This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Birth-rite*

Excessive politeness can sometimes lead to tragic consequences.

This sad lesson is illustrated by a story in the Talmud, involving three third-century rabbis who were about to participate in a feast celebrating the birth of a child. When they arrived at the entrance to the hall, each one of the scholars refused to be the first to go through the door, insisting on bestowing that honour upon one of his colleagues.

Before they could sort out the proper etiquette and protocols, the unfortunate infant was mauled by a cat.

This story has a lot to teach us about the hierarchical structures of rabbinic society, about feline temperaments in ancient Babylonia, and about excessive concern for formalities. In the present article, however, I wish to focus on an incidental feature of the story; namely, the occasion for which the ill-fated feast was convened.

The Talmud gives us two different versions of this detail. It was either a Shavua Ha-Ben ["week of the son"] or the Yeshua Ha-Ben ["redemption of the son"]. Rav Hai Ga'on interpreted the former possibility as a circumcision feast, which is normally held on the seventh day following the child's birth. The second term he equated with the Pidyon Ha-Ben ceremony, usually held when the baby is one month old, when the father ritually redeems his offspring from the Cohen. These identifications were accepted by most subsequent commentators.

The "Week of the Son" is mentioned briefly in a handful of passages in rabbinic literature, without providing much tangible information about its purpose. One source includes it--alongside engagements and weddings, funerals and mourning-houses--in a list of life-cycle commemorations that occupied the busy schedules of Jerusalem's virtuous residents.

Other texts state that the Roman decrees against Jewish religious practices explicitly singled out the Week of the Son or the Salvation of the Son as proscribed rituals. A liturgical poem by Eleazar Qallir listed such a decree among the anti-Jewish edicts issued by Antiochus in the Hanukkah story.

As the Tosafot pointed out, these traditions about religious persecution help us to understand the following cryptic talmudic quote: "The sound of the millstones in Bourni means: 'The Week of the Son! The Week of the Son!' The light of the lamp in Beror Hayil means 'There is a feast! There is a feast!'"

Evidently, Jews upheld these religious celebrations faithfully even when their observance was punishable by government edict. Because they could not be announced publicly, secret signals were devised for the purpose, alluding to Jeremiah's admonition (25:10) "I will take from them the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones, and the light of the candle." Rashi suggests that the millstones were used to grind medicines for the circumcision.

As noted above, the overwhelming majority of the traditional commentators seemed to agree with Rav Hai Ga'on and Rashi that the talmudic "Week of the Son" referred to a circumcision banquet. A rare dissenting voice was that of Rashi's grandson Rabbi Jacob Tam. who suggested that the "salvation of the son" was in fact a separate festivity in which the parents expressed thanksgiving for the safe and healthy birth.

In fact, there is a very decisive piece of information that argues strongly against the majority interpretation. A talmudic tradition preserved by the Spanish authorities Rabbi Isaac Ibn Ghayat (eleventh century) and Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (thirteenth century) makes explicit mention of a "Week of the Daughter" (Shavua Ha-Bat) alongside the Week of the Son. Clearly, neither the circumcision nor the redemption rituals are applicable to females. Hence, it would appear, we are forced to seek alternative explanations that are gender-inclusive.

Several such explanations have been proposed by modern scholars. Some suggested that the allusion is to a naming ceremony that was held, for male and female alike, at the conclusion of the child's first week. Others found in this ancient custom the earliest source for the widespread medieval practice among Ashkenazic Jews of holding a "Wachnacht" vigil for the week-old child, staying awake all night to fend off malevolent demons who are particularly hazardous on that night.

It would appear most likely, however, that the Week of the Daughter \ Son refers to a seven-day period of celebration following the birth of the child. This would bring it into line with other Jewish life-cycle transitions, which were often observed in similar ways. Thus, to take a familiar example, not only are Jewish weddings and funerals both followed by seven-day periods of public camaraderie, but the prayers and blessing that were formulated for these two occasions were also very similar. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose the same paradigm would have been applied to the other main event of the life-cycle, childbirth.

Although this practice has long since been abandoned, and its memory all but eradicated from our written texts, it continues to exert a definite attraction.

In our generation, which often feels frustrated in its search for authentic Jewish ways for celebrating the births of daughters, a revival of the ancient "Week of the Daughter" might bring us a step closer to that elusive goal.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past

by

University of Calgary Press

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca


[1]
  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressNovember 8 2001, pp. 8-9.

  • Bibliography:
    • Abrahams, Israel. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
    • Hoffman, Lawrence A. Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism, Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
    • Lieberman, Saul. Tosefta Ki-Fshutah, New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1973-
    • Löw, Leopold. Die Lebensalter in Der Jüy;dischen Literatur: Von Physiologischem, Rechts-Sitten- und Religionsgeschichtlichem Standpunkte Betrachtet,Beitraege zur Juedischen Alterthumskunde. Szegedin: S.Burger, 1875.
    • Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, Temple Books. New York: Atheneum, 1970.