Sunday, July 10, 2022

What Does Judaism Say About Abortion?

 Dear Tanta Golda,

I don’t wish to offend you, but I’m confused about what the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v Wade means to me as a Jew? I had an aunt who was raised in an Orthodox home who travelled to Mexico in the early 1960s to get an abortion because she and my uncle were told another pregnancy could kill her. (She’d had complications due to diabetes.) I can’t imagine her even contemplating this if Judaism said it was immoral, but I hear some people say that life begins at conception. Could you shed some light in these dark times?

Struggling Sympathizer

My darling Struggling. Oy, aren’t we all right now? I’m glad you’ve asked about this emotionally complex issue. Now, before some of my readers start wringing their hands, you are entitled to your personal beliefs. This article is taking on the Jewish view of abortion.

Not too surprisingly, the different streams of Judaism have somewhat different views about under what circumstances abortion is religiously acceptable. That being said, certain aspects of this question are agreed upon by ALL streams, from the most liberal to the most traditional.

1. Life does not begin at conception. You read that correctly. According to numerous rabbinic sources, life begins when the head of the child enters the world. Until that time, the fetus is considered another ‘limb’ of the mother, and therefore she has say over what she does to it. Just as you can decide whether or not to donate a kidney to your Aunt Sadie—even if your kidney is the only way to save her life. As further proof, the rabbis discussed in the Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b: “the embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day.#” Science fiction movies not withstanding, water isn’t alive. According to another rabbinic text, a fetus is not even “viable” until the seventh month. But, even among Orthodox rabbis, being viable only gives the fetus “partial life,” which still does not trump the health and safety of the mother. If we only delved this far, we can see that the rabbis most certainly did not consider life beginning at conception.

Some have asked me, what about the child’s soul? According to Jewish belief, ensoulment is not a Halachic (Jewish law) issue since full human status in Judaism occurs only at the birth of a full-term baby. Which brings us to point number two.

2. Abortion is not murder. In this instance, let me point you to the Torah. Exodus 21:22-23, recounts a story of two men who are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, resulting in her subsequent miscarriage. The verse explains that if the only harm done is the miscarriage, then the perpetrator must pay a fine. The common rabbinic interpretation is that if the only harm is the loss of the fetus, it is treated as a case of property damage — not murder. However, if the pregnant person is gravely injured, the penalty shall be a life for a life as in other homicides. Notice the distinction. Causing the death of a living breathing woman is murder, but causing the termination of a pregnancy is not. *Some Orthodox believe that once a fetus has reached the end of the sixth month, see viability above, abortion is “possible” murder—unless the life of the mother is threatened.

Third term abortions are rare (<1%) and nearly always done for medical reasons.

3. If you were here—well first, I’d offer you a nosh—but once refreshed you might point out that science has come so far since the time of Rashi and Maimonides, we know more about fetal development. At some point, perhaps past the seventh month, doesn’t the fetus have rights? No, bubbeleh. The rabbis agree that until the child has fully emerged they are not considered a person. (Of course, as any beaming mother-to-be will tell you, without a doubt there’s a little person growing in them, but we are talking about saged, rabbinic rulings, not emotion.) To quote Mishnah, Ohalot 7:6 If the life of the mother is endangered by the fetus, “her life takes precedence over [the fetus’s] life.” This is an important point given the restrictions some states are imposing, or threatening to impose on those who can bear children. The life of the mother always takes precedence. Across all streams of Judaism. Always.

Now we get into grey areas where different streams of Judaism, even different rabbis within a stream interpret things, well, differently. Since, my dear reader, you’re likely Jewish, would you expect them all to agree?

I’m talking about if and when abortion is acceptable (Halachically) when the mother’s life isn’t in danger.

Most rabbis agree that abortion should not be used for convenience. To Tanta Golda, that seems like a very broad, and subjective term. But, equally subjective is when some rabbis say, ‘the mental health of the mother’ should be considered. All of which is to say, whatever position you take about abortion when it’s not saving the mother’s physical life, Judaism probably agrees with you.

