The Barren Shall Rejoice: Battling Infertility With Jewish Rituals
Its been a while since I've added an entry. And recently it occurred to me that I have only addressed issues of infertility tangentially, through the themes of Sukkot, or the fabulous stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. So here is something more on point:
Fertility and infertility is a major issue in any traditional culture, and Jewish culture is no different. In fact, infertility is a central theme in the book of Genesis, starting with the divine command to be "fruitful and multiple," right through the growing pathos arising from the contrast between God's promise to make Abraham a great nation and the constant struggles with infertility he and his family endured (Gen. 30:1).
Over the centuries, Jews, and especially Jewish women, developed a whole arsenal of folk cures, rituals, and devices to combat prolonged bouts of infertility (this is aside from wedding rituals encouraging fertility, aphrodisiacs and treatments for male impotence, things I explored in an earlier entry). These include -
- Mandrakes, which have a biblical warrant (Gen. 30:14-16). This root is incorporated into varied cures across the centuries.
- Consuming rubies was another popular treatment in medieval medical texts.1
- Visiting the grave of Rachel outside Bethlehem, to ask for the Matriarch's intervention. The burial places of other deceased worthies, such as Hasidic masters, are also sought out.
- Mizrachi (Asian) Jews would place a cup of water under the chair set out for Elijah at a circumcision ceremony (Brit Milah). Following the ceremony, barren women would drink this water in hope of aiding in pregnancy. A related practice would be to drink from a kiddush cup that had just been used at a Brit Milah. In Europe, women would meditate upon the knife used to perform a circumcision. All this was inspired by the hope that the fertility embodied in the newborn boy that permeated the ritual would prove contagious. 2
- The exact reverse of this association, and one probably adopted from surrounding gentile cultures, involved having a woman stand in close proximity to a corpse, or sprinkle themselves with the water used to purify a corpse (European gentile women would stand under a gallows or even a hanging criminal).
- Incantations and kamiyot (amulets) were common and widely circulated. Most amulets included verses from Scripture that promise to counter barrenness (Isaiah 30:19, for example, or Exodus 23:26).3
- Most startling is a practice forbidden by the rabbis, but nevertheless reported in several communities - infertile women consuming the foreskin tissue from a circumcision (perhaps not so weird if we think of the occasional modern practice of women eating the afterbirth, but still shocking). Not surprisingly, keeping the foreskin as a talisman was more common. 4
1. Klein, A Time to Be Born, 41.
2. Sperber, The Jewish Life Cycle, 16, 452.
3. Naveh and Shaked, magic Spells and Formulae, 160-161.
4. Patai, "Folk Customs and Charms Related to Childbirth" (Heb.), Talpiot 6. Fascination with foreskins in not unique to Judaism. Historian Frances Stonor Saunders reports that at one point, a relic of Jesus' foreskin could be petitioned in 18 different cathedrals of Europe. The monastic movement took that one better with the "cult of the holy foreskin," a belief that the foreskin of the savior was the wedding ring of every novice who took holy orders. One saint had a vision of Jesus circumcising himself before placing the ring of flesh on her finger.