The Shalom Zachar

Sponsored by Fred and Judy Farbman in memory of Judy’s father, Louise Gerstle, Michoel ben Shmuel Aryeh. May his Neshoma have an Aliyah.

Parsha Halacha – Parshat Lech Lecha

Origins and Reasons for this Important Celebration

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In the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, we read that G-d commanded Avraham to circumcise himself, his family members and his future male descendants.[1] I have already written about the laws and customs of a Brit Milah, so this article will focus on the Shalom Zachor, the celebration on the Friday night before a Brit.
Shalom Zachor
It is customary among Ashkenazic Jews[2] to have a gathering in honor of the baby on the Friday night after a baby boy is born.[3] This is usually done at the home of the parents of the baby or of nearby relatives or friends (see below) and occurs after the Friday night Shabbat meal. Friends and family gather to wish the parents and baby well and to have a bite to eat and drink.
The Talmud[4] mentions a feast called “Yeshua HaBen, the Salvation of the Son.” Rashi understands this to mean the feast of a Pidyon HaBen (the redemption of the first born) while Rabbeinu Chananel[5] understands it to mean a feast made to celebrate the baby’s having been born safely, thus the title “salvation of the son.” It has been suggested[6] that this is referring to the custom of the Shalom Zachor feast. It is held on Friday night as that is a night when people are commonly at home. The Talmud says[7] that Rav (as well as Shmuel and Rav Assi) attended that feast. Elsewhere the Talmud says that Rav would eat (out of his home) only at a Mitzvah feast, from which we can infer that a Shalom Zachor is considered a Mitzvah feast. [8]
Reasons for the Custom
Several reasons are given for this custom:[9]
  • Celebrating the Safe Passage of the Baby
As mentioned above, the Talmud (according to one interpretation) calls the Shalom Zachor  “Yeshua HaBen,” as it is a feast celebrating the fact that the baby was “saved” during the ordeal of his birth and was delivered safely. (See below regarding baby girls.)
  • Reminding the Baby about its Oath
The Talmud says[10] that, before being born, the baby is made to swear that he will observe the entire Torah. Now that he is born and is experiencing his first mitzvah (Shabbat), it is appropriate to remind the baby about his oath. This is why the party is called Shalom Zachor which can be translated as “a peaceful reminder.” According to some opinions, the Talmud refers to it as the “Shavuah Haben.” (Rashi explains this to be referring to the Brit Milah which occurs after 7 days [“shavua” means a week] although some say[11] it means a Shalom Zachor.) Shavua Haben can also be translated as the “vow of the son,” referring to the fact that we are reminding the newborn of his vow.[12]
  • Comforting the Baby for Forgetting the Torah
According to the Talmud,[13] when a baby boy is in utero, an angel comes and teaches him the entire Torah.[14] Just as he is being born, an angel hits him so that he forgets all of the Torah that he learned.[15] The Shalom Zachor feast is a gathering to console the baby for its loss.[16]
    • Having forgotten the entire Torah, the baby will now have to learn it himself. To be able to do this, his parents will need to provide him with a sound Torah education which may be expensive. By making a meal on his first Shabbat, we are teaching the baby (and ourselves) the following lesson: The Talmud says[17] that neither the expenses of Shabbat nor the expenses of providing a Torah education for one’s children detract from a person’s income, meaning whatever he is supposed to earn in a year will be above and beyond any monies he spent on Shabbat meals and the Torah education of his children. Thus, the lesson is that just as this meal is “taken care of” – financially – by G-d, so, too, will He “take care of” all of the expenses of the child’s Torah education.
    • Based on this reason, it is customary to eat round beans (chickpeas, also known as arbes) which is a sign of mourning (i.e., the baby’s sadness over forgetting the Torah).[18]
  • Shabbat Prepares the Baby for the Brit
The Midrash says[19] that the reason the Torah instructs to make the brit on the 8th day (also the reason that a baby animal cannot be sacrificed until the 8th day of its life) is so that they experience Shabbat before they are “brought” to Hashem. This is compared to a king who decreed that before anyone could have an audience with him, they would have to meet with the queen first. So too, Shabbat being the queen, G-d says that anyone who wishes to be “brought close” to Me, whether a baby for a brit or an animal for sacrifice , must experience Shabbat beforehand. Thus, the Shabbat before the brit is an integral precursor to the brit, which is why we celebrate the Shalom Zachar on that day.
