Birth and Breslov

Birth and Breslov: Living Rebbe Nachman’s Teachings (Reprinted from Expecting Miracles: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Pregnancy through Judaism)

Read how the teachings of the founder of Breslov Chassidism, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), have enriched Yehudis Golshevsky’s birthing experiences:

Yehudis Golshevsky would be happy to hear from you with questions and comments at yehudisg@013.net

Preparations for the Birth: Personal Experiences

As a woman who has been through several pregnancies and births, I find myself in agreement with the conventional wisdom of childbirth preparation. Prenatal healthcare, a proper diet, stress reduction, and exercise are of course all excellent guidelines. The preparations that Breslov teachings suggest, however, go much deeper than that, and they compel us to delve more deeply into ourselves. They help us become more attuned to the spiritual and supra-personal nature of birth—in other words, how childbirth affects and reflects our own spiritual growth, and its significance as a living universal metaphor.

One could say, then, that birthing in a way consistent with Rebbe Nachman’s teachings might mean spending time during pregnancy actively studying his lessons that relate to birth. They provide a focus for our prayer during pregnancy, and can later become the wellspring of insights we draw upon during birth. Between contractions, during contractions, the mental images that arise from those teachings become the stuff of our birth meditation and visualization. What’s more, Rebbe Nachman’s teachings provide us with practical guidance—real things to do during birth for the woman, her husband, and her loved ones—that help us through the process and keep us focused on the sacred nature of birth

Effect of Our Behavior on Fetus

A contemporary leader of Breslov Chassidim has said that pregnant women must bear in mind how their thoughts, emotions, and actions influence the children that they carry.[1] If, as Rebbe Nachman teaches, a nursing mother must think pure thoughts to ensure that the milk she feeds her baby instills a holy and pure nature in her child, certainly a pregnant woman is no different.[2 The fetus is a living part of her, and all that she sees, does, feels, and thinks during pregnancy has an effect on the adult this baby will grow to be.

Our emotional states can also have a pronounced effect on the birth itself. Rebbe Nachman teaches that, “Anger makes a woman have a difficult labor.”[3 Since that is the case, working on one’s anger is yet another level of childbirth preparation—one that I have found to be the most challenging of all.

Charity During Birth

Charity Opens the Womb

Rebbe Nachman teaches that, “Commandments, good deeds, and all aspects of serving G–d are like birth. Before the birth, how many contractions, how much crying out, does the birthing woman have to go through before she actually gives birth! Particularly, a woman having her first child…it is most difficult for her…for all beginnings are difficult.” This particular lesson then discusses the actions that facilitate this physical opening of the womb as well as the opening of our own hearts and minds to serve G–d at a higher level. “Giving charity is always the beginning as in, ‘You will surely [give] openly to him.'[1] [The Torah’s words—“patoach tiftach”—literally mean “you will open an opening.”] For even when an opening and a beginning already exists, giving charity widens the opening even more.”[2]

Although Rebbe Nachman stresses here the opening effect that giving charity has when we begin a new spiritual endeavor, we must not lose sight of the fact that he discusses the concept within the metaphorical framework of birth. This means that giving charity during labor has a dilating effect on the womb itself. This giving has to be conscious, however. It has to be done with a deep faith in the power of the giving. If I hold money in my hands, I must make sure to give it freely, with both hands.[3] I have to close my eyes and offer a silent prayer, “Hashem, please allow this act of giving, of opening, to help open my womb.” The mind’s knowledge, the hands’ giving, and the prayer then converge to awaken a parallel opening within.

Even when the birthing woman has moved past the point in her labor where she feels she can actively give, her husband and loved ones can continue to give charity in her merit. Reb Nosson, Rebbe Nachman’s closest disciple, clearly states that acts of selfless giving are the main way in which the “closed mem” [sealed–up space] of the womb is transformed into two “dalets” [two doors] that open wide.[4] Interestingly, the Hebrew word for contractions [“tsirim”] is identical to the Hebrew word for “hinges.” This, too, is a possible image for visualization during the birth. With each contraction, the “hinges” of the womb open more and more.[5] Selfless giving, then, is the “key” that can open the doors of the womb. When I told this to a friend (also a mother), she said: “That makes sense. Selfless giving is a lot of what parenting is about too.”

