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Birth and children are highly valued in Jewish Morocco. A sterile woman is likened to a dead tree, a childless man is counted as lifeless and the crown of existence is the birth of a male child to carry the name of his family.? Joy fills a home when a child is born and from there it spreads to the community at large. In fact celebrations begin at earlier stages of pregnancy, as early as conception is announced, although birth opens the gate to larger scale feasts, some well anchored in Biblical and Talmudic traditions.
Sterile women and men went on pilgrimage to holy sites to rejuvenate stale unions. Those were the clinics where infertile couples were impregnated and where male offspring took place in wombs where only female broods were born.? When a child was conceived, the pregnancy was announced to the sound of cries of joy (zegharit). From that moment, every precaution was justified to carry the pregnancy to full term.
Pregnancy is considered a blessed matter. Most women conceived at a very young age, sometimes as early as the age of 13, although rabbinical rulings discouraged such practices. Women gave birth easily, in most cases in the privacy of their own homes with the assistance of midwives.
However, difficult births were not rare and amulets were used to protect the pregnant mother as well as her unborn child. Many birth tales are associated with early Hebrew mythology. It is believed that in early stages of creation, envious angels lured Adam and Eve to consume the Fruit of Knowledge in order to undo creation. These envious angels are believed to lurk to newborn babies to take their soul and thereby undo creation in our own days. Therefore, amulets, among other measures, are used to protect the newborn and his mother. In some of the amulets (and prayers) angels who love mankind are invoked (i.e., Michael, Gabriel and Raphael). Related tales recount that Noah was the first among our ancestors to live the life of heaven on earth. Thanks to him the power of envious angels lessened, although they remained a challenge to mankind till Abraham appeased them with circumcision offering. When Heaven observed that Abraham surpassed all beings in good deeds, the birth of Isaac was announced. Isaac?s children were destined to remove evil from earth and spread righteousness in the world (i.e., the role of the Chosen People). Thus angels of envy were ordered to stay away from Abraham?s brood. But fear of the envious angels lingered and to protect children in their mothers? wombs, expecting mothers wear an amulet that reads:
?May the descendents of Joseph be saved from evil,? inscribed in the shape of a fish, with the name Joseph engraved in its very eye.
Pregnancy is believed to last nine months: three months to satisfy craving, three months to gain weight and three months to rest and prepare for birth. Efforts are made to satisfy expecting women?s cravings in order to prevent any birth related complications.
Before modern day diapers became a fashionable commodity, people made their own on the occasion of baby showers. In Morocco, baby showers were the time when ripe women feasted on a couscous laced with herbs that made hearts burst of desire! But desire was an urge to be conquered. It was an occasion to tell tales and celebrate conception and birth. Proximity to pregnant women is considered a blessing and is somehow conducive to fertility.
Incense, Prayers and Learning
From conception to birth, incense burned in homes like offering in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Homes are sometimes used as temples or places of prayer. People prayed or at least gathered to read Psalms or passages from the Book of Splendour (Zohar). According to some tales, a primal spirit preceded creation and Adam?s body was fashioned to serve as its temple. Whenever a newborn comes into our world, a part of the primal spirit (Shecina) inhabits it, making it its temple too, exactly in the same way the Creator made the Holy of Holies Its home in Jerusalem.? Before conception, angels who love mankind carry the unborn child around the world and show him/her heaven and tell him/her ?This is the place where the pious reside!? People gathered in the unborn child?s home re-enact this ritual at the end of the Morning Prayer. Similarly, angels of envy are believed to take the unborn child soul to hell and tell him or her: ?this is the place where the wicked burn!? Between sunshine and sunset, angels show the unborn where he/she is to live and die and the life he/she is to live on earth. By the end of the educational tour, the angels take the unborn child back to his/her mother?s womb and instruct him/her: ?Forget all that you have seen and make your life on earth worthwhile!? When a child is born, he/she cries for all that he/she had learnt escaped them as if they knew nothing at all.
Satan is believed to be the culprit who makes an unborn forget the Torah they learnt in their mothers? wombs. According to ancient tales, in the beginning, the Creator granted Adam and Eve the Book of Knowledge to instruct them in matters of completion of creation. Envious angels threw the Book in Hell. Adam and Eve searched for the Book in Paradise to no avail. After a while they called upon angels who loved mankind to help them find the Book of Knowledge. But angels that reached for it perished in the fire that burnt in Hell in permanence. When archangel Gabriel’s turn came to jump into the fire, Heaven held him by his wing and said: ‘Restore the Book to Adam and Eve but commit them to learning it by heart, lest they loose it again!’
Ever since unborn children learn Torah in their mothers’ wombs and the angels of envy make them forget it at birth. Ever since, it has been a tradition in Morocco to learn Torah by heart, so that in times of hardship, when sacred books are destroyed, people would remember all that is needed to complete creation again.
Midwives, Lilith and the Archangels
When delivery time comes, a midwife is called to facilitate birth. Men gather at the House of Birth to chant appropriate verses to ensure safe birth. For, there was a time when all creatures were made in pairs. The Tree of Life stood by the Tree of Knowledge and Lilith stood by Adam to fill the world with descendents. But Adam loved Lilith like a sister and Heaven created Eve, grand and graceful for Adam to fall in love with at once. Lilith became envious of Eve and swore to snatch the souls of Eve?s baby boys at birth, giving girls a reprieve till the year preceding nuptials. Ever since archangels watch over boys before circumcision and brides before wedding vows. And so it became a tradition for old men to assemble anywhere babies are born to ward off Lilith?s designs. Birth in Morocco was an act of Creation and bringing children to the world was an accomplishment mothers and midwives took little credit for.
