Historically, Jews have offered many explanations for miscarriage. Stories in the Talmud suggest some rather odd causes, such as a very strong wind (Gittin 31b) or stepping on fingernails that have been cast into the middle of the street (Niddah 17b). The Talmud also suggests that miscarriage is a punishment from God for committing the sin of inciting hatred among people (Shabbat 32b). Medieval Jews believed that a woman could miscarry because of excessive leanness or obesity, or as a result of exertion or taking a steambath.

In trying to protect themselves from miscarriage, Jewish women historically turned to charms, amulets, and prayers to gain God's protection. The Talmud records that women wore a stone called an even tekuma, a "preserving stone" (Shabbat 66b). Later writers suggest that the birthing stone described in the Talmud was an eagle stone, a stone that had a hollow space in it with a loose pebble. Because the stone had another stone within it, it was considered a "pregnant" stone, and thus protective against miscarriage. In addition to the preserving stone, we have historical records of pregnant women carrying with them different verses from Psalms written on parchment, including Psalm 116:6, "The Lord protects the simple; I was brought low, and God saved me," and Psalm 128:3, "Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine...."

Another folk custom, still observed by some women today, is to carry a piece of red thread that has been wrapped around Rachel's (the matriarch) tomb, which is located near Bethlehem. Rachel is connected with pregnancy and pregnancy loss because she pleaded with Jacob to have children and then died during childbirth while delivering Benjamin. A famous midrash about Rachel says that her tears have the power to cause God to act with grace toward Israel. Her connection with pregnancy and divine intervention thus make her a natural focus for prayers to prevent miscarriage. Because most women reading this […] will not make it to the tomb of Rachel, we have heard of "regular" red threads being carried by pregnant women, with the symbolic intention that they are threads from Rachel's tomb.

Carrying around psalms or red threads may seem antiquated to some, even heretical to those who see these things as amulets. Nevertheless, at the risk of being called idolaters, we suggest that you consider carrying in your pocket or in a necklace a prayer, a red thread, or even a stone that has personal meaning. While we obviously cannot say whether this will be effective in preserving your fetus, you may benefit from feeling that you are taking an active role in seeking your fetus's safety.

Another way Jewish women sought to protect their fetuses was through daily prayer. In 1786, Yehudit Kutshcer Coen of Italy received from her husband a gift of a prayer book to be used, "especially during her pregnancy, labor and birth, and purification from her (monthly) impurity." In her book Out of the Depths I Call to You: A Book of Prayers for the Married Jewish Woman, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin translates this eighteenth-century Italian prayer book. The following prayer is adapted from this collection. It is meant to be said every day of pregnancy during morning prayers at the conclusion of the Amidah (the central prayer of the morning service):

An 18th-Century Prayer for Every Day of Pregnancy

Lord of the Universe. Ruler of the Hosts, all creatures look
hopefully to You. In their time of trouble they look to You for
salvation. And even though I am not worthy to come before
You with my prayer, I harden my resolve and approach to
humbly place my request before You. Just as you remembered
Sarah, heeded Rebekah, saw Leah's sorrow, and did not forget
Rachel, just as You listened to the voice of all the righteous
women when they turned to You, so may You hear the
sound of my plea and send the redeeming angel to protect me
and to help me throughout my pregnancy.
In accordance with Your graciousness, save me from all
harm, sickness, hurt, disability, and pain. Be gracious to me so
that the child I carry not be malformed, and grant me an
unconditional gift from Your finest treasure trove. Listen to the
prayer that springs from the deepest recesses of my heart,
and let the child I bear within me be righteous, good, and proper.
Strengthen me and gird me so I shall not miscarry.
Be gracious unto me and listen to my prayer, for You listen to
the prayers of all who call upon You. Blessed be the One who
listens to prayers.

Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Pregnancy Book (Jewish Lights).

Sandy Falk, M.D., is a clinical instructor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Harvard Medical School and practices at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Rabbi Daniel Judson, spiritual leader of Temple Beth David of the South Shore in Canton, Massachusetts, is coeditor with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of The Rituals & Practices of a Jewish Life: A Handbook for Personal Spiritual Renewal (Jewish Lights).