Welcoming Jewish Daughters

Long before the creation of contemporary welcoming ceremonies for girls, Jewish communities around the world have had special ways of welcoming their new baby daughters.

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In Sephardic communities (where Jews are of Spanish, Middle Eastern, or North African heritage) and Italian communities, there is a tradition of welcoming girls with a celebration called zeved habat, or “gift of the daughter.” The name for the ceremony derives from the book of Genesis, in which the matriarch Leah states, following the birth of Zevulun, “Zevedani Elohim oti zeved tov,” or “God has granted me a gift.”  

The zeved habat goes back many generations, and is still celebrated today. In the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, New York, on the first Shabbat after a girl is born, her father, along with his father and father-in-law, are called to the Torah. The baby and her mother are usually in attendance, but since this is a primarily Orthodox community, only the men are called up for aliyot, the honor of saying the blessings before and after the public reading of a section of the Torah. The father says the blessings over the Torah reading twice--once on his own merit and once in honor of his daughter --and the grandfathers each have an aliyah as well.

The rabbi offers the family congratulations on their new arrival and offers a misheberach, a prayer for the girl’s well-being. Then the words “avi habat,” or “father of the daughter,” are called out. That is the congregation’s cue to start singing traditional songs for welcoming girls. The songs, based on poems dating back to 14th and 15th century Spain, are known as pizmonim. Women and men join in together.

Afterward there is a lavish kiddush. In the synagogue social hall, tables groan under platters of helweht, Arabic for “sweets,” many of them dripping with honey and loaded with almonds and pistachios. The reception usually lasts two or three hours and typically attracts 250 or 300 people.

Another practice for welcoming girls--Las Fadas--dates back to medieval Spain, before the expulsion in 1492, but is rarely practiced today in America, though when celebrated it is generally by families of Turkish and Balkan heritage. It is a ceremony that was held the night before a baby boy’s circumcision as well as after the birth of baby girls.

In the case of a girl, about two weeks after the baby’s birth, when her mother felt up to having company, the family would invite family and friends to their home for Las Fadas. The rabbi would make a speech and then the guests would each take a turn holding the baby, offering blessings and speaking about their hopes for this new life. This was based on a medieval folk custom among Spaniards in general, not just Jews, though the Jews turned it into a community and family celebration. The ritual is rooted in a popular folk tale about bad fairies from the underworld ("las fadas") feeling upset they weren’t invited to celebrate the new child, and doing harm. Passing the baby from person to person was designed to fool the bad fairies into thinking that good fairies were protecting the baby by blessing him or her.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.