Image: Hands knitting teal yarn. (guteksk7/Shutterstock, rights reserved)
I’m a knitter. When I find out that a friend is expecting a baby, my fingers begin to twitch. I start rummaging through my yarn bag, because I want to weave a web of love for that little one and their parents.
However, although I start knitting very early for babies I usually do not talk about it very much, and I never give the finished product to the parent(s) until the baby is safely in the land of the living. I do this because of a wise old Jewish custom that is based both on superstition and on sad facts.
The superstition is that if we draw attention to a pregnancy, evil spirits might be attracted to the child. I don’t know any modern Reform Jews who believe such a thing, but they may well have heard a grandparent talk about it. The fear may lurk, even as they shake it off as superstition.
The more practical reason is that pregnancy carries risks for both mother and child. 10-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage (loss of pregnancy before the 20th week.) Stillbirth affects about 1 percent of all pregnancies in the US (pregnancy loss after the 20th week.) Pregnancy and birth carry risks for mothers, as well – for more data about maternal mortality, see this report from the Centers for Disease Control.
While we hope that everything will be OK, the truth is that pregnancy and childbirth are not risk-free, and a certain number of pregnancies end in grief. Should something go amiss, we don’t want to add to the pain of the family by leaving them with a pile of baby things.
That’s why Jewish custom is that we don’t congratulate the parents until baby is safely born, and we don’t give presents before then, either.
And a related topic: What do we say to a pregnant woman, if not “congratulations” or “mazal tov“? We have a special saying that we say to expectant parents:
B’shah-AH Toh-VAH! – At a good time!
This is a way to say, “I hope all goes well for you and for the new life on the way.” It does not allude to anything going wrong – that would be upsetting – it simply expresses our wishes for parents and child. Understood another way, it could also mean, “May your labor come at the time that is easiest for you, and may the hour of birth be a good one for all.”
When I weave my little webs of love, I hope to give joy, not sorrow. Jewish tradition teaches us to wait before giving, so that in the fullness of time, our gifts will give purely joy.