Years ago, when I was a new mother, my infant daughter was hungry, so I latched her on. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything wrong with doing this during Friday night Shabbat services in the synagogue. So I was quite shocked and upset when a woman rushed over to say that they weren’t “comfortable with that sort of thing” and asked me to leave the sanctuary and go sit in a cramped room to breastfeed alone.
While cuddling my baby, I fumed. I am an atheist Jew – which means I’m not religious, but my culture and ethnicity matter to me – and I had only agreed to attend services with my relatives in Chicago as a favour to them. The synagogue was Conservative, and I realised that it was conservative with a lower-case c too.
When I talked to other Jewish people about my experience, I found that they often had quite different ones. They felt supported by Judaism to breastfeed. Some felt it was a religious requirement to breastfeed, others felt it was a key part of their spirituality, and many breastfed in synagogue without an issue.
I decided to do more research to find out what Judaism really says about breastfeeding. It’s important to note that Jews – like any religious or ethnic group – vary hugely, both in terms of religiosity and also culture and background. So what a Haredi parent feels, believes, and does will not necessarily be the same as a Reform Jew, or a Reconstructionist Jew, or a Conservative, or an Orthodox, or a… you get the point. Similarly, there are three main Jewish ethnicities – Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi, depending on where your ancestors came from – and they too have different beliefs and traditions. Where you live will influence your understanding of breastfeeding, which means that Jews in America will be impacted by the pump-centric culture in the US, while Jews in Israel won’t necessarily be. Plus, if there’s anything Jews like more than studying and discussing, I’m not sure what it is. Don’t forget the old joke about how you can get 20 Jews in a room and end up with at least 25 distinct views on a single subject. So there are certainly differences of opinion about what Jewish law and culture says about breastfeeding.
With all this in mind, here are some useful bits of information about breastfeeding and Judaism, starting with background, and including fasting, pumping, menstruation, and more. Please note that as I am talking about breastfeeding people who primarily identify as women, I will generally use she/her pronouns, but I do recognise that these words and pronouns don’t apply to all Jewish parents.
Rabbi David Kimhi, a medieval biblical commentor usually known as RaDaK, wrote, referencing Psalm 8: “The first of the distinguishing marks in man after his coming into the (light and) air of the world is the power to suck.” In other words, breastfeeding is one of the key characteristics for humans, and some would believe that it was designed this way by a god.
“Rulings that minimise women’s role in caring for their babies, or that interfere with the connection with their babies, make me feel like my role as a Jewish mother isn’t being valued.”
Viewing sucking like this in turn impacts how Jewish people understand breastfeeding. Hannah Katsman, an IBCLC in Israel, notes that for Jews, caring for your children is a religious obligation (and a pleasure), and that such care includes breastfeeding. She told me, “To me and to many women, breastfeeding is an important part of our religious practice. The Torah goes to great pains to emphasize how important it was for Moshe, the greatest prophet in the Torah, to nurse directly from his mother and not from an Egyptian woman. Rulings that minimise women’s role in caring for their babies, or that interfere with the connection with their babies, make me feel like my role as a Jewish mother isn’t being valued.”
On her website, where she writes about breastfeeding, among other topics, Hannah goes into more detail, “Two biblical stories shed light on a Jewish approach to breastfeeding. Baby Moses, hidden so he wouldn’t be killed by Pharaoh’s evil decree, was placed in a basket on the Nile. His sister stood by to make sure he would be safe. When Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moses, she sent for a wet nurse from the Hebrew slaves. According to the Midrash, an early compilation of rabbinic interpretations of Exodus, Moses refused to nurse from an Egyptian wet nurse.
“The leader of the Jewish people was nursed only by his own mother. In Judaism nursing is more than food—it plays a key role in transmitting religion, values and culture. Hannah also nursed her son, Samuel, for several years before sending him to study under Eli and fulfil his life’s mission as a prophet (I Samuel, Ch. 2). Rabbinic texts define the nursing period from between two to four or five years old.”
Rachel Neve Midbar, a Jewish mother of six and also a PhD student, reminded me that in the bible, Sarah was 99 years old when her son Yitzhak (Isaac) was born. She breastfed him so people would know that she was the one who birthed him. She nursed him for two years, which is possibly where some people get the idea that Jewish women should breastfeed for at least two years.