The Power of Dancing, Singing, and Clapping during Labor

Birth, throughout Chassidic and Kabbalistic sources, is considered a time of “dinim” [judgements] and should be dealt with using the tools that mitigate judgements at other times as well. Some possibilities are dancing, hand–clapping[6], and perhaps most importantly, giving “redemption” money to a Tsaddik [righteous person] with the laboring woman’s name so that he will intercede on her behalf in the heavenly courts.[7]

During labor, I have felt as though my husband’s praying, dancing, and clapping has been a path running sometimes parallel, sometimes flush with and overlapping, my own road to meet the children. I really don’t know what the midwives made of the man in black who danced and cried with a Book of Psalms behind the curtain, but I could feel him working in his own way to get those babies out. During the birth of our second child, we sang the songs of the end of the Sabbath together (I was the one singing in an undertone), and finished them just before I went into transition. I do not believe that I had ever, or have ever since, felt their yearning, their beauty and power, as intensely and personally as I did then.

Crying Out During Birth
“Sometimes, when one’s G–dly awareness and the flow of Divine abundance is hidden, as if they were in gestation, then crying out is good for a person. It is good whether the crying out is in prayer or in Torah study…This is like a woman who is too exhausted to finally push the baby out. When she crouches to push, she cries out ‘seventy cries’ (the number of words in Psalm Twenty). She then gives birth…Hashem, who knows the hidden matter of where one’s G–dly awareness is hidden, hears our cries.”[1] The release of crying out in prayer to G–d during birth is like the crying of the Shechina [Divine Presence] and it awakens G–d’s mercy.

The child, this completely new revelation of G–dly awareness, is born into the world by virtue of the same crying out that opens the way for all new knowledge of G-d to come into being. “Every Jewish soul is a new revelation, a new element of knowledge of the One Who spoke and created the universe. For this is a general principle, that Hashem never makes the same thing twice…even reincarnated souls do not come back in exactly the same spiritual configuration as they did at first… Every time a new Jewish soul comes into the world, then, an entirely new spiritual intellect comes into being.”[2]

If we keep this in mind during birth, then our crying out becomes part of the universal cry of longing to see more clearly, to know G–d more intimately. It expresses our yearning to understand G–d’s ways at an entirely new and more complete level. It is an exercise of faith, and strengthens our faith.


Faith and Gratitude

Rebbe Nachman teaches that one should recite psalm 100 (“Mizmor li’Todah”) for a woman in childbirth. The deep reasoning underlying this piece of advice is too complex to address fully here.[1] At its core, the teaching where we find this advice is about recognizing the difference between product (the result of our efforts) and process (the efforts themselves). It is about looking at all the various ups and downs of our lives, the multiplicity of apparent causes and effects, without losing sight of the Single Source from which they all derive.

What many women find most challenging about birth is its demand that we relinquish control and accept that G-d is orchestrating the process. Like life, childbirth is a lesson in accepting our limitations, and shatters the illusion that we control the situations in which we find ourselves. It is as though G-d insists that we learn to let go of our attachment to seeing the results we want, when we want them, and allow Him to guide us through the process of expending pure effort instead. Birth can then become a lens through which we view our own lives more maturely, more honestly. Moreover, when we recite “Mizmor li’Todah” [A Song of Thanks] during labor, we learn to give thanks for the entire journey with all its challenges, regardless of where it takes us. This thanksgiving is the essence of faith.

During my last birth, after six hours of “no progress,” I stood at the wall and said so softly that only G–d and I could hear, “Hashem [G-d], You are in this with me. This baby will be born exactly when and how You want it to. I am entrusting myself to Your Hands, and I will be strengthened by relinquishing my control over what is happening here.” Then I went from seven centimeters to full dilation in one very long, very intense, contraction. “The main thing that alleviates difficulty in childbirth is faith. That is why prayer is so crucial, and why we find it customary among Jews to pray for a woman having a difficult birth. Prayer is an aspect of faith.”[2]

Kabbalistic and Chassidic texts are full of the image of the Chalal HaPanui [Vacated Space]—the “primordial vacuum” that existed before the Creation. It is the space that left room for Creation to come into being, in which G–d creates the illusion that He is absent. It is from this illusion, this apparent vacuum, that heresy draws its life–force. G–d, however, is indeed in that space, since “there is no place devoid of Him.”[3] The womb is the physical manifestation of that place, and birth becomes the gateway through which we find G–d in all the places where He seems to hide from us. I have found that birth can be the most powerful spiritual experience that there is, because it is the physical reliving of the primal birth of G–dly awareness. It is the birth of the universe, the playing out of the saga of the exile and redemption of the Jewish people. It is the birth of a new world of knowledge of Hashem.

