What to Pray for When You’re Pregnant:

Talmudic Ontogeny

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 3.15.53 PM Please let the babies emerge.

The Talmud (Berachot 28b) suggests prayers you can say in favor of the well-being of a developing embryo or fetus after a mother becomes pregnant.

Within the first three days a man should pray that the seed should not putrefy; from the third to the fortieth day he should pray that the child should be a male; from the fortieth day to three months he should pray that it should not be a sandal;  from three months to six months he should pray that it should not be still-born; from six months to nine months he should pray for a safe delivery. But does such a prayer avail? (Berachot 60a)

It’s astonishing how scientifically knowledgeable (or informed by a Higher Authority) the Talmud is about biological facts that weren’t discovered by modern science until many centuries later. Here is the schedule for acceptable prayers suggested by the Talmud and how they correspond to biological fact.

Phenomenon Talmud’s definition of Time After Insemination Prayer
Viability of sperm 0-3 days “….please don’t let my seed go bad or spoil”
Sex of the embryo 3 to 40 days “…please make a male baby.”
Fish-like undeveloped fetus 40-120 days “…please don’t let the fetus become a sandal
Miscarriage 3-6 months “…please don’t let the fetus become nonviable”
Successful birth 6 months til birth “….please show mercy by letting the baby emerge”

This seems like a very generalized order of prayers until one looks closely at what we’ve discovered in the fifteen hundred years since the time of the Talmud.

First three days: “Please don’t let my seed go bad or spoil”

Before conception, a woman’s body produces a cervical mucous that creates a protective environment for sperm. On average, if a sperm swims beyond the cervix into the uterus and into the fallopian tubes, they live about three days.

So the prayer for the first three days after intercourse to make the sperm viable is surprising, given the sages would have had no way to confirm that sperm remains viable for that long in the uterus, nor that a female egg can be fertilized by it.

3-40 days after conception: “Please make a male baby.”

If you get over the obvious sexism of the prayer, it begs the question: “How did the rabbis know the question was even open in this period, specifically?”  Was it general wishful thinking, in which case one wonders why the prayer would stop being relevant after 40 days. Or did the rabbis knew something that was beyond their means to know through observation of dissected fetuses, for instance. Were they in touch with a stream of knowledge that lay beyond empirical observation of the material world?

As to the sexism, there were few cultures in which this favoritism for male babies wasn’t dominant. In many cultures, it still prevails, so the condemnation is anachronistic, a little like saying Shakespeare wasn’t sufficiently Marxist.

In any case, during the first few weeks after fertilization, the embryo is in a so-called “indifferent phase” of its gender determination. At this point, an embryo has both male (Wolffian ducts) and female (Mullerian duct) organs regardless of whether it is ultimately going to be a boy or a girl. In other words, the embryo is literally neither male nor female but both, potentially. At around the sixth week  after conception, a small genital bump appears called the “genital tube.” Until the ninth week, the reproductive apparatus – internal tubes, organs, etc. – is identical in all babies in the womb whether they will eventually become male or female. That is why even though the intrinsic XY (male) vs XX (female) genetic identity of the embryo is determined at fertilization, when something goes wrong with morphology – the expression of the genes into physical characteristics – an androgynous may eventually be born.

Indeed, the exact point at which the physical expression of gender occurs, and its genetic mechanism, has only been established in the last century. [See Bruce Carlsen’s discussion of the field in Human Embryology and Developmental Biology Elsevier, 2014].

Wouldn’t it have been natural to assume that gender is determined at conception and not at some later time? Even posing the question of when sex is determined in the fetus seems like it would have been far beyond the ken of science in the first centuries, let alone pinpointing with pretty good exactitude when the phenomenon occurs.  How did the rabbis know?

Accumulated folk wisdom about spontaneously aborted fetuses in this period of pregnancy over many generations might have informed later prayers.  But in this phase, it is almost inconceivable. The presence of both male and female anatomical potentials are minute, almost microscopic. The embryo is smaller than a pea at this point. In short, the prayer for the gender of the child in the Talmud transcends rational explanation.

40-120 days: “Please don’t let the fetus become a sandal

This prayer is designed to prevent gross physiological abnormalities in the development of the baby. The study of the progress and causes of congenital anomalies, a science that arose in the last two centuries, is called “teratology.”

About 30 days into fetal development, the embryo develops pharangyeal arches that look like gills. It’s hard to say the fetus looks like a human being until about the sixteenth week (about 110 days) or later. About four months into development, when the fetus is about five inches long, cartilage hardens into bone. Until then, any aborted fetus would look something more like a small fish.

The word ‘sandal’ refers to a flat ocean fish that literally looked like a sandal, perhaps a flounder (which is so flat it has both eyes on the side of its body facing up).

However, the Talmud here seems to have knowledge of a principle that wasn’t formulated until the 19th century. Ernst Haeckel summarized a popular scientific theory that at different stages of its development a baby in the womb superficially “recapitulates” that is, re-enacts, the drama of  evolution, from unicellular organisms through tadpoles and fish, to more complex species, to mammals and primates, and finally humans. His phrase for it was “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” – the life of a single organism mimics the growth of the phyla of species.

Of all the prayers, this is the one that might have yielded to accumulated observation over generations. But nonetheless, the Talmud shows uncanny, perhaps divinely inspired, knowledge of fetal morphology which Western science doesn’t acknowledge until a millenium and a half later.

Prayer to avoid miscarriage

This is an obvious anxiety that the mother or father hopes would be avoided by prayer. Yet most miscarriages occur  before the 8-12th week of pregnance, that is, before three months. Why do the sages prescribe it for after the most dangerous period is over?

One answer may be that by the beginning of the second trimester, at the beginning of the three-month period, the mother is keenly aware of the vital being growing inside her. Plus jeopardy to the mother’s health through miscarriage starts to increase dramatically now and in Jewish law, until the baby emerges, the mother’s health takes precedence in all thinking about viability.

6 Months Until End of Term: “….Please show mercy by letting the baby emerge!”

By now, everyone is getting eager for the pregnancy to come to term. You can’t help but smile at this one. The prayer has a minor flavor of saying, “Please let’s get it over with!” But it is also true that chances of the viability of the fetus greatly increase. These days, the viability of a six-month old fetus reaches 50% exactly at the 23.5th week, or in the six month!

A River of Secret Knowledge

The Greeks and Romans performed regular autopsies on fetuses to advance their scientific knowledge. The sages of the Talmud – had access to this knowledge and may even have pursued their own experiments. Collectively, they were very knowledgeable about the facts of sciences like biology, chemistry, astronomy, botany, and physics as is shown by their remarkable acuity throughout their discussions. But it is farfetched to speculate that they knew subtleties about gestation that weren’t established by science for more than a thousand years later.

So what was their source? Tradition says that the written Torah was given to Moses in Sinai on two tablets inscribed by the Finger of God.  But there was also a Torah she bal peh, the Torah of additional knowledge communicated orally and passed down from Moses through the generations. This Oral Law and the Hebrew of the Torah contains knowledge that is still unfolding and still being confirmed by what we call science.







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