Sunday, December 30, 2012

Blessing for Birth of Down's Syndrome Baby

Last week (and again this week) Rav Shlomo Aviner publicised a p'sak halacha that parents should recite two blessings on the birth of a child with Down's Syndrome, both shehechiyanu and dayan ha-emet.

Shehechiyanu for the Birth of a Child with Down's Syndrome

Q: If someone has a baby with Down's Syndrome, does he recite Shehechiyanu? After all, he is sad.

A: He is both sad and happy. He therefore recites "Shehechiyanu" and "Dayan Ha-Emet." This is similar to a case in which one's wife gives birth but dies during the process, or one's father dies but leaves him an inheritance. He recites both blessings since he has both feelings (Berachot 60a. This is unlike the ruling of Ha-Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who rules that Shehechiyanu should not be recited in our case, since the parents are not joyous but sad. Kav Ve-Naki #70).

And this is the follow up response:

Shehechiyanu for the Birth of a Child with Down's Syndrome

Q: Ha-Rav answered that if a child is born with Down's Syndrome, one should recite "Dayan Ha-Emet" on the distress as well as "Shehechiyanu" on the joy. We – with Hashem's kindness – had a baby with Down's Syndrome born to us and we were very happy and are still happy, and we don't see any reason to recite "Dayan Ha-Emet"?

A: Fortunate are you! May those like you increase in Israel. But most people also feel some sadness, and one should therefore recite "Dayan Ha-Emet". Ha-Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ruled that Shehechiyanu should not be recited at all, and he is discussing a case where the parents are only sad and have no joy (Kav Ve-Naki #70). But the usual case is that there are mixed emotions.

I cannot claim to be as great (in anything) as Rav Aviner, but I feel that this requires a response (the always excellent Bill Kolbruner wrote a great response, but does not address the halachic aspects of the p'sak)

With all due respect to Rav Aviner, I think there are three aspects to this question (and I'm not convinced that he is correct on any of them): The halacha, the psychology and whether such a teshuva should be published.

The halacha:
The source for the blessings of dayan ha-emet and shehechiyanu is the gemeara in Berachot 59b-60a

Come and hear: If a man's father dies and he is his heir, first he says: Blessed is the true Judge, and afterwards he says: Blessed is He who is good and does good?
OVER EVIL A BLESSING IS SAID etc. How is this to be understood? — For instance, if a freshet flooded his land. Although it is [eventually] a good thing for him, because his land is covered with alluvium and becomes more fertile, nevertheless for the time being it is evil.7
AND OVER GOOD etc. How can we understand this? — If for instance he found something valuable. Although this may [eventually] be bad for him, because if the king hears of it he will take it from him, nevertheless for the time being it is good.

This is also codified in Shulchan Aruch Orech Chayim 242-3.

The basic concept is that if something happens which is both good and bad, one recites both blessings. However, in the first case, when a person makes two blessings, there are two separate things happening, a death, and an inheritance. I haven't found any source for reciting two blessings for a single event (even if it contians mixed emotions).

Furthermore, why does Rav Aviner consider a baby born with Down's Syndrome to be like a case of someone dying, or even like a case of finding something valuable which will eventually be taken away. To me it seems more like winning the lottery (because the parents have a lovely, beautiful child) and find out that you will have to pay taxes on it - perhaps not as good as it could have been, but much better than not winnning the lottery at all. (I accept that this is a psychological consideration, and you may disagree with me - though I hope not).

I also looked at the responsa of Rav Elyashiv and Rav Scheinberg that Rav Aviner quoted (because they are available online . They discuss whether or not to recite the blessing of shehechiyanu (which anyway the Rema says that we are not really accustomed to say). Neither Rav Elyashiv nor Rav Scheinberg mention reciting dayan ha-emes.

In fact, I haven't found anyone else who says to say this bracha. At the very least, there doesn't seem to be any requirement to recite any blessing. If in doubt leave it out?

Thus far halachic discussion (there is more to say, but the post is already too long).

