Weaning Ceremony

Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned, and Hannah offered a prayer of thanksgiving after weaning Samuel, but these customs never became part of Jewish ritual, although they were practiced in some communities. An infant was weaned only when he or she was strong enough to cope with ordinary food, and not if the child was sickly. When a mother weaned her infant, she often expected an- other pregnancy soon afterward. Although Sarah was too old to conceive again, Abraham's feast may have been a celebration of his son's good health and his ability to leave his mother's arms and spend time with his father. In contrast, Samuel's weaning meant that Hannah had to fulfill her promise to dedicate him to lifelong service to God. She brought Samuel to the priest, uttered her emotional prayer of thanksgiving and praise to God, and left her son with the priest. For Hannah, weaning meant more than giving up the warm bodily contact she had with her son; it meant total separation.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, Syrian and Iraqi Jews celebrated weaning with a large festive party and served wheat cooked in sugar and cinnamon. Wheat is symbolic of fertility, and the celebration clearly greeted the possibility of a new pregnancy.[1]Leah examining an apple

In the early twentieth century, Jewish mothers in Eastern Europe celebrated weaning in a different way; the baby's first food was taken from a neighbor. When the baby accepted the offering, the mother said, "may this be the last time you will be supported by others." Sometimes a tiny bag of coins was hung around the baby's neck, symbolizing the receipt of his last donation.[2]

Infant survival, contraception, and paternal involvement in child care have all contributed to make weaning less significant for men than it was in the past. With nursing no longer a necessity for an infant's survival, the significance of weaning for a woman has changed, too.

In recent years, some non-Orthodox Jews have celebrated weaning as a life-cycle ritual. They have created a new ceremony and have linked it to Abraham's ancient banquet. This ceremony focuses on the nurturing roles of the parents and the joys of the child's independence. Some mark the occasion by giving charity to the hungry.[3]

In their joyous celebration of these ancient rituals, Jews maintain age-old traditions to affirm the Jewish identity of newborns and to mark a milestone in a woman's life cycle. They have found ways of adapting these traditions to suit modern conditions, for example, by reviving old customs or writing a new blessing, song, or poem to express the spirituality a parent may feel on the occasion of the ceremony. Secular Jews who find no meaning in such ceremonies may nevertheless perform a non-religious circumcision. Although Orthodox Jews continue to redeem their firstborn sons and to observe the biblical laws regarding a woman's purity, secular Jews often do not know of these duties or have consciously rejected them. As modern Jews rediscover their roots, some are now finding joy and meaning in these old traditions.


[1] Dr. Y. Latti, personal communication. [back]

[2] Schauss H. The Lifetime of a Jew (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1950), pp. 81. Sephardic, North African and Asian Jews do not celebrate this event, which would often be helped by annointing the breast with an unpleasant-tasting substance that the infant would be sure to reject. [back]

JPS link[3] Strassfeld, Sharon and Michael Strassfeld, eds. The Second Jewish Catalogue (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976), pp. 43-45. See also Anita Diamant, The New Jewish Baby Book: Names, Ceremonies & Customs: A Guide for Today's Families (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994) and Schneider, S.W, Jewish and Female (New York: Touchstone [Simon and Schuster], 1985. [back]


JPS linkFrom: Michele Klein, A Time to be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth. copyright 1998 by Michele Klein (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America), pp. 195-96. Permission of the author and Jewish Publication Society of America.



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