Baby Showers: A Teshuva

A pregnant friend recently asked me whether or not she ought to have a baby shower. “My mother-in-law really wants to make me one. I know that Jews are not supposed to do those kinds of things, but why not? Is it just about superstition?”
            I thought about her question. Is there any other reason? Why do many Jews not have baby showers? Yes, there is the superstitious fear of the evil eye, namely that celebrating the baby before it is born would attract the attention of dark spirits, who would mark the baby for disaster. Jewish superstitions go back very far – in the Talmud, for instance, the sages speak of a very real fear of doing anything in even numbers because pairs were considered demonic; this fear led the rabbis to question how we can possibly drink four cups of wine at the Pesach seder, a practice that no one thinks twice about today. Indeed, many of the superstitions that may have plagued our great grandmothers in the shtetl seem to have fallen away. Why then should we not turn a blind eye to the evil eye and have that baby shower after all?
            When I think back to my own pregnancies, I can say with certainty that a baby shower was the furthest thing from my mind. Pregnancy, more than any other experience, awakened me to a sense of the miraculous. I was overcome by awe at the ability to take part in creation, but along with that awe came tremendous trepidation. Just as the baby inside me was completely dependent on me for all its needs, I felt myself entirely dependent on God. Though the baby was forming just inches below the surface of my skin, I had very little control over whether it would be healthy or strong, curious or loving. This seemed entirely up to God, and all I could do was hope and pray and tremble.
            The Talmud relates that the uncertainty that characterizes pregnancy and childbirth gave rise to a series of astrological superstitions: “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….” I related to the desperate wish to be able to control the outcome of pregnancy, but I knew it was in vain. The day on which my child was born would make no difference, and I had no control over that day anyway. Elsewhere the Talmud relates that three keys are in the hand of God and are not entrusted to any messenger – the key to rain, the key to the revival of the dead, and the key to childbirth. It is only God who decides how an unborn child will fare.
            And so every day that passed in which my baby seemed to be fine, I regarded as a miracle. Every day I received a positive report from a doctor or ultrasound technician, I found myself chanting psalms of praise as I skipped my way out the office. People often ask me how I felt when I found out I had twins: “Were you panicked? Terrified?” I tell them the truth — that I broke out in joyous and incredulous laughter at my unbelievable good fortune, and identified more with the matriarch’s Sarah’s response to her own annunciation than with Rebecca’s dismay at her twin pregnancy. It seemed so wildly wonderful and impossible – I had been hoping for a baby to grow inside me, and lo and behold there were two!
            Throughout my pregnancies I was constantly overcome by gratitude. Several of my friends had been through devastating miscarriages and never for a moment did I assume that everything would go smoothly; even the language of “expecting” seemed a bit presumptuous. I was hoping and praying for a healthy child, and if my child were not healthy, I was hoping and praying for the strength to help him or her to thrive nonetheless. I did not find out the sex of my children in advance because I experienced pregnancy as a way of getting in touch with the unknown, the mysterious, the wondrous, and I wanted to retain that sense as much as possible. A baby shower – a party that seemed designed to celebrate a baby who would surely come – felt so antithetical to my sensibility. I did not want to assume or expect anything, but to take each day as a gift. For the time being, this was gift enough, and already I was showered in blessing.

Who Knows? An Adar of Anticipation

Among the laws governing the reading of the scroll of Esther discussed in tractate Megillah is the stipulation that the megillah may not be read backwards: “One who reads the megillah backwards has not fulfilled one’s obligation” (17a). The story of the Jews in Shushan unfolds in linear progression, moving from “sorrow to joy and from mourning to festivity,” as we learn only in the penultimate chapter (9:22). Of course, since we read the megillah every year on Purim, we already know how it will end, and the triumphant hanging of the evil villain Haman whose plot to exterminate the Jews was foiled by the beautiful Queen Esther comes as no surprise. Even so, we are commanded each year to read the Megillah with a sense of “who knows,” inhabiting a world of lottery and chance in which we cannot divine the ending but can only pray for a better outcome. As Esther’s uncle Mordechai says to her, “Who knows, perhaps you have attained a royal position for just such a moment” (4:14).

