Angels in the Womb


Moshe Ben-Chaim


Reader: I was reading this Medrash, and it all seems too “magical” and not rational, especially the part that says, “When a baby is in the womb, he is taught the entire Torah. However, as soon as he enters the air of this world, an angel comes and strikes him on his mouth, causing him to forget the entire Torah.” (Niddah 20b)  Can you shed some light on this?


Mesora: This Medrash was once explained by a Rabbi, and in consonance with Plato’s theory of “recall”. (Plato said we do not learn anew, but we recall, thus, explaining how one may at one moment be ignorant, and subsequently see new concepts.) This Medrash means that certain knowledge is innate, “as if it was taught in the womb”. An example is our concept of “equality”: we know when two things are not equal, and not because it was taught to us, but because our minds are already “stamped” with that concept equality, from the womb. This explains why a child is frightened at a non-familiar face. He ‘knows’ the features of his real parent, as he “compares” what he sees to his memory. But this realization that this face is not “equal” is not learned, but innate. So too is his “comparison”. The child automatically compares, as this is the function of the mind, and not learned. Humans possess a mind, which is formed from birth including certain “functions” by design, such as comparing and equating. These functions are not learned later, but are part of the mind…as if we “learned them in the womb”. The aspect of “forgetting” once entering this world means that the child is not readily enabled to utilize all of the mind’s features, as if he “forgot” them. “Angel” is used to refer to God’s natural laws. Nothing more.