It’s time for another post in the Writing Jewish Characters series – specifically in the Pregnancy/Birth section.
This time, we’re covering miscarriage and stillbirth. Basically, what happens when a pregnancy ends without a live child unintentionally or accidentally.
In Judaism, a person isn’t a person until it’s born. Period. Before that, it’s a potential person and, legally, part of the mother.
In fact, if a pregnant woman is murdered, the killer is considered to have only committed one murder. If someone strikes a pregnant woman in such a way that she miscarries, the Biblical penalty is a fine, not any of the harsher penalties that apply to killing a person.
A fetus legally becomes a person when a large portion of the body is out of the mother – I have seen this listed as either the head or half of the body. Either way, the baby has to be at least partially out of the mother, and a fetus doesn’t count.
Because of this, a miscarriage/stillbirth/abortion doesn’t count as a full death. It’s an injury, for sure, and presumably important to the parents. A potential life has never lived. But it’s not a death.
As the ritual requirements in Judaism differ based on the exact stage of pregnancy, we’re going to be dividing it up into “early miscarriage” and “late miscarriage/stillbirth” – the next section.
If a miscarriage (or abortion) happens before the 21st week of pregnancy, nothing is required, including a burial – the fetus is truly not considered a person yet.
Burial will likely be available in a Jewish cemetery, but it will not be required.
If a fetus is buried at that stage, it will be buried without a name and will receive none of the Jewish funeral rites (which we’ll be going into in depth way later in this series…I’m going chronologically through a person’s life, and even though it can happen at any point in time, death is going at the end).
The parents may choose to hold their own rituals, but it will all be personal and private rather than something for the community. They may invite family, friends, and their rabbi to join them – but none of those are required. They’re still allowed to take time to mourn, but it’s not a formal mourning.
Let’s talk practical application!
Say you’re writing a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fic. Canonically we know that Willow Rosenberg is culturally Jewish. Well, let’s pretend for a moment that her Judaism plays a significant role in the plot (unlike how it is in canon, which is to say…mentioned a few times but with no actual role).
You want to write a story where Willow decides that she and Tara decide to have a baby. They get a donor and go through all the steps. But tragedy strikes, because you’re a mean fanfic author and like to make your characters suffer (or your name is Joss Whedon… one of the two) and Willow miscarries. And you want it to be true to her Jewish roots. Well, what will that mean?
If she miscarries prior to the 21st week of pregnancy, she can mourn for it but there’s no special service or anything specific that has to be done. She can cry. She may seek comfort from her rabbi. But ritually no kaddishes will be said. She’s not required to remember the baby. She’s not required to have a funeral. If she wants to, that is still her call, and that is something she might discuss with Tara, her family, and her friends.
But her rabbi may or may not choose to perform the ceremony depending on how cool the rabbi is and what the rabbi’s relationship with Willow is. If you want conflict, that’s one way to go. Rabbinically, it’s a valid choice for the rabbi. Non-rabbinically, he’s being an asshole. Therefore, many rabbis will help their congregants. It’s less likely to be a random rabbi than one Willow has a personal relationship with (her childhood rabbi for instance) – we’ll get into funerals later, where random rabbis are a thing – but in this case it’s not likely. And if the child is buried, it will be buried without a name. (Though the parents may pick a name for their unborn child for their own remembrance.)
Basically, keep this type of mourning personal.
Late Miscarriage/Stillbirth/Early Childhood Death
After the 21st week of pregnancy, a burial is required (and, if the fetus has a viable penis, a circumcision is performed), but the full mourning rituals are not required and are, in fact, somewhat discouraged.
Either the parents or the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society) will name the baby with a Hebrew name (and if the parents want, an English one). Then it will be buried in a Jewish cemetery in a special section for stillbirths/miscarriages. But while there will be a burial, there won’t be a true funeral or any formal remembrance.
Again, if the parents want to do something private and small, they can. But it isn’t required.
Of course, around this time, the secular government requirements kick in – you’re going to want to look up the requirements for your state, but most states require a certificate of stillbirth if the miscarriage happens after a certain point (usually in the 20-24 week range). Those aren’t Jewish requirements, but they’ll matter.
Back to Jewish requirements – if a child is born and doesn’t live a full 30 days, you’re still not required to perform most of the rituals! At that point, it’s definitely a human, but life is fragile and death is not unexpected – don’t forget how much of Jewish law was written in a time before modern medicine. (Though at this point the baby counts as a person and, unlike when it was a fetus, killing it counts as full murder. But if a death happens, it basically is assumed that the baby never truly lived.)
In each case, some parents still choose to perform some or all of the Jewish mourning rituals, but it’s still their choice, not a requirement.
Again with the practical: let’s go back to our Willow and Tara situation.
Willow makes it through her first trimester. Her second trimester is a bit more difficult, and unfortunately Glory happens to hit just at the wrong time.
And due to Hellgod shenanigans, Willow loses the baby at week 24. In the case of Glory punching hard enough to kill the fetus, Glory didn’t murder the fetus under Jewish law; the laws of your state/country may vary… but we’re not getting into that here.
However, when the now-dead fetus is born (either via c-section or vaginally), it’s afforded certain rights which include a burial and a naming (which can either come from the parents or, if the parents don’t want to, from the group that prepares the body for burial). And, in the case of it being a boy, a circumcision (full details on that in an upcoming post). Willow’s rabbi from before still is not required to be there, but the likelihood goes up. And, really at this point, the rabbi is either being an asshole or has something else incredibly important which he has to attend to and will be really apologetic.
This is an odd example here that we’re including in stillbirth because of how Judaism looks at things, and we’re going to continue using our Willow Rosenberg example.
So say Willow has the baby, a lovely baby boy. Eight days later, she has the circumcision and names it Feivish after her dead grandfather. Twenty days after that (so the baby has now been alive for 28 days), Glory finds them, and in her rant to get her Key, explodes the wall and, in the process, kills poor Feivish. (No infant immortality in your fic. Damn you, Joss Whedon!)
In Judaism, a child is not considered fully a person until they’ve lived for 30 days. And unfortunately, poor Feivish here only made it to day 28. So he’s been named, he’s been circumcised (as per Jewish law). It is a murder (bad Glory!). But the same mourning requirements are not in place. A funeral will still likely be held, but it isn’t required. A burial is. And Willow is more likely to observe the Hebrew anniversary of poor Feivish’s death than she would if it had been a miscarriage or stillbirth, though it’s still not required. Nor is she required to sit shiva or go through the full mourning ritual, which we will get to later (probably much later) in this series.
Also, as in all cases with Judaism, everything related to this can be delayed or not done at all in order to save a life. So say for instance, they’re now on the run because Glory the Hellgod is chasing them and they can’t stop to have a burial (because if they stop, Dawn dies). They can (and probably will) choose to forgo doing the burial and any of the mourning that they want to do until such a point as they have reached safety and can do it. Because the actual life comes before either potential life or someone who’s already died in Judaism.
Wow… this is a difficult topic. We’re going to stop here before we get into something even heavier.
We hope this helps you with your writing and if you have questions, feel free to ask!
Until next time!