Avodah Zarah 24a ~ Maternal Imprinting

From  here .

From here.

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

The history of the belief in maternal impressions is one of great antiquity...it is also one of practically world-wide distribution. [It can be found in] such far apart lands as India, China, South America, Western Asia and East Africa..the Esquimaux, the Loango negros, and the old Japanese.
— John William Ballantyne. Teratogenesis: an Inquiry into the Causes of Monstrosities. Edinburgh, Oliver & Boyd 1897. 24

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.

Soranus of Ephesus, another Greek physician who lived in Rome and Alexandria (and who was a contemporary of Rabbi Yochanan) firmly believed in imprinting, both for animal husbandry and in humans:

 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

Red cup.jpeg

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.

A surprising large number of people, in different cultures and over many centuries, have believed that a woman who imagines or sees someone other than her sexual partner at the moment of conception may imprint that image upon her child- thus predetermining its appearance, character or both.
— Doniger W. Spinner G. Female Imaginations and Male Fantasies in Parental Imprinting. Daedalus 127 (1), No. 1, Science in Culture (Winter, 1998). 97-129

[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.]

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Bava Basra 142 ~ Maternal Deaths

Suetonius'  Lives of the Twelve Caesars , 1506 woodcut.

Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars, 1506 woodcut.

Continuing the laws of inheritance, the Talmud rules that a fetus is not able to inherit from its mother until it is born. Then comes this technical question:  

למימרא דהוא מיית ברישא והא הוה עובדא ופרכס תלתא פרכוסי אמר מר בר רב אשי מידי דהוה אזנב הלטאה שמפרכסת

Does this mean that [when a pregnant womean dies,] the fetus always dies first [i.e. before its mother]? But there was a case where a pregnant woman died and after that the fetus thrashed around three times? Mar bar Rav Ashi said: That movement of the fetus does not indicate that it was alive. It was rather like the severed tail of a lizard, which thrashes about."

According to Mar bar Rav Ashi, the movement of a fetus inside its dead mother is not an indication of independent life. Instead it demonstrates reflex movements.  Here is one of those squirming detached lizard tails.

Mar bar Rav Ashi's explanation does not however, apply across all cases of the death of a pregnant woman. This is made clear by the Talmud in Arachin 7b:

Rabbi Nachman said in the name of Shmuel: A woman who sat on the birthstool and died on the Sabbath, we bring a knife and cut open her abdomen and remove the fetus.

This teaching clearly allows for the possibility that a fetus could survive the death of its mother. In fact the Talmud expands on the teaching of Mar bar Rav Ashi.  The observation that in cases of maternal death the fetus dies first seems to only be true in cases in which there is a "natural death." However, in cases in which a pregnant woman was executed, it is the mother who dies first, followed by the demise of the fetus:

ערכין ז, א

הני מילי לגבי מיתה איידי דוולד זוטרא חיותיה עיילא טיפה דמלאך המות ומחתך להו לסימנין אבל נהרגה היא מתה ברישא

This applies only to [her natural] death, because the child's life is very frail, the ‘drop’ [of poison] from the angel of death enters and destroys its vital organs, but in the case of death by execution she dies first.

Gruesome as this discussion is, the Talmud is likely correct. "Natural" maternal deaths that occur are likely from causes that will inevitably have led to the prior death of the fetus, like massive hemorrhage or sepsis.  In the case of execution, the sudden death of the mother would occur before that of the fetus. Thankfully, the execution of pregnant women no-longer occurs in our society, but a similar outcome can occur when the mother is a victim of severe traumatic injury.  We will return to this in June 2019, when we study Arachin in the Daf Yomi cycle.

Maternal Death Rates

Maternal deaths are defined as by the World Health Organization as the death of a woman whilst pregnant or within 42 days of delivery or termination of pregnancy, from any cause related to, or aggravated by pregnancy or its management, but excluding deaths from incidental or accidental causes. Worldwide, there are at least 287,000 such deaths each year. A recent study of maternal deaths in 115 countries noted that there are three main causes: Bleeding, high blood pressure (leading to complications like eclampsia) and infection.  Here in the US, maternal deaths are among the highest in the developed world, as an investigation from NPR last month detailed. Each year, 700-900 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, or about 14 per 100,000 live births. By comparison, the rate in Israel is 5 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Tragic as each of these deaths are, it was once a lot worse, and in the nineteenth century doctors played a major role in causing maternal deaths.  In Vienna, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss (d. 1865) noted that the death rates in one maternity ward were three or four times higher than in a second ward. He suggested, after much sleuthing, that the cause was the dirty hands of medical students. These students came straight from performing autopsies to examining their pregnant and post-partum patients, with no hand washing in between. In an era before the germ theory of disease, his suggestion that something was carried on the hands of the medical students was widely ignored, but he instituted compulsory hand-washing anyway. And within a year the death rate dropped to zero.

