On my way out of an important meeting, I work up the nerve to ask to use a private room. Moments later, I am sitting on the floor of a strange office, listening to the whoosh of the breast pump while staring at a crumpled and milk-stained picture of my daughter. So much for magazine images of a pastel-clad mother and baby snuggling in a rocking chair.

But later at home, I’m cuddling again with my daughter as she suckles her "dinner" with enthusiasm. I forget the weight of the Medela and transport myself into a Norman Rockwell painting of motherhood.

Contemporary women trying to have it all aren’t the first to have conflicted feelings about breastfeeding. Since biblical times, Jewish sources have described breastfeeding simultaneously as a beautiful nurturing act that cements the bond between mother and child, and as a burden that women would just as well pass off to hired help.

Just Another Chore?

The rabbis of the Talmud categorized breastfeeding as a chore that women did for their husbands, just like cooking dinner or sewing clothes. As such, wealthy women could escape this task:

These are the labors that the woman must perform for her husband: she grinds and bakes and launders, cooks and nurses her child; she arranges the bed and works in wool. If she brought him one maidservant, she does not grind and does not bake and does not launder; two (maidservants) and she does not cook and does not nurse her son; three (maidservants) and she does not arrange the bed and does not work in wool; four (maidservants) and she sits in an easy chair. (Mishnah, Ketubot 5:5)

baby breastfeedingBecause breastfeeding was considered a marital obligation, divorced women were no longer required to nurse their children. Instead, the father became responsible either for hiring a wet nurse or for paying the mother to nurse. However, the rabbis worried that a baby old enough to recognize his or her mother would refuse milk from a stranger, and would starve as a result.

In one startling Talmudic story, a divorced woman appeals for permission not to nurse her child. In order to determine whether the baby recognizes her, the rabbi deciding the case carries the child through a line-up of women. When the baby sees his mother, his face lights up. The mother turns away, but not before the rabbi notices the child reaching for his mother. The rabbi instructs the woman to take the child, and to accept payment for continuing to nurse him.

On the Bright Side

Jewish sources do not see breastfeeding only as an onerous chore. Some texts even portray breast milk as the stuff of miracles. One midrash (rabbinic interpretation of the Bible) imagines the gossip that ensues when the biblical Sarah gives birth to a child when already in her nineties. According to this text, Sarah's neighbors whisper that the baby really belongs to the maidservant. In response, “Sarah stood up and undressed, and her two breasts were spraying milk like two spouts of water.” (Pesikta Rabati 43) Amazed at the miracle, the neighbors bring their own children to drink from Sarah's milk. According to one version of this midrash, all converts for the rest of history are descended from the children who nursed at Sarah's breast. Sarah’s milk, according to this text, has the power to make Jewish souls.

The mythical power of breastfeeding is nowhere more evident than in biblical and rabbinic portrayals of God nursing the Jewish people. In the Book of Isaiah, God promises to console the people “as a mother comforts her son.” Even more explicitly, the rabbis compare the manna that the Israelites eat during their 40 years of wandering to the milk with which a mother feeds her child:

Just as with the breast, which changes to take on many tastes, so too the manna turned into whatever food they wanted. Just as with the breast, the baby suffers when s/he separates from it, so too Israel suffered when separating from the manna. (P’sikta Zutarta Bamidbar Behalot’kha)

The ancient prophets and rabbis may not have imagined a women lugging around a laptop and a pump. But they definitely understood that the miraculous act through which a woman gives her child comfort, nutrition, and even Torah can also be a whole lot of work.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She lives in New York with her husband, Guy, and their daughter Lior.