Nursing versus Bottle-Feeding: A Halachic Analysis

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By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times

It is perhaps the issue that causes the most stress in regard to having a newborn child. Every parent wants what is best for their child. Yet sometimes, the difficulties and issues involving nursing are remarkably difficult to overcome. According to “The Informed Parent”, a research based best-selling book that incorporates the latest science on parenting, of those that began exclusively nursing their baby, only 19% are still doing so at six months. Clearly, these mothers need a strong support system, from husbands, to parents to in-laws as well as the general community around them. The support must be extended regardless of the decision.

In a 2004 survey of more than 500 mothers, over half agreed that “women are put under pressure to nurse their babies. 44% of those surveyed said that women who bottle feed are made to feel guilty about it.

What follows is a halachic discussion of three different areas. The first is Onaah – causing emotional pain to another. The second is the general obligations to provide support to others, and the third area are the Mitzvos involved in the matter – especially regarding the current medical studies.

ONAAH

There is a verse in VaYikra the import of which has been little understood. The verse is velo sonu Ish es amiso – Do not afflict one another” (VaYikra 25:17). The Mitzvah is generally called “Onaas Dvarim” or just plain “Onaah.” At times, making someone feel guilty about a decision can be a violation of this verse.
The violation is a very serious one. It is a Mitzvah that has also, somehow, fallen off the wayside. There is another prohibition called Onaas Mamom – monetary abuse. The Talmud (Bava Metziah 58b) quotes three sages who explain how the prohibition of Onaas Dvarim is by far more serious than the prohibitions of monetary abuse.

“But, we are doing this only to help!”

True, but nonetheless, it can still be a violation.

The Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 14:19) explains that Menashe, Yoseph’s son was punished for “finding” the goblet in Binyamin’s sack – even though he did so on his father’s instruction. He caused the Shvatim pain, they ripped their clothes in agony over the fate of Binyamin. The Midrash explains that Menashe’s portion of his inheritance was also ripped.

Rachel Imeinu, stole the Teraphim of her father Lavan. Her intent, of course, was absolutely proper – also only to help. She wished to wean her father off of his belief in worshipping idols. Yet the Zohar tells us (VaYeitzei 164b) that she did not merit to raise those whom she loved because she deprived her father of what he loved!

EVEN THROUGH INACTION

As an aside, the Chikrei Laiv (YD Vol. III #80) writes this prohibition could also be violated through inaction. For example, if someone recites a Mishebarach for a number of people but purposefully leaves one person out – he is in violation of this prohibition. A sad aspect of this prohibition is that violators are often unaware that that they are verbally abusing or causing pain. Often they may characterize the recipient of their statement, words or actions as “overly sensitive.”

Sometimes, there is a very thin line between proper parenting and Onaas Dvarim. This thin line must be navigated very carefully. At what point, do the comments turn from constructive parenting into a Torah violation of Onaas Dvarim? Often, people do not get the message unless the issue is made clear to them in no uncertain terms. Since that is the case, the issue is very pertinent – at what point is it Onaas Dvarim and at what point is it constructive criticism or constructive parenting?

The answer to this question depends upon the person’s response. The Torah in many places stresses the obligation for one to be intelligent, and to be able to accurately assess likely responses of people. This situation is no different. An accurate assessment of the person’s likely response must be made. If it is unlikely that a change will be effected, then further pressing the issue would be a violation of Onaas Dvarim.

IF ONE VIOLATES IT

What if one violated this prohibition? What must he do? The Talmud (Yuma 87a) tells us that there is an obligation to try to placate him – to undo the damage.

SUPPORTING THEIR DECISION

It is a Mitzvah incumbent upon every individual to love every member of Klal Yisroel, as it says, “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha.” Included in this mitzvah is showing support for another – especially when they need it. Anything that you would want others to do for you in Torah and Mitzvos you should do for them.

