When a Jewish infant dies

This past weekend brought tragic news of a hit-and-run car accident that killed Nachman and Raizy Glauber, an expectant couple from Brooklyn, both 21, and their unborn son. The Glaubers had been en route to the hospital early Sunday when a driver identified as Julio Acevedo collided with their taxi. Both parents were killed, but doctors performed an emergency C-section on their baby, who briefly survived before dying Monday morning.

With the news of the baby’s death came reports that the baby would be circumcised, named and buried next to his parents in a cemetery in Rockland County.

The unusual practice of post-mortem circumcision in the case of a newborn comes from the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law authored by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the 16th century, according to Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for Jewish Future.

Brander, who lost a daughter a few days after she was born in 1993, said the practice is done “in the spirit of recognizing the holiness of every person and the unique responsibility to prepare the body, which is a conduit to achieving goodness in the world, for the next world.”

Circumcision is not a requirement in the case of a newborn death, and it is done without the traditional blessing. The practice is performed only if the fetus is older than six months and there is a penis to circumcise, according to Brander. The custom of naming the baby comes from the belief that each person is unique and holy, and that the dead ultimately will be resurrected, he said.

The bodies of infants and fetuses also go through the process of taharah, or ritual purification, before burial, Brander said.

“Water is used to enter a next level of spirituality, and we recognize that the body is being prepared for the baby’s entrance in the world to come by a spiritual washing,” Brander said, quoting a book, “Gesher Hachaim," by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tiuḳtsinsḳi.

Infants and even fetal matter are buried, Brander said, because just “as a Torah scroll that is no longer functional is buried, so is a baby who no longer has life.”

The laws of shiva and mourning do not apply to a baby that did not live for 30 days. Some families choose to hold a funeral for a deceased infant and put up a tombstone, but most do not, according to Brander. Often, a baby that did not live past 30 days is buried in a special part of a cemetery.

Parents do not witness any of the procedures done by the burial society, Brander noted.

Jewish customs in death and mourning developed over time, and are not mandated in the Torah.

“Most of what we do today is based on ancient customs, and there are differences in these customs, and thus families do things differently,” Brander said. “Jewish law is sympathetic to the fact that different families handle the psychological trauma of losing a child differently.”

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