Tag Archives: Prayer

Making Babies: Is it Possible to Influence Gender?

Note: for the purposes of this article, the terms “gender” and “sex” are used interchangeably.

This week’s double parasha, Tazria-Metzora, begins with the laws of when “a woman conceives and gives birth to a male…” (Leviticus 12:2) The actual Hebrew wording here is ishah ki tazria, literally “when a woman gives seed”. Based on this, our Sages taught that if a woman “gives seed” first, the child will likely be male, whereas if a man “gives seed” first, the child will likely be female (Niddah 31a). How exactly is this to be understood?

The classic explanation is that if the woman climaxes first during intercourse, the child from that union is more likely to be male—and vice versa. Of course, this statement is not a guarantee, for there have surely been countless situations where this was not the case. Some say, therefore, it is only a segulah for having boys. A further issue with the statement is that, scientifically-speaking, while for the man the climax does coincide with “giving seed”, for a woman the emission of the ovum (egg) is not related to climax. A woman “gives seed” on a cyclical basis, roughly once per month. Having said that, there may be a scientific basis to our Sages statement after all.

In the 1960s, Dr. Landrum B. Shettles, one of the pioneers of in vitro fertilization technology, proposed a method for sex selection during conception. Physiologically, it is the male seed that determines the gender of the baby: sperm carrying a Y chromosome produce a male, while sperm carrying an X chromosome produce a female. (Eggs, meanwhile, always have an X chromosome.) The Y chromosome is significantly smaller than the X chromosome which would, together with other factors, make the “male” sperm lighter and faster than the “female” sperm. At the same time, male sperm are more fragile and less likely to survive the acidic conditions of the uterus.

A karyotype showing all 23 pairs of human chromosomes. Note the size of the Y chromosome compared to the X chromosome.

Based on this, to conceive a male, it is best to wait a few days so that the egg has travelled further down the fallopian tubes, allowing the male sperm to reach it faster, and before dying out. To conceive a female, it is best not to wait at all, and try to conceive earlier, while the eggs are deeper in the fallopian tubes, where male sperm are unlikely to reach. Shettles recommended that, if a couple desires a boy, they should start trying at ovulation time while if the couple wants a girl, they should try two or three days before ovulation. Ovulation is usually around Day 14 of the cycle.

Factoring in halakhah, if we add the seven clean days following menstruation, it generally comes to around Day 12 of the cycle. All other factors aside, this may favour the conception of a girl. Waiting a couple of days, meanwhile, might favour the conception of a boy. It is important to note that cycles vary; for some women ovulation might be a day or two earlier, or later. This may explain why some families have all girls, or all boys, for it is likely that conception always takes place on mikveh night, ie. at the same point in the cycle every time. Having said that, the Shettles Method is thought to be only 75% effective, and some studies say it isn’t effective at all, for there appear to be no major physiological differences between Y- and X-carrying sperm.

Intriguingly, the Shettles Method also recommends, as our Sages did, that a woman should climax first if the couple seeks a male child. This is because a woman’s uterine environment is acidic, but the secretions are actually more alkaline (basic), which diminishes some of that acid and makes it more likely for the male sperm to survive the journey.

The most significant factors are probably not biological at all, but spiritual. At the end of the day, God will send whichever gender is meant to be born. Thus, our Sages state that whoever is expecting a child and prays for a particular gender, “it is a vain prayer” (Berakhot 60a). However, Rav Yosef raises an objection to this statement, since we see in the Torah how Leah, after six boys, prayed for her next child to be a girl, the result being Dinah. It appears that praying for the desired gender does work! The Talmud resolves the contradiction with a Baraita:

The first three days [after intercourse], one should pray that the seed not putrefy. From the third day until the fortieth, one should pray that it will be male. From the fortieth day until three months, one should pray that it will not be deformed. From the third month until the sixth, one should pray that it will not be stillborn. And from the sixth month until the ninth, one should pray that it will be delivered safely.

So, one is permitted to pray for the desired gender of the child until the fortieth day of pregnancy. This is an incredibly precise scientific statement from our Sages, as today we know that the sex organs begin to form in the fetus around Day 42. While the chromosomes may have already determined the gender right at conception, God could certainly make a switch before Day 40 (who would know?) but after that point, the sex organs have begun to form and there is no going back. The Sages were also accurate regarding the putrefaction of the male seed, for today we know that sperm survives in the uterus for around three days, and no more than five days.

