Is it a problem to pray while holding a baby in my arms?

Responsum of: Rabbanit Hanna Godinger (Dreyfuss)


I heard it is forbidden to pray while holding a baby, but I have no other way of praying. I have several young children, and it is difficult for me to find a time when I have someone to give the baby to, so that I can pray in peace and quiet without him. What should I do?


It is challenging to manage to pray during the stage of life when we are caring for young children. This challenge is both practical – how to find several minutes of quiet in the midst of getting the family ready in the morning – and internal – how to focus on prayer when our thoughts are racing between the unending tasks that fall on our shoulders.  

Before I address the question of holding a child while praying, it is important to remember that women are obligated to pray. Some try to explain, through various halakhic mechanisms, why women are exempt from the mitzvah of prayer during the challenging time period of raising children. Nevertheless, we are not always interested in taking advantage of these exemptions, because prayer, like other mitzvot, is not just a challenge; it is also a gift, of a few wonderful moments a day when we are given the peace and quiet to stand before God. This choice is appropriate and good: it demonstrates the insistence of a mother of young children to raise her head above her demanding and exhausting daily routine; it enables her to have some quite time to look inward; and it provides an opportunity to bring God and prayer into the worries and cares of raising children.

I want to strengthen you in this important choice, which is not obvious – not to give up, and to find a twisting path to succeed in praying despite all the tasks and (sweet…) noise around us.

In answer to your question: The Shulhan Arukh rules in Siman 96 in Orah Hayyim, that when we pray, we should not hold in our hands tefillin, books, a full plate, a knife, money, or a loaf of bread. After this list, the Shulhan Arukh brings the reason for his ruling (according to Rashi’s interpretation in Brakhot 23b): “Because one's heart is [focused] on them that they should not fall,” meaning that when we are holding something while praying, some of our attention will be focused on concern that the object in our hands does not fall. Holding a baby is not mentioned in the Shulhan Arukh’s list, but, in the previous section, the Mishneh Brurah says in the name of the Barkhi Yosef, that it is forbidden to put a baby in front of us while praying, for a similar reason.

From these words, it sounds like it is problematic to pray while holding a baby, because the person’s attention will be directed toward the baby, making sure the baby does not fall, etc.

The Piskei Teshuvot discusses the case of a soldier who carries a weapon and asks whether he can pray while holding the weapon. The Piskei Teshuvot concludes that if the soldier has nowhere safe to place his weapon, then if he puts the weapon down next to him while praying, he will be worried the whole time that someone will take his weapon. This situation is similar to the law prohibiting holding certain objects while praying, but the reasoning behind that law is different, since the prohibition aims to help the person focus on the prayer itself. It seems that this difference between the cases leads the Piskei Teshuvot to decide that the soldier who has nowhere safe and secure to put his weapon can pray while holding his weapon – even the Amidah prayer.

I think that this halakhic reasoning can also apply to the case of a woman (or man) who wants to pray while holding a baby. In a situation where the parent has an option of putting the baby somewhere such that s/he doesn’t have to worry about where the baby is and what the baby is doing, then the parent should do so. But in a situation where is no such option – it is better that the parent should hold the baby, because that is the only way that s/he can focus on prayer as much as possible. This is a good and wonderful choice, better than the choice of not praying, and we should encourage a woman who chooses to make an effort during the busy days (and nights) of caring for young children to find a time and place (even if not a quiet one) for prayer.

Along with this permission, it is necessary to learn about and understand the limits that the Halakha places regarding praying next to a baby with a dirty diaper, a situation that I am sure you have encountered from time to time… I will just mention some of the main points here: Regarding saying certain parts of prayer next to a baby with a dirty diaper – the relevant question is whether there is a bad smell coming from the diaper. What follows from this principle is that: 1. Urine of a baby or toddler is generally not problematic, and one can pray next to it. 2. The bowel movements of a baby who only nurses generally do not have a bad smell, which would make it forbidden to pray next to it. But if a bigger baby does a bowel movement while you are praying, you must stop praying, change his diaper, wash your hands, and continue to pray.

