Rabbi Yannai Shrieked: You Have Purified the Birthing Woman!

Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv

Alternate title of the article: Rabbi Yannai Shrieked: 'You Have Purified Women Giving Birth" Somewhat Pregnant, Somewhat Human.


References to abortion in biblical and rabbinic literature bear little resemblance to the modern abortion debate yet, nevertheless, must serve as the texts on which modern halakhic questions on abortion are decided. Present day abortion debates generally focus on the issue of the woman's choice to abort a previable fetus. However, the major text in m. Oholot (7:6) refers to the embryotomy during an unsuccessful attempt to give birth, presumably at full term. Rabbinic texts also relate to the issue of abortion from many other aspects: the safety and health of the mother, the type of soul possessed by the fetus, the status of conception at various stages of pregnancy, ritual impurity, mourning laws, and most surprisingly, the extent to which the fetus resembles a human being. Several different cases in which a woman gave birth to a severely malformed fetus are presented in talmudic sources. The rabbis rendered legal decisions declaring that these malformed products of conception are not human. It is clear that the woman in these cases was pregnant in some manner, but that, due to its appearance, the status of the fetus as a human being was indistinct. These intermediate states, wherein the woman is somewhat pregnant and the fetus is somewhat human, may aid in halakhic decisions concerning fetuses which have been determined by prenatal testing to be severely malformed.



  • M. A. Friedman

Publication Type

Book Name

Te’uda: The Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies Research Series, 13, Marriage and the Family in Halakha and Jewish Thought