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Understanding the Shalom Zachor


Rabbi Avraham Rosenthal

Cheshvan 12 5780
Klal Yisrael has many minhagim, some more common than others. Although not everyone follows this particular minhag, as most Sefardi communities do not hold a Shalom Zachor – everyone has heard about the custom of Shalom Zachor. All too often, when a certain practice has been in force for hundreds of years and is almost universal, the fine details of the custom tend to get sidelined and ignored. As the mitzvah of bris milah is mentioned in this week’s parsha, we will take this opportunity to examine the famous custom of Shalom Zachor.

Sources in the Rishonim
The current format of the Shalom Zachor is mentioned by two Rishonim:
1) The Orchos Chayim, a thirteenth century halachic work, states: "The custom in all of our localities is one who is either circumcising his son, or who is bringing his son or daughter to the chuppah, makes peace with his enemies and invites them to eat and rejoice with him, in order that they should bless him and not curse him. Also the entire congregation, elders, women and children gather on Leil Shabbos and the eve of the eighth day" (Orchos Chayim, Hilchos Milah #9, s.v., venahagu).
2) The Terumas Hadeshen, who lived in the fifteenth century, writes: "That which we are accustomed now following the birth of a boy, that they enter there and eat on the Leil Shabbos after the birth is considered a seudas mitzvah" (a meal considered to be a mitzvah) [Shu"t Terumas Hadeshen #269].

Possible Source in Chazal
The Gemara (Bava Kama 80a) relates that three great Amora’im, Rav, Shmuel and Rav Assi, met outside the home where a simcha was being held. The Gemara itself has two versions as to which simcha was taking place. According to one opinion, it was a "shavu’a haben," while according to the other it was a "yeshu’a haben." According to the text that it was a "shavu’a haben" – "the week of the son," they were about to attend a bris milah. It is referred to as "shavu’a haben," because the bris takes place a week after the baby is born (Rashi, ad loc.).
According to the other version, they were attending a "yeshu’a haben, "a salvation of the son." Here we have a disagreement among the Rishonim as to what type of simcha this was. Some maintain that it was a pidyon haben, a redemption of the first born. It was referred to as a "yeshu’a," as the Aramaic translation of pidyon, redemption, is purkon, which is synonymous with salvation (Rashi ad loc; Tosafos ad loc, s.v. lebei yeshu’a haben, first explanation; see also Gilyon Hashas on Rashi, with Hagahos Vetziyunim [Oz Vehadar edition]).
Others contend that "yeshu’a haben" refers to a festive meal held in honor of the fact that the baby survived the birth (Tosafos, ad loc., second explanation). Although some authorities point to this explanation of the Gemara as a source for the custom of serving a festive meal the night preceding the bris (Dagul Mirvavah, end of Yoreh Dei’ah #178), others maintain that this is the basis for the Shalom Zachor (Shu"t Terumas Hadeshen #269; Rema, Yoreh Dei’ah 265:12).

Reasons for the Event
Several reasons have been suggested for serving the Shalom Zachor meal. These include:
1) As we saw, some authorities maintain that the Shalom Zachor is the meal served as a commemoration of the fact that the baby survived childbirth. The reason why Friday night was chosen as the time for this is because, generally, people are home at that time (Shu"t Terumas Hadeshen #269).
2) Concerning the earliest age from when an animal is fit to be offered as a korban, the pasuk states: "An ox, a sheep or a goat, when it is born, it will be seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day and onwards it will be accepted as a fire-offering to Hashem" (Vayikra 22:27). The Midrash explains: This can be understood through the following parable. A king comes to a particular country and makes the following decree: All of the residents here can not see me before first seeing the queen. So Hashem commanded that we should not bring before Him an offering before it experiences Shabbos, as one cannot have seven days without Shabbos. Similarly, there is no circumcision without Shabbos, as it states, "And from the eighth day and onwards, it will be accepted" (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 27:10). Since the bris milah cannot take place before the baby experiences Shabbos, a festive meal is served on Shabbos (see Taz, Yoreh Dei’ah 265:13).
3) The Gemara (Niddah 30b) relates that when the fetus is in its mother’s womb, a malach teaches it the entire Torah, and before it is born, the angel strikes it on the mouth, thereby causing it to forget. Based on this, some authorities maintain that the Shalom Zachor is a form of nichum aveilim, where we comfort the baby who is "mourning" over the loss of his Torah (Drisha, Yoreh Dei’ah 264:2; Taz, Yoreh Dei’ah 265:13).

