Status of the Mother - Rabbanit Leah Sarna

Rabbanit Leah Sarna is putting together a halachic guidebook for new parents. She intends to cover all the halachic questions that come up during those exhausting first three months of life, especially those that relate to the laws of Shabbat and the law of the infant. Rabbanit Sarna’s guide is meant to serve as an easy but comprehensive reference to these questions.

לְפִי שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה אִשָּׁה יוֹלֶדֶת בְּצַעַר, לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא מַה כְּתִיב (ישעיה סו, ז): בְּטֶרֶם תָּחִיל יָלָדָה בְּטֶרֶם יָבוֹא חֶבֶל לָהּ וגו'.

In this world, a woman bears children with pain, but in the time to come, see what is written: “Before she will travail she will have brought forth; before her pain will come, she will have been delivered.

Expectant mothers carry every emotion as they look towards labor: fear, hope, disbelief, excitement, anxiety. Pregnancy might have been awful and it might have been a joy. Labor is just one more step on the journey towards parenthood that began many months prior and will continue for years to come. That journey is riddled with scary and potentially life-threatening moments, but none as universal as labor. Maternal mortality rates are improving across the globe, but, despite the best efforts of doctors and scientists, they are still extraordinarily high. With the calm demeanor of medical professionals and society’s general sense that “this is all natural,” one can lose sight of just how perilous labor really is. Halakhah does not.

From the time when a woman goes to the hospital and for seven days after delivery, Jewish law considers the mother to be a “person with a life-threatening illness,”1 a חולה שיש בה סכנה. That is the very same status accorded to a person having a heart attack or suffering a stroke. While the end-goal of birth is necessary and miraculous, we cannot lose sight of its procedural dangers from which women survive with great suffering even under the best of circumstances. The Midrash in Vayikra Rabba, above, dreams of a messianic age in which children are brought forth painlessly: the miracle of childbirth preserved absent the pain and danger. Despite medicine’s best efforts, this is not our world today even under the best of circumstances. There is no childbirth without danger and pain.

The Halakhic approach is important to emphasize particularly because it is counter-cultural in America today. Postpartum medicine beginning in the hours following birth focuses almost exclusively on the baby, assuming that the mother will heal on her own just fine with time and painkillers. Jewish law knows that this approach is wrongheaded, and that the mother’s status continues to be precarious, demanding attention and care alongside the new life that she has birthed.

The mother’s status has particularly strong practical ramifications in terms of Hilkhot Shabbat. Specifically, we violate Shabbat in order to care for a “sick person in danger.” In the case of a mother in labor, the way we break Shabbat to support her depends on whether her labor is proceeding normally (in which case one should do everything with a shinui, in an unusual way, like using the weaker hand to press a button, etc) or not (in which case we take no risks in her care and do every required action as efficiently as possible). After the child is born, for the first three days a person should violate Shabbat to care for a mother even against her wishes. From day four through day seven a person should violate Shabbat to care for a mother unless she tells them otherwise. After day seven and until day thirty, she is considered a “person with a non-life-threatening illness,” a חולה שאין בו סכנה, for whom a Jew can violate rabbinic Shabbat prohibitions or ask a non-Jew to perform any needed care.2

The practical applications of these various stages will be laid out in future chapters, but the main point is this: in Jewish law, postpartum women are categorically in need of care.


1 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 330:1

2 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 330:4

About Rabbanit Leah Sarna

Rabbanit Leah Sarna is the Associate Director of Education and Director of High School Programs at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. She previously served as Director of Religious Engagement at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, a leading urban Orthodox congregation. She was ordained at Yeshivat Maharat in 2018, holds a BA from Yale University in Philosophy & Psychology, and also trained at the SKA Beit Midrash for Women at Migdal Oz, Drisha and the Center for Modern Torah Leadership. Rabbanit Sarna’s published works have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Lehrhaus and MyJewishLearning. She has lectured in Orthodox synagogues and Jewish communal settings around the world and loves spreading her warm, energetic love for Torah and Mitzvot with Jews in all stages of life. She lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA with her husband, Dr. Ethan Schwartz, and their son, Cyrus.