Health Scan

Study: The sages knew a lot about breastfeeding.

breastfeeding 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
breastfeeding 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The positive emphasis given in the Talmud to breastfeeding is what is largely responsible for the tendency of haredi and even modern Orthodox women to breastfeed, and to do so longer than average, according to a new study by a Shaare Zedek Medical Center pediatrician writing in Breastfeeding Medicine. Prof. Arthur Eidelman, retiring head of the Jerusalem medical center's pediatric department, writes that Orthodox Jewish women are more likely to breastfeed than their secular counterparts regardless of their educational level, number of babies, smoking habits, employment, mode of delivery or medical condition. While it is true that religious women who don't use contraception may welcome the benefits of breastfeeding for helping space their pregnancies, Eidelman notes that the motivation is more basic. The Talmud - the nearly 2,000-year-old compendium of Jewish law - makes it clear that rabbinic authorities viewed breastfeeding as "the most natural and healthy form of infant feeding." The sages also "possessed a most sophisticated understanding of the physiology of breastfeeding, the dynamic psychology of maternal-infant bonding and the unique characteristics of breast milk." Obviously, there was too little medical knowledge two millennia ago to understand the origin of breast milk. Some rabbis believed (as did the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and physician Galen) that menstrual blood - which is not released from the uterus during most of the period of breastfeeding - was "transformed" into breast milk. Others thought the cessation of menstruation during pregnancy was due to the "disintegration" of women's internal sex organs, followed by the production of breast milk. Rav Ashi identified the critical postpartum period when a newborn could identify his or her own mother by relying on the unique smell and taste of her milk. The Talmud even recommends that women breastfeed their babies for two years, while some extended this to four or five (one should remember that powdered baby formulas were not available in ancient times, and that women who could not or did not want to breastfeed had their babies fed by wet-nurse surrogates or gave them milk from animals such as goats. The Talmud specifically states that breast milk is kosher for human consumption even though it is derived from a non-kosher "animal" (a human being) and is categorized as pareve (neither milk nor meat) so it can be mixed with all types of food. The rabbis of talmudic times were progressive enough to insist that lactating women get special maternity benefits such as an enlarged food allowance to cover her and her infant's increased nutritional needs; in addition, her work obligations, including housework, were reduced while she nursed. The rabbis also advised lactating women not to eat certain foods, such as unripe dates, moldy bread, excessive salt and sour milk so as not to affect their milk. TUBERCULOSIS AWARENESS The number of new tuberculosis cases diagnosed in Israel was 519 last year, down from 519 in 2004, according to the Health Ministry, which marked World Tuberculosis Day recently. The ministry organized two regional conferences to increase awareness of the disease, whose bacterial cause was discovered by Dr. Robert Koch in 1882. In that era, one in seven deaths in Europe and the US was the result of TB. Since then, more than 200 million people have died of the disease, which is still the most infectious in the world. Full recovery is possible only when the patient follows a rigorous six-month course of antibiotics. Because most patients feel much better after a short course, some prefer to stop the therapy, but this promotes bacterial resistance, as the strong ones survive. As a result, the ministry insists on a directly observed therapy, which requires patients to come to a clinic for drugs and to take their pills while being watched. PARTIES IGNORE TOBACCO ISSUES Although numerous polls have shown that the vast majority of the public - including many smokers - want strict enforcement of no-smoking laws, only a tiny minority of individual candidates for the 17th Knesset and the political parties bothered to voice their views on tobacco issues. Before the 17th Knesset elections, the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking sent e-mails to all candidates and party headquarters with a series of questions about tobacco. Among them was whether they supported the establishment of a National Authority for the War Against Smoking; if part of tobacco taxes should be allocated to the fight against smoking; if they support the lawsuit by health funds against tobacco companies for compensation for medical costs; if a fine should be levied on the owner of premises where illegal smoking takes place; and if they favored a ban on tobacco advertising in the print media. But despite repeated messages, none of the candidates in the three largest parties answered except for Labor-Meimad MK Michael Melchior. Candidates from the smaller parties who responded and voiced their support for the war against smoking were Zehava Galon, Mossy Raz, Haim Oren and Ran Cohen of Meretz, Pe'er Visner of the Green Party, representatives of Tafnit, and Ehud Ratzhabi of Shinui. The organizers expressed disappointment with the reluctance to relate to the major public health issue of smoking, and concern that Israel's tobacco lobby has "already gotten to them."