A newborn boy is greeted with ?baruc haba? (welcome) and the community greets his parents with ?besiman tov? (may it be a good sign), probably insinuating ?may the messiah come during the life of the newborn child?. A newborn girl is greeted with ?mazal tov? (good luck).
Learning and Atonement
A newborn is given 8 days to recuperate from the shock of birth before he is circumcised, seven days to mourn the loss of the Torah he learnt before being born and one Sabbath to get reacquainted with God, because Friday at sundown, the Shecina came down to earth to honour the newborn as he lay down on Its altar. That Saturday before circumcision, the home of the newborn is transformed into a Temple for the boy to hear the weekly Torah reading. This ritual is believed to bring the newborn closer to God and learning.
According to some tales, God allows angels of envy to make newborn children forget what they learnt in their mother’s wombs because the Children of Israel submitted to temptation and adored the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai. Because of ?that? sin, newborn children are condemned to live in a state of lack of knowledge in the same way that Hebrew ancestors had to live in the wilderness many years. Those were the days when old people died while new souls came into the world, knowing not the life preceding ancestors had under Pharaoh.
Three days a week, on Saturday, Monday and Thursday, Moses taught the Hebrews Torah and the Promised Land seemed near. Moses taught women first. Women instructed children. Then men were warned of the consequences that disregard of the Law would have upon their children. Thereupon Heaven came to earth and the world trembled and from the depth of wombs to the age of Bar Mitzvah, children pledged to observe the Torah.
Hardly was the promise made that the Sabbath was bestowed upon mankind and Splendour inhabited earth and the sun and the moon together with the luminaries shined upon the world and the thereafter. But as strange as it may seem, while Moses came down Mount Sinai with the Commandments, the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf. The angels of envy cried ?sin.? Hell threatened Israel. Moses pleaded for clemency. Israel vowed piety. And Heaven showed mercy.
Although old superstitions faded, new fallacies took their place. Before modern medicine unravelled the benefits of body parts associated with birth, mothers treasured placentas in Morocco more than anything in the world. Nowadays, although contemporary mothers rarely keep placentas, grandmothers do treasure them. It is worthwhile to note that although older generations mention the world of spirits in their tales, they tend not to believe in the real existence of jnun and rarely do they engage in any kind of magic (shehur), not only because of Biblical prohibition but also because contemporary rabbinical constraints.
In a very ancient time, Abraham the patriarch constrained Lilith?s power by taking away her sword. Yet people believed in Morocco that Lilith power remained somewhat potent. Thus they chanted incantations to guard the newborn and his mother from undue harm. At midnight, doors and windows closed, elders recite:
?A male and a female of every species came on board Noah’s Arch and Heaven sealed the arch before flood covered the land,? tucking Lilith?s sword under the pillow of the woman who gave birth, while she chants:
?O midwife, O pure one, your labor is greater than mine. Your delivery is my blessing. In day seven, when I rise, O midwife, I will make you queen.?
On this occasion, an elder recites Jacob?s benediction to Ephraim:
?May the angels bless your children and may they multiply like fish in the sea? (Genesis 48:6, 49:22), as well as ?May God save you from harm and darkness and spare you dangers and misfortunes? (Psalm 91) and ?May you be blessed and may Light shine upon you? (Numbers 6: 22-27) and ?May you sleep with no fear and rise blessed every day? (Proverbs 3:24).
The ritual intended to chase away Lilith and related bad spirits aims to protect the mother and child from any harm.
Circumcision and Sabbath the Queen
He who did not attend the celebration of a newborn boy, did not see a celebration in his life? people say in Morocco.
When a child is born, the news are spread very quickly and people from close and far assemble in the synagogue where the parents of the newborn pray to celebrate on a Saturday preceding the circumcision.? Tradition prescribes thanksgiving prayers and Torah reading, spiced with incantations that extend the Sabbath prayer service significantly. ?Rejoice, Rejoice? the congregation chants, ?a child is born, our son is born. May Heaven bless this child and grant him the grace to join our Pact. May Heaven bring peace to the Land of Israel.? The father of the circumcision groom is called to Torah reading (Alyia) while the congregation chants: ?May the father of the groom rise and step to the rhythm of our melody and with respect and dignity, bless Heaven and read Torah.?
The congregation chants: ?the foreskin shall be circumcised, O Heaven, just remember Your Pact and bring peace to Israel.?
As soon as the prayers end, a food offering is offered at the synagogue. Often, a smaller group of people are invited to share the Sabbath meal at the circumcision home. On this occasion, toddlers are brought into the room where the newborn lies. They are offered raisins and almonds or candies. In Morocco, the sweet offerings were presented to the toddlers on boards resembling the Commandments Tablet. Occasionally, the Hebrew alphabet is engraved on the Tablet for the toddlers to associate Jewish learning with sweetness.
See the circumcision chapter for rituals and tales associated with birth.