“Bless the mother of the child with a maid and a servant”: Birthing Songs of Yemen’s Jewish Women

“If only you had seen, O my sisters! What I experienced during childbirth” - These songs sung by Yemenite Jewish women helped them regain their silenced voices, by directly addressing the difficulties of childbirth and life in a patriarchal society

Chen Malul
New immigrants from Yemen. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. Yemenite Immigration Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

While researching the origins of the women’s gallery typically found in synagogues for one of our previous articles, we learned that these galleries didn’t actually exist in the Jewish communities of Yemen. What’s more, Yemenite women were not allowed to take part in any intellectual pursuits or Torah study.

Our interest piqued, we read in Dr. Vered Madar’s doctoral thesis that women in Yemen were able to regain their voice, which had been silenced and policed by the patriarchal society that surrounded them, through the songs and poems they composed and sang. In this article, we will focus on childbirth songs, but in fact, women in Yemen sang songs for many different kinds of circumstances and events. Through song, they expressed themselves, their private world and yearnings in the diverse contexts of their daily lives. They did this both in the company of women—among their close family or in social gatherings during life cycle ceremonies—and alone, for example, before dawn while they would grind flour.

Before we dive into the songs themselves, we’ll begin with some background on the life of Jewish women in Yemen. It was common in the Jewish community for a woman to hide a pregnancy for as long as possible, even from close family. She would share this information only with the women closest to her: her mother, her mother-in-law and friends or neighbors who served as her advisors, and later as caretakers. The shame of publicly acknowledging the sexual act combined with the fear of evil spirits and demons led to this secrecy. Loose dresses helped women to hide their growing bellies, and anyway, there was no special maternity clothing. Pregnant women also usually worked right up until the birth.

A newly-arrived immigrant from Yemen. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. Yemenite Immigration Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The birth itself also took place in secret and mother, midwife and female family members all helped to keep it that way. Considering a first-time mother’s lack of preparation for the birth and the very young age at which a woman married in Yemen, a first birth was often remembered as a confusing experience and the young mother would have felt extremely vulnerable. The women who tended to the birthing mother would have signaled to her to try to refrain from crying aloud or making a sound. The reason being that according to Yemenite folk belief, if during labor the voice of the woman giving birth is heard by passers-by, her pain and the birth will end only when those who heard her had reached their own homes.

The midwife also typically avoided physical contact with the mother or the fetus as it made its way through the birth canal “lest its soft bones break.” In the absence of advanced medical knowledge, a woman struggling to give birth was offered various folk remedies. Among these were foods, such as the etrog from Sukkot or beverages such as aged wine which was perceived as beneficial for warming the body and improving blood circulation. Amulets and charms such as precious stones were also used. The bitter herb (maror) from the Passover Seder was often hung around the mother’s neck, a Torah mantle could be placed on her head or a paper with the names of forty venerated sages could be tied to her thigh.


Mazal Tov: She Came Away with Her Arms Full

At the conclusion of a successful birth, if all was well with the mother and newborn, ceremonies in their honor began immediately. From this moment on, celebration replaced the concealment and shame of pregnancy and childbirth. Already during the cutting of the umbilical cord, those present would being to cheer and sing. These ritual cheers, hagar in Yemenite, had a double purpose: to inform others about what was happening and to chase away the demons lurking near the mother and newborn. But there was also another, unstated goal: to drown out any expression of difficult emotions or feelings by the new mother.

The month after the birth was known as the month of the new mother, in which her family and community showered her with fortifying and comforting food, salves, rest and pampering so that she could regain her strength and health once she returned to her husband and the community after her period of confinement. Repeated over and again in the women’s birth songs is the belief that the new mother’s grave remains open during the first month after childbirth. The community’s efforts were geared towards steering her away from it. Therefore, they took care of her every need, never allowing her to leave the house unaccompanied, and even then – only rarely.

Yom Alwafa—the “day of completion”—marked the end of the new mother’s month-long isolation.  This was the occasion when the birth-songs would come to the fore. The songs that the women sang at the completion ceremony were composed of rhymes that would sometimes come to them spontaneously, or they might combine lines they had heard sung before. But no song was like another. Each was a completely new version. Thus, there was never a single, established version of these songs, and they were never recorded or written down.


There’s a Rumor Going Around

In the birth song recorded by the late singer Shalom Tzbari, he performs the song Ya-Walida, Ya-Walad! (“O birthing mother! O birth!”). The song blesses the mother with good health and tells us: “the rumor is widespread in the city—a son has already been born to my lord”. The song then lists all the treats the new mother deserves: a maid and a servant, fine porridge every day, cow’s butter every morning, poultry from the villages, a piece of lamb every night, sweet honey, fine coffee, an upper floor and a sofa to lie on, bedding from Europe, large pillows and much more…

The term waḥima means “a pregnant woman with a food craving” – a subject covered in detail by the song above. The husband must satisfy the craving no matter the cost, according to the popular Yemenite proverb: “Give me something to eat so that the child is not born blind”. A woman’s right and need for rest and pampering was reserved until well after the birth, for the sake of the health and strength of both mother and newborn.