Reasons for the Name
In trying to find an explanation as to why this event is referred to as a "Shalom Zachor," this writer discovered something interesting. Most of the sources attempt to explain the word "zachor" without mentioning anything about "shalom." In fact, it was either referred to by its description, i.e., gathering in the baby’s home on Friday night after the birth, or it was called "seudas zachor," the meal of the "zachor." To this day, it is called this way in many German Jewish circles. A search through a Torah Literature database revealed that the term "Shalom Zachor" does not appear before the late 1800’s. So, we will first examine why it was called a "seudas zachor."
1) As we mentioned, the Gemara tells us that the baby is made to forget the Torah that he learned while in the womb. Therefore, the meal is called "zachor," as it is a remembrance of that loss. In addition, we are telling the child to "remember" the Torah that he has forgotten. We specifically do this on Shabbos, as the mitzvah of "remembering" is central to that holy day, as it says, "Remember the Shabbos day" (Migdal Oz [Yaavetz], Birchos Shamayim #15).
2) In the Gemara we cited concerning the fetus’s forgetting his Torah learning, the Gemara adds that the malach makes the baby take an oath that he will be a tzaddik and not a rasha. On the Friday night after he is born, we come to remind the child that he should remember (zachor) the oath that he took. Shabbos is viewed as an opportune time to remind the child about his oath, as it is the first mitzvah that he is performing. Therefore, a seudah is served in honor of the child’s beginning to keep the Torah and its mitzvos.
This explanation dovetails with the Gemara that referred to the bris milah as "shavu’a haben." Although the word "shavu’a" is usually translated as "week," if it is pronounced "shevu’a" (with a sheva under the shin, as opposed to a kamatz), it means "oath" (Migdal Oz, Birchos Shamayim #15).
It is interesting to note that the Aruch Laneir (Niddah 30b) explains why it is necessary to teach the baby Torah, only to make him forget it. Since the malach makes the baby swear that he will be a tzaddik, the baby must first learn all of the Torah in order to understand the ramifications of that oath.
3) The previous two explanations focused solely on the word "zachor," as the term "Shalom Zachor" is quite recent. The one explanation of the term "Shalom Zachor" that I found is based on the Gemara (Niddah 31b), where it states, "Once a male comes to the world, peace comes to the world." Therefore, we call it a "Shalom Zachor" to signify this (Otzair Kol Minhagei Yeshurun #27).

What About the Girls?
Now that we have seen some of the reasons why a festive meal is served in honor of the birth of a boy, we can address the question why a similar event is not held when a girl is born. Rav Yaakov Emden (Migdal Oz, Birchos Shamayim #15) suggests two possible reasons for this:
1) As we saw, one of reasons for the Shalom Zachor is connected with the Torah the baby learned and subsequently forced to forget. While it can be assumed that a baby girl will learn Torah in the womb, it must be realized that the loss of that Torah is qualitatively different than the forgetting of the Torah experienced by a boy. The reason for this is quite simple: women are not commanded to learn Torah. They are required only to know the mitzvos and halachos relevant to them. Men, on the other hand, are required to learn as much of Torah as possible.
2) While the above approach deals with the Torah learning aspect of the Shalom Zachor, it does not explain the other reason, namely, to remind the child about his oath that he took to be a tzaddik. It would seem that a baby girl also took such an oath. However, Rav Yaakov Emden explains that, in reality, the neshamos of every husband and wife are two halves of a whole. Before birth, the neshamah is divided into two, one of which is placed inside a male, while the other into a female. When they eventually marry, the two halves are reunited. The male half is considered the dominant neshamah, and the oath administered to it is binding on both halves. Hence, the female half does not make its own oath and there is, therefore, no need to remind the baby girl about it.