Over the past century the maternal death rate in the US has declined by over 99%, although there are still significant racial and economic disparities. Passages such as the one we read in today's Daf Yomi remind us that for centuries, giving birth was a dangerous experience.  

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Bava Basra 20a ~ A Baby Born After Eight Months

Getty Images

Getty Images

A Baby at the Window

In tomorrow's page of Talmud we read a list of objects which, if placed in an opening between rooms, blocks the tumah (ritual impurity) from passing from one room into the next. Among that list is a baby born after only eight months of gestation:

בבא בתרא כ, א

 עשבין שתלשן והניחן בחלון או שעלו מאליהן בחלונות ומטלוניות שאין בהן שלש על שלש והאבר והבשר המדולדלין בבהמה ובחיה ועוף ששכן בחלון ועובד כוכבים שישב בחלון ובן שמנה המונח בחלון והמלח וכלי חרס וספר תורה כולם ממעטין בחלון 

Grass that was plucked and placed in an opening, or grass that grew by itself in an opening; scraps of fabric that are smaller than three by three fingerbreadths; a partially severed limb or a piece of flesh hanging from a domestic or a wild animal; a bird resting in an opening; an idol worshipper sitting in an opening; a baby born after only eight months of gestation lying in an opening; salt, earthenware vessels and a Torah scroll -all of these reduce the size of the opening and so prevent the tumah from passing through it.

The Talmud then questions this ruling about the premature child lying on a window between two rooms, one if which contains a source of tumah. Won't the mother of the baby carry the child away? How then can we suggest it will be a barrier to the tumah? The Talmud, as always, has a solution: the case is regarding a child born prematurely on Shabbat. Such a child is mukzteh, that is, it is in a category of objects that must not be moved on Shabbat: 

דתניא בן שמנה הרי הוא כאבן ואסור לטלטלו בשבת

For it was taught in a Braisa. A baby born at eight months of gestation is treated like a stone
[on Shabbat, because it is muktzeh.]

The premature baby is given the status of a stone because it was not considered to be viable, and as a non-viable human being it does not contract ritual impurity. So that's why the premature baby is listed along with grass, idol worshippers, and the severed limbs of cattle as preventing the transmission of tumah. Got it?

When we studied Yevamot we came across another case which pivoted on the viability of babies born at seven vs. eight months of gestation. The question there was about proving the paternity of a child, and the discussion hinges on the belief that while a child born after seven months of gestation would be viable, a child born at eight months gestation would not be so.  Rashi noted the following: בר תמניא לא חיי -  "an eight month fetus cannot survive." And so now we can ask, where on earth does this notion come from? 

Seven vs Eight Months of gestation in antiquity

Homer's Iliad, written around the 8th century BCE,  records that a seven month fetus could survive. But it is not until Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE, or some 500 years before Shmuel), that we find a record of the belief that a fetus of eight months' gestation cannot survive, while a seventh month fetus (and certainly one of nine months gestation) can.  His Peri Eptamenou (On the Seventh Month Embryo) and Peri Oktamenou (On the Eight-Month Embryo) date from the end of the fifth century BCE, but this belief is viewed with skepticism by Aristotle.

In Egypt, and in some other places where the women are fruitful and are wont to bear and bring forth many children without difficulty, and where the children when born are capable of living even if they be born subject to deformity, in these places the eight-months' children live and are brought up, but in Greece it is only a few of them that survive while most perish. And this being the general experience, when such a child does happen to survive the mother is apt to think that it was not an eight months' child after all, but that she had conceived at an earlier period without being aware of it.

