Life cycle events tend to provide us with a wealth of rituals and procedures, many of which are customs and not laws. The birth of a new child, and particularly a male child, is no exception. Our focus this week will be on the custom of having a "Shalom zachar" a party on the first Friday night after the birth of a baby boy.

The earliest reference to anything resembling such an affair is found in the gemara in Bava Kamma 80a. We are told there that Rav, Shmuel, and Rav Assi went to something that was either called "bei shavua ha-ben" or "bei yeshua ha-ben." The former seems to refer to something done on the occasion of a baby boy's first week of life, and thus Rashi identifies it as a Brit Mila. The second version of where they might have gone is a bit more confusing. It seems to speak about the redemption of a baby boy. For that reason, Rashi and the Aruch claim that it refers to a pidyon ha-ben, on which occasion a first born male child is redeemed from the priest. Tosafot argue on this, since the language of "yeshua" implies the type of redemption related to salvation, not to monetary redemption of something or someone. Thus, Tosafot adopt the view of Rabbeinu Channanel, who writes that the redemption here is the redemption of the child from his mother's womb, and there was a practice to have a festive meal in honor of the birth.

This notion of having some sort of celebration upon the birth of a boy is picked up by the Terumat HaDeshen (#269) who writes that the practice arose to make such affairs on Shabbat since that was a time when everyone is at home and can come to join in the celebration. The Taz (Y.D. 265:13) further cites a Medrash Rabba in parashat Emor that refers to sacrifices but is relevant here as well. Animals may not be sacrificed as soon as they are born. Rather, they remain with their mothers for a week, after which point they may be offered on the altar. The Medrash explains that this is a situation that can be compared to a king who refuses to see any visitors until they have first had an audience with his most trusted matron. So too, Hashem demands that any sacrifice first live through one Shabbat before being offered. Similarly, before receiving a Brit Mila and becoming a full-fledged member of the Jewish people, a Jewish boy has to live through one Shabbat. Since it is the Shabbat that is the most important day of this first week of his life, it is this day that is chosen for the celebration made in his honor.

However, there is a less celebratory theme that pervades the Shalom zachar as well. The gemara in Nidda 30b tells us that a fetus in the womb is taught the entire Torah. Just before emerging into the world, the angel who has served as the fetus' teacher gives him a slap over his upper lip, causing him to forget all that he has learned. The Brit Avram (cited in the footnotes of the Sefer Ta'amei HaMinhagim) cites the Ahavat Olam, who notes that a person is taught Torah before birth so as to pre-empt the evil inclination. However, a person must then forget that Torah so as to allow for the evil inclination to at least exist in his life, since otherwise he would not have any concept of reward and punishment, since he would not be aware of evil. Thus, since the child both loses his Torah and gains an evil inclination, he has the status of a mourner.

(Perhaps this is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In the laws of mourning we learn that when a Torah scholar passes away, everyone is considered as his mourner. Given the fact that the honor and respect due to a Torah scholar flows from what he has learned, it would seem that the loss of Torah is something that should be mourned. Additionally, there is the law that a person who sees a Sefer Torah burning has to tear his garments, as would any other mourner. Again, when Torah is lost in a dramatic fashion, it is incumbent upon a Jew to express his sorrow and distress over the loss.)

There are a few insights concerning the Shalom zachar that relate to this mourning aspect. The Derisha (Y.D. 264:3) explains that a Brit Mila is made after eight days so as to allow the child to complete his seven days of mourning for the Torah that he has lost. More interestingly, the widespread practice of having chickpeas (arbis) at a Shalom zachar is due to this idea as well. It is customary to serve a mourner round foods, symbolizing both the fact that life is a circle, and thus things will come back around to being good, and the fact that just as such foods have no openings, so too a mourner's general demeanor is one of silence, not engaging in gregarious conversation of any sort. As such, we serve chickpeas to symbolize the mourning that the child is undergoing.

The word "Shalom" also carries some weight in terms of explaining this custom. The Otzar Ta'amei HaMinhagim notes that this word refers to Shabbat itself, which is characterized by peace. However, the Orchot Chaim (Hil. Mila p. 14) writes that there were places where major events, such as giving one's son a Brit Mila or marrying off one's child, were used as occasions for a person to make up with his enemies (and the gemara in Nidda 31b notes that when a male child enters the world, peace enters the world with him). In order to do this, people would invite their enemies over for a festive meal so that they would bless them at this auspicious time in their lives, and once the meal was being made, it was extended to be a community-wide celebration, both of the child and of the renewed bonds of friendship between the former adversaries.

There are a few variations on the general practice of making a Shalom zachar. The Sefer Noheig K'Tzon Yoseif notes that the custom in Frankfurt was not to invite people to this party, but rather to announce in shul on Friday night that a boy had been born, and people would come on their own to visit the child. The Aruch HaShulchan (Y.D. 265:37) writes that the custom where he lived was that on Friday night people would have what basically amounted to a snack (not a meal) while visiting the baby, and during the day on Shabbat they would visit the mother so as to wish her Mazal Tov, although food did not play a role in this second activity. The reason for the diminished role of food was that it was a major imposition on the father who was going to have to pay for the meal accompanying the Brit Mila to also have to provide food for the community on this occasion.

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