Breastfeeding and Judaism: Why Moses’ Mother Didn’t Put Bottles into the Ark of Bulrushes

Below is the first post in my series on breastfeeding for the Israeli environmental blog Green Prophet.

The Torah doesn’t talk much about breastfeeding, as it was taken for granted in ancient times. Moses’ mother doesn’t put bottles into the ark of bulrushes she sends down the Nile to save him from Pharaoh’s evil decree (Exodus 2).

According to the midrashic commentary Moses refused to nurse from an Egyptian nursemaid, so the biblical text has Pharaoh’s daughter sending for a Jewish one. The nursemaid turns out to be none other than Yocheved, Moses’ own mother.

If the Torah and Midrash saw breastfeeding as merely a feeding method, Moses would have nursed from an Egyptian woman and the story would have ended. The rabbis recognized that without the early influence of Yocheved, Moses could not grow up to become the modest, compassionate, and dedicated leader who rescued the Jews from slavery and turned them into a nation that rejected Egyptian immorality.

An emotional bond

Mothers (and all who care for the baby), do not only tend to a baby’s physical needs. By comforting her baby in distress, a mother models empathy. A baby learns language, tone, and communication while hearing her mother’s voice. Resting in his mother’s arms, a baby gauges her emotional state as she responds to what is going on around her. As babies grow, they observe their mothers at their daily tasks and begin to imitate them. Breastfed babies must stay near their mothers, and this closeness ensures that they receive regular, if not constant, contact and interaction that all humans crave.

In our generation anyone can mix powder and water to feed a baby. One reason this option has become dominant is that our culture values independence for both adults and children. Diane Wiessinger, an American breastfeeding advocate who recently lectured in Israel, pointed out that in the media babies are often depicted alone, an unnatural condition for babies.

When my friend’s daughter told her teacher that her mother couldn’t come to a school party alone because she is nursing the daughter’s 2-month-old brother, the teacher suggested “leaving the baby with a bottle of Materna (the Israeli brand of formula).” With this kind of cultural attitude, adjusting to and accepting a baby’s intense dependence can be difficult for new parents.

The Talmud also emphasizes the importance of breastfeeding. A mother is considered a “meineket,” or nursing mother, until her child reaches 24 months. Even if a baby has weaned, he or she can return to nurse at any time until the age of two. Between the ages of two and four years, or five if the baby is unhealthy, a child who has weaned for longer than 72 hours may not return to the breast, and age five is considered the limit for nursing in Jewish law. The mother is advised to begin on the left side, “close to the heart.”

A difference of opinions

Rabbis differ about whether the laws relating to a meineket still apply today, when babies are usually not dependent on breastfeeding for survival. Some rabbis grant an exemption from fasting on minor fast days to all mothers with children under two, whether or not the mothers are currently nursing.

According to the Talmud, widows or divorcees with nursing babies under two may not remarry. The concern is that the husband will naturally want his new wife to bear his child, and the new pregnancy could lower the mother’s milk supply and potentially harm the existing child. One friend who lives in a haredi community told me that her husband’s rabbi advises all of his students to practice birth control until their children have turned two. And the rabbi of another haredi friend does not permit women in their community to wean earlier without a medical reason.

Future posts will discuss practical aspects of successful breastfeeding, Israeli government and hospital policies, and how to support breastfeeding mothers.

Reprinted with permission from Green Prophet.


  1. mother in israel says

    Klara, you are so right–breastfeeding is important but mothering involves much more. I like to think of bf as a shortcut to a close relationship with your child.

  2. Good for you!!! I hope this message spreads far and wide in Israel. My only concern is that “mothering” not be misconstrued as successful if nursing – there’s so very much more involved. Shame we don’t all live together in a big extended family, where all the love, work and joys are shared and made easier.