Specifically on Shabbos
We have already mentioned one of the reasons for holding the Shalom Zachor specifically on Shabbos, and that is because it is a time when people are generally at home. Several other reasons have been suggested, including:
1) There is a custom that when a tzaddik comes to a city, the populace comes to greet him on Shabbos. The newborn baby is completely free of sin and is therefore considered to be a tzaddik. Therefore, the custom is to come greet him on Shabbos (Bris Avos, Kuntres Maftai’ach shel Chayah #43).
2) The Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 2:3) writes that when it comes to desecrating the Shabbos in order to save a life, this should be not be done by non-Jews or children, but rather by adult Jews and Torah sages. It was therefore the custom for the rov of a community to come to the home of new mother on Shabbos in order to ascertain whether it was necessary to transgress the halachos of Shabbos on her behalf, as it was possible that her life was still in danger. As it was not deemed appropriate for the rov to go on his own, the heads of the community, along with a contingency of townspeople, would accompany him. From this developed the custom of visiting the home of the newborn on Shabbos (Nefesh Harav, page 242).
3) The Zohar writes that the coming week receives its bracha from the previous Shabbos. Therefore, all of the spiritual energy that will filter down to the physical world due to the coming events is already present on Shabbos. Thus, for example, the spiritual energy of the impending bris is present on Shabbos. Therefore, the Shabbos before the bris is an opportune time for the father to give thanks to Hashem for the upcoming mitzvah, as well as for the community to bless him that he merit to fulfill the mitzvah (Shu"t Teshuvos Vehanhagos, vol. II, #202).

Mitzvah or Not?
Is it considered a mitzvah to partake of a Shalom Zachor? This question is debated by the halachic authorities. Some contend that it is, indeed, a seudas mitzvah. They base this on the fact that Rav was planning on attending the yeshu’a haben, and we know from a different passage of Gemara (Chullin 95b) that Rav would not partake of a seudas reshus, a nonobligatory meal (Terumas Hadeshen #269; Yam shel Shlomo, Bava Kama #37; Rema, Yoreh Dei’ah 265:12).
Others disagree, contending that Rav’s presence at the Shalom Zachor does not prove that it is a seudas mitzvah, because we do not know whether he ate there. Perhaps he merely attended, but did not eat (Shu"t Chavos Ya’ir #70).

Refreshments Only
Several Acharonim mention that the custom is not to serve a proper meal at the Shalom Zachor, but rather light refreshments (Shu"t Chavos Ya’ir #70; Nohaig Ketzon Yosef, Milah #1; Migdal Oz, Birchos Shamayaim #15; Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh Dei’ah 265:37).
The Acharonim note that there had been a custom to serve lentils at the Shalom Zachor. The idea behind this is because we find that Yaakov Avinu was cooking a pot of lentils to serve his father, Yitzchok, who was mourning the death of Avraham. Chazal point out that lentils are appropriate to serve to a mourner, since they "have no mouth," just as a mourner "has no mouth" (see Rashi, Bereishis 25:30). Since one of the reasons given for the Shalom Zachor is to comfort the child who is mourning over the loss of his Torah, it is therefore appropriate to serve lentils (Hegyonei Haparasha, Vayikra, page 210; Otzar Habris, vol. I, page 128).
Nowadays, it is customary to serve chickpeas, which, like lentils, do not have an opening. It is interesting to note that the word for chickpeas in Yiddish is "arbes." The Klausenberger Rebbe points out that the reason for serving arbes at a Shalom Zachor is because it is linguistically similar to the words "Veharbah arbeh es zar’acha" (Bereishis 22:17), "I will greatly increase your descendents" (Hegyonei Haparasha, Vayikra, page 210).
There is also a custom to serve nuts at a Shalom Zachor. This is based on a Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabbah, Parsha #6 1.11) which explains that the pasuk, "I descended to the garden of the egoz (nut)" (Shir Hashirim 6:11), refers to bris milah. The Midrash states that just as an egoz, a nut, has two shells, so Klal Yisrael has two mitzvos: milah and pri’ah (two stages in the circumcision process) [Otzar Habris, vol. I, page 128, footnote #13].