            I write these words on Rosh Hodesh Adar of 5773 (2013), exactly six years after I first learned Maskhet Megillah in daf yomi. I sit here nine months pregnant with twins, thinking back to a time when I did not know if I would ever get married again, let alone be privileged to bring children into the world. I try to put myself in the shoes of the person I was back then, pretending that I don’t already know about all the twists and turns that life would take to sustain me and enable me to reach this day. As I try to identify with that uncertainty, I am struck by the realization that in a world of hester panim—a world where God’s face is hidden—the sense of “who knows” never completely dissipates. We may have a wider vista now that we have ascended to the top of one difficult mountain, but other, higher mountains lie ahead, and there is no guarantee that we will surmount them as well.

            I think about this metaphor as I lie in bed, looking over the mountain that is my pregnant belly and wondering if I will ever be able to see directly down to my feet again. Last summer, when I first learned I was pregnant, I remember looking at the calendar and thinking that I’d probably give birth between Tu B’shvat and Purim. Tu B’shvat is over and gone, and with it all the flower and tree names we played around with these past few months. Today we ushered in Adar, the month of joy, and my husband reminded me that Rosh Hodesh Adar would make a great birthday. At this point, though, I don’t need any reminders. Everyone who sends me emails, surely in an attempt to be thoughtful and considerate, prefaces their messages with, “I’m not sure if you’re in the throes of labor as I’m sending this,” or “I wonder if you have already given birth.” No, no, not yet. The new month, whose invisible new moon is not even the barest sliver of a crescent, has not yet revealed what it holds in store. Still, it is a good thing to have made it to 39 weeks in a twin pregnancy. As a friend just reminded me, the zodiac symbol for Adar is two fish, perhaps because Adar is the one month that can fall out twice in a shana meuberet, a leap or “pregnant” year. But the symbol is also pregnant with personal meaning, since I have swam nearly every day these past nine months. “Are you teaching your babies how to swim?” the ladies at the pool always ask me. “Oh no, they are swimming already,” I assure them, imagining my two little fetus-fish awash in their individual sacs of amniotic fluid. At some point the seas will split and they will be cast on to dry land – hopefully long before Pesach, as I exhausted those metaphors in my previous pregnancy.

            Meanwhile, as Purim approaches, I think of Esther enjoining the people to come together in fervent prayer that all should proceed smoothly when she risks her life to approach King Ahaseuerus (the last five letters of whose name, as commonly transliterated, are a near-anagram of uterus). The Talmud in the first chapter of Megillah interprets the verse that describes Esther’s reaction to hearing of the king’s decree to destroy and massacre all the Jews: “Va-tithalhal hamalka meod.” The word “Va-tithalhal,” often translated as “became agitated,” provides fodder for the midrashic imagination: “What is Va-tithalhal? Rav says: She became a menstruant. Rabbi Yirmiya says, “She suffered a miscarriage” (15a). Rashi explains that the cavities of her body dissolved. All these interpreters are playing with the etymological similarity between Va-tithalhal and “halal,” the Hebrew word for cavity or hole and the nomenclatural hallmark of the N’keva, the female. I wonder if maybe Esther heard the news and felt like she was in labor, bearing inside her womb the destiny of the Jewish people.<

            Sitting here on Rosh Hodesh Adar, attuned to the first signs of any contractions, I do not know when I will begin to feel changes in the holes and cavities of my body. The megillah is ten chapters, and I am already at the end of my ninth month – but I cannot scroll ahead to find out what happens in chapter ten. We read the megillah in order and live our lives day by day, and as Mordechai tells Esther “who knows” what tomorrow will bring. But as Adar begins, joy increases, and I can only pray that for us, too, it will be so.

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.

