QUESTION: The prospective mother of a baby boy knows that the child will be born with serious defects which will make it viable for only a short period, perhaps a few days. Should this child who will die soon be given a name? (Richard Meyers, New York NY)
ANSWER: We should begin by inquiring about the status of an infant who dies at an early age. Jewish law is clear; an infant who dies before reaching the age of thirty days does not require a formal burial. A child who dies before thirty days have elapsed is considered a nefel and for such a child (considered stillborn if it does not survive thirty days), no burial or mourning rites are required (Ket 20b; Shab 135b; Evel Rabati I; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 266; Ettlinger Binyan Zion #133; Jacob Reischer Shevut Yaaqov Vol II #10). From Gaonic times onward it became customary to circumcise and name a male infant who died before reaching his thirtieth day. Such a circumcision was conducted without the normal prayers. If they forgot to circumcise, the grave was not opened for this purpose, but a name was given the the child (Ezekiel Landau Nodah Biyehudah Yoreh Deah #164; Meir Netiv Responsa #47).
Another statement also gives us some idea of the attitude to the death of infants in our tradition. The discussion dealt with a eulogy (hesped) for a young child; it concluded that for children of the poor there may be a hesped from age of five and onward, and for the children of the rich, six and onward (M K 24b; Shulhan Arukh 344.4). All of this indicated that relatively little was made of infant deaths or still born babies. Such sad events occurred quite frequently and the communities would have been in a constant state of mourning if rites had been required (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 263.5; 353.6; Berit Olam pp 68 ff).
We do not follow the practice of circumcision at the grave and regret the custom. However, we would encourage the parents to give a name to the infant.
In our age when infant mortality is low, the feeling of loss and grief is great. It may help the young parents to overcome their sorrow if the child is given a name, and therefore possesses a definite identity. This should be done in an informal way soon after the child is born. Through it we seek to help the mother and the rest of the family through this difficult period.