Tanta Golda’s sources at My Jewish Learning have this to add, “There are Orthodox rabbinic sources that support abortion when a mother’s health is in danger even if her life is not at risk; when a fetus is conclusively determined to suffer from severe abnormalities; when a mother’s mental health is in danger; or when the pregnancy is the result of a forbidden sexual union. However, these rulings are not universally accepted,” and most cases should be judged on a case-by-case basis. *Some of these rabbinic sources are cited from another source in the first link below.*

And one last point, in Israel abortion is legal, and in many cases, even qualifies to be paid for by the State. Israel—where the Chief Rabbi is Orthodox, where all marriages must be religious marriages, where Reform Jews are viewed by some as apostates—that Israel, allows abortion. Just a little something to ponder.

To conclude, my Struggling dear one, we acknowledge that this is an important, emotionally fraught issue with few answers that work for everyone. Please, my readers, whatever your personal views, be kind to those who disagree with you.

Much love as you struggle with the tough questions, Tanta Golda

#40 days after she would have entered the mikvah, so 54 days from her last period.

If you wish to see where Tanta Golda sourced much of her information you can go here:

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Jewish Obligation to Get Vaccinated

Dear Tanta Golda,

The Board of our synagogue came out with a policy that will allow us to gather in person. Amend that--that will allow some of us to gather in person--provided they are vaccinated. They say this is based on Jewish ethics, but what did the sages of the Talmud know from vaccines?

Fear of Needles

Darling Needless,

In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Thetze, we are told: If a (person) builds a new house, then they shall make a parapet (low wall) for the roof so they will not bring blood (injury) on (or off) the roof. (Deut 22:8)

It does not say to build the parapet only to protect the old, or only if someone in your household has a pre-existing condition that might cause them to fall. It doesn’t give you an ‘out’ for being young and healthy. Everyone is commanded to build a parapet in order to prevent anyone from coming to harm.

I suppose the Torah could have said, if you are old or have a pre-existing condition, you should stay within your home so healthy people can express their freedom to enjoy the roof without restrictions, but it doesn’t. Why? Because in Judaism we are told to put the needs of the community at the forefront. When my niece, Geri, was teaching a class on Jewish ethics at Bet Sefer, the chapter on Pikuah Nefesh cited this Torah passage as an example of how important the rabbis felt our obligation to ‘save a soul’ e.g prevent bodily harm, was.

Pikuah Nefesh overrides all other ethical obligations. All of them. 

This Yom Kippur we will say the Vidui, the list of sins which we ask forgiveness. We aren’t told to say only the ones we are guilty of. We recite all of them, together, as a community because we are responsible for each other. By asking forgiveness for not only our own mis-steps, but those of our community members as well, we are holding each other up. It is the same reason we say the Mourners Kaddish only when we have a minyon (ten Jewish adults), and the reason we are told to rejoice with the bride and groom. Because in times of grief, in times of joy, we lift each other up, we watch out for each other.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, (CCAR) the oldest and largest rabbinic organization in North America, came out with a Responsa, a Jewish legal ruling, back in 1994 in response to the question of whether a Hebrew School could require students to be vaccinated. The ruling was a resounding, Yes. They cited the overriding obligation to protect the community. This April they issued a resolution in response to Covid-19 vaccine. It affirmed their 1994 ruling.

This is not just a liberal rant from a crochety old woman. There are centuries of rabbis standing behind me. We are stronger when we support each other, when we have each other’s backs. We do have to care for ourselves, but we must also care for others. As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Kol Tov, be well, stay healthy--TG

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Must I Ask Forgiveness?

Dear Tanta Golda,

The rabbi told us that during the month of Elul we are supposed to go around and ask people to forgive us. I’m mostly a nice person, but to be honest, sometimes I say something when I’m angry that I didn’t mean. But they are just words, no big deal, right? And what about people I gossiped about behind their backs? They don’t know about it, so why should I upset them?

Coward, Trying to do Better.

My Darling Coward,

There is an ancient Jewish proverb that goes: Loose tongues are worse than wicked hands. Words, shmords, you say. How can they be worse than a smack across the face? Let me tell you a story about the time my cousin Maidle asked the rabbi the same question.