And by the way, there’s one story in Judaism (among other places, it comes up in the Genesis Rabbah midrash, which is a collection of analyses of the story of Genesis) about a man breastfeeding. His wife died and God then gave the man the ability to breastfeed and sustain the baby. I’d imagine there are some people who wish that it was possible for a spouse to help out in this way.
In summary, then, there are clear religious roots to breastfeeding for some Jews, as well as a number of references in religious texts to the act. It is also part of cultural tradition (although obviously the formula industry has impacted Jewish people as well as everyone else). Breastfeeding can thus be considered an obligation (and a joy) for the mother but there is also an obligation for her community to support her with it. So what should we as breastfeeding counsellors or IBCLCs know about Jews and breastfeeding?
As in some other religions, there are a number of fast days for Jewish people. There are several major fast days, such as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, which is part of the Jewish New Year, in the autumn) and Tisha B’Av (a day of mourning), and also a bunch of minor fast days. Fasting means abstaining from both food and drink, unlike in some other religions, where drinking is allowed. It is a general expectation (a halachic, or religious, obligation) that everyone will fast, unless there is a medical reason. However, the people I spoke to noted that in actual fact, there is some flexibility around this.
Some recommended that a pregnant or breastfeeding woman speak to her rabbi, doctor or lactation consultant about her individual situation; medical opinion is mixed about what could happen to the foetus if you fast during pregnancy and whether milk supply might decrease. In an academic piece by Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman (Maharat is her title, as she is ordained), she writes that pregnant or breastfeeding women who feel a “craving” do not have to fast, although it is very unclear what counts as a craving in this context. Friedman suggests asking pregnant or lactating women what they themselves want to do about fasting and then finding a solution or plan that works for them, while not endangering their health or their baby’s health. Modern Orthodox, feminist Rabbanit Leah Sarna (Rabbanit is her title because she is ordained) said that, “Yom Kippur is one of the most important parts of our religious practice” and requires 25 hours of fasting from food and drink. If a woman fasts for 25 hours, her supply may dip and she might need to give her baby pumped milk or formula. Leah told me, “A huge number of women do a modified fast.” Such a modified fast would include “one cheekful (half a mouthful) of liquid every nine minutes (or one fl oz of solids),” to ensure they kept up their supply and could take care of their baby.
A number of people referenced the concept of “pikuach nefesh”, where saving a human life takes precedence over anything else, even if one has to break religious or other laws. It is considered that if a woman feels she needs to eat or drink in order to best care for herself and/or her baby, then that is what is most important. The Talmud, which is the book that describes Jewish law, includes the concept, “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.” Each life truly matters. So if a woman needs to eat so her breastmilk supply doesn’t decrease or so she doesn’t feel unwell, then this matters more than fasting on a particular day.
Hannah Katsman, the IBCLC in Israel quoted earlier, told me, “rulings that obligate a mother to fast for as long as she can, and only to break her fast once the baby has shown distress, have caused a lot of grief and ended many nursing relationships. The Chazon Ish has a ruling stating that babies shouldn’t get formula if it might upset their stomach, and that avoiding this situation is considered pikuach nefesh. That is a ruling that shows sensitivity to babies. Fortunately more and more rabbis are ruling more leniently regarding fasting.”
Shoshana Pritzker, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a Jewish, breastfeeding mother in the US, wrote the following to me: “Breastfeeding is highly demanding on the body when it comes to calorie needs and hydration of the mother. Moms need an additional 700 calories per day when breastfeeding.
That’s 700 calories OVER their daily required calorie intake. So if your body needs 1800 calories per day, you now need to eat 2500 calories per day to provide sufficient calories to produce milk and provide ample nutrients for yourself. If you are breastfeeding twins or more than one child at a time, you need an additional 1000 calories per day. When fasting your body ends up in a deficit and uses stored body fat and muscle to keep you alive. If you’re breastfeeding, your body is going to use a lot more of your stored energy sources (fat and muscle) to continue production.
“During a fast, your body will make sure baby is getting what they need… however, it’s at the expense of the mother.”