The belief that an eight month fetus cannot survive has a halakhic ramification: Maimonides ruled that if a boy was born prematurely in the eighth month of his gestation and the day of his circumcision (eight days after his birth) fell out on shabbat, the circumcision - which otherwise would indeed occur on Shabbat, is postponed until Sunday, the ninth day after his birth. 

רמב׳ם הל' מילה יד, א

מי שנולד בחדש השמיני לעבורו קודם שתגמר ברייתו שהוא כנפל מפני שאינו חי... אין דוחין השבת אלא נימולין באחד בשבת שהוא יום תשיעי שלהן

A child born after eight months of gestation before being fully formed is treated as a stillbirth because it will not live...and we do not set aside the laws of Shabbat [to circumcise him] but he is circumcised on Sunday, which is the ninth day of his life.

This belief persisted well into the early modern era. Here is a state–of–the–art medical text published in 1636 by John Sadler.  Read what he has to say on the reasons that an eight month fetus cannot survive (and note the name of the publisher at the bottom of the title page-surely somewhat of a rarity then): 

Front page of 17 cent textbook.jpeg

Saturn predominates in the eighth month of pregnancy, and since that planet is "cold and dry"," it destroys the nature of the childe". That, or some odd yearning of the child to be born in the seventh but not the eight month (according to Hippocrates) is the reason that a child born at seven and nine months' gestation may survive, but not one born at after only eight months. 

Evidence from Modern Medicine

Today we know that gestational length is of course critical, and that, all things being equal, the closer the gestational length is to full term, the greater the likelihood of survival. We can state with great certainty, that an infant born at 32 weeks or later (that's about eight months) is in fact more likely to survive than one born at 28 weeks (a seven month gestation.) In fact, a seven month fetus has a survival rate of 38-90% (depending on its birthweight), while an eight month fetus has a survival rate of 50-98%. Here is the data, taken from a British study.

Draper, ES, Manktelow B, Field DJ, James D. Prediction of survival for preterm births by weight and gestational age: retrospective population based study    British Medical Journal   1999; 319:1093.

Draper, ES, Manktelow B, Field DJ, James D. Prediction of survival for preterm births by weight and gestational age: retrospective population based study  British Medical Journal 1999; 319:1093.

More recently, a study from the Technion in Haifa showed that even the last six weeks of pregnancy play a critical role in the development of the fetus. This study found a threefold increase in the infant death rate in those born between  34 and 37 weeks when compared full term babies.  

You can read more on the history of the eight month fetus in a 1988 paper by Rosemary Reiss and Avner Ash.  From what we have reviewed, the talmudic belief that a seven month fetus can survive but an eight month fetus cannot is one that was widely shared in the ancient world, and even in the early modern era.  But all the evidence we have today firmly demonstrates that it is simply not true.

[Repost in part from Yevamot 42.]

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Sotah 31a ~ What Can a Fetus See?

Happy anniversary to Talmudology. We are now a year old, and our very first post was about the viability of an eight month fetus.  The first post of our second year is also about the fetus.  This one concerns an aggadic statement, that is to say, a homiletic teaching, that is not to be taken literally - or so one would think.  In today's daf yomi the Talmud discusses the miracles which occurred as the Children of Israel crossed through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Rabbi Meir taught that even a fetus in its mother's womb praised God, saying "This is my God and I will glorify him." Now we might have considered this a homiletic teaching that is meant to simply express a degree of amazement and thanks.  But the Talmud then asks a question that suggests Rabbi Meir meant what he said more literally:

סוטה לא, א

והא לא חזו! אמר רבי תנחום כרס נעשה להן כאספקלריא המאירה וראו

These fetuses in the womb could not see the Divine presence, so how could they sing praise? Rabbi Tanchum said: Their mother's abdomen became as clear as glass for them and they were able to see.

While Rabbi Tanchum suggested that it takes physical sight rather than emotional insight to see the divine, it turns out that the fetus can see - and hear, while still in the womb.

Increased Fetal Heart Rate in Response to Light

In 1980, two Israelis published a preliminary report on the response to light of ten fetuses between 38 and 43 weeks' gestation. They inserted an amnioscope through the cervix and shone a light into the womb for thirty seconds while monitoring the heart rate of the little fetus. They found that eight of the ten fetuses had an acceleration of their heartbeat in response to the light. That's interesting you say, but hardly what Rabbi Tanchum was describing. And you'd be correct.  So let's turn to some other studies.

