Gentile Midwives and Nursemaids and Dead Jewish Babies Bavli Avodah Zarah 26a Michael Pitkowsky-AJS

2009

I have a close friend who was born on the island of Djerba off of the Tunisian coast. She told me that when she was born the labor went so fast that the Jewish midwife was unable to get there in time so a Muslim Arab midwife delivered her. My friend remembers that before every Jewish holiday the Muslim midwife and the midwifeʼs entire family would come and see what new clothes my friendʼs mother had made for her. In short, the Muslim midwife saw my friend as her own daughter, wanting to take pride in how she was growing up. My friend also told me of another advantage to this situation, whenever she would be picked on by some of the Muslim children in the neighborhood, her “midwife brothers” would make it clear that 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 that similar stories could be told about different people throughout Jewish history, today I want to examine what could be described as some not so flattering descriptions of Gentile midwives and nursemaids that are found in Rabbinic literature. In Mishnah Avodah Zarah 2:1 (page 1) we read about a number of possible scenarios involving midwives and nursemaids, both Jewish and Gentile. From this mishnah we see that an Israelite woman was forbidden to be a midwife for a non-Jewish woman, while a non-Jewish
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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 nonJewish nursemaid is only permitted to nurse a Jewish baby in the presence of the babyʼs mother.

In the Tosefta, Bavli, and Yerushalmi (page 4) the reason given for the prohibition of Israelite woman serving as a midwife for a non-Jewish woman 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 a Jewish woman, in the Bavli a baraita is brought which prohibits a nonJewish woman from serving as a midwife for a Jewish woman because “non-Jews are suspected of murder.” A parallel baraita is found in both the Tosefta and in the Yerushalmi, with the version in the Yerushalmi formulating the reason for the prohibition slightly differently. The Bavli elaborates (line 3) and says that this is prohibited because the non-Jewish midwife may press “her hand on the [infantʼs] temples and kill it without being observed” while in the Yerushalmi there is fear that the fetus may be crushed. This graphic description of what a Gentile woman may do to a Jewish baby is the first of three such descriptions found in the Bavli which portray non-Jewish women as clear and present dangers to Jewish babies. The second description is found in a story (line 4) brought to support the claim that a non-Jewish midwife may crush the skull of a Jewish baby. In this
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story a Gentile midwife is taunted by a neighbor for helping Jewish women give birth. Her response was “ʻMay as many evils befall that woman, as I have dropped [Jewish children] like lumps of wood into the river.ʼ The next description can be found in line 7 of the Bavli and it describes the scenario of a Gentile nursemaid rubbing poison on her breast in order to poison a Jewish baby. I would like to make the claim that these depictions of Gentile women as baby killers have their origins in Babylonian mythology, specifically the demon Lamaštu, and then later in Lilith.

Lamaštu, whose origins are to be found in the early second millenium BCE, was a baby-killing machine. F.A.M. Wiggerman described why Lamaštu specifically targeted babies in the following words: "Babies are not yet employed in the service of the gods, and cannot yet have failed at it (sinned); in the absence of original sin, their innocence is exemplary. Lamaštu's specialty runs squarely against the divinely ordained order: by killing off innocent beings she interferes with the use of demonic punishment as an instrument of divine rule, by preventing potentially useful humans from reaching maturity she overrules the cosmic order in which the gods need man just as much as he needs them. Lamaštu 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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are a number of selections which illustrate these descriptions of Lamaštu. She attacks women in labor, she wants people to "Bring me your sons, that I may suckle (them), and your daughters, that I may nurse (them), "Let me put my breast in your daughters' mouths!" Poison is one of her preferred methods of killing babies and sometimes she might even yank “out the pregnant womanʼs baby.”

It was at some time during the first millenium BCE that Lilith may have adopted some of Lamaštuʼs baby-killing qualities. While Lilith is mentioned a number of times in Talmudic literature, most notably Midrash Numbers Rabbah on page 7, her baby-killing prowess is most pronounced in the Aramaic magic bowels. As you can see from the selections on page 6, in some of the magic bowls Lilith is described as a killer of children “who fills deep places, strikes, smites, casts down, strangles, kills, and casts down boys and girls, male and female foetuses.” She was known both as a crusher of bones and a strangler. A question which has been addressed by historians of Rabbinic Babylonia is the relationship between the religious and magic beliefs that are found in the magic bowls and the world of the Talmudic rabbis. If I am correct that there is a connection between the Lilith of the magic bowls and the description of Gentile women found in Bavli AZ, then this is evidence of an intersection between the world of the Talmud and more popular religious
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practices and beliefs that we have evidence of from the bowls.

There are a number of other sources within rabbinic literature which address what I would describe as an anxiety about the deaths of children, if not at the hands of strangers, then at the hands of their own parents. In Bavli Ketubbot 60b (page 8), we read about the prohibition of a widow to remarry before twenty-four months have passed unless she either gives the baby to a nursemaid, stops nursing her child, or the child dies. An opinion is brought in the Gemara that even if the child dies she is still prohibited to remarry because perhaps she killed her own child in order to facilitate her remarriage. The anonymous Talmud says that “there was once a case and she choked it,” with the response being that this isnʼt a valid example because she was mentally unstable, and “our women donʼt strangle their children.” Additionally one can find in the 7th/8th century work Maʼasim Livnei Eretz Yisrael (also on page 8) that even if the child dies the woman must wait a full twenty-four months until she can remarry because there is a fear “that sometimes the woman chokes her child intentionally in order to get remarried sooner.” From these two sources, and there are a number of others, there is evidence of a clear anxiety about the mortality of babies and young children. A high rate of infant mortality and the practice of child abandonment and exposure was common in antiquity, especially in the Roman world. While the 1st BCE Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that Jews and
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Egyptians didnʼt abandon children and both Philo and Josephus explicitly condemned the abandonment or exposure of infants, some scholars have claimed that their vehement condemnation is itself evidence that at least some Jews must have abandoned or exposed their children.

Jonathan Z. Smith claimed “that the demonic frequently serves as a classificatory marker that is part of a larger system of boundaries used to express or reinforce a society's values." When non-Jewish women are described as blood-thirsty baby killers and repeated claims are made that our women donʼt kill their own children, a boundary is being drawn. They canʼt be trusted with our children, and even some of our own may be suspect. The imagery of the murderous midwife or nursemaid had a long history in both Ancient Mesopotamia and Babylonia, and the Talmud may have in fact been drawing from this body of images when it wanted to describe the dangers of childbirth and those that a young baby faced, with these dangers being encapsulated in the description of Gentile midwives and nursemaids as those seeking to kill Jewish babies, whether while still in the womb or while nursing.

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