Helping parents, teachers, and students of many faiths pursue Biblical wisdom.

Title: Denting The Baby's Face

Major Focus: Pregnancy and Birth

Minor Focus: Angels, protecting people

Abstract: What do babies do inside the womb before being born?

Format: Midrash

Angels (generic)
Angels, talking to people

"God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male child, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as during the time of her menstruation."

Leviticus 12:1-2

What do babies do in there before getting born? Is it boring in there? Is it hot and cramped? How do they entertain themselves? What do they think about? The Rabbis have speculated extensively on this subject. As is often the case with Talmudic and early Rabbinic literature, their knowledge of biology was very limited, their speculations on the subject is often far off target, but the psychology of their opinions is usually impeccable. Here is an adaptation of Rabbi Simlai's discourse found in Tractate Niddah 30b/31a:

What does the embryo resemble as it rests in the womb of its mother? Why, two folded writing tablets! Its hands rest on its two temples. Its two elbows rest on its two legs. Its heels are against its buttocks. Its head lies between its knees. Its mouth is closed and its navel is open. It eats what its mother eats and drinks what its mother drinks, but it produces no waste which might harm its mother. As soon as it is born, it sees the light and closes its navel, but opens its mouth.

A light burns over its head in the womb, and it looks from one end of the world to the other. There is no time in which a person enjoys greater happiness in their whole life, than during those days in the womb of one's mother.

These are the months of pregnancy. How soon we forget; how little we remember of the fullness of that time. This is as it should be. As soon as the child sees the light of the world, an angel approaches, taps it on the mouth, and causes it to forget all the Torah it has learned inside its mother's womb. The angel's love tap leaves a little dent between the lip and the nose.

The angel asks it to promise, in that last moment of great knowing, "Be righteous, do only good deeds, and never be wicked, for the soul God has given you is pure. Treasure it and keep it as pure as it was given to you." Thus we spend our lives devoted to learning the Torah, to marriage and family, and to good deeds, the three paths that lead to the happiness we all once knew.

Challenge Questions

  1. How is it possible for deep thinkers to have been so far off target as to seem biologically absurd to us, and yet be so on target in the homily and psychology of it?
  2. How close did Rabbi Simlai come to the physical description of the in-utero fetus? Where do you think he got that information?
  3. What does Rabbi Simlai say the baby thinks about in there all those months? Why should that be the happiest time of a person's entire life?
  4. What did the angel do to the baby at birth? What did the angel make the baby promise to do? How is the baby instructed to spend the rest of its life recovering the things it knew inside its mother?