  3. I was completely shocked when a person in my neighborhood said she and her husband and preschool son were going to Florida for a week and leaving her 3 month-old baby behind with her parents. That is something that is just impossible to contemplate for a nursing mother. And BTW she is doing it again this year, leaving behind the now just over a year-old. In truth, the insistence on leaving the baby behind came from her mother-in-law who did not wish to be disturbed by baby cries. She was the one who covered the cost of the trip, as they were staying with her. But I would never have accepted the trip on such terms. It is one thing if it was meant as get-away for the couple alone, but the fact that the older child was taken makes it clear that the baby alone was excluded.

  4. One more observation on nursing mothers– soem manage to nurse in public with no one noticing. On a recent trip to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, I told my husband that I bet he didn’t notice that the (frum) woman sitting across from us during the workshop was nursing. He didn’t. The only key giveaway to me was the fact that she switched the child from one side to the other, but everything remained covered.

  5. mother in israel says

    frumhouse, if haven’t clicked on the word “bottles” in the post I suggest doing so.

  6. I know that years ago the breastfeeding group in Bnai Brak asked one of the big poskim (rabbis) here, if it is proper for a woman to wean early so that it will be easier for her to get pregnant again. His reply: “one doesn’t take a good thing from one person for another FUTURE not-yet-existing person.”
    Also, once I was told by a nursing mom who had a tendency to be angry, that she was told not to nurse, by a friend, because in the gemorah it says that such milk is harmfull. My quick reply: “But the gemorah doesn’t say to give COWS milk instead!” (In such a case, the woman can express a few drops,symbolically removing the anger, and then nurse)

  7. mother in israel says

    Ariella, I truly believe that people think a baby is too young to notice who is taking care of him. After all, the baby won’t appreciate Disney World. That mother you saw in the museum sounds very experienced.
    I took a 3mo to NY once and don’t recall her crying at all on the plane or elsewhere. She did spit up all over me when we got to passport control. It’s the easiest age to travel with children–they are sociable, not mobile, and don’t eat solids.

  8. I just love the title of this post!

  9. mother in israel says

    Rickismom: When a mother asks me that question I am careful. What’s interesting is that mothers are concerned that they will have trouble getting pregnant again because of their age. I expect to find out that they are in their late 30s or older, but one mom was only 30. I think often mothers are concerned about getting pregnant again, no matter the age. Esp., of course, if they had trouble the first time. I tell mothers that pregnancy usually occurs before weaning, if they are patient, and there are things they can do to return to fertility without weaning completely.

  10. Garnel Ironheart says

    Actually the Torah mentions it a few times. Yitzchak Avinu had a feast made for when he was weaned. As well some Chazal think the reason Rivkah Imeinu kept Devorah around as a wetnurse even after she grew up was because with twins, there was only so much milk to go around.

  11. MiI, very nice post. I’m looking forward to reading the rest. Nursing really does make a difference in how you mother. It’s not just a feeding choice; it’s a choice of a whole parenting path (although there is a lot of variety within that path).
    Dependency is viewed by society as a negative trait. But infants and children *need* to be dependent. That is a big part of how they securely attach to parents. When we encourage our young (and sometimes even teenage) children to be dependent, we are affirming their natural needs and fulfilling them. Meeting their needs for dependency is a terrific way to help them grow into independent people.
    GI, milk is produced based on how frequently the mother nurses. A mother of twins will generally empty each breast twice as often as the mother of a singleton, and therefore produce twice as much milk. Perhaps Rivka had Devorah accompany her to Canaan because their initial nursing relationship led them to be very attached to one another.

  12. Meh, I disagree that a decision to nurse is a decision to parent in a particularly more warm and loving way then a woman who bottle feeds.
    I know a mother who nursed all seven of children but aside from that was pretty cold, selfish and downright cruel at times,throughout their childhoods and especially now that her children were grown.
    My mother bottlefed me and my brother and we all speak to each other every day and we all have extremely close relationships with each other.
    I don’t see how the paragraphs about emotional bonds could not apply to a woman who bottle feeds. Most mothers hold there babies to feed them, no matter if they’re nursing or bottle feeding. A baby can’t hold his own bottle until 7-8 months. And if the mother is not holding the baby, another person is holding him, (yes, I know of the vile practice of bottle propping, but I don’t think the majority of bottle feeding mother do this).
    The mother child relationship is so rich and complex and involves a lifetime of give and take between the two partners. I don’t think you can reduce it to how the mother feeds the child during the first year. It’s a little bit like women who harp on having the “perfect” birth experience, otherwise their children will be doomed forever.

