What is a Shalom Zachar?

Celebrating the New Baby or Comforting a Mourner?

What is a Shalom Zachar?
Rosemarie Gearhart/Vetta

Although the bris or brit is a well-known practice associated with the birth of a Jewish boy, the shalom zachar is a lesser known custom that is specific to the Ashkenazic Jewish community. 

Meaning

Shalom zachor or shalom zachar (שלום זכר) means "peace to the male," and is a gathering in honor of a newborn Jewish male that takes place on the first Shabbat after he is born.

Shalom (שלום) literally means "peace," and zachar (זכר) literally means "male."

However, because of the transliteration of the terminology, the latter term often comes out as zachor (זכור), which actually means remembrance. This will be addressed below. 

History

The earliest source for this tradition comes from the ​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] also is [considered] a ​seudat mitzvah

The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (163:8) follows the same line of thought that the shalom zachar is meant to be a festive meal. 

However, although in modern times the shalom zachar is viewed as a party or get together, there is a darker understanding of the purpose of this gathering that comes from the Taz. In this understanding, the Rema's statement above from the Shulchan Aruch is traced back to the Talmud in ​Niddah 30b, which relates that while a baby is in the womb, he is taught the entirety of the Torah.

 

However, as soon as he enters the air of this world, an angel comes and strikes him on his mouth, causing him to forget the entire Torah (Taz, Yoreh De'ah 265:13).

Thus the ​shalom zachar ​gathering is actually geared toward comforting a mourner because the baby lost the knowledge of Torah. There are some, then, that refer to the gathering and meal as a ​seudat zachar (meal of remembrance) and it is held on Shabbat because of the command to "Remember the Shabbat day, to sanctify it" from Exodus 20:8.

 

The shalom zachar is also believed to have its roots founded in the idea that, until his brit milah, a baby boy is spiritually incapable receive the Torah he has just forgotten at birth. Because of this, the shalom zachar includes Torah lessons to remind the baby and prepare him to once again be able to receive Torah after his brit milah

How To

Although it is ideal that the new baby be present for the shalom zachar, as it is in his merit that the event is being held, even if he is not yet at home, traditionally there is still a shalom zachar held. 

Location: Typically, the event takes place at the home of the child's parents the first Shabbat after he is born, although if the father spends Shabbat elsewhere it is held there (e.g., if he is at the hospital with the mother and baby, there will be a shalom zachar there or if he is staying with in-laws it will occur there). Either way, wherever the father is, that is where the shalom zachar is, as he presides over the event. 

Who: Although in some communities the shalom zachar is attended only by men and boys, in many Orthodox circles it is just as common for men and women to both visit the new parents and baby. 

Food and Drink: At one point in history, the shalom zachar really was a seudat mitzvah and a full meal was served.

In modern times, however, it is traditional to just have snacks and drinks. 

In some communities, cooked chickpeas, called arbes, are served. There are two reasons that relate back to the origins of the shalom zachar: One reason is that their round figure recalls the cyclical nature of life. The other reason relates to the fact that the chickpea is a mourner's food, and the infant is considered by some to be in mourning over his loss of Torah knowledge.

Also, various beverages that allow for a festive ​l'chaim (literally, "to life") toast are served so that attendees can offer blessings to the parents and baby. 

Other Customs: Words of Torah in honor of the birth are shared, typically based on the weekly Torah portion or about the mitzvah (commandment) of brit milah (circumcision).

Exceptions 

If neither of the parents or the child are in attendance, Sefer Shavuah v’Yeshuah HaBen (p.

80) rules that a shalom zachar should not be held. 

shalom zachar is not held on a Friday night that

  • coincides with Yom Kippur, because it is a fast day. However, there are those that will still hold a gathering and offer fragrant flowers and spices for the purposes of offering blessings since food cannot be served. Others will simply hold a shalom zachar on the Thursday night instead. 
  • coincides with the first night of the Passover, because Jews are prohibited from eating anything after consuming the afikomen at the end of the Seder meal. 

What About Girls?

Historically the shalom zachar was associated with the brit milah (circumcision) and at one point likely was held the night before the brit milah instead of on Shabbat. There are theories that it was moved to Shabbat simply because more people are available and able to come. As girls do not have a brit, there would not be a need for a shalom zachar

Likewise, the role of the shalom zachar is to begin to remind the baby boy of what he learned in the womb and subsequently forgot, because a baby boy is not capable of receiving Torah until he has his brit milah

A girl, on the other hand, is capable of receiving Torah from the moment she is born and thus doesn't doesn't need the reminder. She needs no spiritual improvement to study and retain Torah. 

However, because the commonly accepted reason for the shalom zachar is celebrating the healthy, safe arrival of a Jewish baby, it is common practice nowadays to hold a special kiddush in honor of the baby girl shortly after her birth. Many women use this time to publicly say the ha'gomel blessing of thanksgiving.