Infertility and the Jewish High Holy Days

Rethinking Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur When Dealing with Infertility

Apples with honey, symbols for a sweet new year
When you're chewing on the bitterness of infertility, it can be difficult to find the sweetness of the holiday. But it's there for you, if you're willing to rethink your approach. Tova Teitelbaum / Getty Images

The Jewish High Holy Days -- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – are a time of introspection for many Jews. For those experiencing infertility, the holidays can be a source of comfort and hope... or a source of pain and isolation.

Sometimes, perhaps most often, it’s a mixture of emotions.

Do we dare feel inspired and moved, hopeful that God will bless us with a child this year? Or do we instead focus on the ache of unanswered prayers?

Holidays are difficult for the fertility challenged. Family gatherings remind us of the family we desire but can’t seem to build, and shared holiday meals often lead to insensitive remarks (usually from those closest to us.) All of this can be painful.

But the Jewish High Holy days pose an additional complication: the question of where God stands in our struggles and of how our religion views our inability to conceive.

Judgment, Infertility, and Unanswered Prayers

Rosh Hashanah is considered a Day of Judgment. As the well-known prayer Unesaneh Tokef goes:

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die...”

One is meant to feel on Rosh Hashanah that prayer, charity, and repentance will change the judgment, and thus change our lives.

Perhaps on the first Rosh Hashanah with infertility, or even the second, one can get into this mood, and believe that if you just pray enough, you will conceive.

Or not miscarry. Or in some way or another get the child you’re aching for.

But what happens when the years go by, and nothing happens? What happens when “prayer, charity, and repentance” don’t provide you with an answered prayer?

I have personally struggled with this.

In the beginning of my infertility experience, prayer was a source of comfort, a source of hope.

You might say those prayers were the most sincere, heartfelt prayers I ever prayed.

But over time, the hope dwindled. Frustration and anger set in.

For a time period, I stopped praying altogether.

As an observant Jew, this was no small thing. It was a huge statement, even if it remained private, essentially a secret between God and myself.

A Different Take on the Day of Judgment

One of the beautiful things about Judaism is that on any issue or theological belief, there are a variety of opinions.

Judaism is less like a simple crystal sculpture -- all one tone, one color, and one mold -- and more like a stained glass window: many shades and shapes coming together, creating a colorful collage.

If something isn’t working for you, if you find yourself “losing” your religion, instead of abandoning it altogether, try exploring different philosophies.

Or create your own.

Take a different approach.

Here is one alternative perspective to consider.

There is a Hasidic story* told of two students who didn’t know how to approach the High Holy Days.

They went to their rebbe and asked for his guidance.

“At the far end of the village lives a man who can teach you how to approach these holy days. Go, watch him, and learn.”

So the two students went to this man and watched him go through his day. They saw him rise early in the morning and work hard into the night. He ate very simply, lived alone, and was obviously poor.

Late in the evening, the students watched as the man fervently prayed. Then, he took out a list. He said, “God in Heaven, please forgive me for these sins, Your requests that I have not fulfilled!” And he read out a long list of his wrongdoings.

When he finished, he put that list away. Then, he took out another list.

“God in Heaven, these are the requests I have made of You that You have not yet answered.”

He went on to list all the prayers and hopes he had sent to heaven that had remained unanswered.

The man spread his arms heavenward and said, “God, I will make you a deal. Forgive me for my list of sins, and in return, I will forgive you for not answering my requests!”

This story presents us with a very different approach to the High Holy Days.

No longer is the relationship between man and God being portrayed as a heavily judgmental one, or one in which only one side (God, typically) is seen as the only one who can forgive.

Both sides have something they can give or not give, and neither side can do so perfectly. Mutual forgiveness is the only rational solution.

It is a more compassionate approach.

A Time for Taking Action

Another take on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a much more practical and modern one, is to see the Days of Awe as one in which we are responsible for our actions and the outcomes of those actions.

In other words, instead of seeing God as a wish-granting-factory, and our prayers as the requesting mechanism, we should see our introspection as the goal itself.

By considering our life, we set in motion our self-improvement. The same way listing your goals can help you take action towards those goals.

In this way, our prayers for children are not so much about God granting us our request, but a way of resolving ourselves to take action towards that goal.

God, in this case, is akin to an accountability partner. We lay out our hopes and dreams, and then we take the steps to make those dreams come to fruition.

If it’s to have a child, perhaps those actions could be learning more about fertility, seeing your doctor, or finding a fertility clinic. Perhaps it’s making a plan to gather funds for fertility treatment or to begin the process of adoption.

If it’s to come to terms with our loss, perhaps those actions look like joining a support group, finding a therapist, or seeking out other mind-body therapies in an effort to heal our emotional wounds. 

In this way, prayer (introspection and listing our needs), charity (considering how our actions can help not only ourselves but also others), and repentance (creating the plan to actually get to our goals) truly lead the way.

The Holiest Women in Judaism Have Struggled with Infertility

Is God punishing me?

It’s a question that crosses the minds of many infertile couples, and if they are Jewish, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this concern can be felt strongly.

Here’s the thing: Judaism provides us with many stories of righteous women who struggle with conception and pregnancy.

On Rosh Hashanah, we read about Sarah and Abraham, who struggled to conceive. At the same time that the Bible tells us of their righteousness, we are told of their fertility struggles. 

Certainly God was not punishing them.

We also read the story of Hannah on Rosh Hashanah.

Not only does she struggle to get pregnant, but she also deals with insensitive family, her sister-wife taunting her over her inability to conceive. Later in the story, she has to cope with the insensitive priest, who mistakes her tears and heartfelt prayers for the acts of a drunkard.

Hannah’s story is one that serves as a source of inspiration and hope. Here’s a Bible story where the pain of infertility is laid out.

Not only that, but Hannah’s prayer – a plea born in the pain of infertility – is meant to serve as the ideal model of prayer. If you’re looking for an acknowledgement of the emotional strain of infertility, here it is.

Sarah and Hannah aren’t the only biblical women who struggle with infertility. Rachel and Jacob struggle with infertility, as do Rebecca and Isaac.

Are we to believe God was punishing these holy couples? 

I think not.

Make These Days into What You Need Most

The High Holy Days should be a source of inspiration and renewal. Do what you need to do in order to reclaim the spirit of the holiday.

If you need to walk out of services for awhile, do that. If the story of Hannah hurts more than it heals, don’t read it this year. You are not required to do so.

If you need to cry and be angry, cry and be angry. Just don’t forget to then resolve to take action, whatever that means to you.

Speak to your Rabbi or Rebbetzin if you need guidance or inspiration on how to handle the holiday in balance with your loss. They may or may not say the “right things” ... but it’s worth reaching out for support.

Consider contacting A T.I.M.E., an organization whose goal is to support Jewish men, women, and couples who are experiencing infertility. They may have support groups in your area.

Whatever you do, take care of yourself on these Days of Awe. You are not being punished. Your pain is real. Use your prayers and these days of introspection as a way to dig down deep and tap into a Divine source for inner strength.

May you be written in for a healing, good year.

More ways to cope:


* I originally heard this story from Rebbetzin Shternie Deitsch of Chabad of the East Valley. This is my recalled version of the story. I have forgotten some of the details, but the main idea and message is intact. If you have more details, please contact me and I will add them. 

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