A bizarre—and in some ways, disturbing—premise of talmudic law states that a premature fetus in its seventh month might well be viable (the Talmud calculated that prophets like Isaac, Moses and Samuel were all seven-month births)—but an eight-month fetus has no chance whatsoever of surviving. This biological “fact” was so certain to the rabbis that they drew from it some very clear practical conclusions.
For example, although Jewish law, as is well known, always sets aside ritual prohibitions for the sake of saving human life, even if there is only a slight chance of doing so, it is nevertheless forbidden to violate the sabbath restrictions for the sake of an eight-month-term newborn, who is classified as a mere “stone”—and yet we would be required to override the sabbath laws for the sake of a seven-month fetus.
As odd as this belief might sound to us in light of modern biomedical science, it was by no means unusual in the ancient world. In fact, it was the prevalent view of the foremost Greek physicians; and it could have tangible legal repercussions for determining paternity or inheritances.
To Hippocrates were ascribed treatises on both “the Seven-Month Fetus” and “the Eight-Month Fetus.” The author of those works accepted the doctrine about the non-viability of the eight-month fetus, but he did have some difficulty accounting for the anomaly. He tried to explain it in terms of a special malady that besets pregnant women during their eight month, a condition that enfeebles the child and places unusual pressures on the uterus and umbilical cord. However, fetuses that are born earlier or later than that time will not be endangered by the illness and therefore are likely to survive in a healthy state.
According to another theory shared by Greeks and Jews, there are in fact two separate classes of pregnancy, the seven-month and the nine-month kind. Either will produce a healthy child when they are carried to term. However, an unfortunate child who is born after eight months is probably a premature nine-monther who did not reach full term and is therefore not viable.
Several Greek writers theorized that the viability of seven-month fetuses should be credited to the special numerological status of the lucky number seven and its multiples (which distinguished it from the unlucky eight).
The polyglot Rabbi Abbahu, head of the talmudic academy of Caesarea, was once asked (evidently by some non-Jews, perhaps Christians) to provide a source for the distinction between the seven-month and the eight-month fetuses. He replied with an ingenious wordplay based on the numerological values of Greek letters. The letter “zeta” equals seven [hepta] while “eta” is “eight.” These combine into a Greek sentence “zeta eta e ta hepta” that translates as: “Seven [i.e., a seven-month fetus] lives rather than eight.”
Several of the authoritative codes of Jewish law, including Rabbi Joseph Caro’s Shulḥan ‘Arukh accept the Talmud’s position on eight-month fetuses without question.
However, some of the medieval Talmud commentators sensed that this did not dovetail with the observable facts. Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre was quoted in the Tosafot as ruling that nowadays it is permitted to handle any infant on the sabbath, since we do not possess sufficient expertise to determine the timing of the gestation, and therefore all births should be given the benefit of the doubt. Instead of measuring the viability with reference to chronological criteria, it is better to look at the physical signs of the child’s development, such as the appearance of hair and nails, which are mentioned elsewhere in the Talmud as indicators.
A similar approach was favoured by Maimonides. He was, of course, an eminent medical practitioner, and he had no qualms when it came to ignoring or dismissing the more outdated medicinal prescriptions that he found in the Talmud. As it happens, his hero Aristotle was among the minority of Greek scientists who had challenged the factual basis of Hippocrates’ theory. Nonetheless, in the present case Maimonides merely cited the pertinent talmudic rulings without expressing any doubts about their fundamental accuracy. Like Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre, he did recommend that the child’s health be determined by observable physiological signs (hair and nails) and not by the imprecise practice of reckoning the length of the pregnancy.
As regards the practical implications related to the status of eight-month pregnancies, there has existed a virtual consensus among modern deciders of halakhah that such fetuses and newborns must be regarded as viable, and must be given access to any kind of suitable therapeutic treatment, including procedures that require violations of sabbath restrictions.
Nevertheless, this provokes a theological question that can be troubling to traditional believers: after all, there is unanimity in the medical community that the ancient perceptions concerning eight-month fetuses were just plain untrue. As long as the unborn child has reached a point of viability (a stage has become increasingly early thanks to advances in technology), then the closer it comes to the full nine-month term, the better are its chances for a safe and healthy birth. The eighth month is no exception to this pattern.
Indeed, there is a long tradition of respectable rabbis who have recognized that scientific pronouncements in the Talmud reflect the ideas of their times and need not be accepted with the same reverence that would be extended to the sages’ religious teachings. In more recent generations, however, several Orthodox spokesmen have opted for more fundamentalist positions.
Some halakhists, like the twentieth-century authority Rabbi Isaac Jacob Weiss, sidestepped the theoretical issue, especially when discussing ritual implications that are not life-and-death issues (in his case, whether the widowed mother of a premature child should be considered “childless” for purposes of imposing the obligation of levirate marriage).
In a responsum devoted to the question, Rabbi Weiss stated that, notwithstanding consultations with a medical expert (who was also a religious Jew) who filled him in on the conventional scientific views, he preferred to accept the traditional talmudic theory, while noting the significance of recent technological developments. Thus, the essential fragility of eight-month fetuses remains a valid premise, but the introduction of sophisticated neonatal incubators now enables the survival of infants for whom no such possibility existed during the days of the Talmud.
A different approach was taken by Rabbi Abraham Karelitz, the “Ḥazon Ish,” one of the most prominent spokesmen for Ḥaredi Judaism in Israel in the twentieth century. He acknowledged the glaring contradiction between present-day science and the statements of the rabbis of old. The only acceptable solution he could find to the conundrum was by resorting to a premise that had been employed by some earlier authorities—albeit very sparingly—to resolve similar discrepancies: he argued that since ancient times, humans have undergone an actual change in their physiological make-up that rendered the eight-month rule obsolete, even though it was perfectly valid in the days of the talmudic sages. It is hard to imagine that the Ḥazon Ish could really have been ignorant of the surviving forensic evidence in human anatomical remains from earlier times.
There is, to be sure, much to be said in the ongoing conversations between traditional religious texts, science and advances in medical technology. I suppose that it is all but inevitable that among the ranks of those who will make valuable contributions to that research, there will also be some scholars who entered the world as eight-month fetuses.