I. Nidah and Childbirth
The world was recently bewildered by a strange Jewish practice that apparently prevents a man from delivering his own baby. A husband whose wife was in labor flagged down a tow truck driver to deliver the baby because the husband was religiously forbidden to touch her (link). I believe that the husband’s actions are justifiable halakhically and practically, although normative rulings would not require such extreme action.
The general rule is that a husband and wife may not touch each other during her nidah time. A woman about to give birth is also classified as a nidah (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 194:1; see in detail R. Zvi Sobolofsky, The Laws and Concepts of Niddah, pp. 14-17). Therefore, a husband may not touch his wife while she is giving birth.
II. Ill Wife
However, if she is sick and needs assistance that requires touching, then the husband may help her. The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 195:16) rules that if a sick woman who has a nidah status has no one to assist her yet greatly needs help then her husband may do anything necessary (mutar ba-kol). The Rema requires two conditions before the husband may help his wife: 1) she greatly needs help, 2) there is no one else to help. Meaning, the husband is forbidden to touch his wife if there is someone else to help. The Radbaz (Responsa vol. 4 no. 2) rules that the husband must even hire someone if no one will help for free. If we take the Rema at face value, then the husband who looked for someone else to help was doing the right thing.
The Rema’s position may not be that simple. While he clearly requires finding someone else to help a sick nidah wife (by help, I mean help that involves contact), he is not clear how sick the wife is. Is she seriously ill (ein bah sakanah) or deathly ill (yeish bah sakanah)? The Gra (ad loc., no. 20) assumes the discussion revolves around a wife who is deathly ill. Even in such a case, the husband must try to find someone else to help, if possible.
III. Seriously Ill Wife
However, most authorities assume that the Rema is talking about a woman who is seriously, but not deathly, ill. In such a case, a husband should hire a nurse to take care of his wife but if he cannot, then he can help her himself (Chokhmas Adam 116:11 [implied]; Arukh Ha-Shulchan, Yoreh De’ah 195:27; Beis She’arim, Yoreh De’ah 274; Darkhei Teshuvah 195:51; Badei Ha-Shulchan 195:187).
According to this second, normative view, does a husband have to look for someone else to help when his wife is deathly ill? R. Feivel Cohen (Badei Ha-Shulchan 195, Bi’urim sv. vy”o de-im) attempts to prove that the Rema is speaking about only a serious illness from the first condition listed above–the permission only applies if she needs his help a lot. If a wife is deathly ill, writes R. Cohen, then the husband may help if there is any need whatsoever for him (af be-tzorekh kol dehu). In other words, the Rema’s first condition does not apply to such a situation.
IV. Who Will Help?
I have not seen any authority rule that the Rema’s second condition does not apply in a case of a deathly ill wife, and for good reason. If someone else can help her in a fashion equal to or greater than the husband’s ability, why should he do it in an otherwise forbidden way when the other person can do it in an entirely permissible way? Let’s say the husband and a female nurse are standing beside the bed of a deathly ill woman who is a nidah and requires an arm massage to increase circulation. Of course the nurse should do it. She has no prohibition to override while the husband does. Better to do it permissibly rather than by overriding a prohibition.
However, delivering a baby is more complicated. We are not dealing with just the prohibition of a husband touching his nidah wife but also gazing at and and touching a woman’s private area (albeit during childbirth). Every Jewish man is forbidden to do this, regardless of whether the woman is his wife, absent a life-saving need.
I suggest, albeit tentatively, that the husband who flagged down someone to help was doing the right thing in trying to secure either a woman or gentile to assist. He must even hire someone to help if necessary; certainly he must try to ask someone to help. If no help was forthcoming, then he should delivery the baby himself.
An additional consideration is that almost anyone is more qualified to deliver a baby than the father, who is usually so nervous that he cannot properly function. Add in the unusual roadside circumstances and you have a very jittery man. A stranger is probably better for the wife. Of course, the wife is probably uncomfortable with a strange man delivering her baby. The exact calculus of which is greater–the physical benefit of a clear-thinking man or the psychological detriment of a strange man–seems impossible to resolve on any general basis. Every case is different.
Of course, this all assumes that he had sufficient time to find someone. If not, he would be endangering his wife’s and his baby’s lives. From the fact that he was successful, we can deduce that either he had enough time to ask for help or he was lucky. My two youngest children were extremely quick deliveries but I seem to recall time for brief discussion (by the doctor, not me) during the final moments.
In the end, I can’t condemn the man. He may have done the halakhically proper thing. It all depends on so many factors that we cannot evaluate from a brief news report. Most important to note is that he did not abandon his wife; he sought help. If no one was available to assist, he would certainly have delivered the baby himself rather than abandon his wife and newborn to child to an uncertain fate.