The Divine Ultrasound: Getting a Kick out of Parshat Toldot

We don’t know how pregnant Rivka was at the beginning of this week’s parsha, but judging from how I’ve been feeling, I would guess she was at least five months along. Just a few weeks ago I started feeling the babies kicking for the first time, and this week, I was able to detect two distinctive patterns of fetal movement. The doctor has told me that one baby is on top and one on the bottom, and I am beginning to get to know them both. The one on top gives sudden, jolting kicks just to the right of my navel, as if leveling a blow at an imaginary opponent; when this baby moves, my whole stomach protrudes and the motion is visible even through my clothing. The baby on the bottom doesn’t so much kick as undulate, fluttering around just above my pelvic bone in a gentle, rhythmic dance. I wouldn’t say that the two wombmates are struggling with one another, but much like Rivka, I find myself preoccupied with my own interiority and wondering, “What is this self I have become?”

As Avivah Zornberg points out, Rivka’s name is an anagram of Kirbah, that interior space where the babies struggled: “And the babies struggled inside her (b’kirbah).” When pregnant with twins, Rivka’s very identity was jumbled inside her, to the extent that she could no longer recognize herself: “If so, why I?” she asks in a moment of existential doubt. Unlike me, Rivka did not have the advantage of modern ultrasound technology, nor did she have an entire shelf of books to tell her what to expect when she was expecting. She didn’t receive weekly emails from BabyCenter comparing her baby’s size to various fruits and vegetables and informing her of the various stages of development: Week One: Your baby is the size of a lentil! Week Two: Your baby now has heels! Week Three: Your baby is covered in a soft coating of hair! Instead, God had to serve as her ultrasound and her sounding board, illuminating the reason for her distress and discomfort: “Two nations are in your womb. Two separate people shall issue from your body.” And indeed, as we are told in the very next verse, so it came to pass.

Rivka is not the only woman in our tradition to suffer during a twin pregnancy. The Talmud (Yevamot 65b) relates that Yehudit, the wife of Rabbi Hiya, gave birth to twin sons born two months apart; the first one came out at 32 weeks! Poor Yehudit went into labor twice, and had to spend her eighth and ninth month of pregnancy caring for a newborn, presumably while on bedrest. Traumatized by the experience, she tried to prevent herself from ever becoming pregnant again. She disguised herself and came before her husband, a story reminiscent of Jacob disguising himself as Esau as per Rivka’s instructions. “Is a woman obligated in the mitzvah of procreation,” she asked him. Her husband responded no. She then drank a drug to make her barren, an act we might interpret as stealing the birthright, or at least as stealing the right to give birth. Rabbi Hiya then got wind of the matter and cried forth in great distress upon realizing that he had been tricked. If his wife was to birth him no more sons, what blessing could possibly be left for him? “I wish you would give birth to another bellyful,” he blessed his wife, and so she did – although this time, they were girls. Thus Hiya and Yehudit were the parents of two sets of twins: First Yehuda and Hizkiya, and then Pazi and Tavi.

I, for one, shall be more than happy if this one set of twins comes out safely and healthily, and hopefully not months apart from one another. I’m not sure if the one on top or the one on the bottom will make its way out first, especially since I am due on Purim, the holiday of v’nahafoch hu, in which everything is turned upside down. My goal is just to make it as close to 40 weeks (and as close to the end of Masekhet Shabbat) as possible, hopefully while remaining ambulatory. This in itself would be a miracle, as the Talmud teaches:”Come and see that the attributes of the Holy One are not like the attributes of man. A man puts an object in a container with the opening facing downward, and it may or may not be preserved inside the container. But God shapes the fetus in the womb of an open woman, with the opening facing down, and the fetus is preserved” (Niddah 31a). I hope the babies are comfortable in their upper and lower berths, folded up like writing tablets with candles burning atop their heads as they peer from one end of the world to the other (Niddah 30b) and as they study Masekhet Shabbat with me each morning. We still have 110 pages left, so while the twins are free to keep kicking, I hope that neither one has any intention of emerging any time soon.