The rabbi of our humble little village was old and wise, as rabbis were back in the old country. (Now, many of them are young and wise.) He told Maidle to take one of her fine goose down pillows up to the roof of the tallest building in the shtel. Once she was there, she should rip it open and let the feathers free.

Having done that, she returned to the rabbi. “Nu? I destroyed one of my good feather pillows—one so soft it was like sleeping on a cloud—but I did what you asked and released the feathers. Now what?”

The rabbi nodded. “Now,” he said, “go gather all the feathers.”

My cousin Maidle was shocked. “Why, that will be impossible! They have blown into every nook and cranny of the village!”

The rabbi sat back in his chair and nodded sagely, as rabbis do. “Ah, now you see. Words are like feathers. Once they are out they are nearly impossible to take back fully.”

So, back to the proverb. While physically more aggressive, the sting of a smack fades fairly quickly, but words—words linger. Now you know why gossip is called lashon hara - evil tongue.

During Elul, we are required to seek out those we’ve wronged since last Rosh Hashanah and ask forgiveness. But, how we ask depends on the extent of the ‘damage’ done. If your words created negative consequences, say the person lost standing in the community or was fired from their job, or was embarrassed in front of the whole office, then you must ask them directly for forgiveness. But, even if there is no lasting harm, and you know the person will be understanding, you should still ask. Like when you yell at your child for dropping garbage next to the garbage can and leaving it there—for the nth time. Oy!

However, if informing the person that you spoke about them will result in embarrassment or hurt—like gossiping with Chana after services about the hideous dress Maidle wore when she gave her speech at last month’s Sisterhood lunch, then it is acceptable to ask for general forgiveness without going into details. In fact, the rabbis say, if informing the person of the deed would cause embarrassment, that itself would be cause for asking forgiveness again.

Words matter, but actions speak louder. Go forth and show those you’ve wronged with your loose tongue that you will aim to do better in the year to come.

Much love, TG

Thursday, October 22, 2020

How Many Days Does One Sit Shiva?

 Dear Tanta Golda,

After a recent Friday night service, my friends and I got to talking about sitting Shiva. They both agreed that one sits Shiva for 7 days, but after my mother passed away, her rabbi told me that one only sits Shiva until Shabbat, so that if someone passed away on a Thursday, then you stopped sitting Shiva on Friday night. Who is right?


Darling BB,

You hang out with brilliant people – one does indeed sit Shiva for seven days. Shiva literally means seven. I wonder if perhaps you’re confusing the prohibition of sitting Shiva on Shabbat with ending Shiva altogether. 

According to tradition, one does not sit Shiva on Shabbat – in fact Halacha (Jewish law) goes so far as to prohibit it, and specifies that mourners are to go to the synagogue in the first Shabbat following a loved one’s death.  (The Jewish Home) However, once Shabbat ends on Saturday evening, one returns to sitting Shiva. So, it may be that you misunderstood the rabbi’s instructions. In the aftermath of losing someone we are not always at our listening and comprehending best. And he may have presumed you knew this already and didn’t bother to explain further.

There are several holidays that also preempt the sitting of Shiva since the mitzvah of observing them supersedes everything else (except health and safety.) These holidays are: Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashannah, and Yom Kippur.  It is best to check with your rabbi for the specifics because it’s not as simple as it sounds.

All of this however does not mean that anyone expects your grief to just vanish. Judaism tries to balance the need for grieving with the importance of easing one’s way back into the world. The rabbis knew that without guidance, some people would become so distraught that they would wallow in their grief and forget to go on with life.

Judaism breaks mourning up into several periods after Shiva. They are: Sholoshim – the 30 day period after the funeral - one is supposed to return to work or school, but refrain from going to parties or other celebrations– who feels like going to a party so soon after a loss anyway? Next comes Shanah. For the eleven months following the funeral a mourner says kaddish daily. After eleven moths the family goes to the cemetery for the unveiling of the headstone. At this time one is supposed to go be ready to fully participate in life cycle events – including marriage. Personally, Tanta Golda couldn’t see being ready to get re-married after eleven months, but then again, she is blessed with a very happy marriage. 

