Physiological context: The philtrum is the dip or groove in the middle of the upper lip below the nose (link). It is a feature of most mammals, thought to draw water from the mouth to the nose to keep the nose moist but is vestigial in humans. It is formed around the second month as the parts of the embryo's face grow together and meet there (link).

Anyway, I've heard that it is formed by an angel striking the lip just before a baby is born so it forgets all the Torah it learned in the womb. What is the source for this tradition? The best I found was Nidah 30B (PDF link) (point by point Daf Yomi link) which says, "Once he is born, an angel slaps him on the mouth, and he forgets everything." What is the link between that statement and it forming the philtrum? (I'm sure the chachamim would have seen the feature on stillborn fetuses, non-Jews, and maybe even noticed it on mammals, so it might not even make sense for them to say the angel forms the philtrum. I'm not sure if they do or don't; I'm asking for the source for the part of the tradition that says it changes the face.)


2 Answers 2


Rav Ahron Lopiansky seemed to dispel this myth as being an old bubby's tale in a lecture. His words were some thing along the lines of "Yiddishe bubbies say that this is the makeh, (slap)", while gesturing to his philtrum, with a smile on his face. I subsequently had a phone conversation in which I asked him directly for his stance. He said that he hasn't seen an explicit source for such an idea anywhere.

According to him, what that saying really means is that an angel grants us the ability to speak and articulate and rationally think. We lose clarity in everything because up until the point of birth everything we knew was in a spiritual dimension different from common consciousness and thought. Thus it is not readily accessible to the conscious mind and we have to relearn it.

  • 1
    The Maharal in Gevuros Hashem ch. 28 is a good source for R' Lopiansky's explanation of what the Gemara really means. Nov 4, 2014 at 19:13
  • If I remember correctly, RL gave feelings and emotions sometimes brought on by music that can be difficult or impossible to describe as being an example of or parable for how all of our knowledge was before birth. The knowledge becomes vague to the point of being undecipherable in any rational way.
    – Baby Seal
    Oct 30, 2016 at 18:43

This blog post mentions that it appears in some collections of Jewish legends and the like, but not in any traditional Jewish sources.

R. Chaim Kanievsy (in this Kuntres on Chinuch) was asked whether or not woman are taught Torah in the womb, and pointing out that women also have a philtrum, and it seems like he uses this as a proof that the philtrum is not created because of the angel's hitting, though he isn't so clear.

R. Yithak Ratzabi, regarded by most to be the greatest Yemenite talmid chacham today, has an online discussion surrounding this question, and inter alia mentions that if this idea is to be taken literally, than women also learn the Torah in the womb. In fact, the Torah (or some form of it) is even taught to gentiles, as after all, they too have a philtrum. He assumes that its presence indicates that there was an angel who taught the fetus in utero (I'm not sure what he would say about other mammals, though).

  • Looks like Abe Socher read your answer jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/1715/…
    – wfb
    Jun 18, 2015 at 16:11
  • @wfb thanks for sharing, but it's just as likely (perhaps more likely) that he merely saw the blog post that I myself was quoting Jun 18, 2015 at 16:23
  • True, I'm sure he read that post
    – wfb
    Jun 18, 2015 at 16:30

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