya in Masekhet Shabbat, which deals with the astrological significance of the day on which a baby is born (156a): “One who is born on Sunday will be strong; one who is born on Monday will be quarrelsome; one who is born on Tuesday will be rich and fornicating….” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi associates each of these destinies with the creation story. For instance, just as the waters were divided on the second day of creation, a baby born on this day will be drawn to divisive situations and will therefore be quarrelsome. So far these predictions have proven accurate: Matan was born on a Wednesday, the day the sun and moon were created, and he is indeed intelligent and wise. However, Rabbi Hanina argues that it is not the day on which a person is born that matters, but the planet ruling over the hour of the birth. That is, one who is born under the sun will be a proud man; one who is born under the moon will suffer illness; one is born under Saturn will have his plans frustrated; on who is born under Jupiter will be charitable. I never read horoscope columns, so I won’t know under what sign my babies are born. But the Hebrew word for sign is Mazal, and so suffice it to say that I hope it will be a mazal tov.

Do I really have twenty-one days left until I give birth? Will I end up having boys, and if so, will their bris be on Shabbat? What day of the week will they be born, and will they know how to breathe and how to nurse? The answers to all these questions are of course in God’s hands; for my part, I can only pray to the keeper of the keys. May the twins be born healthily, and in an auspicious hour. May we merit to finish this Masekhet that we have been learning together since Sukkot; and may we merit to return to it someday again.

3 thoughts on “Nine Months Pregnant: Counting Down the Shabbatot

  1. Ariella says:

    Matan was born on the day the sun & the moon were created? That explains so much about his fascination with electricity, outlets, immersion blenders, lamps, etc.!


  2. Maggie Anton says:

    I suspect the reason the Rabbis thought a baby could be born perfectly formed and mature at 7 months as well as at 9 months, was on account of all those healthy, mature babies born 7 months after their parents' wedding.


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