By Mordechai Schmutter
If you just had a baby boy, and you’re thinking, “Hey, I’m going to have a lot of simchas coming up over the next few years: bris, upsherin, bar mitzvah, wedding, so I want to throw a small, low-stress simcha — sort of like a starter simcha — to ease myself into fatherhood … but, apparently, I’m doing it by myself because my wife isn’t home. So what can I do?” I would recommend making a shalom zachor.
A shalom zachor is a perfect starter simcha, because half the time it’s just men in attendance, no one’s really hungry, you don’t need music, a photographer, or seating cards, and no one has expectations. If you put out something that’s not so dessert-y, like chickpeas, people will eat chickpeas. If people show up at a shalom zachor and you have one bottle of schnapps and a single cake, everyone will say, “Alright.” No one will say, “I can’t believe that he had no food. Your wife had a baby two hours ago! Get it together, man!”
One reason that nobody expects much is that it’s likely your wife had the baby so late in the week that she’s not home for the shalom zachor. Most women aim for this. That’s why they say things like, “I hope to have this baby by the end of the week.”
Wait a minute. Why don’t you hope to have it by the beginning of the week?
In a way, it’s better if your wife isn’t home. Not that you’re going to make her get up and help, but she’s going to want to. Especially when she hears something crash in the kitchen and then hears you telling the kids, “It’s OK; nothing happened. Just put it back on the platter.”
That’s not to say that you can’t get help. A lot of times, especially if this is your first baby, your parents or in-laws will offer to make the shalom zachor, which, if you don’t live in the same town as them, means that you’ll sit there all Friday night while your shver’s friends walk in and say, “Which one’s the father?”
(GUEST PRIMER: The father is the one at the head of the table, and you have to climb over everyone else at the table in order to reach him and say “mazal tov.” The two significantly older men on either side of him are his father and father-in-law, whom he has to sit between for shalom bayis reasons, and it doesn’t really matter at the moment which is which. And then there’s some brother-in-law walking around without a jacket.)
The No. 1 benefit of having your in-laws host the shalom zachor isn’t the party itself; it’s that all your brothers-in-law will supportively show up for three Shabbos meals after you just had a baby.
“I’m not going to feed them. You feed them. They’re your kids. I have my own kid now.”
So people have their in-laws or parents make the first few shalom zachors until they figure out that it’s really not that hard. You buy enough food to fill your table, and then a half-hour before Shabbos, your neighbors bring enough food to make you wonder why you bought all that food. It’s by far the easiest simcha to make. You don’t even need a fruit platter.
“But how much food do I need?” you ask.
The correct amount of food to put out at a shalom zachor is the amount that fits the table. If you don’t have a lot of food, you just make your table smaller, and that way more people have room to sit. Everyone just kind of eats whatever’s directly in front of him when he sits down, because there are too many things on the table, and to pass anything, they have to move everything else around and it’s not worth it because they just ate and they’re not that hungry in the first place. And then at some point someone gets up to leave, and everybody switches chairs ostensibly so they’ll be closer to the ba’al simcha, but really it’s just about sitting in front of different foods. Like there’s a specific seat you’re eyeing.
“Hey, you’re next to me now! We can talk!”
“No, I’m here for the Mike and Ikes. I’ve been sitting in front of the chickpeas for the last half hour.”
And there aren’t even specific foods that you have to buy. Sure, there are minhagim to have chickpeas or beer, but it’s not like you have to have enough to go around. You don’t need to make sure that everyone gets their own personal bowl of chickpeas when they come in. Like they climb over everyone’s laps to say “mazal tov,” and you hand them a bowl of chickpeas. You basically just have one small bowl in the middle of the table, and everyone looks at it and goes, “Oh, good, chickpeas. I’m at the right place.”
Where do all these chickpeas come from? I know that people bring cake and candy. Are people bringing chickpeas?
The only thing you must have, apparently, are those hard winky things that look like pacifiers, and they have to be blue. But someone will bring that.
And things don’t even have to be set up that nicely. Most shalom zachors are just attended by men, because half the time the new mother isn’t home. It’s the women who bring the cakes on Friday afternoon, and they don’t even come to the shalom zachor. And then the men come home, and the women ask, “Were people eating my cake?”
“I honestly don’t know. I had a piece. Why, do you want it back?”
And even if the new mother is home, any women who show up have very little interest in the food. They just want to hold the baby.
FUN FACT: If no women show up, the men all fight over who’s going to hold the baby.
And that’s the other thing about a shalom zachor — unlike some other simchas, everyone who’s there actually wants to be there. If they don’t want to be there, it’s easy enough to say they were away for Shabbos, or that they fell asleep right after the seudah, and they don’t even have to lie, because it’s easy enough to make it happen.
And no one really wants to stay for long either. Everyone’s just waiting for someone else to come so they have an excuse to leave and go to sleep.
“Oh, I just want to make a seat for him.”
Seating is always tight. The rule of the shalom zachor is that the ba’al simcha has to sit as far as he possibly can from the door, and the first person in has to sit as close as he can to the ba’al simcha. And when you come in, you have to climb over everyone to say mazal tov, and then you have to circle the table a few times looking for a parking spot, saying, “Excuse me,” over and over, until you get to sit down in front of someone’s pile of pistachio shells.
Sure, sometimes the ba’al simcha tries to set up a second table in some alcove that is nowhere in sight of the table he’s sitting at, but who’s going to sit there? The table ends up having some kids sit at it for a while, and then it gets abandoned, with the tablecloth hanging halfway off, and no good food on it, and the light above it flickering ominously. Maybe the brothers-in-law should sit there.
No one comes to a shalom zachor to sit nowhere in sight of the ba’al simcha. The table is supposed to be a little tight. Even if the ba’al simcha has a big house, the dining room is still tight. (People with bigger houses have more friends. And/or better cakes.) And that way, when it gets too tight, people have an excuse to get up and go home. It’s nothing personal; people want to go to sleep.
“OK, good; we can leave. Someone else can sit in front of the chocolate-covered pretzels now.”
In fact, the perfect shalom zachor that I want to make some day — for me or a possible son-in-law, particularly if the new mother isn’t home — is to rent a bunch of recliners, so that everyone gets to come in and fall asleep until new people come in and shake us awake and send us to bed so that they can take the recliners.
Because that’s how it works: When someone new comes, someone who’s been there for a while gets to leave. That’s why the last people who come end up staying forever — because nobody comes to relieve them. At least if your wife is home or you have some other relatives, like a mother-in-law or a brother-in-law in a shirt, they can start cleaning as you sit there so the last person can get the hint. If no one’s there, or all your helpful relatives went to sleep so it’s just you and him, that guy is not leaving. Until your talmidim come in and say it’s time for the morning Shema. So it’s good to get some talmidim. Or to hire some ahead of time.
If you don’t, you won’t get any sleep, which is good practice for fatherhood.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of five books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.