“That is why Mizmor li’Todah is particularly effective when said on behalf of a woman who is having a difficult labor. The psalm speaks of faith: ‘Know that Hashem is G–d,’ and ends off with, ‘His faith endures from generation to generation.’ For faith is mainly renewed and strengthened from generation to generation, by bringing down new souls. Each one is a distinct aspect of new awareness of G–dliness—and that is what can alleviate any difficulty in childbirth.”[4]

Reb Nosson’s Prayer [5] (A traditional Breslov prayer for a birthing woman)

May You be filled with mercy for all the women who are laboring right now, and save them from all pain and harm (especially “woman’s name the daughter of mother’s name”). Master of the universe, You are always full of great mercy, You know her pain and suffering, You know her heart and the hearts of her parents and all those who are suffering along with her. See their poverty and their travail, see their pain. May Your powerful and hidden mercy be awakened for this poor woman who is on the birthing stool, whose heart is downcast and broken. Open the gates of mercy and lovingkindness for her, the gates of pity and compassion. Open the gates of birth for her, and in Your great mercy, open the “closed mem” of her womb that encloses the fetus, the “mem” that parallels the “mem” [forty] days during which the fetus was formed. In Your great lovingkindness, open this “closed mem” and transform it into two “dalets.” Then, in Your great and true mercy, the doors of this poor laboring woman’s womb will open. Help her to give birth immediately, with ease, without any further difficulty. Say to the angel, “Stay your hand!” You who say to Your universe, “Enough!” say “Enough” to her pain! You are full of kindness and do so much good, have pity and mercy. Act with her in accordance with Your great kindness. Open the doors of birth for her immediately, without any further disruption or delay. For she has already suffered so much pain and bitterness, she cannot bear any more. You do kindness that we can understand to be kindness too, grant us an undeserved favor and do not delay her birth any longer. Help her and save her in Your mercy, that the hinges and doors of her womb will open immediately. May she give birth right away, easily, without any more pain at all—rather only with great mercy, pity, and kindness. And may the child emerge into the atmosphere of this world to a good life, to peace, and long and good days and years. Amen.

[1] See Likutei Moharan II:2 in its entirety with the commentary of Torat Natan for a more complete treatment of the subject.

[2] Torat Natan II:2:11

[3] Sha’arei HaLeshem II:14, “Mishnat Chochmat HaEmet”

[4] Torat Natan, ibid

[5] Likutei Tefillot I:30, final paragraph

[1] Likutei Moharan I:21:7

[2] Likutei Halachot, Hilchot Tefillin 5:31

[1] Devarim 15:

[2] Likutei Moharan II:4:2

[3] Sefer HaMiddot, Tzedaka I:27

[4] See the notes following Likutei Tefillot I:30

[5] “Just as a house has hinges…and doors, so too does a woman’s body have hinges…doors…and a key.” [Bechorot 45a]

[6] Likutei Moharan I:10:6. Dancing and handclapping are expressions of spontaneous joy and egolessness (in the sense that a person who is concerned with how others see her rarely breaks out into the kind of silly dancing that is traditionally Jewish). That state of humility mitigates judgements. Rav Berland has explained that this works because dinim, not unlike conventional subpoenas, are only served to the person to whom they apply. When a person’s ego become nullified through dancing, it is as though she no longer exists. Hence, no din.

[7] See Likutei Moharan I, lessons 10:1, 180, and 215.

[1] Oral teaching heard from Rabbi Eliezer Berland, shlit”a.

[2] Likutei Moharan II:1:

[3] Sefer HaMiddot, Ka’as 4

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