Beyond the halakhic discussion itself, as a mother of young children myself, I suggest a different perspective on the reality you describe. The section of the Shulhan Arukh where we learn this ruling continues and discusses the question of holding a lulav or a siddur while praying. One can hold these two things while praying, because they are necessary for the prayer itself. The Beit Yosef explains (following the explanation of Rashi on the passage in the tractate of Sukkah): “Because he loves the mitzvah, holding the lulav and guarding it is not a burden and does not preoccupy him.” That is to say, for some things, like a lulav on Sukkot, holding them is not a nuisance, but a joy and pleasure, which enriches our experience of prayer.  Sometimes, we experience our children as a burden and challenge when it comes to fulfilling mitzvot, but sometimes this description (of how the person feels praying with a lulav) is fitting for a mother (or father) while holding their baby, the fruit of their womb. In these moments, holding a baby is not a distraction to praying, but actually strengthens our connection to God, bringing the worlds that we are thanking and asking God for into the act of prayer.

Along these lines, the Ba’al Shem Tov explains in one of his teachings on the story of Noach, regarding the verse: “Come to the ark, you and your wife and your children.” The Ba’al Shem Tov interprets the word “teivah” (literally – ark) that is mentioned in this verse as meaning a “word” – and the most meaningful word in the life of a God-serving person is prayer. According to this interpretation, the Ba’al Shem Tov interprets the verse calling on Noach to come into the teivah with his wife and children, as an instruction teaching each one of us to come to prayer with everything in our lives: wife, children, financial concerns, and other worries regarding our lives… The teivah – which is to say, prayer – is not a quiet island where we go to get away from everything that we are going through – but, rather, a teivah (ark) with an open window, that brings to prayer everything we are working on and worrying about.

I pray that you succeed in enjoying this sweet period of life of raising young children, and also succeed in growing as a result of the challenges that this time period brings.

Rabbanit Hanna

Sources for Further Learning:

Avudraham Sha’ar 3 Blessings for Mitzvot

The reason that women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot, is because women are obligated to serve their husbands and meet his needs. And if she was obligated in time-bound mitzvot, it could happen that at the time she was doing a mitzvah, her husband would command her to do his bidding. And if she fulfills the mitzvah (commandment) of the Creator and sets aside her husband’s command, woe to her on account of her husband. And if she fulfills his command, and sets aside the Creator’s commandment, woe to her on account of her Creator. Therefore, the Creator made her exempt from His commandments, in order to make peace between her and her husband. And we have seen an even greater thing than this, that the great name of God that is written in holiness and purity is erased by the water (in the case of Sotah) in order to make peace between husband and wife.

Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim Laws of Prayer Siman 96 Section 1

When one is praying, one should not hold in one's hand tefillin, and not a book of holy writings, and not a full plate, and not a knife, or money, or a loaf [of bread] because one's heart is [focused] on them that they should not fall, and one will be distracted and will lose one's focus. And [regarding] a lulav at its time [i.e. performing its mitzvah]: it is permitted to hold it in [one's] hand, [and] since the holding [of it] in one's hand is the mitzvah, one will not be distracted because of it.

Mishneh Brurah on Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim Laws of Prayer Siman 96 Section 1

The Barkhi Yosef writes that the same ruling applies to a baby; it is prohibited to put a baby next to you during prayer.

Piskei Teshuvah Siman 96 Section 1

A person needs to take off his shoulders and neck any kind of pack or bag, camera, etc. when he is praying the Amidah. If he is worried, and he fears that if he takes them off, they will be stolen or damaged, it is better that he carries them in his hands or on his shoulders, and then he will be calmer and be able to focus more, than if he takes them off and is worried the entire prayer that they will be stolen. Similarly, regarding carrying a weapon, there is no prohibition if his job requires it, and he is worried that if he puts it down next to him it will be stolen or damaged.

Beit Yosef Orah Hayyim Siman 96

We say at the end of the chapter regarding a stolen lulav, that Ameimar was praying with a lulav in his hand, and the Gemara raises an objection from the tannaitic passage that one cannot pray while holding in in one’s hands tefillin etc. The Gemara answers that the cases in that passage are different, because holding them is not connected to doing a mitzvah, and he is preoccupied by them, whereas here (in the case of the lulav) it is for a mitzvah, so he is not preoccupied with it. Rashi explains that it is not a mitzvah to hold the things listed in that passage, so they are a burden to him, and he is preoccupied by holding them and they are a burden for him to hold and guard. Here, taking the lulav is a mitzvah, and because he loves the mitzvah, holding the lulav and guarding it is not a burden and does not preoccupy him.