Photo Credit: Jewish Press

When A Dead Ewe Gave Birth To A Live Lamb
‘We Do Not Wait for Her to Give Birth’
(Arachin 7a)

 

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One day, a truck delivered a pregnant ewe to Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Yerushalayim where a large team of doctors and nurses accompanied it to an operating room. They were part of a experiment to determine the moment of death, one facet of which originates in our sugya.

 

Life After Brain Death

Our Gemara states that a fetus has no independent life; it derives its food and life from its mother. Therefore, it is impossible for a mother to die and its fetus to continue living. “The fetus dies first,” states the Gemara.

In our era, there are recorded cases of women becoming brain dead and giving birth to healthy infants. If, as the Gemara says, a dead mother cannot give birth to a live fetus, brain death evidently is not considered death.

 

It Functions With the Aid of Machines

Some reject this proof, however, by arguing that a fetus cannot normally live after its mother’s death. But if the mother is attached to machines artificially keeping her body alive, it can. (They contend that the fetus is like an infant in an incubator in this case.) Thus, we have no proof that brain death isn’t considered death.

This question was brought to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l (Responsa Minchas Shlomo, 2nd edition, 2:86), who approved of the following experiment to prove or disprove the contention that brain death is not death.

A pregnant ewe would be brought to a hospital and attached to breathing machines. Then it would be killed according to all criteria. Then the fetus would be delivered. Due to lack of experience, 15 experts gathered from the fields of neurology, cardiology, gynecology, physiology, veterinary medicine, anesthesiology, etc. to carry out this experiment.

Once it was determined that the ewe was dead, the doctors waited 25 minutes and then took out the fetus – live and healthy! It was thus proven beyond all doubt that breathing machines have the ability to supply the body with its needs so that it can continue to function even though it is no longer technically alive.

This experiment demonstrated that one can draw no conclusions about the moment of death based on the fact that a brain dead woman can deliver a live baby. The life a fetus gets from a person on machines comes from the machines, not its mother. The question of the moment of death thus remains open.

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.