Baby naming ceremonies are my favourite, both to attend and to perform. All life cycle events are extremely meaningful and being with people at key moments in their lives is a true blessing. But the event that moves me beyond measure is welcoming a new baby, a new neshamah (soul/spirit), into our world. It must be one of the oldest rituals we have as humans and one of the most hopeful, a celebration of life’s full potential, asserting itself even in the hardest of times and roughest of situations. And a baby naming is a celebration of pure love for this new person – not for their achievements or their learning, or because they have made a good match or lived a valuable life. All these events are meaningful and by rights we should rejoice in them. But at a Brit Milah (circumcision ceremony) or Simchat Bat (the joy of a daughter) our heart overflows with gratitude for the mere existence of this new human.
Jewish baby naming, or covenant, rituals have a secret history that is quite elaborate. We all know of the Brit Milah for boys, and I assume most of you have attended a Shabbat morning when the father or both parents get called up to Torah to announce their new daughter’s name. But all around the Jewish world we have a treasure trove of rituals bringing our children into Avraham and Sarah’s covenant with God, bestowing protection on them and blessing them with a good life. Because Brit Milah is a mitzvah, we find more uniformity in the structure and timing of the ceremony (the 8th day after birth in case you were wondering).
But for girls, the timing is all over the place. Various traditions can hold the ceremony on the sixth day, the seventh night, the first Shabbat, the fourth Shabbat, after 30 days, when her parents find the time… In some places they decorate the baby’s crib with jewels and sweets and gather around blessing her. In others her parents invite all the young siblings, cousins, and neighbors to lift her crib three times, each time the children shouting out “Holle Kreish!” (we are not sure where that word came from. One suggestion is that it’s a name of an ancient goddess). After, the children proclaim the newborn’s name, her parents give them sweets, and everyone celebrates. In another tradition it is the little girl’s aunt who, during the celebrations, would whisper the new name into the baby’s ear like a sweet secret between the two of them.
In many families it has now become customary to revive the ancient Eretz Israeli tradition of planting a tree for each of their children at birth. We did that with our kids – an almond tree for one and a pomegranate for the other – and even though we no longer live close to our trees, the children still talk about them. They are part of our family.
As in many areas of Jewish ritual and especially in spaces that were once ruled by women, we now see a huge revival and deep creativity. We see a hunger for unearthing and bringing back to practice many rituals that were either forgotten or lost in the fires of the Shoah. We see the delight mothers and fathers find in making the first celebration of their child’s life a sacred occasion, an event that ties them not only to G-d and their immediate family, but also to their ancestors and to the Earth they are living on.
Whether you are expecting now or know someone who is about to become a parent, think about holding this celebration. They say we only have one opportunity to make a good first impression. Let us impress our babies and impress upon them the blessing and depth of being a part of our community.
This article was first published in the Alberta Jewish News