She continues: “Studies have shown that during a short fast, milk supply will not decrease; however, nutritional status of the mother will suffer and essential minerals found in breastmilk are reduced. Plus, mom is at risk for vitamin and mineral deficiencies and dehydration. During a fast, your body will make sure baby is getting what they need… however, it’s at the expense of the mother.” She suggests that pregnant or breastfeeding women who want to fast should talk to their doctors or lactation consultants and ensure that they drink at least one glass of water an hour. Some do experience a drop in supply, but Shoshana felt it didn’t happen to everyone and said mothers shouldn’t worry about it. “Less stress is best!” she said.
Some women do like to fast on the Jewish holidays. Meira E. Schneider-Atik, a mother of three, told me, “I breastfed all three of my children and I loved it. It was good for me and for them. I fasted on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av with no issues even while pregnant and nursing. My doctor and my rabbi worked together with me and we came up with a plan that allowed me to fast. I prepared and hydrated beforehand and I stayed home from shul and rested. My husband was a huge help – he always is.”
Not everyone feels able to do this. Shoshana concluded, “If you experience mom guilt over not fasting during Jewish holidays, remember that Jewish law exempts anyone whose health may even be slightly harmed by it, and that includes pregnant and nursing mothers.” Clearly, fasting, as with much else in Judaism, will vary depending on a woman’s personal level of religiosity and the support she receives from her rabbi, physician, spouse, family and community.
For many people, one of the benefits of breastfeeding is lactational amenorrhea, where you do not get your period. This is generally useful as a way of preventing another pregnancy too soon, if you are in a opposite-sex relationship (you can, however, still ovulate, so it isn’t fail-safe). For religious Jewish women, the time spent without menstruating has additional positive outcomes. The key point here is that lactational amenorrhea allows for a couple to have more physical contact, because menstruation forces a separation between spouses.
Rachel Neve Midbar talked to me about Jewish family purity laws and the connection to breastfeeding. For religious Jews, there is a ritual bath, called a mikvah, which is either a natural body of water or a human-made body of water that has to contain a certain percentage of natural water. One of the purposes of the mikvah is to separate life from death; if someone touches blood or death, they must clean themselves ritually. This could be if they killed a fly or if they visited a graveyard, for instance; they must then go to the mikvah in order to divest themselves of the link to death.
When a woman menstruates, Rachel explained, it is considered that she is touching death, because the egg, which once had the possibility of life, is now dead. So Jewish law states that when a woman is done menstruating, she must wait until absolutely no more blood comes (she can test this by inserting a white cloth inside herself and she can show it to her rabbi, if she feels she needs an outside opinion), then seven days later she goes to the mikvah to separate herself from her menstruant status. She enters the mikvah, recites prayers, and then is ritually cleaned. When a religious woman is “niddah”, or experiencing a discharge of blood, she is not supposed to touch her husband, sleep in the same bed as him, or even pass him anything. This means that for around two weeks per month, a married couple have to keep their distance from one another. For some couples, this might be a challenge. So exclusive breastfeeding and the concomitant lactational amenorrhea extends the time without blood and without the enforced separation, and allows the closeness that some people might prefer to have. (We can note that some people might like having less physical contact and instead prefer to rely on emotional and verbal connections.)
Rachel emphasised to me that these rules are “not about cleanliness but about ritual purity,” and about separating life from death. So a menstruating woman (or a woman who has lochia after birth) is not dirty or impure but rather considered to be touching death. However, I must point out that not everyone agrees with Rachel’s interpretation (remember what I said about Jews loving to discuss and argue?). Other people I spoke to felt that a woman was in fact “impure” while menstruating, and
that being close to death had nothing to do with all this. One reminded me that the mikvah is used in other circumstances to purify the person, such as before marriage, or at conversion, or before prayer, and so on.
While there is much more to be said about this, the most important part to understand is that breastfeeding not only can extend time between children, which could be beneficial in a community that often has quite a few children, but also allows for more connection between spouses.
For religious Jews, there are also issues of modesty. As with some better-known groups, such as religious Muslims, many Jewish women dress modestly, cover their hair and do not show their bodies in public. This would potentially include not breastfeeding in public, but it may also mean not breastfeeding at home if it’s in front of male relatives (father, father-in-law, brothers and so on) or male friends.
In addition, Jewish women who exclusively pump or who pump while at work would be concerned about privacy and modesty. Depending on where they live, they may need support in talking to their employers about this.
