The Ten Commandments
A book by Joseph Lewis
The Fourth Commandment
... chapter continued from previous file ...
The Wife and the Sabbath
If this Fourth Commandment is read carefully, a significant omission will be noted: the wife is not included among the persons particularly and specifically mentioned as those who should not labor on the Sabbath!
This Commandment tells us that not only was the seventh day of the week "blessed" and "hallowed" by God, and that it should be kept holy in honor of the Lord, but "in it thou shalt not do any work, nor thy son nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor the stranger that is within thy gates." But not thy wife -- why? Why was she put in a class below that of the beasts of burden?
For the answer, it is necessary to understand the position of women in early Hebrew society. In those days a woman was considered, if she was considered at all, to be of little value and deserving of little consideration. Had she not been cursed by God? Was she not the means of bringing sin into the world? The wife was therefore not only excluded from observing certain religious tenets, but she herself was taboo as far as sacred things were concerned. To have included the wife in this Commandment would have violated the taboo placed upon woman as a polluting agent when associated with sacred things. [*91]
Among the Hebrews of Biblical times, the "Congregation of the Children of Israel" meant the men only; women were not included. They were not permitted to take part in religious ceremonies for fear that they would pollute the sacred portals of worship. [*92]
The most important daily prayer uttered by a pious Israelite is, "Blessed art thou, O Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a woman." Considering the status of woman among the early Hebrews, one can well understand this profuse thanks and appreciation for not being an abject, despised and polluted creature.
One can get an idea of the multitude of restrictions placed upon women in Hebrew ritual from the recent announcement of the Rabbinical Association of the Hebrew Theological College that a committee was named to frame the necessary procedure to bring to an end the two-thousand-year-old taboos against women's participation in religious ceremonies and handling sacred articles. [*93]
The lower the scale of human society, the more degraded is the position of woman, and the more despicable is she in the eyes of the male who believes that she was created solely for his sexual satisfaction, to be disposed of and discarded at his pleasure. In many preliterate cultures, Professor Wilson D. Wallis found that women were not only forbidden to use sacred articles, but were even denied the knowledge that they existed.
A Hindu woman may not read the Veda, nor worship a Vedic deity, nor is she permitted to touch the sacred images.
During certain periods of Shinto worship in Japan, women were forbidden to pray before the miya, make offerings, touch the sacred vessels, or kindle the lights of the Mami. [*94] Greek women were not allowed to swear by Hercules and participate in the worship at his altar. They were also not permitted to touch the Temple of Juno. [*95]
In Cairo, women are not only forbidden to pray with the congregation in the mosque, but they may not even be in the mosque during religious services.
In Haiti, voodoo women may not enter the chamber set aside for the worship of the native god. Tucano women may not look upon the god Yurupari. When the Edo of southern Nigeria are about to bring out the sacred drum, they shut all doors and with loud noises warn the women to keep away.
Among the Yahuna and other tribes of Brazil, women are not allowed to see the flutes which the men use at festivals to celebrate the ripening of fruits. The death penalty is invoked on those who out of curiosity violate this taboo. [*96]
The women of the hill tribes near Rajmahal may not sacrifice or appear at shrines, or take part in the religious festivals. Todas women may not approach enclosures where the sacred cattle are kept. Among the Chuvashes, women dare not assist at sacrifices. In the Sandwich Islands, women are not allowed to share in worship or festivals, and their touch "pollutes" offerings to the gods. In the Tongo and the Fiji Islands, women are not allowed in places of worship, though dogs are permitted to enter. The Arabs of Mecca will not allow women to receive religious instruction because "it would bring them too near their masters." If a Hindu woman touches an image, its divinity is destroyed and it must be thrown away. [*97] In the Tahiti and the Society Islands, a wife may not touch a sacred object that belongs to her husband. [*98] In Africa, Bayeye women may not enter the place of sacrifice, though this is the center of tribal life. Among the Gallas, women may not go near the sacred woda tree where worship is celebrated. [*99]
The reason for all these prohibitions against woman lies in the fact that what the primitive mind could not understand, it feared. These taboos are directly traceable to woman's "mysterious" sexual functions, which both awed and revolted the male. He believed that they were the cause of her physical inferiority. That, together with the belief that her touch at certain times was polluting, resulted in her subjugation to the physically stronger and "cleaner" male.
