The Torah doesn’t talk much about breastfeeding, as it was taken for granted in ancient times. Moses’ mother doesn’t put bottles into the ark of bulrushes she sends down the Nile to save him from Pharaoh’s evil decree (Exodus 2).
According to the midrashic commentary Moses refused to nurse from an Egyptian nursemaid, so the biblical text has Pharaoh’s daughter sending for a Jewish one. The nursemaid turns out to be none other than Yocheved, Moses’ own mother.
If the Torah and Midrash saw breastfeeding as merely a feeding method, Moses would have nursed from an Egyptian woman and the story would have ended. The rabbis recognized that without the early influence of Yocheved, Moses could not grow up to become the modest, compassionate, and dedicated leader who rescued the Jews from slavery and turned them into a nation that rejected Egyptian immorality.
An emotional bond
Mothers (and all who care for the baby), do not only tend to a baby’s physical needs. By comforting her baby in distress, a mother models empathy. A baby learns language, tone, and communication while hearing her mother’s voice. Resting in his mother’s arms, a baby gauges her emotional state as she responds to what is going on around her. As babies grow, the observe their mothers at their daily tasks and begin to imitate them. Breastfed babies must stay near their mothers, and this closeness ensures that they receive regular, if not constant, contact and interaction that all humans crave.
In our generation anyone can mix powder and water to feed a baby. One reason this option has become dominant is that our culture values independence for both adults and children. Diane Wiessinger, an American breastfeeding advocate who recently lectured in Israel, pointed out that in the media babies are often depicted alone, an unnatural condition for babies.
When my friend’s daughter told her teacher that her mother couldn’t come to a school party alone because she is nursing the daughter’s 2-month-old brother, the teacher suggested “leaving the baby with a bottle of Materna (the Israeli brand of formula).” With this kind of cultural attitude, adjusting to and accepting a baby’s intense dependence can be difficult for new parents.
The Talmud also emphasizes the importance of breastfeeding. A mother is considered a “meineket,” or nursing mother, until her child reaches 24 months. Even if a baby has weaned, he or she can return to nurse at any time until the age of two. Between the ages of two and four years, or five if the baby is unhealthy, a child who has weaned for longer than 72 hours may not return to the breast, and age five is considered the upper limit for nursing in Jewish law. The mother is advised to begin on the left side, “close to the heart.”
A difference of opinions
Rabbis differ about whether the laws relating to a meineket still apply today, when babies are usually not dependent on breastfeeding for survival. Some rabbis grant an exemption from fasting on minor fast days to all mothers with children under two, whether or not the mothers are currently nursing.
According to the Talmud, widows or divorcees with nursing babies under two may not remarry. The concern is that the husband will naturally want his new wife to bear his child, and the new pregnancy could lower the mother’s milk supply and potentially harm the existing child. One friend who lives in a haredi community told me that her husband’s rabbi advises all of his students to practice birth control until their children have turned two. And the rabbi of another haredi friend does not permit women in their community to wean earlier without a medical reason.
Future posts will discuss practical aspects of successful breastfeeding, Israeli government and hospital policies, and how to support breastfeeding mothers.
Hannah Katsman, a breastfeeding counselor, blogs at A Mother in Israel and can be reached at mominisrael at gmail dot com.
(image credit: Bible Explained)