Indeed, the Meforshim explain that this Mitzvah applies in three areas: monetarily, physically, and spiritually. The Bialer Rebbe Shiurei Mevaser Tov Bava Kamma page 14 writes that by far the highest level of this is in building someone up spiritually and being supportive of him or her. This is, indeed, reflected in the verse (Yishayahu 41:6), “Ish es rayahu yaazoru ul’achiv yomar chazak – They help each other and say to their companions, ‘Be strong!’”

BENEFITS OF NURSING

Notwithstanding all of the above, there are remarkable benefits to nursing, and to doing so exclusively. Four months of nursing reduces the risk for respiratory infection hospitalization by 70%. Any nursing at all reduces ear infections by 25%. Any nursing at all reduces GI infections by 50%. It also reduces the risk of SIDS by 50%.

Going the extra yard, if possible, is a fulfillment of numerous Mitzvos in a better way.

There is a biblical mitzvah of taking safety precautions, as the verse states, “V’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem” (Devarim 4:15). Cleaning the bottle and using hot and sterile water also fulfills this Mitzvah.

Hashavas Aveidah. The verse in Parashas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:2) discusses the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, returning a lost object, with the words, “V’hasheivoso lo,” “and you shall return it to him.” The Gemara in Sanhedrin (73a), however, includes within its understanding of these words the obligation of returning “his own life to him as well.” For example, if thieves are threatening to pounce upon him, there is an obligation of “V’hasheivoso lo.” In other words, this verse is the source for the mitzvah of making the effort in saving someone’s life. It is highly probable that it is to this general mitzvah that the Shulchan Aruch refers in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 325. Both forms of feeding fulfills this Mitzvah.

‘V’chai Achicha Imach.’ The She’iltos (She’ilta #37), based upon the Gemara in Bava Metzia 62a, understands the words in Vayikra (25:36), “v’chai achicha imach,” “and your brother shall live with you,” to indicate an obligation to take steps to have others live with you. The Netziv in his HeEmek She’eilah understands it as a full-fledged obligation according to all opinions. Both forms of feeding fulfill this Mitzvah

BOTTLE FEEDING ALSO FULFILLS THESE MITZVOS

It should be noted that bottle feeding a baby also fulfills these Mitzvos as well, but nursing fulfills these Mitzvos in a slightly better way. We must recall, however, that we should never try to advocate a fulfillment of a Mitzvah in a better way if it will lead to causing someone Onaah – pain. Regardless, the Mitzvah of v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha directs us to support whatever way they choose.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com

3 COMMENTS

  1. If I understand the point of this article it is to not bully someone who chooses to bottle feed rather than nurse their infant because that would be Onaas Devarim.I think that this article severely under reports the benefits found in the scientific literature of nursing, to the health of both the child and the mother.I hope those in our community including doctors,camp directors,school administrators and the like, will apply this concept of Onaas Devarim to those of us who do not vaccinate our children as well. You should respect our decision and not kick us out of your practice,schools,or camp.This is especially true in light of the fraud and corruption that has been exposed at the CDC vaccine division by the Whistle-blower Epidemiologist William Thompson,the documentary “vaxxed” and by Robert Kennedy Jr. in his book and Documentary “Trace Amounts”.

  2. Are you actually saying that non vaccination is the same as bottle feeding?! Non vaccination has the potential to affect others, while feeding affects just the mother and child. While you are free to do what you like in your own home, if it does have far reaching ramifications other than you and yours, we have every right to make you feel bad for that choice. If you have no problems with possibly putting my child at risk, then what does that say?

  3. I don’t know where the author received his stats. No, nursing a baby rather than bottle feeding DOES NOT reduce the risk of SIDS (according to latest evidence based practice). Placing a baby “back to sleep” has reduced the risk of SIDS 50 percent (if you choose to believe all of the current studies). The other statements about a baby’s health are inaccurate as well. And how can one say that nursing is slightly better by way of doing the mitzva? What does that even mean? Is it a hidur?

    I admire the author for tackling this issue. Too many moms are being shamed for choosing not to nurse or for supplementing. There’s a new trend called “fed is best”. Let’s try have compassion for new moms and allow them to make the choices that are best for them.