There is a definite connection between the taboo against the wife in this Commandment and her periods of menstruation. From the Bible itself comes the most convincing testimony for the reasons for the taboo being placed upon women so as to avoid their contaminating holy and sacred things. The exclusion of women from this Commandment also places the culture of the early Hebrews in the category of primitive and superstitious peoples. I quote Leviticus, Chapter 15, verses 19 to 31:
19. And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.
20. And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean.
21. And whosoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.
22. And whosoever toucheth any thing that she sat upon shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.
23. And if it be on her bed, or on any thing whereon she sitteth, when he toucheth it, he shall be unclean until the even.
24. And if any man lie with her at all, and her flowers be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days; and all the bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean.
25. And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days out of the tune of her separation, or if it run beyond the time of her separation; all the days of the issue of her uncleanness shall be as the days of her separation: she shall be unclean.
26. Every bed whereon she lieth all the days of her issue shall be unto her as the bed of her separation: and whatsoever she sitteth upon shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her separation.
27. And whosoever toucheth those things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.
28. But if she be cleansed of her issue, then she shall number to herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean.
29. And on the eighth day she shall take unto her two turtles, or two young pigeons, and bring them unto the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
30. And the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for her before the Lord for the issue of her uncleanness.
This primitive superstition regarding the function of woman was made part of the ritual and law of the Children of Israel. Her physical condition was looked upon as a curse from God, and fear of contamination became an obsession. Naturally, a menstruous woman was taboo on the Sabbath. Not only was everything that she touched made "unclean," but "everything that she lieth upon ... everything that she sitteth upon ... whoever toucheth her bed ... whoever toucheth anything that she sat upon ... shall be unclean." Under such conditions, how could she possibly participate in the observance of so sacred a day as the Sabbath without corrupting it? Since it was obviously impossible for any woman to avoid her "uncleanness" on the Sabbath, she was forbidden to participate in observing this sacred day solely to prevent its contamination by her. "Ye shall separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness ... unless ... they defile my tabernacle." [*100]
Even the Talmud refers to the taboo associated with a menstruating woman, and the dread with which she is held when in that condition. It is related that when a woman meets a snake on the road, it is enough for her to say, "I am menstruating," and the reptile will glide away hastily. [*101] According to the Talmud, if a woman at the beginning of her period passes between two men, she causes one of them to die; if she passes between them at the end of her period, she only causes them to quarrel violently.
This belief concerning a menstruous woman was not confined only to the early and uncultured Hebrew; it prevailed in many societies and is mentioned in many "sacred" books.
The Persian lawgiver, Zoroaster, who claimed to have received his code direct from the mouth of the Supreme Being, Ahura Mazda, says that a menstruous woman is the work of Ahriman, the devil. Therefore, as long as a woman is in that condition, she is unclean and possessed of the demon; she must be kept apart from the faithful whom her touch would defile. The Zoroastrian religious books enter into minute details. The very glance of a menstruous woman was regarded as polluting anything upon which it fell. Hence, a menstruating woman must not look upon a fire, or upon water, or converse with any man. No fire was to be kindled in the house during that period.
Among the Gonds it was believed that the greatest evils would befall anyone who looked at a woman during her state of impurity, and the Nayar women cannot enter a sacred place in such a condition. [*102] Among the Kamar, when a woman is menstruating, no man belonging to the same household can enter the temple or perform any act of worship until he is "purified." [*103]
Among the Veddas of Travancore, the wife, during her monthly periods, is secluded for five days in her hut. [*104] In Queensland, menstruous women are "unclean," and no one will touch a dish which they have used. A Brahman must not allow himself to be touched by a menstruous woman, or even to eat food offered by her.