In an article on breastfeeding, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz writes the following: “There is a fantastic description in the Gemara (Sotah, 30b) of the people of Israel, men and women, reciting the “Song of the Sea” after the amazing miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The Gemara says: “How did they recite the “Song of the Sea”? The baby was placed on the knees of his mother and nursed from her breasts. When they saw the Shekhinah, the baby lifted his neck, detached from his mother’s nipple, and said: ‘This is my God and I will adore Him, as it says: From the mouth of babies and infants you have become fortified with strength.’” Here, in the middle of nursing, a baby removes his mouth from his mother’s breasts and, in close proximity to exposed breasts, recites the song and, in so doing, mentions the name of God when he says, “this is my God and I will adore Him.” Of course, we do not learn halakha from narrative stories, but this nevertheless serves as a complement to the proof that we have already stated: minor and brief nakedness is not considered gilu’i ervah, exposure of nudity, and it is therefore permissible to pray and discuss issues of holiness in the presence of a nursing woman.”
In other words, a religious story shows a baby breastfeeding then referring to God while still at the breast, and this implies a clear connection between breastfeeding and spirituality. More relevantly to this section on modesty, it also suggests that exposing the breast is not necessarily immodest. It is not seen as nakedness in all contexts and some Jewish women will therefore feel able to breastfeed in front of others.
And here was my original sticking-point, the thing that turned me off Judaism for a while: breastfeeding in shul (another word for synagogue). Imagine my surprise when parents from across the Jewish spectrum told me that they breastfed in synagogue without anyone saying a negative word to them. It turns out that my experience was probably due to me being in a slightly more religious synagogue that was in the US, a country that often struggles with breastfeeding in public. Indeed, on that particular trip, I had people constantly telling me to sit in cars to breastfeed (in Chicago in the winter!) or to face the wall or to go to a room by myself, so clearly it wasn’t just the shul. Meanwhile, here in the UK, I’ve breastfed in our local synagogue multiple times and even during my older daughter’s Hebrew school classes or festival celebrations, and it’s been absolutely fine.
It’s important to note that the more religious congregations are segregated by gender, so women and children sit upstairs, while the men are downstairs, which means women have no issue latching babies and children on. In more modern and less religious synagogues, people are in mixed-gender areas and this means that they are sometimes a little more hesitant to breastfeed. Many such people recommended speaking to the rabbi or using some sort of cover, but everyone I spoke to noted that there is no actual prohibition against breastfeeding in shul.
Rabbanit Leah Sarna told me that more synagogues are trying to become more breastfeeding-friendly. And Rabbi Ysoscher Katz wrote in an article, “it is not merely permissible to bring young children and nursing babies to the synagogue, it is also a mitzvah.” (A mitzvah is a commandment, but the word can also be understood as a good deed.) Everyone I spoke to said that breastfeeding should be welcomed in shul and that it could be done discretely/modestly, as preferred by the woman and her particular congregation.
“Exposing the breast is not necessarily immodest – it is not seen as nakedness in all contexts and some Jewish women will therefore feel able to breastfeed in front of others.”
As with other breastfeeding/chestfeeding parents, many Jewish mothers return to work after having their babies (note: this is less common among the ultra-Orthodox). So pumping is likely to be a significant part of their lives for that reason, or, of course, for any of the other myriad reasons that some parents express milk, such as having a baby who is not well enough to latch. Rabbanit Leah Sarna mentioned how in the US, where she is located, pumps are covered by health insurance and most women work, so owning and using a pump is really common. The issues are that they may not recognise that they would need to pump every day and would assume they could take the sabbath off or that non-Jewish IBCLCs who work with them might not know that they need to find solutions to the problem of pumping during the sabbath, when you aren’t supposed to work.
For religious Jews, there is a prohibition on working during Shabbos (or Shabbat, the sabbath, from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown). In this context, working means doing something for a purpose. If a woman were to hand-express or use a manual pump, this would be considered work and she would have to discard the milk, because otherwise it would be employed for its purpose. For this reason, an electric pump is to be preferred, because the breastfeeding parent is not doing the work. But a religious Jewish woman cannot turn the pump on and off herself.
