Jewish Miscarriage Ritual

Traditional and Contemporary Considerations and Approaches

This is one of several types of miscarriage ritual that I have conducted. Pastorally, rabbis of all denominations have quietly created rituals to help deal with the grief and trauma of miscarriage. "Officiating" at the burial of a fetus is not a Jewish practice. The tradition's perspective is that this was not a "viable life from" and so was aborted by the Source, ultimately to the benefit of all, despite how hard it is to endure the loss of a wanted pregnancy. Ritual and pastoral support is important for those who are mourning the misfortune of a miscarriage.

Halachically, a child [one who achieves the departure of it's head from the birth canal] who dies in less than thirty full days of life is given taharah (ritual of gentle washing), named, buried but has no official mourning period. Mourning rituals for miscarriage are not recorded our ancient texts, many have been created by Jewish women. I always customize rituals based on the need of those involved.

According to my gynecologist 40% of pregnancies result in miscarriage, most times so early on that it is before one was aware of being pregnant. "Nor is anyone to blame," she says, "conception is riddled with natural, internal perils and mistakes and this is nature's way of literally aborting those mistakes." I found little comfort in knowing that, the loss of a more advanced pregnancy is not only astonishingly uncomfortable, it can involve actual labor or a D & C among other possibilities. So there's the physical awfulness and then the huge emotional impact, and for some the stress and grief of serial miscarriages and infertility.

Judaism considers a fetus viable at 40 days but it is not considered to be a life until its head and shoulders pass through the birth canal into this world. The survival of the mother takes priority over the baby until then and abortion is sanctioned in Judaism under a number of circumstances. For these reasons and likely because men held all the official roles in shaping Jewish practice, no official rituals or religious process for dealing with miscarriage was developed in Judaism until the advent of women rabbis.

Often miscarriage is very hard to bear. Rather than hiding the hole in your soul, the lost hopes and expectations, seeking support is very important. Here is a model I have created for those who come for grief counseling after a miscarriage:

A miscarriage ritual to consider:

Bring together a minyan of dear friends in whose presence you feel totally safe and supported. In a dimly candle lit room, have those gathered for you softly whisper repeatedly - "from a narrow place this woman [or couple] cries out, we hear her/you, we care for her/you, her/your sorrow is huge." This is based upon Psalm 185 which says min ha meytar karati Yah, from this narrow place I call out to G*d! Meyztar means "strait" and also "birth canal."

Either before or during the ritual, take a copy of a page from your diary(ies) or notes you write out about your shattered hopes for the pregnancy, your fears about achieving parenthood, etc. Read them aloud or to yourself.

Burn the note atop a stone and speak your feelings as you behold the fragment of ashes that result before you. You might smear the ashes on your skin.

Those gathered recite the whispered chant and each speak of a small gift they have made to a charity in your name[s] that you might receive the blessing of healing and fulfillment.

You might select a psalm setting or healing song to be softly sung or strummed as those present stand and surround you.

Conclude with a blessing for change, I like a verse from the evening prayers mishaneh eeteem, u'mahaleef et ha zmanim, u'm'sader et ha cohavim ba'rakeeyah keertzono. "Who changes the times, turns over the seasons and orders the stars in the firmament according to Your desire."

For an different Jewish miscarriage or infertility ritual approach please see Losing a Pregnancy.