For the strict materialist-rationalist, there is nothing that can be done to select gender—it is just a game of chance, depending on which sperm penetrates the egg first. For the most pious person, there is no need to do anything either, for God knows best and it all depends on Above. Truly, it makes no difference, for each child is precious, and a miracle in its own right. I believe this is the deeper message behind our Sages’ debate on what is the ideal number of children that a couple should strive to have (Yevamot 62a):

Rabbi Natan taught: Beit Shammai say two males and two females, and Beit Hillel say a male and a female… It was alternatively taught [in a different Baraita]: Rabbi Natan said that Beit Shammai say a male and a female, and Beit Hillel say either a male or a female. Rava said: what is the reason? …as it is written: “He did not create it to be void; He formed it to be inhabited…” (Isaiah 45:18)

We are first given the most stringent opinion, that of Beit Shammai as expected, that a couple should ideally have two boys and two girls. At the end, we are given the most lenient opinion of Beit Hillel, the school of thought that Judaism is practically based on, which is that even a single boy or girl is enough to fulfil the mitzvah of reproduction. The Scriptural proof is a verse in Isaiah where the prophet quotes God as stating how He created the world to be full of life. The Sages are making an equivalence between the entire world and the birth of even a single child, which is enough to fulfil the mitzvah of populating the entire world. Each child is a world of his or her own and, as Abarbanel (1437-1508) comments on that verse in Isaiah, brings the world one step closer to the Final Redemption.


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Time, Gravity, and Free Will

This week’s parasha, Vayechi, begins with Jacob’s blessing to his grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim. Since Menashe is older, his father Joseph makes sure to place him on Jacob’s right. This way, Jacob can place his superior right hand on Menashe, and give him the special blessing reserved for the firstborn. However, Jacob crosses over his arms and lays his right hand on the head of Ephraim. Joseph protests and reminds his father who is the elder son: “Not so, father, for this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.” (Genesis 48:18) Jacob replies: “I know, my son, I know; he too will become a people, and he too will be great. But his younger brother will be greater than he…”

Traditionally, it is understood that the special blessing given to Ephraim would lead to his future rise in leading the Kingdom of Israel. Ephraim became the most populous tribe, and the seat of the powerful northern kingdom’s dynasty. Yet, a careful reading suggests we have the order mixed up. It appears that Ephraim did not become great because Jacob gave him a blessing; rather, Jacob gave him a blessing because he would become great! Jacob told Joseph that he is placing his right hand on Ephraim because the “younger brother will be greater”. That means Jacob foresaw Ephraim’s rise to greatness, and blessed him accordingly.

This might seem trivial, but it is of immense importance. It begs the question: Do the events of today cause the events of tomorrow, or are all the events from past to future already predetermined? Was it Jacob’s blessing that made Ephraim great, or was Ephraim already destined for greatness and Jacob—foreseeing it prophetically—just brings that fact to light? If the latter is the case, what purpose does the blessing even serve? Ephraim would be great regardless! It leads us to the bigger free will dilemma: If we have complete power to choose, and our decisions cause the events of tomorrow, then how can God (or His prophets) foresee the future? How could Jacob see Ephraim’s future greatness if Ephraim had yet to make those choices that led him to greatness? If he was going to be great anyway, did he really have a choice? Continue reading

Why Bow Left and Right at the End of Amidah?

This weekend we complete the yearly cycle of Torah readings with the final parasha, V’Zot HaBerakhah. Here we read Moses’ last words to the nation before his passing, starting with a blessing for each tribe of Israel. The prologue to the blessings introduces God as coming for Israel “from Sinai, and arising from Seir unto them. He shined forth from Mount Paran, and He came with holy myriads at His right, [to give] a fiery law to His people.” (Deuteronomy 33:2) The Sages use this verse as one of the supports for the practice of taking three steps back and bowing to each side when concluding the Amidah prayer. What is the connection between the two, and why do we take three steps and bow, anyway? Continue reading