Do We Need a Rule about Breastfeeding in Shul?

Devora Greico nursing in shul on Purim

Credit: Devora-Perich-Greico

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz (RYK) of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah wrote a psak, or religious ruling, on whether it’s permitted to breastfeed in the synagogue. I’ve addressed this issue several times before, because women have been harassed, and people have spoken out publicly against breastfeeding in the synagogue. Fortunately, RYK unequivocally concludes that it is permitted anytime and anywhere in the synagogue. I hope his source material and arguments will help mothers out in the future.

But part of me wishes it hadn’t been published. His approach fails to look at the effect on mothers and babies, treating the question as if breasts are merely objects, which may or may not have permission to be in shul and used for their intended purpose. Perhaps because he did not find a reason to prohibit breastfeeding, he did not address the real-life dilemmas of mothers who want to attend the synagogue.

Let’s start with the reason RYK gives for the dearth of halachic discussion on the issue. While we are waiting for the promised English translation, I can quote RYK from this blog post by Alan Brill about a Facebook discussion of the ruling.

As I researched the topic I was surprised to learn that in close to two thousand years of pesika, the question of breastfeeding in shul never arose. I believe that the explanation is sociological, that female shul attendance on the scale we are witnessing today is a relatively new phenomenon and, therefore, questions relating to female presence in shul rarely if ever came up. Until recently, women, especially those of child bearing age, would attend shul twice a year, on Rosh Ha’shana for tekiat shofar and Yom Kippur for however long they could stay in shul. (In certain communities they would also come for the kria of parshat zachor.)  A Rabbi, consequently, was never asked to address this question, breastfeeding moms were not in shul. Today this sociological reality is no longer true. “Our women” have full-fledged lives even during their child-bearing years. They have rich secular and professional lives and expect the same in the religious arena.

I agree that this is one possible reason it was not addressed, but there are others. For example:

  • It was obvious that if babies are with their mothers, they are going to need to eat sometimes.
  • Breastfeeding was not seen as something sexual, like it is in contemporary Western culture where breasts are seen as solely sexual and babies are assumed to be fed by bottle.
  • Male halachic arbiters did not feel the need to concern themselves with what was going on behind the mechitzah (partition separating men and women).

RYK himself gives numerous examples of rabbinic texts in which women with babies did come to religious events, while the rabbis looked on with approval.

RYK looks at the question from a number of angles, focusing on three questions:

  1. May one breastfeed in the synagogue?
  2. Is there an issue of erva (indecency)?
  3. Does one need to avoid breastfeeding during prayers?

RYK argues that just as we eat and even have parties in the synagogue, babies should eat there too. Some might claim that breastfeeding is different because it involves physical contact and intimacy. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the RM”A, ruled that kissing and hugging of children is not permitted in the synagogue. However, RYK points out that the main purpose of breastfeeding is eating, not affection, and the RM”A’s ruling is not based on a long-standing halachic tradition. RYK then gives examples from the Torah and Talmud of physical affection in the Divine presence.

Regarding modesty and erva, RYK cites texts to show that if a baby is covering the breast along with a blanket, the breast is not considered to be exposed and one may pray in the presence of the nursing mother. Even if there is no blanket, the baby itself may be considered a cover.

RYK cites a beautiful passage from the Talmud in Sota about a baby who interrupts breastfeeding to say a prayer:

Our Rabbis taught: R. Jose the Galilean expounded: At the time the Israelites ascended from the Red Sea, they desired to utter a Song; and how did they render the song? The babe lay upon his mother’s knees and the suckling sucked at his mother’s breast; when they beheld the Shechinah, the babe raised his neck and the suckling released the nipple from his mouth, and they exclaimed: This is my God and I will Praise Him;21  as it is said: Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou established strength.22  R. Meir used to say: Whence is it that even the embryos in their mothers’ womb uttered a song? [Source: Halakhah.Com]

I do not intend to analyze all 19 pages of the psak. However, when making a ruling that has implications for a significant segment of the population, it would be appropriate to address the consequences upon those affected, i.e. the actual women and babies involved. Rabbi Katz’s analysis makes it seem like this is issue solely related to touching or viewing a sex-related organ.

As Amanda Bradley wrote in a Facebook comment, “Not everything in the realm of Jewish life should be the subject of psak. Once there is a psak, there is a ‘right’ side and a ‘wrong’ side.” I am afraid that the response to this detailed argument will be to find sources supporting a ruling against breastfeeding in the synagogue. And I have no doubt that they can be found.

If the reasons that the issues weren’t raised in the past are sociological, what is the the sociological and societal impact of permitting women to breastfeed in the synagogue?

  • Encouraging young mothers to attend.
  • Mothers staying near older daughters, to guide them in prayers.
  • Maintaining decorum during prayer, because women don’t need to disturb others while exiting to tend to their babies.
  • Promoting health by encouraging breastfeeding.
  • Feeding babies in a comfortable place instead of a bathroom.
  • Babies not having to wait for their meals.
  • Discouraging harassment of mothers and babies. Mothers caring for their babies generally back off from conflict, so as not to upset the baby.

A discussion of these issues in the psika is relevant for anyone writing about the topic in the future. If RYK wants to be progressive by addressing women’s issues, I suggest seeing mothers and babies as people, and not merely as accessories to possible erva.

One final point: Alan Brill mentions in his blog post, “Finally, who is supporting breastfeeding in public? The clearest answer is a select percentage of millennials since they are of child birthing years.”  This insulting statement neatly dismisses legitimate Jewish concerns of young mothers, who are already marginalized enough in Orthodox Jewish life. Every religious ruling affects some groups more than others. Rulings about disabled children affect families with disabled children, and rulings about weddings affect people of marriageable age. Rabbis are supposed to care about the entire community, especially the vulnerable ones.

*Eruv: Boundary surrounding a residential area, to make it into a public area according to Jewish law, and thus allow carrying of objects from one home or building to another on the Sabbath. Carrying is prohibited, possibly, because it is a function of commerce.

You may also enjoy:

Nursing in the Ezrat Nashim

Breastfeeding in Public: The “Cringe” Factor

Rabbi Aviner: Breastfeeding in Synagogue Just Fine


  1. Ysoscher Katz says

    Thanks Hannah for adding your voice to the conversation. Your insightful comments are very useful in helping to move along this important conversation. Todah Rabban. Much appreciated.

    R. Ysoscher Katz

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