The significance and meaning behind a shalom zachar
In Israel there’s a gemach for almost everything; you name it, and there’s likely a Jewish family (or ten) who provide the item free of charge. There are even arbes gemachs, for people who have a baby boy shortly before Shabbos and don’t have enough time to prepare the traditional chickpeas for the shalom zachar.
But why do chickpeas play such a prominent role in a shalom zachar? To answer that, we need to look at the significance and meaning behind this event.
Of Children and Chickpeas
Terumas Hadeshen sees the shalom zachar as a display of gratitude to Hashem that the infant has survived birth. And in celebrating the birth of the child, we are celebrating the continuity of the Jewish People — both as a whole, and through this family specifically.
The arbes we eat allude to the brachah given to Avraham Avinu: “Arbeh es zarecha,” the promise that Hashem will increase Avraham’s descendants to be like the stars of the heaven. At the new baby’s bris, we bless him that just as he entered the bris, so too he should merit to enter Torah, chuppah, and maasim tovim. From the very beginning of his life, we foresee many future beginnings, and we offer the child and his parents these abundant blessings.
Rabbi Yehoshua Chilo in his sefer Mishnas Yehoshua quotes the Rema (Yoreh Dei’ah 265:12), who writes that the meal served in honor of the shalom zachar is considered a seudas mitzvah. Today, he adds, the custom is to invite people to come over after the meal, to enjoy fruits, cakes, and drinks in honor of the occasion.
It’s fascinating to note that the joy of a shalom zachar is actually born out of mourning. The Taz, quoting Drishah, explains that the shalom zachar is held to comfort the baby, who is mourning the Torah he forgot with the angel’s tap on the lip. This is one reason why we celebrate the bris milah on the eighth day of the baby’s life — so a seven-day mourning period can be completed.
With this understanding, we see yet another reason for the arbes. Mourners are traditionally served round foods, to remind them of the cyclical nature of the world. Here, the arbes remind us that although the Torah of the womb has been forgotten, the child will spend a lifetime acquiring his Torah once again.
According to this approach, it’s best to host the shalom zachar wherever the baby actually is. Even though the baby has no conscious understanding of what’s taking place, it will make an impression on him. And it will affect the guests too, reminding them that they, too, learned the entire Torah and that the purpose of life is to regain that original Torah through effort.
It is this Torah — the Torah that is acquired through hard work — that we value. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that we do not stand up for a pregnant woman, even though the child she is carrying knows all of Torah, since he did not actually acquire the Torah he knows; we stand only for someone who has toiled to learn Torah.
The word “zachor,” explains the Migdal Oz, is a reference to remembering, reminding us that we must relearn the forgotten Torah. At the shalom zachar, we recognize the child’s loss — and remind ourselves that we must devote our lifetimes to reacquiring Torah.
A Time of Peace
Mishnas Yehoshua quotes the Gemara (Niddah 31b), which states that when a boy is born, peace enters the world. At this gathering, we welcome the new dimension of shalom that came into the world with the birth of this zachar. This is the reason for the minhag the Taz cites [YD 264:13]: one should invite to the shalom zachar people one doesn’t get along with, to make peace with them and to share blessings.
Another reason for the name shalom zachar, explains Taamei Haminhagim, is that Shabbos is referred to as “shalom” and this is a Shabbos gathering in honor of the new boy born into the world. Indeed, the commentators explain, the child must experience a Shabbos before his bris milah. Shabbos is a repository of peace and blessing and encapsulates the Divine Presence — all necessary prerequisites to the child entering a permanent covenant with Hashem.
Rabbi Avraham Jacobovitz offers a deeper insight into this. The newborn child is mourning; he has entered This World, and it’s so distant from the Olam Haba he came from. However, when he experiences Shabbos, which is “me’ein Olam Haba,” he realizes that at least once a week he can tap into that repository of kedushah. This enables the child to be in a state of shalom and joy, which allows him to be worthy of the Divine Presence upon him at the time of the bris.
Shabbos is also a time when people visit righteous individuals, and gain inspiration from them. It’s therefore appropriate to visit a newborn baby, who is free of sin; being in his presence should inspire visitors to want to achieve this level of purity in their own lives.
The Best Protection
The Sephardic communities have a different custom following the birth of a baby boy. Instead of a shalom zachar, they host a gathering called a “Brit Yitzchak” the night before the bris milah. Rabbi Shmuel Yerushalmi, in Magalei Chayim, explains that the father of the baby should make a special meal and stay up all night learning. There is a special tikkun that’s recited. Many people have at least a minyan of people who join the father and learn with him all night.
There are two primary reasons for this custom. First, we want to enhance this most special mitzvah by beginning the celebrations the night before. Additionally, this minhag provides the child with protection. The night before a bris milah is seen as a time of potential danger for the child, as the satan will want to prevent another child from entering into the covenant of the Jewish People, especially since someone who is circumcised is saved from Gehinnom. Torah learning offsets this danger.
The Shelah Hakadosh notes that the house should be full of light, which will further protect the child. This is based on the pasuk in Megillas Esther that states that the Jews had “orah v’simchah v’sasson v’yikar — light, joy, gladness, and glory.” Chazal understood the word sasson to be a reference to the mitzvah of milah, and it’s therefore appropriate to have a lot of light. (Some also have the custom to put a knife under the child’s head on this night.)
Even in the Ashekanzic world this night has significance. It’s usually referred to as the vach-nacht, the night of watching. Many people invite little boys to come and say the Shema and Hamalach Hagoel in front of the child’s crib on this night, as a medium of protection. Otzar Habris suggests that the reason Shema is recited is because Shema represents accepting upon oneself the yoke of Hashem’s sovereignty — the forerunner to accepting the mitzvos, which is the purpose of the bris the following day.
All new starts need special protection, but when visitors leave the evening inspired, that in itself becomes one of the greatest protections for the child.
The birth of a baby is a time of transition and beginning. And while we feel a sense of mourning for the past, we have a glorious vision for the child’s future.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 685)
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