There are many versions of the song Tsabari recorded. His is filled with details about the pleasures and treats showered on the new mother. Its tone is optimistic, but it also offers a veiled glimpse into the life of Yemenite women: on the one hand, they would spend many hours a day performing hard physical labor, grinding flour, pumping water from the well, or washing laundry in a cold spring, and therefore the month of childbirth was reserved for rest and pampering. On the other hand, the song repeats over and again a blessing for the new mother’s health. In other versions of the song, the mother’s health is highlighted in a different, more tragic light.

Madar’s research also focuses on a different version, sung by Yona Ozeri. Here the lyrics look squarely at the difficulties of pregnancy. Below is the opening segment of the song, translated into English:


O birthing mother, O birth! O, a box filled with zbad (a very fragrant perfume intended for women only, – C.M.)


Do not rejoice in gown or wedding garment


O the joy of pregnancy at the time of childbirth, praise (to God)!


There is yet more pregnancy and childbirth, it weakens both arms


It weakens both arms and leaves the chest like a drum


Bless the mother of the child with a servant and a maid


Queen for a Day

Let’s return again to the Yom Alwafa ceremony, the final day of the birth month.

In her research, Madar focused on the songs Yemenite women sang about the life cycle events of death and childbirth. While these two events are far apart in the life cycle, they often appear side by side in the songs.

Several weeks after the birth, the women of the community held a party in honor of the mother. She would wear bridal clothes, cover her fingers with rings and don all her jewelry. Her friends and neighbors painted her hand black with an embroidery-like drawing at the wrist, and adhere a gold coin to her forehead to ward off the evil eye. Now that the first few weeks, which are considered especially dangerous for mother and newborn, had passed, the mother could lean back on a chair padded with pillows to enjoy the temporary status of a queen. Her house was also decorated in accordance. A bottle of special perfume was placed on a shelf in the room where the party was taking place. According to tradition, the perfume was able to expel any demons and evil spirits.

The fear of supernatural beings causing harm to mothers and infants is not unique to Yemenite culture. The most common amulet in the Jewish world is an amulet used to protect both mother and child from the demon Lilith – the first wife of Adam.

Childbirth amulet featuring Adam and Eve, the earliest printed Jewish amulet. Amsterdam, ca. 1700. From: Angels and Demons: Jewish Magic through the Ages, ed. Filip Vukasovović, Jerusalem, 2010

So what makes the Yom Alwafa ceremony so unique? Besides being a “regular” celebration, it is also an exorcism, particularly of a certain demon known as “Kariniye”. This demon is described as a kind of twin of the mother, which has also given birth, and who clings to the mother’s body and is nourished from her food. The concluding ceremony was intended to banish her for three years or so, the ideal period of time in Yemenite tradition until the birth of the next child.

At the end of the celebration at the mother’s home, the mother steps out of her house with her baby in her arms.  She walks with the baby a few steps while spilling behind her the aforementioned perfume in order to keep Kariniye away.

Throughout the ceremony, the women sing birth songs. In them, childbirth is described as a mortal danger for both mother and unborn fetus. The songs of the women of Yemen offer an uncompromising look at the difficulties of the lives of women in a patriarchal society. The texts do not idealize the experiences of the female body, neither in marriage nor in childbirth. Those singing these songs were aware of the effects of childbirth on a woman’s body and the danger of death that hovers over the mother and child. In light of the silence imposed by the society on the female voice during childbirth, as well as the intense physical ordeal, singing served as a therapeutic tool, and the community’s women embraced it for the space it created to hold their silenced experiences. These women played a powerful and important social role, and their voices marked the boundaries of their space for healing.


The article is based for the most part on Dr. Vered Madar’s doctoral dissertation, Yemenite Women’s Songs for the Parturient and Their Laments over the Dead: Text, Body and Voice. Dr. Madar assisted in the writing of this article.

To conclude, we bring a recording of the song Navda Basem Alalah, Ala, with an English translation appearing below:



Let us start with the name of God, who lives after death


If you had seen, O my sisters! What I experienced in childbirth


I felt limp in my bones and death attacked me


I felt limp in my bones […] fading.


My grave was already open and the midwife lifted her voice


O, one who sings praises to the new mother, may your mouth be blessed with health!


Bless you, mother of the child! In seven complete cloths.


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