Reading while Walking while Pregnant

Yesterday I went for a morning jog and tripped on the cobblestones of Derekh Hevron. This is not the first time I have had a bad fall while running—the sidewalks of Jerusalem are notoriously ill-kept, even though, as we learn in Masekhet Ketubot (112a), Rabbi Hanina repaired the roads of Israel when he arrived from Babylonia. (He started in Akko. Perhaps he didn’t make it this far south). I have fallen many times before, but never while pregnant. It was for this reason that when a few concerned pedestrians rushed to my aid, I found myself scared to get up. “I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine,” I assured them, remaining hunched over lest they catch sight of my gravid belly. I have learned, over the past few months, that pregnancy is not a personal affair in this city. Everyone—both men and women, those who have had children and those who have not—feels at liberty to offer hectoring advice. The last thing I wanted was to be rebuked: “How can you run when you’re pregnant? You are endangering your unborn child!” And so I waited until everyone had dispersed before lifting myself up, brushing off my bloody knees, and continuing on my way.

I ran the full length of Derekh Hevron, and then came home to clean off. The soap stung on my open wounds, so I took advantage of the opportunity to practice the pain-management techniques we’ve learned in our childbirth class. I exhaled strongly through my mouth, shaping my lips in alternate configurations: “Hee hoo, hee hoo, hee hoo.” Our teacher told us to come up with a mantra to repeat when the pain gets very intense. Though I’m not pregnant with twins, the words that always come to mind are Rivka’s cry to God: “אם כן, למה זה אנוכי?” And if so, why do I exist? Rivka feels the struggle of unknown forces inside her and questions her very existence. Avivah Zornberg points out that Rivka’s name is an anagram of “Kirbah,” the interior space in which the babies struggle in Genesis 25:22: “The children struggled within her (b’kirbah).” Her womb becomes a scrambled version of her name, confounding her sense of identity.

I relate to Rivka’s confusion about the boundaries of her own identity when I feel the baby moving inside me. Suddenly I am more than just myself. This raises a host of ethical questions. Am I responsible for eating and sleeping healthily because my habits directly impact another creature? Are there new limits to my autonomy because of the alien being I am hosting inside? Take today, for instance, when I walked the 50 minutes from Baka to Meah Shearim while reading a novel. It is true that reading while walking entails certain risks: I might trip, or bump into someone, or fail to take note of a red light. These are risks that I’ve always been willing to take; it seems worth it, for the sake of all the pages I manage to read while in transit. But now that have a baby b’Kirbi, I am not so sure. I think about the opening of Masekhet Bava Kama (4a), where we are told, “אדם – שמירת גופו עליו הוא.” A person is responsible for guarding his own body from harming others. In the past, I have always interpreted this statement to mean that given my clumsiness and obliviousness, I should never carry an umbrella, or ride a bicycle, or drive a car – all of these activities extend the radius of the space for which I am responsible, with the risk that I might poke out someone’s eyes, or run over a hapless pedestrian. I always imagined that any potential damage would be outward, projected into the world with which I come into contact. Now, bestirred by a profound sense of my own inhabited interiority, I realize that this damage might also be inward. If I walk into a pole while reading and walking, it is not simply a matter between me and the pole, but between me and my unborn child.

If I am honest with myself, I recognize that part of the reason I am compelled to jog regularly and to read while walking is because I am uncomfortable with the notion of sitting still. I have a hard time doing nothing – the day is short, and the work great. If I ever find myself standing in line at the post office without a book to read, I go crazy; how can I just wait there, watching the minutes tick away? To some extent, pregnancy has enabled me to overcome some of this compulsiveness about using time to the fullest. When I feel the baby moving, I remember that even when I am doing nothing productive or creative, something is being produced and created within. This was a profound realization, as well as a spiritual one. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they questioned God: “Is God in our midst (b’kirbeinu – in our Kirbah), or not?” Of course, God longs for nothing more than to dwell inside the people: “They shall build Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell inside them.” It is paradoxically in those moments when I am most still that the baby inside me becomes most active, asserting its presence with powerful kicks and thrusts. In those rare moments of rest, when I stop relentlessly achieving and pursuing, I feel a sense of divine indwelling. I realize that it is not I alone—and not I and my husband alone—who are responsible for the creation of this child, who we pray will emerge into the world and render the image of God yet more manifest.