Perhaps nothing unifies Jews across levels of observance and backgrounds more than our adherence to superstitions involving babies. We Jews don’t mess around with this stuff.
For example, growing up on the North Shore of Chicago, I attended Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties and Jewish weddings where crab cakes and shrimp were served. But trust me, those same families would be aghast at the idea of a baby shower for a Jewish mom-to-be. “How un-Jewish,” I imagine the shower guests proclaiming. And they’d be correct. Sort of. Having a baby shower might be “un-Jewish” culturally, but there’s nothing in Jewish law forbidding us from preparing for a baby’s arrival.
In fact, that whole pile of practices like not buying baby gear too early, not naming after a living relative for Ashkenazic Jews, not uttering too many compliments about the baby, and so on–all of it comes from superstition.
Frankly, I find it curious that so many of us disregard the practices outlined in our written and oral laws, but we wouldn’t dream of going against the “bubbe meises” (folk tales) preoccupied with warding off the Angel of Death and the Evil Eye. How is it that regarding God we’re infinitely skeptical, but on fearing the Angel of Death we all agree?
Actually, it’s not fair to say we “all” agree on these superstitious/mystical practices. There’s a custom involving the public announcement of a baby’s name that’s common in the observant Jewish community and nearly non-existent elsewhere. In traditional circles a son’s name isn’t announced until the bris on the eighth day, and a daughter’s name isn’t revealed until the baby naming ceremony. [Note: Despite popular practice among non-Orthodox Jews to hold the baby naming ceremony for a girl months after the birth, the ceremony traditionally occurs at the first opportunity after the birth when Torah is read with a minyan–Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat mornings. Obviously waiting months to announce the name would be next to impossible.] The custom of waiting to share the name combines religious, superstitious, and mystical undertones. In the article “Naming a Baby,” on Aish.com, Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains:
Contrary to popular perception, it is not forbidden to announce the name of a baby before his Bris. In a metaphysical sense, however, the child does not actually “receive” his name until the Bris. This is based on the fact that God changed Abraham’s name in conjunction with his Bris — at age 99 (Genesis 17:15). Also, the boy only receives the full measure of his soul at the Bris, and a person cannot truly be “named” until attaining that completion. (see Zohar – Lech Lecha 93a, Ta’amei Minhagim 929)
Regarding the naming of a daughter, Rabbi Simmons says:
The naming of a Jewish daughter is a most profound spiritual moment. The naming ceremony is linked to the public reading of the Torah. During the Torah reading, a special “Mi Sheberach” blessing is said. The blessing begins with a prayer for the mother’s health. It continues with the giving of the baby’s name — and a prayer that this new Jewish daughter should grow to be a wise and understanding Jewish woman of goodness and greatness.
In short, the prayers and purpose of the bris and baby naming ceremonies reflect a mystical connection between the baby’s name and the baby’s soul. Therefore, when the names are announced before the special day, we perhaps lose some of the sacredness of the ceremony itself, and we diminish a part of what’s momentous about coming together as a community to welcome this new soul into our midst.
I speak from the experience of not waiting to announce my kids’ names. Of course after the birth of our first three children, my husband and I let approximately twenty-two seconds pass before broadcasting our name choices. But with our fourth child due in a few weeks, we’ve decided to hold out until the proper ceremony (we don’t know if we’re having a boy or a girl) before telling anyone the name. Practically speaking, there’s something cool and uniquely private about forcing ourselves to rise above the fast-paced announce everything on Facebook three minutes after it happens culture.
Furthermore, as self-proclaimed “Reformadox Jews,” my husband and I are always up for trying a more traditional route when the way we’ve done it before has proven spiritually void. Even if the custom of waiting to announce the name is nothing more than a mix of superstition and mysticism, we like the idea of connecting ourselves and our baby in a meaningful way to what might otherwise be another mundane and typical ceremony.
You’ll have to visit me on my personal blog to find out what name we chose. Hope to see you there soon. Though not too soon: As the more superstitious among us say to a pregnant woman instead of mazel tov, “b’shaah tova” (may the baby arrive at a good and fortunate time). Until then . . .
WELL WRITTEN AND RIGHT ON!!
I personally enjoy the traditional “superstitions”, but totally agree that it’s 2nd to the written laws.
On a side note, I sort of miss the days of crab cakes at bar/bat mitzvot, although definitely spiritually VOID!
Thanks Lawr! I guess now is a good time to tell you that Lawrence Lawrence Badzin is officially out of the running. I know we promised, but . . .
Nina, I think I might have mentioned at least twenty times. I am first generation Italian, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, retired to what we call “New York South,” and the culture, traditions and ceremonies you often speak of are close to everything I learned as a child. In Brooklyn, as my father would say, Italians and Jews huddled together against the onslaught of any other culture. No neighborhood bars in Italian/Jewish communities, large and loud family parties are meant to be for la famiglia and of course you know, we borrowed Jesus, all your holidays and tons or your superstitions.