I hope that it is a long time until you need to sit Shiva again

Much love - TG

Friday, May 8, 2020

Do Jews Use Letters for Numbers--or Aleph-Bet Math?

 Dear Tanta Golda,

I’ve heard that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet also stand for numbers. How does this work? I mean if I want two fish do I ask for bet dag? How would I write the number 21? 

A budding Hebrew scholar

Scholar, Oye, a mother’s dream, a Hebrew scholar…well okay, a Hebrew scholar who’s a doctor, for this I’d kvell!

You ask such a wonderful question! Yes, each letter has a numeric value. However, you must bear in mind that any family letters share the same value. This means that both bet בּ and vet ב are symbolic of the number 2, pey פּ and fey פ are both worth 80, and shin שׁ and sin ש 300. Final letters have the same value as their non-final counterparts (mem מ and final mem ם are both worth 40) The numeric  values go from 1 (aleph א) to ten (yud י), then increase by tens (kaf כ is 20, lamed ל 30) until 100 (kof ק) with the rest going up in increments of 100. For a chart you can go to: This is at Judaism 101, a wonderful site for many of your Judaic questions.

When written this way they have a cumulative value. That is to write the number 21 you would write from right to left kaf aleph - 20+1. You would not just write bet aleph. Usually the number with the highest value is written first, followed by the number of the next highest value, and so on. So, 248 - the number of positive mitzvot that God gave us - is written רמח resh mem chet  200+40+8. (There are two exceptions to the rule of using the letters of the highest value when writing numbers: 15 & 16 are written with as 9+6 and 9+7 respectively, since using the highest possible value letters - 10+5 & 10+6 would each be a name of God.)

 In modern Hebrew even in erezt Yisrael (the land of Israel) the decimal system of Hindu-Arabic numerals (1,2,3) are used. Hebrew numbers are used mainly for writing the days and years of the Hebrew calendar (not the secular one we all use), for references to Jewish texts, for numbering lists - much in the same way we use Roman numerals, and in numerology. You may notice in many Tanachs that the line references use the aleph-bet number system.

Now my scholar, you asked about how you would ‘ask’ for two fish. For speaking counting numbers are used. For example: Ehad - one (you may remember hearing this in the Shema) shenayim - two, shelosha - three. If you ever sang ehad a mi o deya  in Hebrew during Passover, you sang these numbers!

Now, there is a system of Jewish mysticism called the Gematria which delves into the ‘hidden’ meaning of words based on their numerical value. Tanta Golda isn’t going to go into this other than to point out that the letters in the word ‘chai’ - life, are chet yud which added together are 18. This is why many gifts are given in denominations of 18!

And, while you didn’t ask, the number 13 has no negative connotation in Jewish tradition. Thirteen is the age of B’nei mitzvah, we have Rambam’s 13 principles, and the 13 attributes of Mercy are mentioned in Exodus!

Keep up your scholarly pursuits! Love - TG

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Why Some Jews Keep Baby Names Secret

Dear Tanta Golda,

In a few short weeks, our Rabbi and his wife are going to be blessed with their first child. One of my friends asked why the rabbi was being so tight-lipped about baby names. One of the members of my Havurah said it had to do with Lilith. Is this true, and who is this Lilith?

Lilith Ponderer

Dear Pondering One,

First, I wish the parents to be all the best for an easy delivery and a healthy birth!

Now for your question. When it comes to pre-birth preparations and baby naming in Judaism we have a mixture of traditions and superstitions. Their genesis is not much of a mystery. It estimated that at the turn of the 20th century (1900) 10%, or 10 of every 100, children in the US died in their first year of life. Tanta Golda isn’t quite that old, but she suspects that infant mortality rates were even higher during the Middle Ages when many of these superstitions were born. Infant mortality was a way of life. Worried parents then, as now, searched for ways to protect their precious ones.

The tradition arose in Judaism not to name a child—which included not sharing the name with friends—until the 8th day, when boys are traditionally circumcised during a Brit Milah and entered into the covenant. Girls, meh, they were named at Temple on the Shabbat after their birth.

