When Does Life Begin? A Jewish View

Most often in Jewish sacred literature, a fetus in the womb is considered a human life “under construction.” The soul is usually described as arriving when the first breath of life is taken at birth. The primary Jewish imagery for the beginning of life comes from Genesis 1:2, where breath hovers above the waters of earth before life emerges from that cosmic womb. Then, in Genesis 2:7, after the body of Adam is fashioned from the clay of the earth, G*d is described as breathing life into him. These stories frame the basis for the Jewish view that the fetus gains full human rights and status only once the baby’s head has emerged from the birth canal [Ohalot 7:6].

There is one Talmudic passage in which a Greek philosopher presses a rabbi on this issue until–probably for the sake of peace with the Greek occupiers of the Land of Israel--the rabbi accedes to the prevailing view in Greek culture that the soul is present from conception. This concession did not, however, change the Jewish perspective that the activation of the fetus’s status as a human with full human rights still occurs upon birth.

The Designated Soul

The soul a baby will receive is traditionally understood to be pre-destined. The combining of the particular soul with the particular body it enters results in a human. An often-cited commentary relates that all the souls that will ever exist were “created during the six days of Creation, and were in the Garden of Eden, and all were present at the giving of the Torah [at Sinai].” [Tanhuma, Pekudei 3]. This perspective is reflected in Jeremiah 1:5: “I knew you, before I formed you in the belly, before you left the womb.” Or as sometimes friends or family are known to say to small children, “We knew you before you were even a twinkle in your parents’ eyes.” In the Talmud the distinction between body and soul is particularly clear in this passage: “When the time arrives for a person to depart from this world, G*d takes G*d’s portion back and leaves the portions contributed by the parents.” [T. Niddah 31a]

There are many terms for soul and soul qualities in Jewish sacred literature such as reasoning, curiosity, innovation, intuition, emotion and awe – all of which become possible once a child has been born. (To learn the five primary Hebrew terms for soul and more about each dimension of soul they represent, please see Meaning & Mitzvah by Rabbi Milgram, pages 26-29.)

The Torah confounds our senses by offering us an impossible paradox: that humans are created b’tzelem elohim, “in the image of G*d.” [Genesis 11:7]. G*d in Judaism has no image, that’s foundational. So what kind of koan or, spiritual brain puzzle is this? Rabbi Harold Schulweis, teaches a helpful midrash:

"The angels, having heard that God planned to create the human being in His image, grew jealous. What does mere mortal man have to deserve such a gift? The angels plotted to hide the image of God from the human being. One angel suggested that it be hid on the tallest mountain. Another suggested that it be sunk into the deep of the sea. But the shrewdest angel demurred. "Man," he said, "is an adventurer. He will climb the highest mountain. He will plumb the deepest ocean. But if we want to hide it from him, let us hide the image in himself. It is the last place in the world that he will seek it."

Another popular midrash also emphasizes this notion of not making it easy to uncover our connection to the Big Picture. This story also accords the fetus cognitive ability while in the womb. It goes like this: While the fetus is gestating, an angel is teaching it Torah, all of Torah. When the child is about to be born, the angel flicks the child just above the lip, causing everything that was learned to be forgotten. [Niddah 30b] Just enough residual memory remains for the human to experience the urge to seek, savor, and believe we can find and connect again to that sweet, deep learning in our lives.

At the burning bush Moses asks how to name the source of his realization that slavery does not have to be a forever thing, that he has the contacts and training to attempt redeeming the Israelites. The answer, described as coming from G*d, is: Ehyeh. “I Am Becoming.” Moses asks again, and the idea is then elaborated: ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I am becoming what I am becoming.” According to this exchange we are all very much created in the image of G*d. As parents, we foster the great unfolding of potential within creation by how we raise our children. We are part of the research and development team creating the future. In this way each human arrives in service of the Infinite Potential for Change inherent within creation. From this we experience joy, awe, challenge, and trembling before the awesome responsibility of becoming a parent.