The Parah Adumah, the red heifer, was used in several ceremonies in the Temple. It was, however, a rare animal. In today's page of Talmud there is a detailed discussion as to whether a red heifer born to an idol-worshipper could be used. The concern was that the heifer, or one of its ancestors, might have been used by the idol-worshipper for beastiality. Should this have happened, it was forbidden to use the red heifer as a sacrifice. The Talmud relates that in fact an idol-worshipper called Daba ben Natina had sold a red heifer to his Jewish neighbors. To insure that the heifer's mother had not been the object of beastiality, the pregnant cow had been watched "משעה שנוצרה" – from the moment it was impregnated. Then comes an obvious question: how could anyone be sure that the cow was indeed pregnant with a red calf which would warrant safeguarding her? Perhaps the calf would be born another color?
Here is the answer: "כוס אדום מעבירין לפניה בשעה שעולה עליה זכר" -"while the mother was copulating, the farmer would show her a red cup." That would insure that she would give birth to a little red calf that would grow into a bigger red heifer. The belief that what a mother sees during conception and gestation will affect her offspring is called maternal imprinting or psychic maternal impressions, or mental influence, or maternal imagination, or (my favorite) maternal fancy.
Maternal Imprinting in jewish sources
The earliest mention of maternal imprinting is the story of Yaakov and his division of the goats he watched for his uncle Lavan (Gen 30:25-43, 31:1-12). As wages, Yaakov asked for all the speckled goats, while Lavan would get to keep the plain ones. Yaakov then took several wooden rods from which he peeled the bark, and left these now speckled rods in front of a water trough. The female goats stared at the rods while they are drinking and mating, and this in turn caused them to give birth to speckled kids, all of which Yaakov got to keep. That's how maternal imprinting works.
The Midrash and Talmud are replete with the belief in maternal imprinting. Perhaps the most famous story is that of Rabbi Yochanan (~180-279 CE) who would regularly sit in front of the mikveh (ritual bath). He did this so that women leaving there would see him, and be blessed with sons as handsome as he was.
בבא מציעא פד, א
ר' יוחנן הוה אזיל ויתיב אשערי טבילה אמר כי סלקן בנות ישראל מטבילת מצוה לפגעו בי כי היכי דלהוו להו בני שפירי כוותי גמירי אורייתא כוותי
Rabbi Yochanan would go and sit by the entrance to the ritual bath. He said to himself: When Jewish women come up from their immersion [after their menstruation,] they should see me first so that they have beautiful children like me, and sons learned in Torah like me.
Rabbi Akiva used maternal imprinting to save a king from a rather embarrassing situation:
מדרש תנחומא נשה, ז
מַעֲשֶׂה בְּמֶלֶךְ הָעַרְבִים שֶׁשָּׁאַל אֶת רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא, אֲנִי כּוּשִׁי וְאִשְׁתִּי כּוּשִׁית וְיָלְדָה לִי בֵּן לָבָן, הוֹרְגָהּ אֲנִי, שֶׁזָּנְתָה תַּחְתַּי. אָמַר לוֹ: צוּרוֹת בֵּיתְךָ שְׁחֹרוֹת אוֹ לְבָנוֹת. אָמַר לוֹ: לְבָנוֹת. אָמַר לוֹ: כְּשֶׁהָיִיתָ עוֹסֵק עִמָּהּ, עֵינֶיהָ נָתְנָה בְּצוּרוֹת לְבָנוֹת וְיָלְדָה כַּיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶם. וְאִם תָּמֵהַּ אַתָּה בַּדָּבָר, לְמַד מִן צֹאנוֹ שֶׁל יַעֲקֹב, שֶׁמִּן הַמַּקְלוֹת הָיוּ מִתְיַחֲמוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְיִחֲמוּ הַצֹּאן אֶל הַמַּקְלוֹת (בראשית ל, לט). וְהוֹדָה מֶלֶךְ הָעַרְבִים וְשִׁבַּח לְרַבִּי עֲקִיבָא
A king of Arabia once asked Rabbi Akiva, “I am black and my wife is black, yet she gave birth to a white child. Shall I have her executed for infidelity?” Rabbi Akiva responded by inquiring if the statues in his house where white or black. He said to Rabbi Akiva that they were white. Rabbi Akiva explained to the king that during conception his wife's eyes were fixed on the white statues and so she bore a white child...the king agreed and praised Rabbi Akiva
Maternal Imprinting in Greek Thought, and Beyond
In 1998 Professors Wendy Doniger and Gregory Spinner published perhaps the most comprehensive review of imprinting, in a paper titled Misconceptions: Female Imaginations and Male Fantasies in Parental Imprinting. They noted Empedocles, who lived in the fifth century BCE, wrote that
the fetuses are shaped by the imagination of the women around the time of conception. For often women have fallen in love with statues of men, and with images, and have produced offspring which resemble them.
Some women, seeing monkeys during intercourse, have borne children resembling monkeys. The tyrant of the Cyprians, who was misshapen, compelled his wife to look at beautiful statues during intercourse and became the father of well-shaped children; and horse-breeders, during covering, place noble horses in front of the mares.
Let's jump forward a millennium. In 1282 it was reported that an infant was born with hair and claws like a bear. The Pope at the time "straightway ordered the destruction of all pictures of bears in Rome." This story is from John Ballantyne, a Scottish physician who in 1897 published Teratogenesis: an Inquiry into the Causes of Monstrosities. According to Ballantyne, in the seventeenth century, the belief in maternal impressions "reigned supreme." Here is another example of the kind of thing it led to:
And then things get even weirder:
In 1726 the matter of maternal impressions was brought still more prominently before the profession and the public in England in connexion [sic] with the notorious case of an "Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets" which was alleged to have occurred in the case of Maria Tofts of Godlyman in Surrey; she had a great longing for 'Rabbets"in early pregnancy.
Pregnancy and the fetus
Maternal imprinting is a rather extreme form of what we all know to be true; that what happens to a pregnant mother affects the fetus she is carrying. Here are two of the countless examples of this. If a mother drinks enough alcohol while pregnant, the fetus will be born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This syndrome includes facial abnormalities, growth delays, abnormal development of organs, and reduced immunity. If a mother is infected with measles (rubella) early in pregnancy, the baby will likely be born with congenital rubella syndrome, which includes cataracts, congenital heart disease and brain damage. But these examples do not imply that a woman who eats eggs will have children with large eyes or that a woman who eats an esrog will have fragrant children, as the Talmud (Ketuvot 60b) declares. Some things a pregnant mother does will have a huge effect on the fetus she carries. Some won't have any affect at all.
John Ballantyne, the Scottish physician concluded his book noting, as we have, that of course there are some things a mother does that will affect fetal outcome. "To this extent" he wrote, "I believe in the old doctrine of maternal impressions; this is, I think, one grain of truth in an immense mass of fiction and accidental coincidence."
It's not the red cup after all
Back to today's page of Talmud. It would seem that all you needed to produce a Parah Adumah was to place a red cup next to the mating cattle. So why didn't every farmer use the red cup protocol to breed a red heifer? After all, these animals commanded fantastic prices because of their rarity. The answer offered by the Talmud is that the red cup protocol only worked with a herd of cattle that were known (במוחזקת) to produce red heifers. Without that breeding history, the red cup protocol was useless. So this really wasn't about the red cup. It was about the genes, and that's the kind of parental imprinting that really does work.
[Special thanks to Rabbi Dr. Eddie Reichman, medical historian and Talmudology reader who has been researching maternal imprinting for years, and was kind enough to share his material.]