No Baby Present
It sometimes occurs that the baby is not at home on his first Friday night. Should this be a reason not to hold a Shalom Zachor? Some authorities maintain that based on many reasons for holding a Shalom Zachor, i.e., to comfort the child over the loss of his Torah, to greet the baby who is a tzaddik, to remind him about the oath he took, indeed, there is no purpose in the Shalom Zachor when the baby is not present (Even Yisrael, cited in Otzar Habris, vol. I, page 129, footnote #15).
However, the generally accepted custom is to hold the Shalom Zachor, even when the baby is not there. Assumedly, this is based on the idea that the purpose of the Shalom Zachor is to give thanks to Hashem that the baby was born (Otzar Habris, page 129).

Kri’as Shema
The generally accepted custom is that on the night before the bris, children come to the home of the baby and read Kri’as Shema. One of the reasons given for this practice is that the pesukim of Shema are a shemirah, a protection, for the baby. Perhaps we can discuss this in greater detail in a future article.
In addition to that custom, some have the minhag of reciting Kri’as Shema at the Shalom Zachor, even if it is not the night prior to the bris. Also, the Steipler Gaon maintained that it is not necessary to read the pesukim in the presence of the child (Orchos Rabbeinu, vol. I, page 248).

The Friday Night Baby
If a baby is born on Friday evening, should the Shalom Zachor be held on the first Friday night or on the second? (Of course, this question assumes that it is logistically feasible to hold the Shalom Zachor so soon after the baby’s birth.)
Some maintain that the Shalom Zachor is held on the first Friday evening. This is based on the reason given for the event that it is an opportunity for the father to give thanks over the baby’s birth. It is most logical that such thanks be expressed as soon as possible after the birth. Additionally, the Terumas Hadeshen cited earlier writes that the Shalom Zachor is held on the Friday night following the birth (Pri Megadim, Orach Chayim #444, Mishbetzos Zahav #9).
Others contend that it is more appropriate to hold the Shalom Zachor on the second Friday night. This is based on the Gemara cited above concerning the "shavu’a haben." Some commentators hold that the meal of the "shavu’a haben" is the meal served on the night prior to the bris. Since the baby’s bris will take place on Shabbos morning, it is appropriate to have the Shalom Zachor also serve as the shavu’a haben (Koreis Habris 265:68).
Many authorities write that the minhag follows the view that the Shalom Zachor is held on the second Friday night (Otzair Habris, vol. I, page 129).

No Invites
Some communities have a custom that announcements and notices advertising a Shalom Zachor do not contain a direct invitation to the public. Rather, the announcement merely informs the community that so-and-so is making a Shalom Zachor. This is similar to the custom of not inviting people to attend a bris (Nohaig Ketzon Yosef, Milah #1; Koreis Habris 265:68).

The Torah was Given on Shabbos
As we noted earlier, one of the reasons behind the Shalom Zachor is that we come to console the child over the Torah that he lost. Rav Aharon Rokeach of Belz would say, in the name of his father Rav Yissachar Dov, that it is highly significant that we perform this consolation specifically on Shabbos. The Gemara (Shabbos 86b) states that, although there is a disagreement as to the exact date in Sivan the Torah was given, "according to all opinions, the Torah was given on Shabbos." This indicates that the receiving of the Torah is inherent to Shabbos. We therefore come to the child specifically on Shabbos to console him, in order to hint to this fact that through the power of Shabbos, one can receive the entire Torah (cited in Piskei Teshuvos, Yoreh Dei’ah #265, footnote #360).

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site

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