    • Shabbat is the day which gives strength to all of the days of the coming week. So it is appropriate that an animal (and a baby) should experience a Shabbat and receive the strength of that Shabbat before they are brought to Hashem (either as a sacrifice or as one who gets a brit).[20]
The Chatam Sofer suggests[21] that the last two reasons (forgetting the Torah and the passing of Shabbat) are connected. If the child had not forgotten the Torah, he would have been ready for the Brit (and thus the receiving of the Shechinah) immediately after birth. But because he forgot the Torah, he must pass through the Shabbat to be prepared for this experience.
Why not for Girls?
It is not customary to make a Shalom Zachor (or Shalom Nekeivah) feast for the birth of a baby girl[22] although it is customary to celebrate the birth with a Kiddush after the naming of the baby. Based on two of the reasons for the Shalom Zachor given above, this custom is understandable.
According to the opinion that the Shalom Zachor is to console the baby for forgetting the Torah, it would seem that, since studying Torah is not mandatory for women (except for the laws which they must observe), they do not need to study it in utero.[23]
According to the opinion that the Shalom Zachor is to celebrate the Shabbat which is a preparation for the brit, this is obviously not relevant for girls, as they do not have a brit.
However, according to the opinion that the purpose of the Shalom Zachor is to remind the child of his oath, it would seem that this should be appropriate for girls as well. Rav Yaakov Emden explains that every soul actually consists of two souls, one male and one female. Thus, every man and every woman are actually half souls. Although they are separated at birth, they reunite when they get married. Thus, when the soul of the boy swears that he will observe the Torah, his oath applies to his future wife’s soul as well.
According to the opinion that the purpose of the Shalom Zachor is to thank G-d for saving the baby during labor and delivery, it is difficult to understand why this is not celebrated for girls as well. It is possible that this is fulfilled by the “Kiddush” celebration that is traditionally held for the birth (and naming) of a girl and thus no separate celebration needs to be made (see note 21).
Reason for the Name
Rabbi Yosef Dovid Rubin, the Sassover Rebbe of New York (1898 – 1983), explained[24] the reason for the name Shalom Zachor, which literally means “peace to the male.” The Talmud says[25] that when a baby boy is born, he brings peace to the world and that upon his birth, he is born “with a loaf in his hand.” This is understood to mean that immediately upon his birth, G-d already grants him with a blessing for his future “parnassah,” his source of a livelihood. (This is referred to as a “loaf” since bread is the main food of mankind.) Since a lack of income can be a major source of strife in a household (see Bava Metziah 59a[26]), when a person is blessed with an income (as the baby is), this brings peace. Thus, the name “Shalom Zach-oar” – peace brought about by the birth of a boy. Rabbi Rubin quotes a previous Sassover Rebbe who used to say that since the baby brings a loaf with him and he doesn’t need to eat the entire loaf, he leaves over plenty for his parents, i.e., his birth brings a blessing of parnassah to the parents as well.
If the Baby Is Not Present
It is best to have the Shalom Zachor in the house where the baby is as we can then comfort him (directly) for his forgetting of the Torah (see above). If this is not possible, one should have the Shalom Zachor elsewhere as several of the abovementioned reasons apply in any place (to thank Hashem for the safe passage of the baby and to celebrate on the Shabbat before the brit.)[27]
If There Are Two Friday Nights
If the baby is born in the very beginning of Shabbat and the Shalom Zachor can be celebrated either on the first Friday night (right after the birth) or the next one (the night before the brit), it is questionable as to when to celebrate the Shalom Zachor.[28] In practice, since there is not usually enough time to arrange the Shalom Zachor and inform one’s friends before the first Friday night, it is better to have the Shalom Zachor on the second Friday night.[29]
A Premature Baby
If the baby is born prematurely and still needs care, it is best to delay the Shalom Zachor until he is healthy. In this way the Shalom Zachor will celebrate his recovery as well.[30]
May we all experience many Smachot!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach

