In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Newborn
Yasef Nisan Abramovitch was the happiest man in Vaysechvoos. And why shouldn’t he be overflowing with joy? His young bride, Shifra, was about to give birth to their first child.
Yasef was an old” man of twenty-four when he married the sweet, red-haired Shifra. Her parents were a little concerned over the match, for while Shifra was the proper age for marriage–fourteen, she was like a frightened rabbit, wide-eyed and scurrying to and fro all the time. “How will she meet the responsibilities of marriage?” they fretted.
Shifra, however, adjusted to married life quite well. She kept their modest home neat and clean. She prepared a more than adequate Shabbos meal and she mended Yasef’s shirts almost as well as Yossel the Tailor.
Everything was going as well as life in Vaysechvoos could go for Shifra, until she found herself with child.
“Woe is me,” she cried out to Yasef. “I’m terribly frightened of all that will befall me now that I’m to become a mother.”
Yasef tried to reassure her, but to no avail. You see Shifra believed the legends of Lilith, also known as the “mother of demons.”
The story goes that before Eve was created, Lilith was Adam’s wife. She was said to have demanded full equality with her mate and when Adam wouldn’t agree to her demands, Lilith uttered the Divine Name and escaped to the Red Sea. The legend goes on to say, that it was there that she gave birth to many demon children after seducing many men in their sleep.
“What other men were around?” you might ask. Who knows? It’s only a legend. In any case, after a while, God sent three angels to bring her back to Adam. Lilith refused to go and for her action she is said to endure daily the death of one hundred demon children. Her way to take revenge is to injure or destroy infant boys up to the time of their circumcision and girls up to the age of twenty.
Shifra took this legend very seriously and inasmuch as she could be the object of Lilith’s revenge on two separate counts, she sought ways to protect herself and her unborn son.
You might ask how it is that she knew she was carrying a boy? A mother knows such things.
Shifra’s “protection” knew no limits. All around their little home, she placed mezuzot. Over her bed and the doorposts of their two rooms she hung amulets and charms with the names of the angels who had come to bring Lilith back to Adam. To be sure, she also had an ample supply of garlic, onions, leeks as well as spices and herbs in the house, for such strong odors were said to keep demons away.
Yasef, not the superstitious type, nonetheless went along with his wife’s devices for warding off the “demon.”
“She’s young and frightened,” he reasoned. “The least I can do is help ease her fear by allowing her to do this nonsense.”
But as the months progressed, so did Shifra’s frantic behavior. She would only wear clothing that was blue in color, said to be an unpleasant color to demons. Noise was also a good safeguard. So bells and clappers sounded incessantly in the home of Yasef and Shifra Abramovitch. Speaking of their names, Shifra would only allow her husband to call her Chaya so as to confuse the demon. As for a surname, they just didn’t use one anymore.
And every night before sleep overtook her, Shifra would say the incantation:
On my right side, Michael; on my left side, Gabriel; before me, Uriel; behind me, Raphael; above me, God’s presence.
Finally, the day of the child’s birth arrived. With a piece of chalk, a circle was drawn on the floor of the room where Shifra lay in labor, to guard against evil spirits, of course….
So that she would have a speedy delivery, all the knots and ties in the garment she wore were undone and the door of the house was opened wide. But her delivery was not speedy. Instead, she was having quite a difficult time of it.
Yasef did not look to magical incantations to help Shifra along. Instead, he recited from the Scriptures the traditional selections for a woman in labor. He uttered King David’s prayer from the twentieth Psalm for victory over one’s enemies. He read Hannah’s supplication to the Almighty for a son. Yes, Yasef took his strength from the promises of the Holy Writings.
Meanwhile, the shammes brought the keys of the synagogue to the Abramovitch home and had them placed in Shifra’s hand. Likewise, she was girded with the band of a Torah scroll, one of only three scrolls in all of Vaysechvoos.
Several of the villagers went to the gravesides of their pious relatives and recited prayers asking them to intervene with the Almighty on Shifra’s behalf. And as God would have it, a son was born in Vaysechvoos that day. Oh, and did the people rejoice!
“So handsome for a newborn child!” some exclaimed. “So strong and spirited” others adoringly acknowledged as the baby kicked his legs and cried out with a voice that would wake some of those pious relatives out of their graves. Yes, this was a fine day for Yasef, Shifra and all their friends and relatives.
“But” thought Shifra, “My son needs to be watched over even more diligently now! Until his circumcision, he is in great danger.”
And so for the seven days following his birth, the child was subjected to more incantations, and other “nonsense” as Yasef would call it. Actually, Yasef was so delighted over being a father, he paid no attention to the chants and charms which grew more numerous each day. He paid little attention to any of what was going on, including his work. As he’d make his milk “deliveries” he’d tell his customers about the most handsome and brilliant child to set foot on Vaysechvoos soil–his new son. “Oh, the milk?” he’d grin with embarrassment. “I forgot to bring it.”
Meanwhile, with the help of the townspeople, mother and child managed to “avoid” the demons and the day of the baby’s circumcision arrived.
“Baruch ha-ba” said those congregated to welcome the child. Shifra gave the boy to her mother who in turn handed him over to the child’s zayde, who was to serve as the sandok. The zayde beamed with pride as he looked down at the newest generation. He then continued in the prescribed order of the service by passing the child on to the mohel, the one who was to perform the circumcision. The proper prayers were chanted and the child was then placed on a large pillow which was on the lap of the sandok. All present held their breath as the delicate operation was performed. It was done and all rejoiced. More benedictions were chanted and the baby was handed to Yasef as Shifra looked on. The mohel recited an invocation for the safety and well being of the child, but he stopped the prayer in mid-sentence. There was silence in the room, that was at first awkward and then embarrassing. Yasef turned red. Shifra lowered her head. The grandparents covered their faces. And the mohel finally spoke:
“So nu, I must have the child’s name to insert in the prayer. Doesn’t any one here know it??”
And truthfully, no one did. For you see, due to Shifra’s concern to keep the child’s identity confused for the demons who might do the baby harm, they’d never decided on a name.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.