  13. Thanks for this. I breast-fed my now 21 1/2 yr. old for 7 years. She nursed exclusively for the first year then a lot until she was about 4. From 4 on, she nursed only in the morning and at bedtime, and whenever she was “hurt” or “wanting.” I took a lot of flak for this from my parents, friends and the Jewish community in general. But I have no regrets. My daughter is extremely healthy and is profoundly gifted. Additionally, she and I are very close, to this day.Breast milk is the most superior nutrition for babies. Why are they always “revising” formulas and now with the melamine-in-the-milk scandal from China, I don’t understand why more Moms DON’T breastfeed. Breastmilk is always available, it’s the right temperature, it comes in attractive “packaging” and very very few if any infants cannot digest human milk. And best of all, it costs far less to breastfeed than to buy formula.

  14. I clicked on the word “bottles” in the post, but didn’t find it was hyperlinked. What am I missing?

  15. mother in israel says

    Abbi wrote:
    “I don’t see how the paragraphs about emotional bonds could not apply to a woman who bottle feeds.”
    Abbi, they could apply to bottlefeeding mothers, and I intended them to (but bottlefeeding was not the focus of the article). As your examples show, breastfeeding is no guarantee of good mothering, and vice versa.
    I do see bottle-propping when I am out and about. It’s just too easy to do. But the main reason breastfeeding facilitates mother-child bonding is hormonal. During breastfeeding the body releases hormones that make the mother feel good, and help her feel loving toward her baby. When her breasts are full she aches to nurse the baby. Once I felt the milk in my breasts let down, and I went to check on my 8-month-old. Sure enough, she had just woken up from a nap.

  16. mother in israel says

    GI, I didn’t know that Chazal. Shmuel also mentions nursing and weaning, and there are nursing metaphors in the prophets.
    Helene, there are a lot of reasons moms don’t do it, and I plan to address them in one of the posts.
    FH, I had put in the link, but that version didn’t get saved and I forgot to put it back. I’ll do it now.

  17. mother in israel says

    Here is the link with the picture that was the inspiration for the title:

  18. mother in israel says

    Thanks, I-D.
    I just got this email from a friend who doesn’t like to leave comments. Her teenage son said, “The difference between bf and formula feeding is like the difference between recharging your ipod in an electrical outlet and synchronising it with your computer. In the electricity it gets the power it needs to keep running, but nothing more.”

  19. Nice post.

  20. This post is being included in the next issue of Haveil Havalim.

  21. mother in israel says

    Thanks, Jack.
    And SP613, thanks for your comments and insights on twins and Torah.

  22. Lion of Zion says
  23. mother in israel says

    LOZ, Leah had to have had those children awfully close together. Thanks for sharing the sources.

  24. mother in israel says

    LOZ, that article has some odd statements. Gomer already had a son, so why would she wean her daughter to have another? Since when is Deut. egalitarian?

  25. well i hope that if Moshe wasn’t breastfed that they used glass bottles! And i hope all of the formula mixers out there would consider the same thing. If your going to mix it and warm it please do it in glass!

  26. However, I get almost no support from anyone in regard to breastfeeding. One commenter wrote ” I don’t understand why more Moms DON’T breastfeed”. The reason women don’t breastfeed is that do not get the support required to do so. Breastfeeding is not easy – it is a skill. Most women do not have the privilege to be taught this skill when they give birth. They do not have the community support to cloister themselves with the baby until breastfeeding starts to work. In addition, there is a subliminal and overt message from society that breastfeeding is a bad thing. I can give you dozens of personal horror stories of being told that I was harming my child by breastfeeding him or her. Do you know how many times I hear “what are you still breastfeeding?” (that is not the horror story). Most women in Israel have to go back to work 3 months after they have the baby. Are they given a quite, private place to pump? Almost never! Are they given good information about pumping and work? Never!
    The comment “I don’t understand why more Moms DON’T breastfeed” is showing very little empathy for women who have not had the support to experience the wonders of breastfeeding. It really is blaming the victim – the victim being the mothers who are unable to breastfeed.