Among the Eskimos, women are regarded as dangerously contagious during menstruation; they must have their own cups and dishes, which men must be careful not to use or touch. Among certain tribes of Indians, while a woman is menstruating, she is the very incarnation of evil, a plague to be avoided at all costs. Among the Bribri Indians of Costa Rica, a menstruating woman must not use any household utensil, but must make shift with banana leaves, which are afterwards carefully buried, for it is believed that if a cow should happen to eat such a leaf, it would die. The Macusi of Guiana believe that women and girls, while menstruating, are impure and would be attacked by snakes if they went into the forest. The vessels which they use are directly broken, and the shreds and pieces carefully buried. [*105]
Among the Guayquiry of the Orinoco, it is believed that whatever a menstruous woman steps on or touches will wither and die, and that if a man treads where she has been, his legs will swell. The Visayans of the Philippine Islands believe that if a menstruous woman comes in contact with fishing nets, they will no longer catch fish, weapons will no longer be efficient, and fighting cocks will no longer be able to fight. [*106]
Like many Indians, the Uganda believe that weapons touched by a menstruating woman would cause them to lose their value and that the owners would be killed the next time they attempted to use them. Among the North American Indians, everything that was touched by the hand of a menstruous woman was deemed ceremonially unclean, and if she crossed the path of a hunter or warrior, he would have no luck that day. [*107] The Stseelis Indians of British Columbia imagined that if a menstruous woman stepped over a bundle of arrows, the arrows would thereby be rendered useless and might even cause the death of their owner; if she passed in front of a hunter who carried a gun, the weapon would never shoot straight again. [*108]
The peasants of Lebanon think that menstruous women are the cause of many misfortunes and that their shadows cause flowers to wither and trees to perish. [*109]
The Menangkabau of Sumatra believe that if a woman goes near a rice field while she is menstruating, the crop will fail. In the wine districts of Bordeaux and the Rhine, women, when menstruating, are strictly forbidden to approach the vats and cellars, lest the wine should turn to vinegar. A similar taboo prevails in the sugar refineries where sugar is boiling or cooking, for fear it will turn black. [*110] Similar superstitions, too numerous to mention, prevail among all types of people. [*111]
The Orang Belenda believe that contact with a menstruous woman will deprive a man of sexual strength. It is stated that an Australian native killed his wife when he discovered that she had used his blanket while menstruating.
During the time of Maimonides, it was the common custom of the women of the East during their periods to be kept in a separate house, and to burn everything upon which they had trodden. A man who spoke to such a woman, or who was merely exposed to the same wind that blew over her, became thereby unclean.
In Australia, among the Pennefather, Margaret Bay and Proserpine River tribes, a menstruating girl is buried up to her waist in a pit in the sand, a fence of brushwood is built around her, and no one would think of coming near. She is fed by her mother, and is provided with a stick to scratch herself, as she must on no account touch her body with her hands. [*112]
The Parsees, who reverence fire, will not suffer menstruous women to see it or even to look at a lighted taper.
The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials forbid menstruating women to enter a church. [*113]
The superstition about walking under a ladder originated in the fear of a menstruating woman. In primitive tribes, men avoided walking under a tree because a woman might have been in it and some of her blood might fall on them.
In Southern Italy it is still believed that if a menstruating woman gets into a carriage, the horses will be unable to make it move and that they will die in the effort unless the woman has taken the precaution to put three pebbles in her pocket. [*114] Sicilians believe that if a woman in that state were to ride a donkey, the back of the animal would break unless some salt had been sprinkled over it. [*115]
The Hindu lawgiver, Manu, who professed to have received his institutes from the Creator, Brahma, informs us that the wisdom, the energy, the strength, the sight and the vitality of a man who approaches a woman in her courses will utterly perish; whereas, if he avoids her, his wisdom, energy, strength, sight and vitality will increase.
So widespread was this superstition, and so firmly was it believed, that even members of the medical profession fell under its influence. As late as 1878, a physician wrote to the editor of the British Medical Journal asking him whether a ham cured by a menstruating woman would be spoiled! Not until 1891 did Dr. William Goodell, a distinguished medical authority, state: "I have learned to unlearn the teaching that women must not be subjected to a surgical operation during her monthly flux. Our forefathers, from time immemorial, have thought and taught that the presence of a menstruating woman would pollute solemn religious rites, would sour milk, spoil the fermentation of wine-vats, and do much other mischief in a general way...." [*116] Today there are women physicians! This taboo of woman has undoubtedly been the cause of the restriction placed upon her, not only in association with the Sabbath, but in excluding her from the fields of the learned professions.
Frazer states that "the Hebrew lawgiver Moses, whose divine legation is as little open to question as that of Manu and Zoroaster, treats the subject at still greater length; but I must leave the reader the task of comparing the inspired ordinances on this head with the merely human regulations of the Carrier Indians which they so closely resemble!" [*117]
When a person is taboo, the taboo applies not only to that person but to everything he or she touches. If food that a menstruous woman touches is unfit for a man to eat, how much more serious is her association with sacred things, and how much more important is it that she be prevented from corrupting them! To the Biblical Hebrew, what was more sacred than the Sabbath? It is very important that this primitive conception of woman's position be understood in order to obtain a proper comprehension of the reason for her being omitted from the provisions of this Commandment.
