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Paper from AJS 2009 B. AZ 26a

Paper from AJS 2009 B. AZ 26a

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Published by Michael Pitkowsky
Talmud, Babylonia, Lilith
Talmud, Babylonia, Lilith

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Published by: Michael Pitkowsky on Dec 22, 2009
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12/21/2009

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Gentile Midwives and Nursemaids and Dead Jewish Babies
Bavli Avodah Zarah 26aMichael Pitkowsky-AJS 2009I have a close friend who was born on the island of Djerba off of theTunisian coast. She told me that when she was born the labor went so fastthat the Jewish midwife was unable to get there in time so a Muslim Arabmidwife delivered her. My friend remembers that before every Jewishholiday the Muslim midwife and the midwife
ʼ
s entire family would come andsee what new clothes my friend
ʼ
s mother had made for her. In short, theMuslim midwife saw my friend as her own daughter, wanting to take pridein how she was growing up. My friend also told me of another advantageto this situation, whenever she would be picked on by some of the Muslimchildren in the neighborhood, her “midwife brothers” would make it clearthat anybody who messed with her would also have to mess with them.While in this story most everyone came out happy, and I am sure thatsimilar stories could be told about different people throughout Jewishhistory, today I want to examine what could be described as some not soflattering descriptions of Gentile midwives and nursemaids that are found inRabbinic literature. In Mishnah Avodah Zarah 2:1 (page 1) we read abouta number of possible scenarios involving midwives and nursemaids, bothJewish and Gentile. From this mishnah we see that an Israelite womanwas forbidden to be a midwife for a non-Jewish woman, while a non-Jewish
1
 
woman was permitted to be a midwife for an Israelite woman. Additionally,an Israelite woman is forbidden to nurse a non-Jewish baby while a non-Jewish nursemaid is only permitted to nurse a Jewish baby in the presenceof the baby
ʼ
s mother.In the Tosefta, Bavli, and Yerushalmi (page 4) the reason given for theprohibition of Israelite woman serving as a midwife for a non-Jewishwoman is that the Jewish woman would be delivering a child into idolatry.While the Mishnah permits a non-Jewish woman to serve as a midwife for aJewish woman, in the Bavli a baraita is brought which prohibits a non-Jewish woman from serving as a midwife for a Jewish woman because“non-Jews are suspected of murder.” A parallel baraita is found in both theTosefta and in the Yerushalmi, with the version in the Yerushalmiformulating the reason for the prohibition slightly differently. The Bavlielaborates (line 3) and says that this is prohibited because the non-Jewishmidwife may press “her hand on the [infant
ʼ
s] temples and kill it withoutbeing observed” while in the Yerushalmi there is fear that the fetus may becrushed.This graphic description of what a Gentile woman may do to a Jewishbaby is the first of three such descriptions found in the Bavli which portraynon-Jewish women as clear and present dangers to Jewish babies. Thesecond description is found in a story (line 4) brought to support the claimthat a non-Jewish midwife may crush the skull of a Jewish baby. In this
2
 
story a Gentile midwife is taunted by a neighbor for helping Jewish womengive birth. Her response was
ʻ
May as many evils befall that woman, as Ihave dropped [Jewish children] like lumps of wood into the river.
ʼ
The nextdescription can be found in line 7 of the Bavli and it describes the scenarioof a Gentile nursemaid rubbing poison on her breast in order to poison aJewish baby.I would like to make the claim that these depictions of Gentile womenas baby killers have their origins in Babylonian mythology, specifically thedemon Lama
š
tu, and then later in Lilith.Lama
š
tu, whose origins are to be found in the early second milleniumBCE, was a baby-killing machine. F.A.M. Wiggerman described whyLama
š
tu specifically targeted babies in the following words:"Babies are not yet employed in the service of the gods, and cannotyet have failed at it (sinned); in the absence of original sin, their innocenceis exemplary. Lama
š
tu's specialty runs squarely against the divinelyordained order: by killing off innocent beings she interferes with the use ofdemonic punishment as an instrument of divine rule, by preventingpotentially useful humans from reaching maturity she overrules the cosmicorder in which the gods need man just as much as he needs them.Lama
š
tu must be thoroughly evil, the counterpart of exemplary innocence."Her
modi operandi 
were to strangle or poison babies. On page 5 there
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