January 16, 2010
1 Shevat 5770
Redemption has often been portrayed as a painful and violent process. The last chapter of the book of Isaiah attempts to allay the people\’s anxiety. Accordingly, Isaiah likens Israel\’s redemption and the restoration of Jerusalem to a painless childbirth: \”Before she labored, she was delivered; before her pangs came, and she bore (v\’heemleeta) a son. Who ever heard the like? Who ever witnessed such events? Can a land pass through travail in a single day? Or a nation all at once? Yet Zion travailed and at once bore her children! Shall I who bring about labor not bring about birth? – says the Lord. Shall I who cause birth shut the womb? – said your God. 66:7-9)
The word \”heemleeta\” (verse 7) derives from the Hebrew root \”mem lamed tet\”, which has the sense of a \”rescue\” or \”escape\”. It may be that the use of this verb reflected childbirth\’s potential danger to both mother and child. This word plays a very interesting role in the interpretation of the followng Talmudic anecdote and, as a consequence, in the evolution of a Jewish practice related to birth. First, though, let\’s get to the story (or fragment of a story): \”Rav, Shmuel and Rav Asi met outside the house of a brit mila feast (literally: house of the week of the son). Others say: outside the house of the \’yeshua haben – saving of the son\’\”. (Bava Kamma 80a) There seems to be no dispute over the fact that \”week of the son\” refers to \”brit milah\” (circumcision) but what is meant by \”yeshua haben\”?
Rashi contends that it refers to the feast held for pidyon haben – the redemption of the first born son from a cohen (priest) on the thirtieth day after the son\’s birth since the word \”yeshua\” is translated into Aramaic as \”purkan\” which is also used for the Hebrew word \”pidyon – redemption\”. Rabbeinu Tam (Rashi\’s grandson) rejects this interpretation. He asserts that \”yeshua\” refers to a meal marking the \”escape\” (neemlat) of the child from his mother\’s womb. He learned this from the verse quoted above. (Tosafot Bava Kamma 80a s.v. levei yeshua)
What meal might Rabbeinu Tam be referring to? Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin (15th century Germany) refers to the custom of gathering in the house of the infant on Leil Shabbat (Friday evening) after the son\’s birth to celebrate his \”escape\” (See Terumat Hadeshen 269; Shulhan Aruh Yoreh Deah 265:12 Rema and Taz s.q. 13), what came to be called \”Shalom Zachar\”. What we have here is a fascinating example of how a literary image found in a prophecy became the impetus for an actual practice shaped by the imagery.