Leah, who also teaches the Talmud to teenage girls, and who is writing a book on the halakhah (the religious laws) of pregnancy, birth, and early parenting, told me that there were some electric pumps with Shabbat timers. However, she noted that they aren’t necessarily the best quality pumps and some aren’t available at the moment. The best thing, of course, would be to feed the baby directly at the breast, but if a mother usually pumps or if she is away from her baby on Shabbos or otherwise has to pump during Shabbat, Leah said, “I’m advocating that the better thing to do is to choose where you’re going to pump on Shabbat, keep it plugged in, and use your elbow to turn it on. That’s the halakhic option.” The pump does the work and you’re indirectly turning it on in this case (switching the electricity on would be considered work). Of course, if a woman happens to have a non- Jewish friend, neighbour, nanny/au pair, or someone else who can turn the pump on and off when needed, that is also a solution. Most people probably do not have this, however.
A Jewish mother who requested that she remain anonymous told me, “When my first son was born, I used a Medela manual pump on Shabbat. I remember hearing some time later that there was some question about whether using a pump was allowed, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time. When my second son was born, I still pumped sometimes during the week, but I was able to set things up so that I was with him on Shabbat and didn’t use the manual pump. It was just more trouble than it was worth.”
If you are supporting a Jewish woman who pumps or who needs to be away from her child on Shabbos, it’s important to help her find a solution that will fit within her religious framework. In general, using an electric pump is more acceptable, but the woman will have to find a way of indirectly turning it on and off, such as with her elbow, as Rabbanit Leah Sarna suggested.
When I put a call out for people’s personal stories about breastfeeding and being Jewish, a few told me that how they fed their children had nothing to do with their religion, but the great majority connected feeding to their spirituality. For a number of Jewish women, the choice to breastfeed had to do with being Jewish; they breastfed because they felt Jewish law encouraged it and their community supported it. For others, how they behaved during the breastfeeding relationship was influenced by – and in turn then influenced – their religious beliefs and actions.
For example, some told me that they had weaning ceremonies in the synagogue. This provided a signal to themselves, their nurslings, and their community that this part of their relationship
was over. I was told that in the Tanach (the Hebrew bible), there are references to celebrating the breastfeeding relationship and weaning, so there is some precedent for this. Rabbanit Leah Sarna said that a good example was Genesis 21:8, where Abraham throws a party for Isaac’s weaning. In a previous article in the ABM magazine, I talked about weaning celebrations and jokingly wondered what they could be called; one possibility was a bar/ bat breastvah (the name inspired by the Jewish ceremonies bar/ bat mitzvah). It turns out that I was right that there were Jewish approaches to weaning ceremonies.
Others said that they went to the mikvah (the ritual bath) in order to mark the end of breastfeeding and they explained that using the mikvah was a way of separating themselves from breastfeeding.
As this article has shown, opinions and practices differ among Jewish women, but there are a number of key points to consider when working with Jewish mothers on their breastfeeding journeys, namely fast days, menstruation, pumping, modesty, breastfeeding in synagogue, and weaning. Jewish mother and poet Rachel Neve Midbar sums it up well when she says, “Jewish law sees breastfeeding as a natural function. Breastfeeding takes precedence over almost everything else, because it’s about the life of a child.” It’s important for us breastfeeding counsellors to understand the Jewish roots and beliefs around breastfeeding, so we can best help support them.
• This article orginally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers magazine.
– Mamaleh Knows Best by Marjorie Ingall – this isn’t about breastfeeding, but it’s a great introduction to how Jews parent.
– ’Sha’ah Tovah: The Jewish Woman’s Clinical & Halachic Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth by Rabbi Baruch Finkelstein and Michal Finkelstein.
– Blessings of the Breasts’: Breastfeeding in Rabbinic Literature by Jordan Rosenblum:
– And Her Breasts Opened Up Like Two Springs of Water’: Breasts and Breastfeeding in Rabbinic Texts and Tradition (a research thesis about breastfeeding and Judaism) by Rabbi Rebeccah Yussman:
– Fasting on Yom Kippur by Pregnant or Nursing Women by Ruth Balinsky Friedman:
Breastfeeding: Science, Sensitivity, and Halakhah by Deena Zimmerman
IBCLC Hannah Katsman’s website (with many useful texts about Judaism and breastfeeding)
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Shoshana Pritzker