No wonder Frazer was constrained at the conclusion of his researches to say that "In civilized society most educated people are not even aware of the extent to which savage ignorance survives at their door."
The Secret of Circumcision
Pregnancy and childbirth also place woman in the category of a taboo person and call for a ritual expiation of her "sinful" condition. The Biblical Hebrews distinguished between the birth of a male and a female child by providing a different form of expiation, and in carefully examining this, we come upon the secret of male circumcision, as well as additional evidence for the reason why women were excluded from the provisions of the Fourth Commandment. I quote Leviticus, Chapter 12, verses 1 to 4:
1. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
2. Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and borne a man child, then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean.
3. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
4. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled.
The Lord himself "spake unto Moses, saying, ... If a woman have conceived seed, and borne a man child, then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean." Let us repeat this highly significant statement, which makes the wife's exclusion from the Sabbath a certainty. "...She shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary [italics mine], until the days of her purifying be fulfilled." Since the Sabbath was a "hallowed thing," her participation or observance would be "polluting" during the period of her "purification." Thus she is absolutely and completely excluded from Sabbath observance, and all that she touches, including her own child, is taboo until "purified."
Since the mother, during her period of thirty-three days of purifying, must of necessity touch her child, what must be done to save him from the pollution caused by his contact with her? Let us repeat the necessary mode of expiation contained in Verse 3, just quoted. "And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised." This ritual injunction, following the birth of a male child, and its direct relation to the mother's state of taboo, is a blood sacrifice on behalf of the boy to avoid the contamination of having come in contact with the mother's "uncleanness."
So vitally important was this blood expiation on behalf of the child that the rite of circumcision had to be performed on the eighth day after its birth, even though that day fell on the Sabbath. This precluded others from doing it, making it necessary for the mother herself to perform the task. [*118]
This blood sacrifice, so obvious when understood in relation to the taboo of women and the primitive Hebrew's belief in animism, sympathetic magic and blood pollution, reveals the secret of the origin and meaning of the ceremonial rite of circumcision among the Children of Israel, which has puzzled anthropologists and students of religion for centuries. The highest Biblical authorities still tell us that the rite of circumcision among the Children of Israel is one of the mysteries of Judaism, as its origin has been lost in antiquity. There seems to be no doubt that this rite originated in the remotest past, as the first Biblical reference to it mentions that circumcision was performed with sharp stones, the most primitive cutting instrument used by man. [*119] Among some Hebrews it is the custom that when a male child dies before the eighth day, it is circumcised before burial, [*120] in order that its soul may be saved.
Even the correct meaning of the word, both in Arabic and Hebrew, is "purifying," as well as "removing a sexual obstacle" and "cleansing" in a religious sense. That "purification" was the purpose [*121] of circumcision cannot be doubted in view of the indisputable facts here recorded. That circumcision is an ancient blood sacrifice for sexual purification is also indicated by its prevalence among the Egyptians. Ancient Egyptian records speak of "the blood that fell from the phallus of Ra, when he accomplished his own mutilation." A recent discovery, dated in the year 44 of the reign of Rameses II, speaks of the day "when men come to rid themselves of impurity before Amon." [*122]
Further evidence regarding the rite of circumcision is given in its existence among other primitive tribes, although the method varies from that of merely slitting the prepuce to its complete removal. Many and various customs have been associated with it. Among the East African Wakikuyu, the prepuce is buried in the ground in front of the boy just circumcised; while the African Bara father throws it into the river. For fear of its being used in black magic, the Turks bury the prepuce as they do parings of nails and other parts of the body. For a similar reason, the Amaxosa Kafir boy carries away his prepuce and buries it in a sacred spot.
On the West Coast of Africa, the prepuce, soaked in brandy, is swallowed by the boy operated on. The Arabs of Algiers wrap it in a cloth and put it on a tree or animal. The Hova of Madagascar wrap it in a banana leaf, which is given to a calf to eat. Among the Wolof, the prepuce is dried and is carried by the circumcised lad, the object being the promotion of virility. Today, among the Sakalava of Madagascar, the foreskin is shot from a gun or fastened to a spear; if it falls sticking in the earth, it is a good omen. Among the Australian Urabunna, the stomach of each elder brother is touched with the foreskin, which is then placed on a fire stick and buried. [*123]
The northern Arunta bury the prepuce together with the blood caused by the operation. The Kalkodoon of Cloninny (North Queensland) string it on twine of human hair and hang it around the mother's neck "to keep the devil away." Among the Yaroinga of the Upper Georgina District, the blood shed in circumcision is drunk by the women of the tribe as a strengthening draught. [*124]
In some Australian tribes, boys who are being circumcised are laid on a platform formed by the living bodies of the tribesmen; and when a boy's tooth is knocked out as an initiatory ceremony, he is seated on the shoulders of a man on whose breast the blood flows and may not be wiped away. [*125]
And to think that this bloody ritual of savage superstition survives today under the guise of a health and hygienic measure! [*126]
-- Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 2.
