Parshas Devarim (Chazon) 5776
Perhaps the strangest of all Jewish lifecycle events is the Shalom Zachar. Unlike other lifecycle celebrations, there are no speeches, there is no ceremony, no special prayers or songs. It is just a bunch of people getting together, saying L’chaim and Mazel Tov.
The Shalom Zachar (lit. “Welcoming the Male”) is an informal gathering which takes place on the first Friday night after a baby boy's birth, generally at the home of the newborn. Light refreshments are served, including the traditional chick peas, but not a full meal. Typically, friends and family drop by to convey their congratulations, to have a bite to eat, to share words of Torah, and to sing songs welcoming the newborn and thanking G-d for the birth.
The source for this Ashkenazic custom is the ruling of the Rem”a in Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 265:12: “It is customary to make a festive meal on the Friday night after the birth of a baby boy. People go to the house where the baby is, to taste something [there], and this [eating] is also [considered] a seudas mitzvah.”
So what is the Shalom Zachar really all about? Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, in his book Bris Milah (Artscroll Mesorah Publications), quotes various commentators who explain the deeper meaning behind this strange event:
While a baby develops within the womb, an angel teaches him the entire Torah. Just before birth, the angel touches the child on his mouth causing him to forget all that he has learned (Talmud - Niddah 30b). The gathering in the home of the newborn is to “console” him for the Torah he has forgotten (Ta”z Yoreh De’ah 265:13). And since the baby is "in mourning" for the Torah he has lost, lentils or beans (and chick peas) are usually served, since these foods are customarily eaten by mourners (Zocher HaBris 3:6).
The Shalom Zachar is held on Friday night, for that is when people are more apt to be at home, and available to participate (Terumas HaDeshen 269). Additionally, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 27:10) relates the parable of a king who visited a province and decreed that anyone wishing to have an audience with him personally, must first pay respects to the royal matron. So too, one who wishes to enter into everlasting covenant with G-d [the King] through circumcision must first celebrate with the Sabbath Queen. (Ta”z Yoreh De’ah 265:13).
Rabbi Yaakov Emden, in his Siddur (Prayer Book), speculates that the proper name for the celebration is Shalom Zachor (zachor means “remembering”, as opposed to zachar, which means “male”). Based on the Talmudic teaching cited above that the baby is made to forget the entire Torah, we gather at the newborn’s home on Shabbos – about which is written “Remember the day of Sabbath” (Exodus 20:8) – and pray that he will indeed study the Torah and ‘remember’ what he has forgotten.
Alternatively, Rabbi Emden suggests that on Shabbos, the day of “remembering”, we seek to remind the newborn baby of the oath he took inside the womb to be a good Jew. This is based on the Talmud (also in Niddah 30b) which states: “The child does not leave the womb before it is made to take an oath. And what is the context of the oath that is administered to the unborn child? He is told as follows: Become a righteous person and not a wicked one ….”
I think we can understand the unique power of Shabbos to remind the infant of its “in utero” oath and Torah learning as follows: The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary to Proverbs 6:33, quotes the Zohar in Parshas Naso which states that when a person is about to die, that very same angel who taught him the entire Torah in his mother’s womb now comes back to see how much of that original Torah he actually studied and put into practice in this world.
I believe that the deeper message here is that there are two points in a person’s life when he has total clarity as to his mission here on earth and to the vast potential of growth and good deeds which he is meant to actualize: just before he enters into the physical world as a newborn baby and just before he leaves it and goes on to the next world. This clarity is symbolized by the angel who teaches the new baby all the Torah it needs to know, and later comes to test him – now as a grown-up old man – to see how much he learned and accomplished.
The challenge is, though, how will the young baby growing up be able to remind himself of his mission and ultimate purpose between those two points - when life happens, and when he gets busy with all the “toys” of the physical world which can easily distract him from his goals??
That is where Shabbos comes in. Shabbos is that “seventh-day reminder” of what we’re really here for on earth. On this holy day of no distractions and outside noise, the child/grown-up “reminds” himself of that oath he took in his mother’s womb when he got the clarity of all the Torah that he studied. This way he can be sure that he will do well at the end of his life on his “final exam” when the angel returns. It is my fervent hope and prayer that our newborn baby grandson – on his first Shabbos in this world, surrounded by all those who come to the Shalom Zachar to wish his family Mazel Tov – shall always remember his purpose in life and bring nachas to us all.
[Ed. Note: Rabbi Yaakov Emden further explains that since the Zohar in Parshas Lech Lecha teaches that man and women are each plag nishmesa – two halves of one whole soul – the oath that this boy fetus is made to swear in the womb is really being sworn on behalf of his “soulmate” as well. Thus, the Shalom Zachor ceremony, whose purpose is to ‘remind’ the newborn of that oath, is actually a celebration for both girl and boy babies, as it incorporates both the newborn baby boy and his future other half – wherever that girl may be.]