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 . . .