  27. I left out the first paragraph of the last post:
    Great post. I have breastfed 5 babies for at least one year each and got to 2.5 with #4 and am still going strong with #5. I love breastfeeding – I find it emotionally one of the best things in life.
    Now see the previous post.

  28. I love this post and I can’t wait to read more in the series. I’m enjoying your blog a lot.

  29. I agree with Ariella, I cannot believe that I got to baby number 5 before hearing that I could pump milk when I went back to work. It was not presented as an option in the Tipat Halav! (They have a glass case with all sorts of things in, they could have added a pump). I only learnt about it at that time from the internet. It would be interesting to check out the influence of internet on nursing and on nursing support.
    And to baby number 6 before hearing about IBLC nurinsg councillors!
    I think that every hospital should have someone with proper knowledge about nursing who sees all new moms and babies, as I think that many of the problems new mothers encounter begin in hospital.

  30. mother in israel says

    Sheva, thanks for stopping by.
    Keren and Ariela, I am shocked that there are women who don’t know about pumping. Keren, you are right that the problems start in the hospital, but they go deeper than that. IBCLCs were quite rare here until recently. It’s a relatively new profession
    PTM–thank you!

  31. wow – so much to respond to
    nursing is NO guarantee of not getting pregnant – I nursed through my pregnancy of #2, and after she was born, tandem nursed both (2 years apart) til got pregnant with #3. Sorry those who didn’t have support didn’t find La Leche – which is international and wonderful. It was there that I was “exposed” to the idea of nursing a toddler. From what I learned before I had babies, I thought I’d just nurse til 6 months – didn’t realize I’d nurse my first one for four years. But I do repeat what I said earlier, nursing guarantees nothing – except perhaps a better nutritional beginning.

  32. very, very nice posting.

  33. mother in israel says

    Klara, I usually come across two groups–the ones who don’t want to conceive while nursing but do, and the ones who want to but don’t/can’t. For some women, the breastfeeding hormones prevent implantation even after their cycles have resumed. But these women are in the minority (and of course no one can say for sure that the hormones are the problem).
    AML, thanks.

  34. I’ve had three kids in Israel and after all births I was able to get bf support in the hospital. After the first two, I also had a private lc come to the house to check up on my latch.
    At Meir Hospital in kfar sava, all nurses on the maternity ward are also LC’s (not sure if they’re ibclc, but they were definitely helpful) and the head nurse of the nursery is a staunch bf supporter (she is an ibclc lc).
    Before I had my first child, I read up on breastfeeding and made sure I had the number of an lc to call on when i needed. Breastfeeding is natural but it is very difficult. I think it is up to mothers to make sure they have their own support system if they really want it to work.

  35. Abbi, again you are blaming the victim. Most mothers do not have the resouces that you do. You should consider yourself very lucky. I think as women we should support one another.

  36. mother in israel says

    I don’t know that Abbi is blaming mothers when she says “it’s up to mothers to make sure they have their own support system.” She is stating the reality–moms can’t rely on the system when it come to breastfeeding support. Once in a while I meet a mother who says, if that nurse hadn’t been there that day I never would have continued, but more often the mother has to search to find the right help.

  37. I didn’t know I’m “always blaming the victim”. I’m not blaming anyone now. It’s not really a matter of blame, it’s a matter of reality, as MII pointed out.
    The reality is, society does make it hard for women to successfully bf for at least six months, if not a year. You can throw up your hands and say “It’s too hard, society isn’t helping me”. Or you can reach out and get the help you need to do it (La Leche is a free or very low cost bf support resource, as Klara pointed out. Many LC’s in training would be happy to lend a hand for minimal or no pay. There are a plethora of free resources on the internet).
    I don’t believe it’s an issue of being “lucky”. It’s simply a question of being committed and being proactive.


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