Some say the naming tradition is based on the bubbe meises (old wives tale) that if the name is made public too soon some evil force or another would claim the child’s life. Tanta Golda has found that fingers are pointed to not one, but three culprits: The Angel of Death, a vague evil eye spirit, and Lilith.

Now, it came as a surprise to Tanta Golda to learn in her advanced years that some expectant parents go so far as to shun purchasing anything for the wee one in advance, which also means they don’t have a baby shower or set up the nursery prior to the birth. All to avoid BAD THINGS happening. Does it work? It is not Tanta Golda’s place to argue with her rabbi, but she was eager to set up her own nursery before her children came into the world and shared potential names with anyone foolish enough to ask. In spite of her blatant disregard for tradition, both her marvelous children were born healthy and argue with her like the scholars she raised them to be.

Where does this mysterious Lilith come into this you ask? There is a midrash that Adam had a wife before Eve. The midrash claims this is the reason there are two versions of Creation in the Torah. It is said that Lilith was created at the same time as Adam—not from his rib later on. She argued with Adam that since they were created at the same time, they were equal in all things. When Adam said, “You lie under me.” She replied, “No, you lie under me.” She shared her opinions freely, and in general, didn’t scrape and bow to Adam’s every whim. Adam complained to Hashem that Lilith was difficult, and Hashem nixed Lilith. This did not make Lilith happy and now she is said to roam the world killing newborn babies. Many pregnant Jewish women will wear an amulet or hang one over their infant’s cribs to ward off Lilith.

The name Lilith stems from the same root as lila, evening, and she is said to do most of her mischief at night. There are a number of other salacious tales about Lilith’s evil ways, but they don’t relate to your question.

Your rabbi is merely being a protective father-to-be. We wish them all the best.

Love as always, TG

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Illegitimacy in Judaism - is it still a thing?

Dear Tanta Golda,

Our rabbi gave a talk recently about “Who is a Jew?” and the word Mamzer came up. He apologized and said that this would have to be the topic of another lecture. The best I could gather was that is meant ‘bastard’, as in illegitimate. Is this really a thing in Judaism? Could you explain?

Paternally Perturbed

My Dearest Perturbed,

While secular society in the United States has matured, and illegitimate children are no longer ostracized as they once were, your question deals with halachah - Jewish ritual law.

According to halachah, a mamzer or “illegitimate” child is one born from an incestuous relationship or adultery and such offspring are forbidden to marry almost all other Jews, “except for other mamzerim and for proselytes.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 72b) Isn’t that nice, converts are allowed to marry the forbidden. Now to clarify: a mamzer is not a bastard born out of wedlock. A person is halachcally illegitimate only if conceived in an act of incest or adultery. 

Reform Judaism doesn’t spend too much time worrying about this, “since it is morally repugnant to place such a crushing stigma upon a child whose only ‘crime’ was to be to his or her parents.” (Jewish Living, Washofsky)

However, we do not live in a world of Reform Jews and Reform halachah alone so there are some factors you should be aware of. First, (Jewish) traditional law does not recognize civil divorce, so a Jewish woman who doesn’t go through a bet din and get a religious divorce before remarrying, is still considered legally married to her previous husband. Therefore, any children of her second marriage would be considered mamzerim.  If these children later decide to marry a traditionally observant Jew, they will find they cannot. This becomes an even greater issue if they move to Israel, where the law of divorce is overseen by the Orthodox rabbinate for all Jews, regardless of their level of observance. 

Now my darling, don’t fret too much, they won’t see your marriage as legitimate in any case, unless overseen by an Orthodox rabbi. So, since your Reform marriage was never a legitimate one in the first place, there’s no need to obtain a get (Jewish divorce) and any children born of a second marriage are not therefore the product of adultery. Isn’t that a relief!

Tanta Golda’s point is, the status of mamzer is an issue for the Orthodox, an issue if you wish to marry someone who is, or if you wish to live in Israel. Hopefully the day will soon come when Reform marriages, conversions, and divorce are recognized in Eretz Yisrael. 

Love as always,