If circumcision is the expiatory rite for the birth of a male child who comes in contact with the mother's uncleanness, what shall be done as a sacrifice for a "maid child"? See Leviticus, Chapter 12, verse 5:
5. But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days.
Although female circumcision was practiced among primitive tribes, it was hardly ever performed upon a female infant. [*127] This may have been due to the fact that the external genital organs of the female infant do not permit as easy an operation as those of the male, and that when done by unskilled hands, it almost always resulted in the death of the child. [*128] This, then, accounts for the purifying rite of the maid child being twice that for the male child. Hence the mother was not only unclean two weeks, instead of one week, but "she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days" -- a period twice as long as for the male child.
Equally important, in regard to the relation of a taboo and the Sabbath, is the method of expiation for the mother's own state of blood contamination. The Bible reveals the methods for her to follow "when her days of purifying are fulfilled." Leviticus, Chapter 12, verses 6 to 8:
6. And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest:
7. Who shall offer it before the Lord, and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath borne a male or a female.
8. And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean.
For the mother herself to be made "clean" again, she must make the following additional blood sacrifices: "...if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering.', Here is convincing evidence of a primitive superstition of blood sacrifice based on sympathetic magic.
What better parallel is there than between the uncultured and primitive Hebrew and the ignorant people of Bokhara? In Bokhara the mother of a child is taboo for forty days, and does not even dare to pray to God while her supposed impurity lasts! [*129] How similar to the Bible are the provisions in the sacred book of the Zend-Avesta for the purification of women after childbirth! Not only must a woman's clothes all be burned after her ordeal, but she must be purified by being washed with bull's urine. [*130] Her taboo lasted forty days, and anyone attempting to break this taboo was severely punished as guilty of the most unspeakable crime. Nyan women are similarly regarded at such times. After confinement, they must not enter a sacred place for forty days. [*131] A woman in this state is supposed to be possessed by some dangerous and maleficent spirit that corrupts all with which she comes in contact.
Among the Yukaghir, a woman is taboo after childbirth and must be careful not to touch any hunting or fishing instrument. A Koryak woman after childbirth is taboo and her touch would deprive a shaman's drum of its virtue; she must not even be seen by anyone. Among the Gilyak, a woman never dares to give birth to a child at home; she must, in spite of the severity of season or weather, go out of the hut for the purpose. The women of Kamchatka are under obligation to leave their huts when about to give birth to a child, which is born in the public street of the village, before the populace. [*132] Among the Samoyeds and the Ostyak, women at childbirth may not eat any fresh meat for fear that living animals would be affected, and in order to insure against all possible risks they must not, even at ordinary times, stand over the reindeer while unloading a sledge, but must undo the straps from below. [*133]
Among the Basutos the father is separated from the mother and child for four days after birth, and may not see them until the "medicine man" has performed the religious ceremony of "absolution of the man and wife." If this were neglected, it is believed that he would die when he saw his wife.
Women in Russia, before the present regime, were considered in a state of impurity after childbirth, and were not permitted to communicate with others until they had been purified by a priest. In Serbia, similar conditions prevailed. Among the Tibetan tribes of Lab Nor, a mother is driven from the village in which she lives, and is compelled to live in a near-by hut or along the roadside. Food is supplied to her by the husband. [*134]
If women had to be purified in early Biblical times, what change has taken place that makes such a ceremony no longer necessary? The same liberating force of scientific knowledge that has emancipated us from other forms of religious superstition is responsible for breaking these taboos which have so long enslaved women.
Now that women are no longer forced to observe this savage custom of "purification," nor condemned to suffer for the "sin" of uncleanness, circumcising the male children of Hebrew parents cannot be characterized as anything but a cruel mutilation. The number of deaths resulting from circumcising a male child before it is physically able to stand such an ordeal might well be called the slaughter of the innocents.