As for the psychological aspect - even if I were to accept that there is halachic basis for reciting dayan ha-emes (which I don't), I think that actually reciting it could create a barrier between parent and child. It is as if the parent is giving up on the child as soon as he/she is born. I would suggest that the role of Rabbis is to be supportive and encouraging. Anything which has even a tiny chance of safek pikuach nefesh should not be said. Ufortunately, even today there are parents who do not want to take a Down's Syndrome child home with them. Unless it is an absolute obligation to say the bracha of Dayan Ha-Emes it should not be mentioned at all. Rather, Rabbis should be encouraging, supportive, doting etc and doing everything possible (within the confines of halacha) to help parents who are undoubtedly going through a crisis. Perhaps shehechiyanu is not the right blessing to say. But then say nothing at all.

Finally, even if it is the correct halacha and even if there is a specific parent for whom the Rabbi feels that reciting Dayan Ha-Emes would be beneficial - such a p'sak should not be made public. Writing this in a public forum is incredibly damaging. Imagine a child with Down's Syndrome reading (or hearing about) this p'sak. How will he relate to his/her parents and Rabbis? And how will others relate to them?

So, I'll end here. As you can tell I am very upset by this p'sak. Perhaps some will say that it is forbidden to argue with a godol. I don't agree. But in this case I feel very strongly that the potential for damage is enormous, and so far I haven't seen anyone write an alternative view. In addition, from the fact that they dont' mention it, I think that neither Rav Elyashiv nor Rav Scheinberg would agree with Rav Aviner's p'sak.

And apologies if I caused any offence to anyone with this post.


Someone has kindly pointed out to me that Rav Aviner's p'sak is explicitly arguing on the Chofetz Chaim, who writes in Be'ur Halakha in siman 222:

דיין האמת - אמרו לו שנמצא הרבה והרבה עשבים בקמה שלו או שאשתו הולידה נקבה ותשוקתו היה רק לבן זכר אין שייך לברך ע"ז דיין האמת אף שיש לו צער מזה כי לא נתקן ברכה זו אלא על דבר שמתחלה ניתן לו ואח"כ נתקלקל או נאבד משא"כ הכא החטים לא נהפכו לעשבים והבן לא נהפך לנקבה אלא שמתחלה לא ניתן לו בן [וכה"ג בחטים לא ניתן לו מתחלה הכל חטים] ואין שייך לברך דיין האמת על מה שלא ניתן לו [א"ר בשם אבודרהם].

"Dayan HaEmet: If they told someone that his field had grown a lot of grass instead of wheat, or that his wife gave birth to a girl and he really wanted a boy, it is not relevant to recite the blessing of Dayan HaEmet on this, even though it causes him pain. This blessing was only established for something that was given to the person and afterwards became ruined or was lost to him. However, in this case it wasn't that the wheat turned into grass, or the son turned into a daughter. Rather he was never given a son or wheat from the beginning. It is not relevant to recite the blessing of Dayan HaEmet on something that was never given to him.


  1. I also found the Psak very strange for the reasons you mentioned.

    I thought that in practice we only Baruch Dayan HaEmet in case of the death of a close relative or very rare circumstances.
    I think that I have only said it once - when I heard that Rav Mordechai died, and even then I am not sure it was correct.

    To say it over the birth of a child is sending exactly the opposite message to the parent. You should encourage a parent to see the positive aspects of any child, no matter what their difficulties should be - as you said, to recite "Baruch Dayan Ha'emet" is writing off the child in the parent's mind before they even have a chance to appreciate what a Bracha the child is.

  2. Actually, this p'sak reminded me of the "Miracle" song from Matilda:

  3. Two things come to mind on reading this interesting article:
    1. Surely one way of understanding the psak is that, rather than our modern way of thinking about the phrase BDE only relating to death, the phrase actually means that one is accepting the will of God for the situation at hand, whatever that may be, and admitting that it is for reasons we can't comprehend.
    2. Many books for parents of children with special needs start off by stressing that it is highly important to admit to a period of "grieving" for the expectations and assumptions of the "usual" pattern of a child's life and growth into a self-functioning adult, and also the day-to-day and future pattern of the parents' lives. Only then can they enjoy the special talents of the child and the joys that they bring.

  4. My wife volunteers for Heart-to-Heart, a tzedaqah originally aimed at helping new parents adjust to having a child with special needs, connecting them to the right social services and tzedaqos, etc... They're now expanding into services in Israel that I know less about. My wife handles their failures -- she finds adoptive homes when the parents who refuse to take their child home.

