Mishegas, Religion, Sex & Gender

When Life Imitates Talmud

British paper The Sun reports,

A woman is suing an Egyptian hotel claiming her daughter got pregnant – from using the swimming pool.
Magdalena Kwiatkowska’s 13-year-old returned to Poland from their holiday expecting a baby.
Magdalena believes the teenager conceived from stray sperm after taking a dip in the hotel’s mixed pool. She is now seeking compensation from the hotel.
A travel industry source said: “The mother is adamant that her daughter didn’t meet any boys while she was there.
“She is determined to go ahead with the case.”
Tourist authorities in Warsaw, Poland, have confirmed they received the bizarre complaint.

Kind of wacky on its own, but particularly interesting in light of the fact that Judaism has a whole pregnant-via-the-pool thing going on. The first place (that I know of) in which we find a mention is the Talmud, Chagigah 14b-15a:

Ben Zoma was asked: ‘May a high priest [who, according to Leviticus 21:13, must marry a virgin] marry a maiden who has become pregnant [yet who claims she is still a virgin]? … We do consider [the possibility] that she may have conceived in a bath [into which a male has discharged semen], and therefore she may marry a high priest…

This idea is later echoed in the Medieval midrash Alphabet of Ben Sira, which suggests that Ben Sira, a second-century B.C.E. author of a book of the Apocrypha, was the issue of the prophet Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s daughter, conceived when the latter bathed in a bath into which the former had masturbated (by coercion, as the story goes.) Issues of incest, here, were not considered relevant because Jeremiah and his daughter did not actually have sex.
Later halachic literature addresses the concrete implications of this, asking about the status of a child conceived in such a bath. Assuming we know the identity of the owner of the sperm, has he helped to fulfill the mitzvah of priu urviu (procreation) in this way? Or does the point on the priu urviu chart go to the woman’s husband (we’re assuming it’s not his sperm)? Or nobody?
And despite all this, it’s unlikely that this was a case that had any medical/real life relevance. The Talmudic story probably in part reflects the sense that bathhouses were dirty places–food and drink vendors, prostitutes, gamblers and the like abounded in the ancient Roman bathhouses. It was certainly a dangerous place for a “respectable woman”! And more than that, stories about unmarried women getting pregnant after bathing alone in rivers or streams go way back–there’s a whole category of Poseidon myths that involve Poseidon demanding sex as a tribute–something about women alone and… naked? Vulnerable? Obviously the mikveh is the antithesis to this, but bathhouses, in any case, were coded as of male. Nonetheless, once the concept of a bathhouse baby was in the water, so to speak, it’s not surprising that the midrashic and halakhic literature would want to play with it and its implications.
A part of me also wonders if the gemara’s take is a polemic against Christianity (“see, there are other ways a ‘virgin’ could wind up pregnant!”) but as scholar Hanne Blank points out in Virgin: The Untouched History, parthenogenesis is a theme that goes way back and is particularly well-established in Greek culture (Alexander the Great and Pythagoras were both said to have been born of virgins) so some of these ideas could have just been floating around the culture (here, I’m really just speculating, this is really not my area of knowledge.) It’s also worth noting that the status of the bathhouse baby also appears in the medical literature of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who was a 12th C. Cordoban Muslim.
But most of all, perhaps, the I-just-took-a-bath-I-don’t know-what-happened story is (as I suspect our 13 year-old swimmer in the Sun story knows) an excellent way to explain away a young, unmarried woman’s “surprising” pregnancy.
In any case, I suspect the poor teenager’s mother isn’t going to get very far with her case.

3 thoughts on “When Life Imitates Talmud

  1. The Alphabet of Ben Sira is hilarious if you want some good reading. Isn’t it supposed to be satirical?

  2. I guess the main question is the survivability and motility of sperm in and following exposure to various environments.
    If this woman wants her theory to have credibility she’ll have to consult an expert (maybe a fertility specialist?) and get some samples of pool water to test things like temperature, pH, chlorine concentration, etc.
    Although even if her daughter really conceived in such an, er, unimmaculate setting the lawsuit idea is kind of mystifying. Who exactly would be held liable and on what basis?

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