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The Shalom Zachar – An Overview

Some minhagim are more common than others in Klal Yisrael. Even though not everyone observes this specific minhag – most Sefardi groups do not have a Shalom Zachor – everyone is familiar with the practice. When a practice has been around for a long time and is almost ubiquitous, the specifics of the custom frequently take a back seat. This week’s parsha brings up the commandment of bris milah, so let’s look at the well-known tradition of shalom zachor invitation.

Reasons for the Event 

There are several proposed explanations for why the Shalom Zachor is served. Among them are:

  • We saw that some authorities hold that the shalom zachor invitation is the meal offered to commemorate the baby’s survival at birth. The reason Friday night was selected is because, according to Shu”t Terumas Hadeshen #269, that is when most people tend to be at home.
  • In accordance with the passage that establishes the minimum age for an animal to be offered as a korban, “When a new ox, lamb, or goat is born, it will spend the first seven days with its mother. After that, it will be offered to Hashem as a burnt sacrifice” (Vayikra 22:27). This is clarified by the following parable, according to the Midrash. After visiting a new realm, a monarch issues a proclamation prohibiting the populace from seeing anyone other than the queen. One cannot have seven days without Shabbos, so Hashem instructed us not to bring an offering until we experience Shabbos. Additionally, according to Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 27:10), “And from the eighth day and onwards, it will be accepted” (circumcision cannot take place without Shabbos. A festive dinner is offered on Shabbos since the bris milah cannot take place until the baby experiences Shabbos (see Taz, Yoreh Deah 265:13).
  • According to the Gemara (Niddah 30b), an angel hits the fetus on the mouth just before birth, forcing it to forget all that a Malach taught it while it was still in the mother’s womb. According to Drisha and Taz in Yoreh Dei’ah 264:2 and 265:13, respectively, this is why some scholars consider the shalom zachor invitation to be a type of niche avail, in which we console the infant who is “mourning” for the loss of his Torah.

What About the Girls?

We may now answer why a comparable ceremony is not held when a girl is born, having seen some of the reasons why a celebratory dinner is offered in honour of a boy’s birth. In his work Migdal Oz, Birchos Shamayim #15, Rav Yaakov Emden provides two explanations for this:

  • We learnt that the baby was forcibly removed from the Torah and that this is one of the causes of the shalom zachor invitation. Even while it’s safe to presume that a girl will learn Torah while she’s still in the womb, it’s important to remember that losing that knowledge is very different from losing a boy’s. The explanation is straightforward: the Torah is not required of women. The mitzvot and halachos that pertain to their situation will be known to them. The opposite is true for men, who must study the Torah diligently.
  • The previous method addresses Shalom Zachor’s Torah learning component, but it fails to address the second reason: to remind the youngster of the oath he took to be a tzaddik. It seems that a little girl likewise made a similar vow. On the other hand, Rav Yaakov Emden emphasizes that every husband and wife’s neshamos are complementary. The neshamah is bisexual before birth; a man carries it inside him, and a female carries it inside a female. Both parts are rejoined when they do tie the knot. The oath given to the male half is binding on both halves, as it is regarded as the dominant neshamah. So, there’s no need to tell the little girl that the feminine half doesn’t make her pledge.

No Mitzvah?

Can one say that eating a shalom zachor invitation is a mitzvah? According to halachic law, this is a contentious issue. Some people think it’s a seudas mitzvah. The reasoning behind this is that Rav was going to the yeshiva haben, and another Gemara verse (Chullin 95b) tells us that Rav would not have a seudah reshus, a required meal (Terumas Hadeshen #269; Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kama #37; Rema, Yoreh Dei’ah 265:12). 

Some people think it’s not a seudas mitzvah just because Rav was there; they say it doesn’t mean he ate there, and we don’t know whether he did. According to Shu”t Chavos Ya’ir (#70), maybe he sat quietly and didn’t eat.

Conclusion

A potential fourth justification for the Shalom Zachar seudah is being put out here. According to the Trumas HaDeshen, it essentially expresses Hakaras haTov. One possible explanation put out by the Drisha’s author is that it is meant to deepen our respect for the Torah. Additionally, the TaZ suggests that it is to help us value Shabbos more. Reason number four, which is not explicitly stated but is hinted at by the Klausenberger Rebbe’s deeds, is that it deepens our understanding of Jewish continuity.

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