Science in the Torah
The Fetus: I Can Hear Everything You’re Saying
In addition to their knowledge of the desires and abilities of a fetus, the Sages also knew that a fetus could hear and even understand
The prohibition against eating and drinking on Yom Kippur is widely known among the Jewish people. Yet there are times, such as in cases where fasting endangers a person’s life, that it is permissible, and even obligatory to eat.
One example of such a danger is mentioned in the following Mishnah:(1) “A pregnant woman smells [the food] and they feed her until she comes back to herself.” Rashi explains that it is not actually the woman who is hungry, but the fetus in her womb that senses the food via the mother and longs to eat. If the mother refrains from eating, she may put both herself and her baby in danger.
The Talmud following this mishnaic passage further teaches:(2)
“Once there was a pregnant woman who smelled [food] on Yom Kippur. They came before Rabbi Yehuda the Prince and asked him what to do. He told them: ‘Go whisper in her ear that today is Yom Kippur; perhaps she will be able to hold herself back’ They whispered [in her ear] and the baby’s hunger ended and the woman calmed down. Rabbi Yehudah the Prince applied this biblical verse to that baby: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you’ (Jeremiah 1:5).
Rabbi Yochanan (who became the leader of the Amoraim – Talmudic Sages – in the Land of Israel and the redactor of the Jerusalem Talmud) was born from that woman.
Once there was another pregnant woman who smelled [food] on Yom Kippur and they came before Rabbi Chaninah and asked him what to do. He said to them: ‘Whisper in her ear that today is Yom Kippur.’ They whispered [in her ear] but she did not calm down, so they fed her. Rabbi Chaninah applied this biblical verse to that baby: ‘The wicked are estranged from the womb’ (Psalms 58:3). Shabbtai ‘King of Fruits’ [who would hoard produce in order to price gouge] was born from that woman."
In other words, it was possible in these instances to judge the babies’ future personality and characteristics based on their behavior in the womb.(3)
One can imagine that if scientists across the generations had known of these Talmudic teachings, they would have responded with arrogance and dismay, saying something like: “A baby in its mother’s womb is merely a chunk of slowly developing flesh without any of the characteristics it will develop after birth. How can you say that it knows what is happening outside of the womb!? Can it hear whispers in its mother’s ear? And can this even calm it down!?”
But thanks to advances in modern science, we are now able to observe the behavior of fetuses in the womb using ultrasound equipment, X-ray machines, and other devices, all of which reveal that babies in the womb are not only able to process information from outside their mothers, but are even able to remember this information after they are born!
Here is a summary of the research of scientists exploring the issue of fetal awareness – psychologists Dr. Janet DiPietro of John Hopkins University, Dr. William Fifer of Columbia University, and Dr. Heidelise Als of Harvard University:(4)
Already in the initial weeks of pregnancy the fetus shows advanced functions in its nervous system. At the age of nine weeks it responds to sudden noises. Yet when these noises are repeated, the fetus gets used to the stimulus and relaxes. At the age of twelve weeks the fetus already opens its hands, hiccups, stretches, and yawns.
According to the research of these experts, it is also possible that a fetus of twenty-four weeks is able to dream, because during at least part of the time that it sleeps, it demonstrates rapid-eye movement, similar to those of a dreaming adult.
Furthermore, a fetus at this age apparently responds to music as well, squinting and moving to the rhythm of the sound it hears. The fetus also distinguishes between the voice of its mother and the voices of strangers, and can even distinguish between the voices of several strangers. In general, fetuses respond in a more relaxed manner to stimuli that are familiar to them. They are calmed by the sound of their mother’s voice – especially when she speaks in her native language rather than a foreign tongue! A fetus responds more positively to stories that have been read to it several times than to stories that it has never heard before. Finally, when a mother suddenly enters a well-lit area, the fetus registers the change in lighting.
The reliability of these findings is supported by studies performed on babies after they were born, which prove that they retain their experiences in the womb. They recall music that their mothers played for them regularly during pregnancy, and they differentiate between stories read to them while they were in the womb and those that were not.
While many of us might still believe that these complex creatures only begin their actual existence from the moment of birth, the facts all suggest that birth is only a continuation of a miraculous process started in the womb, long before a child is born.
Today there are still no scientific or technological tools capable of proving or explaining exactly how the fetus can register the smell of food from outside of the womb. However, we are certain that the Creator of the World, who commanded us not to eat on Yom Kippur, implanted in His Torah all of the knowledge necessary to observe His commandments properly. Thus, because the Talmud states that the fetus smells and has a sense of hunger, we allow the mother to eat on Yom Kippur, in order to preserve both her life and that of her unborn child; for the commandment of saving a life overrides that of fasting on Yom Kippur.
Furthermore, in addition to their knowledge of the desires and abilities of a fetus, the Sages also knew that a fetus could hear and even understand! When people whispered in the mother’s ear that the day was Yom Kippur and the fetus was calmed, they knew that it was destined for a good future. Whereas, when they whispered in the mother’s ear and the fetus did not calm down, they took it as a bad sign of the baby’s personality; for on some innate level, it surely heard, understood and decided what to do. This remarkable phenomena, as yet undocumented by science, reflects another teaching of the Sages – that an unborn infant has a high degree of spiritual awareness, which becomes concealed from its consciousness upon birth.
These revelations about the nature of the fetus shed light on a midrashic teaching concerning the biblical story of Rebecca and the twins who fought in her womb: “And the children strove in her womb and she went to God to ask how this could be” (Genesis 25:22). In the words of the Midrash:(5)
"Whenever Rebecca walked by a house of worship and study,(6) Jacob struggled to get out. Thus it says: 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you' (Jeremiah 1:5). And when she passed by houses of idolatry, Esau struggled to get out. So says the verse: 'The wicked are estranged from the womb' (Psalms 58:4)."
In other words, the Sages had an oral tradition that a fetus has a special sense and knowledge of the world around it. Based upon this, perhaps we can say that sharp fetal movements, reoccurring whenever the mother passes by a certain place, actually tell us something about the nature of the fetus itself.
As to the idea that the fetus hears voices from beyond the womb, it is worth noting that science has come to this conclusion on its own. In the meantime, we will wait patiently for more developments to emerge that will surely prove what we have already learned from the Creator of the World in His Torah.
Notes and Sources
(1) Mishnah Yomah8: 5.
(2) BT Yomah 82b.
(3) It is important to emphasize that this story does not contradict the principle of free will: Even though each person is born with unique characteristics and tendencies for good or for evil, he is also born with unique strengths that allow him to deal with life’s trials – as long as he is willing to face the challenges placed before him. God never gives a person a challenge that he cannot overcome. Thus, a person born with a natural attraction to members the same sex cannot claim to be unable to change. Any person can find the strength to handle this challenge. Otherwise God never would have created him as He did, this tendency being forbidden by the Torah (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13).
(4) Material cited by Janet L. Hopson, Psychology Today, October 1998; In addition, see Aryeh Nir, ed. The Human Body – The Amazing Machine (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv; Maariv, 1989) p. 39, 52.
(5) Bereshit Rabbah 63:6.
(6) Although this biblical episode occurred before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, tradition states that even in the era of the Patriarchs, there were houses of worship and study in the monotheistic tradition, as had been passed down from Adam to Noah to Abraham.