“What practical difference is there whether or not the baby is considered to have been alive?”
Today’s discussion is an existential one on life and death and grief. The text considers if a stillborn baby is a soul who should be grieved if he dies within thirty days, and if he should be circumcised if the viability of his life is uncertain. The Talmud takes a rather clinical view on the question of grieving for a stillborn child, but there is an opening in the text, through two stories of fathers who lost their children, for an understanding of pure grief.
We first delve into the question of whether one can desecrate Shabbat by circumcising a baby who is gravely ill and may not live past eight days. Rav Adda bar Ahava offers a clinical explanation by stating that if the child lives it is permissible to circumcise him on Shabbat and if he dies, the act is not considered a prohibited labor. He says it is permissible “whichever way you look at it.” We are told through the voice of the Gemara that if the child dies, the circumciser “is merely cutting the flesh of a corpse, which does not violate any Shabbat prohibition.” (Does this contradict what we learned earlier that the flesh of a corpse is impure and if purity is used as a baseline for what is allowed on Shabbat, would cutting the flesh of a corpse truly be allowed?)
The rule of thumb appears sadly to be that a baby who dies within thirty days of being born is considered a stillborn. This may have been in an effort to spare parents so much grief. The death of a child or new-born baby was not an uncommon occurrence 1,500 years ago, when the odds were quite high that a little soul might not make it for very long in this world. There is an exception. We are told that a baby who dies as the result of an unfortunate accident such as falling off a roof or being eaten by a lion is considered alive and viable at the time of his death and not a stillborn. There is some disagreement among the Rabbis on whether a baby who yawns just before he dies is considered born alive or stillborn. Regardless, there is so much sadness apparent in the loss of a newborn.
We are told the story of two babies who die shortly after birth. Babies were born to the son of Rav Dimi bar Yosef and to Rav Kahana. In both cases the baby died within thirty days of birth. Rav Dimi bar Yosef’s son displays grief over the loss and is coldly quizzed by his father who suggests he is grieving because there is no Shiva with “delicacies for the mourners.” Rav Ashi visits Rav Kahana who is also mourning the loss of his baby and questions why he is not abiding by the rule that a baby that dies within thirty days is stillborn and “one does not mourn over it.” In both cases the answer is the same: the babies reached full gestation and were complete little souls that had entered the world. The answers appear to contradict the thirty-day rule, but I believe the stories were conveyed in order to acknowledge the grief of losing a new-born. Rabbi Rachel Greengrass in her wonderful blog writes about a special ceremony for the first born on the thirtieth day of life called the Redemption of the First Born. It is a celebration for a baby who made it through the perilous first thirty days at a time when the mortality rate was almost 27%. You can find her blog at: https://livinggreengrass.home.blog/2020/07/19/shabbat-135.
My family held an unveiling ceremony on the first-year anniversary of my father’s death at the graveside of a cemetery in New Jersey a year ago. I spent some time wandering among the gravestones that were in the same section as my father’s and reading the names and the dates they lived and wondering what their lives must have been like. There was a stone with a friend’s name who I knew from the local Jewish Community Center who died in the early 1990s of AIDS. He was smart and sensitive, and it was very sad to be reminded how he and so many of my generation died so young from such a cruel virus.
Among the headstones for my family and friends at the cemetery was a small stone embedded in the ground for my cousin’s little daughter who was a stillborn. She went on to have a son who is grown now, but I remember only hearing about the loss of her baby a while after it happened. There was no funeral or Shiva or coming together as an extended family. She must have mourned the loss without the ritual that accompanies a death in a Jewish family with so much grief for a little soul who passed through this world so quickly. The tombstone is there in the ground as a reminder of a life that was never lived.