Born on the Sabbath
In addition to woman's period of "uncleanness" occurring on the Sabbath, babies are born on the Sabbath as well as on any other day of the week. That factor provides additional evidence for the wife's exclusion from the provision of this Commandment. In early Biblical days, as now, babies were born on every day of the week, and the "seventh" was no exception.
I wonder how long the "divinely inspired" men debated as to whether any member of the household should perform work on behalf of a woman giving birth to a child on the Sabbath, and to what extent the beasts of burden might be used in such an emergency, since they, too, were included in the provisions of "rest" on this day. I ask this in all seriousness because it was actually forbidden to help an animal out of a pit into which it had fallen on the Sabbath. The question was asked: If a man had a sheep and it should fall into a pit, would a person be justified in lifting it out on the Sabbath? That was a point of great controversy which occupied the minds of leading Biblical authorities. [*135] "If an animal has fallen into a well, it is provided with food until the Sabbath is over, if this is possible; but, if it is not, covers, cushions and mattresses are placed under it so that it may get out without further aid; the pain of the animal is sufficient excuse ('za'ar Ba'ale hayyim') for this Sabbath violation. But the animal might not be drawn out by man."
It was, however, a more serious offense to help to relieve a woman in childbirth than it was to help an animal in distress. The reason for this is simple. The woman had been cursed by God -- she was "unclean." The animal bore no such mark of disgrace. In fact, it was a sacrilege, often punished with death, to alleviate the suffering of a woman in childbirth on this "holy of holy" days.
The Biblical injunction, "Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day," [*136] has been the cause of myriad deaths and untold misery. Women suffering the agony of childbirth in cold rooms during inclement weather and the winter season have been denied the essential comfort of warmth. Thousands have died, millions have suffered to the end of their lives from illness contracted as a result of this frightful and inhumane superstition, merely because the child happened to be born on the Sabbath. It is quite probable that even today strictly orthodox Hebrews still refuse to light a fire on the Sabbath, regardless of the circumstances. [*137]
But that is not all. It was even an offense to relieve the pains of childbirth on any day of the week. When Dr. James V. Simpson, in 1847, sought to use chloroform to ease the labor pains, the pulpit thundered forth denunciations of this attempt as impious and "contrary to Holy Writ," and that it would tend "to avoid one part of the primeval curse upon woman." [*138] So fearful were the clergy at even the thought of alleviating the pains of women in childbirth that they pictured the most horrible disaster to the human race for practicing that which was "contrary to religion and the expressed command of God." Does not the Scripture say "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children"? One clergyman expressed the divine opposition in the following manner: "Chloroform is a decoy of Satan, apparently offering itself to bless women; but in the end it will harden society and rob God of the deep, earnest cries which arise in time of trouble for help." [*139] Another divinely inspired representative said: "The very suffering which a woman undergoes in labor is one of the strongest elements in the love she bears for her offspring." I wonder how this divine accounted for the love of a father for his children?
Could anything be more repellent than a system of religion that so paralyzes the mind to the suffering of a woman in childbirth? In 1591, a lady of rank, Eufame Macalyane, sought the assistance of Agnes Sampson for the relief of pain at the time of the birth of her two sons. Agnes Sampson was tried before King James, condemned and burned alive on Castle Hill in Edinburgh. [*140] How far removed were these religionists from the savages of Chukchi, who religiously seclude women during childbirth and do not allow any assistance to be rendered her except in cases of the utmost necessity, when an old woman is permitted to attend? [*141]
The discovery of anesthesia is one of the greatest of all of man's accomplishments. In all the fields of man's achievements, this one remains pre-eminent. What greater blessing is there than to help women through the travail and anguish of childbirth by a pain-obliterating method? Yet this discovery, this merciful potion, was declared by the clergy and by the highest church authorities to be a defiance of the Bible Deity!
Is it any wonder that Shakespeare observed "that we do cry when we come to this great stage of fools"?
... chapter continued on next file ...
The e-text conversion and critical editing of this book is copyright ©1998 by Cliff Walker. The text is watermarked. If you intend to commercialize on this book in any way, please do your own e-text conversion work. This is a labor of love, honoring the role that the works of Joseph Lewis have played in my life and in the hope that the unique presentation of Joseph Lewis's works, available only on Positive Atheism, will bring the dignity to the Positive Atheism project that only this unique presentation of the writings of Joseph Lewis can bring. We hope that our readers, supporters, friends, and others can understand and appreciate the role that this -- privilege -- of being able to present the Joseph Lewis material brings to the people who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to make Positive Atheism's online presentation possible.