Welcoming Daughters

May 1, 2013
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Many years ago, I gave birth to a son whose entrance into the covenant of our faith and peoplehood was clear. The brit milah is an ancient and clearly defined rite for every Jewish male, health permitting, at the age of 8 days. It is usually a very public event, with clear celebratory connotations and many inclusive ceremonial aspects.

When I was expecting my second child, a daughter, I sought a covenantal ceremony that would welcome her in a similar fashion. I wasn’t satisfied with the traditional Ashkenazic naming ceremony, encapsulated in a brief prayer for wellbeing during the reading of the Torah, which usually takes place without the presence of the mother or the daughter. That ceremony did not approach the familial and vibrant covenantal process with which I had hoped to celebrate the birth of my daughter.

I decided to research the historical authenticity of the Ashkenazic naming tradition and found that it had little halakhic basis. The communities in Ashkenaz used to celebrate the entrance of a newborn girl into the covenant by holding a public event at the home of the new parents. The event involved the rabbi and prominent leaders of the community; Psalms and other prayers of wellbeing were read.

At the time, my discomfort at not having a parallel ceremony for my daughter encouraged me to look more deeply into how children are welcomed through the covenantal process.

Sephardic communities have continued throughout the years to hold a naming ceremony that they call “Zeved haBat.” Not much is known about the source of the ceremony, but the term “zeved” appears to be from the Aramaic, meaning “precious gift,” and to be redacted from biblical verses.

While the ceremony differs from community to community, basic to most is a reading of verses from the Song of Songs, Psalms, the priestly blessing, the prayer for the wellbeing of the baby, and the entrance into the covenant through the naming service. The informal format of the Zeved haBat leaves much room for personal expression and the inclusion of additional texts, whether traditional or not.

Supplementary texts invite more people to participate in the ceremony; and they can be read in any language, thus including people from different backgrounds in the ceremony.

When I welcomed my first daughter, I held the ceremony in the presence of four generations of Jewish women, and both men and women read excerpts from the prepared text. During subsequent ceremonies, I adapted the format into a more women-focused ceremony in order to empower the female covenantal process. In addition, the subsequent ceremonies included the new baby’s siblings singing HaMalach HaGoel, the traditional children’s blessing.

All three ceremonies included the ancient tradition of blessing the children, which links generations of Jews and serves as one of the symbols for bringing the baby into the covenant of the Jewish people. Naming my daughters after family ancestors also strengthened their link with our personal history.

These ceremonies are an expression of the flexibility and adaptability of our traditions in what sometimes feels to be an increasingly rigid and dogmatic world.

The Zeved haBat has allowed me to reach beyond my Ashkenazic boundaries and absorb how other Jewish communities — particularly the Sephardic Spanish and Portuguese communities — celebrate the beauty and richness of the covenantal process.

A covenant sustains elements of the personal and the national. We are welcoming a new Jew into our midst, creating a link in the historical chain of our people. And, by doing so, we are also connecting to something far greater than our own narrow familial confines.

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No’a Gorlin is the Associate Executive Director of the ROI Community (roicommunity.org) a part of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network (schusterman.org). She is the mother of a son and three daughters, and she was instrumental in reviving the Zeved haBat ceremony in the Orthodox Ashkenazic community in Israel in the late 1990s.

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