No Italian mother would allow a single baby item, not even a seemingly harmless rattle to be brought into the home of the expectant mother’s home. Babtism must be done within days of the birth to ensure the child’s save passage to heaven and to give the child a proper Christian name. Forget about Brandy if you are Italian. Or at least Brandy had better have the middle name of a saint or her soul will forever roam in limbo.
I love this site and remembering how special it is to have the roots of culture and tradition to tie us to those who have come before us. The connection to what gives us, especially in this “Facebook” culture, the security of knowing something larger than ourselves protects us and our children from the cold winds of modern. I so look forward to knowing what you have and can wait to learn the name of he or she at the right time 🙂
I didn’t know that about Italian mothers! I love when and others read these posts and share your own backgrounds. LOL re: Brandy. 😉
Florence said much of what I was going to say. It’s always uncanny to me how similar Judaism and Catholicism are.
That being said, I’ve been to plenty of baby showers where we ate ham sandwiches.
B’shaah tova, my friend.
Anne! Love it. Now if we have a boy and you can make it to the bris, then you might find just a bit different than a baptism. 😉
I think that “may the baby arrive at a good and fortunate time” is an excellent blessing for any mother–especially those with older kids to wrangle. 🙂
I agree! Very practical!
Love this post and especially this sentence: “How is it that regarding God we’re infinitely skeptical, but on fearing the Angel of Death we all agree?”
We leave for Morocco Friday, so if the baby arrives before November 7, I hope you or one of your sisters posts this on FB so we can celebrate with joy!
Sending wishes for a short labor and healthy child,
Enjoy your trip! And re: FB . . . I think that’s a given. 😉
First of all your title is hilarious!!!
just as a point of interest many families here in Iceland do not share the name until the baptism which can be 3-9 months after the birth! So, it´s not only that they don´t share it, they don´t have it! I love this in many ways, although don´t think I could do it.
I am the most unsuperstitious Jew around and Sephardic, so name after the living and will share the name without a problem, baby showers – love them! I am not one to prepare for the worse.
That said, I really appreciate and take to heart your comment about you and Bryan always looking for traditions that take you from the mundane to the profane and in so many ways the everyday practice of Judaism is precisely about that. When people bless the food before they eat, they are taking an everyday mundane task and elevating it, being mindful, and that is incredibly enriching.
Keep writing – love your stuff.
Thanks so much Andrea.
Oy! 3-9 months would be hard. By the way, naming after the living for the Sephardic ALSO comes from superstition . . . it’s also a “ward off the angel of death” kind of thing, but those communities thought it was better for the generations to show a connection. I can’t remember all the reasoning behind it, but naming after the living and NOT naming after the living were two different ways to get to the same end.
Love this post! It doesn’t hurt to resist the 24/7 instant-share culture, so I like the idea of holding back on sharing the baby’s name. B’shaah tova, Nina!
Interesting article! I totally thought it was against the Jewish law-maybe the 11th commandment to have a baby shower – I am kidding about the commandment part. But, as I eat my lobster roll and watch tv on shabbas, I act horrified when a Jew says they will be having a baby shower. Good thing to re-examine for me!
I love the idea of exercising restraint in this day of “tweeting while in labor” and also can appreciate the philosophy behind losing some of the “sacredness” of the naming ceremony or bris if the information has already been announced.
I was not/am not a superstitious person, but my husband and I chose to not find out the gender of either of our children because we thought waiting until their births would add to the thrill, blessing, MIRACLE of the moment.
I have no regrets about our choice and also respect each couple’s right to make their own decisions about the births of their children without influence or judgment.
Thanks for explaining the reasons behind some of these choices.
And I’ll be visiting your personal blog to find out the name of baby number four in a good and fortunate time.
B’sha’ah tovah. 🙂
“there’s something cool and uniquely private about forcing ourselves to rise above the fast-paced announce everything on Facebook three minutes after it happens culture.”
I also like this aspect. And there definitely is something special about the name being private until the moment it’s official.
Some other superstitious-type thing about names is that parents have ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) in naming their kids, and we experienced it with our first. We had one name picked, but then we looked at him, and, well, he was just Moshe. Go figure. I’ve heard a number of stories about how the couple picked one name, and then, at the very very last moment, felt that a different name would be appropriate.
Well done Nina.
Re: “How is it that regarding God we’re infinitely skeptical, but on fearing the Angel of Death we all agree?”
This sort of jives with my suspicion that there are no real Jewish atheist. The spiritual spark ever lurks and must come forth somewhere: superstition, acts of philanthropy, Israel activism.