Stillbirth and Neonatal Death

Some ideas addressing the spiritual needs of parents who suffer neonatal loss.

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Reprinted with permission from A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort (Jewish Lights).

Rituals and liturgy designed to help parents mourn for neonatal loss can be found at Ritualwell.org.

It's every parent's worst nightmare. A stillborn, a premature infant who can't make it, a baby born without a chance to live. No one ever talks about the possible complications of birth that can threaten the life of a baby. Not in childbirth classes. Not in the doctor's office. Not in the excited conversation of expectant parents. So when the unimaginable happens and a baby dies at or shortly after birth, the parents, their families and the commu­nity are totally unprepared.

One reason we are so shocked by a neonatal death is that the medical technology to monitor pregnancy is so advanced. We know so much about the baby, even in utero, that the failure to prevent this loss seems nearly unbelievable. It didn't used to be that way at all. Until quite recently, the rate of neonatal death was quite high. In the Middle Ages, parents anticipated many pregnancies, fully aware that a high percentage of the babies would not survive. As sad as miscarriages and stillbirths were, the family and the community knew of the risks and expected a certain amount of loss.

The rabbis were aware of this as well. Although there are some dissenting opinions that allow mourning even a one-day-old newborn, the predominant position of Jewish law was that if a baby did not survive for 30 days, it was as if the baby had not lived. The two major halakhic (legal) statements on which this custom is based are these:

"We do not mourn for fetuses (nefalim), and anything which does not live for 30 days, we do not mourn for it." -- Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Aveilut 1:6

"The infant, for 30 days, even including the full 30th day (if it dies), we do not mourn for it." - Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De'ah 374:8

The reason for the limit of 30 days appears to derive from the fact that 30 days is the age at which we are commanded to redeem the firstborn (pidyon ha-ben). For the rabbis, this marked the point at which a fetus became fully viable.

The result of this ruling was that none of the practices of mourning was to take place if the infant was born dead or did not survive to the 31st day. Although the child was buried, there was no funeral per se, the grave was left unmarked, and the parents might never know where the grave was located. It was undoubtedly considered an act of kindness to the parents and the community, for without the restriction, families would have been in mourning almost continuously.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.