Science in the Torah

Does the Fetus Sense and Hear What is Happening Outside?

The prohibition of eating and drinking on Yom Kippur is well known to every Jew. Despite its severity, where there is a threat to life if one won’t eat (as is mentioned in the mishna in Yuma 8:5), it is not only permitted but it is a duty to eat.

One example of a possible risk to life mentioned in that mishna is:

“If her fetus smelled [food], we feed her until she feels better.” Rashi explains that her fetus smelled a cooked dish and desired it. If she won’t eat it, both of them will be in danger.”

This means that if a pregnant woman smelled a cooked dish and feels an inexplainable desire to eat of it, the Torah says that it is not her who desires it, but her fetus that picked up the smell and craves it.

Even more, the Talmud writes on this mishna (Yoma 82b): “It happened that there was a pregnant woman who smelled a cooked dish. People came before Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi to ask him what to do. He said to them: Go and whisper to her that it is Yom Kippur. They whispered to her and the woman calmed down, whereupon Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi cited about her the verse: “Before I formed you in the belly I knew you.” From her came forth R. Jochanan.[1]

“Another time, there was a pregnant woman who smelled a cooked dish, and people came to R. Hanina, who told them: Whisper to her that it is Yom Kippur. They whispered to her, but she was not calmed down so they had to feed her. R. Hanina cited with regard to her the verse: “The wicked are estranged from the womb” (Psalms 58:4). From her came forth Shabtai, who hoarded fruits [for speculation].”

We can imagine that over many generations, rational scientists who came across these words in the Talmud would have responded with astonishment mixed with irritation: “The fetus in his mother’s womb is just a developing glob of meat which lacks the abilities possessed by those who were born. How can you attribute to it knowledge of what is happening outside the womb and desires?! And anyway, how can it hear what was whispered into its mother’s ear? And calm down because of it?!?”

But our generation, due to the great advances made by science and the ability to notice the fetus’s behavior by ultrasounds and other listening and sensory devices, has suddenly discovered that the fetus is a full-fledged human capable of absorbing impressions and outside stimulation, and even remember them!

Here is a quote from the words of the known scientist Susan Schiffelbein in her book “The Incredible Machine”, National Geographic Society, fifth printing, 1994, pages 39 and 53:

“By twenty-four weeks the fetus demonstrates a most interesting neural development. During much of its sleeping time, it displays rapid eye movements, an indication of dreaming in children and adults.

“But they do hear sounds, transmitted through the mother’s abdominal wall. Fetuses of this age seem to respond to music — they blink their eyes and move, as though dancing to a beat.

“A new born baby displays some amazing behavior. It seems to harbor a memory of intrauterine sounds, such as the mother’s heartbeat. Tapes of a heart beat appear to make it cry less and gain more weight than usual. A baby seems to recognize music that its mother played frequently during pregnancy. Many of us seem to think that these complicated creatures burst into existence at birth, though all their abilities attest to an intricate evolution from the moment of conception.”


Today, we still do not possess the scientific tools to prove and explain exactly how the fetus picks up outside impressions and smells. But it is clear to us that the Creator of the universe who wrote this in the Torah and commanded us not to eat on Yom Kippur, taught us in His Torah all the necessary scientific information that we need to keep His commandments. He taught us that the fetus can smell and has cravings. Therefore, a fetus that smelled food on Yom Kippur and is not calm, has to be fed. If not, both it and it's mother’s lives are in danger, and a threat to life overrides fasting on Yom Kippur.

The sages also derived from this that the fetus can hear! When one whispered in the ears of the mother that today was Yom Kippur and she calmed down, it was a sign that her fetus had an inclination to the good and the positive. And if they whispered in her ear and she didn’t calm down, it was a sign that the fetus was inclined to the negative, because he clearly heard, understood, and still persisted!


If we are dealing with the fetus’s personality traits, we can now understand the midrash (Toldot 63:6) on the verse that speaks about Jacob and Esau when they were fetuses:

“And the children struggled within her, and she said, “If so, why am I like this?” And she went to inquire of the Lord.”(Gen. 25:22)

The Midrash explains: “When she passed by the entrances of the Torah academies of Shem and Eber, Jacob would be aroused and would struggle to come out; when she passed the entrance of a temple of idolatry, Esau would be aroused and would struggle to come out. As the verse says ‘The wicked are estranged from the womb.’”

This means that our sages knew by tradition that:

1. The fetus has an intuition or a special way to sense and know what kind of buildings are in its environment.

2. Repeated strong movements by the fetus when a mother passes by certain places — are not coincidental, and can teach us something about the fetus’s character.

3. As mentioned above, the fetus can hears outside sounds.

Science has managed today to discover the third fact above. We’ll wait patiently while it gradually advances to discovering the other facts above which the Creator taught us in His Torah.


[1]. He became the head of the Land of Israel Amoraim, the author of the Yerushalmi Talmud.



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