    The organization is run by R' Lazer Goldstock. A critical part of his work is showing up hours after the birth with balloons, flowers, and a hearty Mazal Tov. Parents are more willing and able to celebrate the positive side if someone takes the lead for them.

    I have a feeling that a poseiq who was more acquainted with the psychology of the moment would never have pasqened that "Dayan haEmes" should be said. It could literally change the course of parent-chid relationships, the parents' expectations and therefore the child's likely level of achievement. An entire life could very well rest on what the poseiq tells the parents in those moments, and thus what script they're given about how to respond.

    Anyway, Heart to Heart's website is here. The crowded (BH) family photo 2nd from bottom is almost all of my crew, taken at Shuby's (front and center) bar mitzvah. My speech at that bar mitzvah, relevant to this topic, is available here.

    The key is realizing that all of us are finite, and in the face of the Divine, there is little difference between my intellect and Shuby's. For that matter, the difference between his purity of motive and wholeheartedness and the levels I generally achieve may well be far more significant to our Creator.

  5. The halachik argument against saying "dayan haemet" seems strong. However, I don't like the psychological argument against it (rather, it is a minor point and is a bit overstated, and is further grossly overstated by the commentators Michael Sedley and Micha Berger). After all, even Rav Elyashiv and Rav Scheiberg states that the sadness and disappointment that the parents may feel are valid and carry halachic weight, if not in the same way that Rav Aviner concludes.

    I agree with the original post that there is a difference between passively refraining from saying "shechechiyanu" vs. actively saying "dayan emet", but it would be incorrect to overplay the possibility of psychological damage here. If having a negative attitude at the initial period post-birth was so damaging to the parents and the new baby, then every parent would be required to say a shechechiyanu on a downs-syndrome baby just the same as a perfectly healthy baby, for fear that NOT saying the shechechiyanu blessing would "literally change the course of parent-child relationships, the parents' expectations an therefore the child's likely level of achievement" (quoting Micha Berger above).

  6. In addition, purely from the psychological perspective, it can just as easily be argued that R' Aviner's psak may be better! By saying both brachot, the parent declares both sadness and joy. However, if the parent says neither bracha, then it's an acknowledgement that there's no joy in the birth.

  7. Tzurah, I'm sorry you find my report from the field "grossly overstated". I can, however, tell you stories of people for whom that moment where someone showed up with flowers, champaign and a hearty Mazal Tov meant the difference between a couple raising their own child and them going home alone and telling friends and family it was stillborn. Here in the US, that problem (which was common enough in Chassidic circles to keep my wife busy) has pretty much ebbed, but I think it does show the magnitude of the psychological crisis the parents are facing, and how big of a deal it is to validate and reinforce their feelings that something tragic occurred to them.

    I also wonder how you can consider my attitude toward Dayan haEmes overstated, and then quote the greatest of my claims to justify requiring "shehechiyanu".

    Personally, if I were a poseiq, I would require the parents to say only "shehechiyahu". Most obligations are mandatory because they impress an attitude; not as expressions of it. Even "shehechiyahu" itself -- we don't say that a Jew living in chutz la'aretz, who perhaps still tired after his first seder, frustrated with how it went, and dreading the second one, should omit the "shehechiyanu" at its beginning. Raising a child is a mitzvah, why in this one case would we consider excluding the person whose excitement is limited to the more spiritual "levels" of their soul?

  8. Heart to Heart seems like an amazing program, whose goals I totally agree with. I just wish that you didn't step on R' Aviner's kavod to make your point (it was totally avoidable, btw). It's that aspect of your comment (and others above) that troubled me greatly.

    As to your overstatement: I disagree with your attribution of great psychological damage to R' Aviner's position, for the reasons described above. Certainly, the difference between saying both "shechechiyahu" and "dayan haemet" and saying neither is quite subtle, and it's not at all clear to me that one is more damaging than the other. I agree with you that there is wisdom in requiring the parents to only say "shechechiyanu". However, this should be in the proper context, in that R' Aviner, R' Elyashiv and R' Scheinberg all disagree with that position.