Tuesday, February 10, 2009
RIP Baron Lister
For three transgressions do women die in childbirth: because they were not careful to observe the laws of family purity, [separating] challah, and of lighting the [Shabbat] lamp. (Mishnah Shabbat 2:6)
Because the claims of this mishnah are outlandish to the modern thinker/heretic, contemporary commentators often feel the need to see it as a metaphor (see here for one example.) However it is clear from the Gemara (Shabbat 31b-32a) and classical commentators that this mishnah was meant literally. The ArtScroll siddur summarizes the reason: "These three mitzvot are assigned to women, therefore they bear great responsibility for neglecting them" and that "punishments are most likely in time of danger."
Wikipedia states that "The historical level of maternal deaths is probably around 1 in 100 births. Mortality rates reached horrible proportions in maternity institutions in the 1800s, sometimes climbing to 40 percent of birthgiving women. At the beginning of the 1900s, maternal death rates were around 1 in 100 for live births. The number today in the United States is 11 in 100,000, a decline by orders of magnitude."
Although we don't have reliable records prior to the mid-1800s, the death rate for women giving birth plummeted worldwide in the late 1930s. It is reasonable to presume that this also includes the death rate among Jewish women. We can also state with certainty there was no concomitant radical increase in the observance of taharat hamishpacha (laws of family purity) during this time; indeed, the great increase in numbers of secular and non-Orthodox Jews resulted in a corresponding decrease in such observance.
Today, February 10th, is the yahrzeit of Joseph Lister, the First Baron Lister (d. 1912), an English surgeon who promoted the idea of sterile surgery, using carbolic acid to sterilize surgical instruments, dressings and to clean wounds. He required that all surgeons wear clean gloves and insisted that they wash their hands before and after operations. Some consider Lister "the father of modern antisepsis." Although Ignaz Semmelweis is sometimes credited as having introduced handwashing in obstetrics, and indeed by this technique drastically reduced puerperal fever some 20 years earlier than Lister, his attempts to publicize his well-documented findings fell on deaf ears within the medical community.
OrthoFundies can always fall back on "nishtaneh hateva", that nature has changed and we are no longer "privileged" to be on the spiritual level where our physical health is directly connected to our alacrity in performing mitzvot (this party line is almost universally claimed as the reason why we no longer have "tzaraas", the mystery malady often translated as leprosy). The rest of us can give thanks to folks like Joseph Lister and Ignaz Semmelweis.