Childbirth in Jewish Law

Abstract: A woman enters the ritual status of niddah with certain signs of active labor. Following a vaginal delivery, she enters the additional ritual status of yoledet, whose laws are almost identical to those of a niddah. Her ritual status has implications for the ability of the husband to be present in the delivery room and to provide physical assistance to his wife during delivery and postpartum. A woman remains in the niddah/yoledet status for a week after all postpartum bleeding has ceased. Therefore, childbirth is followed by prolonged time period where no physical contact is permitted between the new parents. Women who deliver by cesarean section will most likely obtain the status of niddah.

Discusion: A woman who has reached the point in labor where she can no longer walk unaided becomes niddah. Authorities differ as to whether other signs of labor, such as rupture of the amniotic membrane or the release of the mucus plug ("the bloody show"), render a woman niddah. Therefore, women's practices may vary in these situations.

Vaginal childbirth brings on the additional ritual status of yoledet, whose laws are similar to that of a niddah. This is true whether the child is born living or stillborn, or even if she miscarries after more than about seven weeks’ gestation. In the extremely rare case that a woman delivers with no bleeding, she also becomes a yoledet.

As with all instances of niddah, a woman after childbirth or miscarriage must wait a minimum of twelve days from the onset of her status before she may immerse in the mikveh (ritual bath) and resume physical contact with her husband. The last seven of these days must be entirely free of bleeding. In addition, a yoledet may not immerse until 14 days after the birth of a girl.

A woman who delivers by cesarean section prior to the onset of active labor does not have the status of yoledet. However, she will normally obtain the status of niddah when the remains of the uterine lining are shed. As with all variants of niddah, she may not immerse until twelve days have elapsed from the onset of her status, the last seven of them blood-free. Unlike a woman who delivered vaginally, however, she is not required to wait a minimum of 14 days after the birth of a girl.

Both medical and halachic sources attest to the importance of emotional support for the mother during labor and delivery [1]. However, the growing trend for the husband to serve as his wife's labor coach presents certain difficulties in Jewish law. Because a woman in childbirth attains the status of niddah, physical contact between the couple is prohibited and the husband may not see his wife undressed. Furthermore, the husband is halachically prohibited from looking directly at his wife's vaginal opening even when she is not a niddah. Due to these concerns, many rabbis forbid the attendance of the husband in the delivery room. There are, however, those who permit it, usually with the following stipulations:

  1. A mirror should not be used to allow the husband to see the baby emerging.
  2. The wife should be covered to the extent possible, or a screen should be placed between her upper and lower body (as is routine for cesarean deliveries under regional anesthesia).
  3. The husband may not touch his wife unless no one else is available to help her.

There is a growing body of evidence supporting the concept of female companionship (Doula) as well as the husband's support during labor.  This form of support may serve as a partial substitute for the lack of contact with the husband [1].

Note: The sources prohibit the husband from looking directly at his wife's vaginal opening. This prohibition may not apply to a situation in which he inadvertently sees the vaginal opening. Therefore, if reasonable precautions are taken to preserve modesty, the wife's legitimate need for her husband's attendance may take precedence.

Implications for Practice:

The halacha observant couple may need special accommodations in the delivery room for the husband to be present.

Lack of physical contact between husband and wife indicates careful observance of Jewish law and not lack of affection between them.

Postpartum bleeding will lead to a prolonged time period during which time no physical contact is permitted between the couple.

Medical References

[1] Green J, Hotelling, BA. Healthy Birth Practice #3: Bring a Loved One, Friend, or Doula for Continuous Support. J Perinat Educ. 2014 Fall; 23(4): 194–197.

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