Increased Fetal Brain Activity in Response to Light

A review in the European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology published in 1996 was sceptical that the fetus could see much of anything while inside the womb: 

In utero visual stimulation appears to be very limited...in a dark room the amniotic cavity may be candled with a torch light, especially in the case of a polyhydramnios [an excess of amniotic fluid]. Measurements performed during rat and guinea-pig gestation have demonstrated that if only 2% of incoming light was transmitted in utero below 550 nm, this value increases with wavelength of the signal to reach 10% around 650 nm. Thus, a limited portion of external light may reach the human fetal retina when eyelids are open (this behavior starts at 20 weeks) or through the eyelids. 

But in 2003 a group of researchers from the United Kingdom (with apparently nothing else to do for amusement) built a light source from a "cardboard tube lined with non-conducting aluminised plastic, resulting in a light intensity of 1,100–1,200 Lux at the maternal abdomen as measured with a hand-held light meter." After an ultra-sound confirmed that the fetus was looking forward (really, they did this too) they turned the light on and off. And all this took place while the mother and her in-utero child were lying in a functional MRI scanner, which was used to look for activation of the little fetal brain in response to the light. Of the nine subjects they tortured in this way, one could not be analyzed due to motion, three did not show any significant activation, and five showed significant activation. Oddly, none of the fetal brains that responded showed any activation of the occipital lobe, that part of the brain in which the primary visual cortex is located and which responds to light.  Instead, it was the fetal frontal cortex showed a response to the light being shone.  Hmmm.

The Fetal Response to Sound

So much for vision. Researchers have also studied what - if anything - a fetus may be able to hear.  A group from Rambam Hospital and the Technion in Haifa studied the effect of music on fetal activity. Back in 1982 they took twenty pregnant women and played them either 25 minutes of nothing, or 25 minutes of classical or pop music through headphones. If you are wondering, the music was either a canon and songs composed by Pachelbel or "the pop-hits of the [sic] Boney-M." (Give yourself an extra point if you can recall any of the pop hits of the Boney M.) Anyway, they played the music in random sequence and monitored the fetus for breathing and body movements.  They found that compared to no music, when music was piped into the mothers' ears there was a significant increase in the breathing movements of the fetus, but there was no difference between classical and pop music.  

..it seems that the fetus moves into a more active state when music is played to the mother.
— Zimmer, EZ. et al. Maternal Exposure to music and fetal activity. Europ. J. Obstet. Gyec. Reprod. Biol. 1982 (13) 210.

And remember the experiments with cardboard tubes shining light into the womb of forward facing fetuses? Well that same group also performed functional MRI scanning of the brains of a group of fetuses but this time they strapped "an MRI compatible headphone" to the maternal abdomen (or the maternal ears, as a control) and played 15 seconds of music. (The paper does not specify the kind of music that was chosen. I do hope it wasn't the Boney-M.) Five of the twelve fetuses that had music piped into their mother's abdomen showed activation of the temporal lobes, but despite this low number the authors enthusiastically concluded that their study showed "...that brain activity can be detected in response to stimulation prenatally..." 

A ray of hope flitters in the sky
A tiny star lights up way up high
All across the land dawns a brand new morn
This comes to pass when a child is born
— Boney M. When a Child is Born, 1981.

Giving Thanks - Thanksgiving

The Talmud describes how the Crossing of the Red Sea was a miracle of such extraordinary nature that even in-utero fetuses joined in singing a prayer of thanks with the Children of Israel. In his famous introduction to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, Maimonides describes how aggadah should not be taken literally. Instead, a deeper message should be sought. And so for our American readers, who celebrate Thanksgiving today, Talmudology leaves you with this question: what are you thankful for? For what blessings in your life might a fetus open its eyes and see, or say thanks while still in its mother's  womb? Now that I think of it, that's a question that everyone should answer.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Human fetuses are, to a certain extent, able to memorize certain sensory properties...Despite the fact that they have only very short periods of wakefulness and that their brain is not mature enough to integrate sensory experiences, several experiments suggest that this does not prevent pre- and perinatal learning.
— Lecanuet, J, Schaal B. Fetal Sensory Competencies. European Jopurnal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 1996. 68: 1-23
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