[1] Gen. Chapter 17
[2] The Sefardic custom is to do a celebration called Brint Yitzchak on the night before the brit. Some of the reasons for the Shalom Zachar are certainly fulfilled through the Brit Yitzchak (see below).
[3] Rama, Y.D., 265:12
[4] Bava Kammah, 80a
[5] Cited in Tosfot D.H. Lebei Yeshua
[6] Terumat HaDeshen, 269. But see Dagul MeRevavah on Y.D. 178, Shach 6, who says that if this would be the reason for a Shalom Zachor, it should be made for a girl as well. He therefore says that it is referring to the meal before the Brit (Vach Nacht) which is considered like the beginning of the Brit celebration. According to this interpretation, the Vach Nacht is considered a Mitzvah meal (Teshuvah MeAhava on Y.D. ibid).
[7] Chullin 95b
[8] Based on this, the Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kamma, chapter 7, Siman 37) concludes that any meal that is made to thank G-d and to praise Him is a Mitzvah meal. It follows, he writes, that the feasts made on Chanukah to thank Hashem for His salvation should be considered Mitzvah meals.
[9] The Responsa Avnei Derech by Rabbi Elchonon Prince, Jerusalem, 2012, page 111, citing Nefesh HaRav, page 242, gives a historical explanation for this celebration. He suggests that it was customary for the rabbi of the city to visit the home of a new mother on the first Friday night after she had a baby in order to rule if the Shabbat should be desecrated for her care. When the rabbi would go, other important members of the community would join him. This developed into an official celebration.
[10] Niddah 30b
[11] See Yam Shel Shlomo Siman 37. See also the Braita quoted in note 21 which refers to a Shavua HaBen and a Shavua HaBat. Clearly the Shavua HaBen cannot be a Brit celebration as there is no parallel celebration for girls.
[12] Rav Yakov Emden in his sefer Birat Migdal Oz, in the section called Te’alat HaBreicha Ha’elyona
[13] Niddah, ibid
[14] The commentaries question the purpose of his being taught the Torah since he is going to be made to forget it in any case. Several explanations are given:
  • Since the Torah is G-d’s wisdom, it is essentially a spiritual, holy and exalted wisdom whose deep secrets are beyond human intellect. When the child is in utero and is not yet sullied by sin, he is able to comprehend it. Since the child has learned it once, he can later comprehend it again as it has made an imprint on his mind. This is why the Talmud (Megillah 6b) says in reference to Torah study, “If one says, ‘I toiled and I found, believe him,” i.e., the Torah is like an object that one had and lost and is now finding it again. (Vilna Gaon, cited in Pit’chei Niddah – Chochmat Betzalel on Niddah ibid, D.H. Umelamdin)
  • Since the soul of the baby is made to swear that he will fulfill the entire Torah (Niddah, ibid), he must first learn the Torah, as otherwise how can he swear to observe it? (Aruch LeNer on Niddah, ibid, D.H. Umah).
[15] The Maharal says that this means that the angel forces the baby’s soul into his body. As a result of this, he automatically forgets the Torah which he can only grasp fully while in a more spiritual state.
[16] Taz on Y.D. ibid based on Derisha, 13
[17] Beitzah, 16a
[18] See Mo’adei Yisrael BaHalacha UvAggadah (by Rav Yisrael Salonika, Rishon LeTziyon, 1999), vol. 2, page 231
[19] Bamidar Rabbah, Parshat Emor, 27:10
[20] Rabbi Avraham Seba of Spain and Morroco (1440 -1508) in Tzeror HaMor on Parshat Emor. Rabbi Seba was the grandfather of the wife of the Bait Yosef.
[21] Derashot, vol. 1, pg. 178b
[22] There is a Braita (a Mishnaic teaching) which does mention a Shavua HaBat, i,e, the celebration for the birth of a daughter. This braita is quoted in the Ramban (Torat Ha’Adam, Sha’ar HaSof, Inyan Hahotza’ah, paragraph beginning UviMechilta Acharita) and in the Maharitz Ge’ut (Sha’arei Simcha. Hilchot Avel, D.H. UveAvel Tanya) as being from Tractate Smachot (printed after Tractate Avodah Zarah). I could not find it in our version of Tractate Smachot. In any case, the commentary of Yitzchak Yeranen by Rabbi Dov Bamberger on the Maharitz Ge’ut understands that the Shavua HaBat is referring to a celebration marking the naming of a baby girl. This is similar to the custom of making a Kiddush which is still practiced.
[23] But see above in note 8 that, according to the Aruch LaNer, the reason the baby is taught Torah in utero is so that he will know what the Torah is and can then make an oath to observe the Torah. Since women must observe the Torah, it would seem, that they too, must take this oath. Thus, according to this reasoning, they, too, should study the Torah in utero.
[24] Atzei Levanon, end of vol.3 in a section called Ma’amarei Chazal.
[25] Niddah 31b
[26] “Rav Yehudah said ‘a person should always make sure that there is grain (sustenance) in his home as arguments in the home are always about this matter.’… Rav Papa said, ‘That is why people say ‘When the barley is finished in the jug, an argument comes knocking.'”
[27] Responsa Avnei Derech by Rabbi Elchonon Prince, Jerusalem, 2012, pg. 112
[28] As far as the reason of celebrating the baby’s safe passage, the first Friday night would be better. As far as the reason of comforting the child, the second one would be better (assuming that on the first Friday night the baby will still be in the hospital and on the second one he will be home). As far as the reason of celebrating the Shabbat before the brit, either one would be acceptable.
[29] Ibid
[30] Ibid in the name of Responsa Az Nidberu (13:74).

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