Stillbirth and Neonatal Death

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

Print this page Print this page

Today the opposite is true. The tremendous sense of loss and the overwhelming need to grieve felt by the parents of an infant who dies before the thirty-day benchmark does not go away just because the halakhah prevents the mourning rituals from taking place. The medical profession has now recognized that parents experiencing a baby's death must face the loss, and protocols to enable them to mourn have been developed within recent years.

Parents are encouraged to see and touch the baby, pictures may be taken, mementos kept. It is recommended that the parents name the baby; it will be much easier in the future to talk about "Daniel" than "Baby Boy." Social workers routinely recommend funerals, and sup­port groups for bereaved parents experiencing neonatal death can be found in many com­munities. Yet, most rabbis and most Jewish laypeople presented with this type of loss would be hard-pressed to know what to say, except to repeat the painful words, "There is no mourning for this child."

Jewish law has remained viable and relevant because each generation of interpreters applied the halakhah to its own time. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement adopted a new position vis-a-vis neonatal death in 1992 by accepting the t'shuvah (rabbinic responsum) of Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein to the question, "What should be Jewish practice following the death of an infant who lives less than 31 days?"

Rabbi Dickstein points out that the commonly held belief that there is no mourning for a child who does not survive to 31 days is not the only position found in Jewish legal literature. In Mishnah Niddah 5:3, we find this statement: "A one-day-old infant, if he dies, is considered to his father and mother like a full bridegroom," and therefore the child would be mourned. In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sbabbat136a, we read that the sons of Rav Dimi and Rav Kahana mourned for their newborns who died.

Even Maimonides states: "If a man knows for certain that the child was born after a full nine months, even if it dies on the day it is born, we mourn it" (Aveilut 1:7). The Shulhan Arukh concurs (Yoreh De'ah 374:8). Rabbi Dickstein also points to the universally accepted requirement to bury a newborn infant, stillborn or fetus miscarried after the fifth month.

Rabbi Dickstein has led the Conservative movement to establish new legal responses that carry with them the full authority of Jewish law. Here are the major points of this new practice:

1. In the case of a full-term pregnancy, when an infant dies for any reason, at any time after birth, its parents and other family members should be obligated for full bereavement practices, just as for any other child. The parents should recite Kaddish for 30 days and should observe yahrzeit. Young siblings have no oblig­ation to say Kaddish, and post-bar/bat mitzvah siblings should be encouraged to use the traditional rituals to work through the many feelings they have.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Ron Wolfson

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