Ever heard of the family shawl worn at brit milah ceremonies? Or the tray with candles? Brooklyn’s Syrian and Sephardi Jews have certain unique traditions which have helped bind the communities together. Sarina Roffe in Community explains some of them (with thanks: American Sephardi Federation):
Sarina Roffe holding a family photo (Photo: from Sarina’s Cookbook)
Women’s Shawl – A Brit Milah Tradition
A very small but incredibly significant family tradition among many Jewish families is the “family shawl,” handed down from generation to generation among women. I am a journalist and historian, known as an expert in Sephardic history, and I have never seen this particular tradition written about or even spoken of. It just is.
The family shawl is not for prayer, nor is it a simple head covering. The family shawl is fancy, carefully sewn with pure gold thread, often made with lace. It may have other ornamentation, embroidery or adornment, but the family shawl is not something you would wear at anything but a special occasion.
The family shawl in my father’s family has been handed down for at least 150 years. It was worn by my great-great grandmother when she carried my paternal grandfather Joseph Nissim Missry, a”h, for his brit in September, 1891.
The family shawl is worn only when the grandmother carries an eight-day-only newborn grandson for his brit milah, or in the case of a firstborn son, during the pidjon haben, when he is redeemed by the Cohen.
The family shawl is special. As you wear it, you feel the power from your female ancestors give strength to the moment of the brit milah. The mitzvah of carrying a child for his circumcision, his entry into the covenant of Avraham Avinu, is somehow magnified, as wearing the shawl draws on the generations before us in that magical moment.
The shawl from my father’s family has been fabric tested. The fabric and gold thread are dated to about 1850. One of my cousins keeps the shawl under lock and key. When a boy is born in our family, it is picked up for the brit, and returned within days, when it is secured for the next brit.
Seniyet Eliyahu Hanabi – Tradition at Brit Milahs
Some rituals in our community are deeply rooted. For example, at every brit milah, a two-level tray with candles is circulated. People light candles and donate to charity. Sometimes guests will take a penny for good mazal.
The tray is called Seniyet Eliyahu Hanabi – the tray of Eliyahu the Prophet. Eliyahu Hanabi is believed to be present at all brit milot.
This practice is based ona Midrashic tradition found in Megilat Taanit, which discusses Greek decrees over Jews when they ruled Eretz Israel. One decree forbids the brit milah. Jews secretly announced the brit milah by grinding spices and lighting candles. The custom may date from the time of the Prophets. Other sources reveal that during the Spanish Inquisition and forced conversion of the Jews a tray of candles outside the home was a signal that there was a brit milah in that location.
Sending Gifts to the Bride – Swanee
In Syria, our community had a tradition of sending money to a bride, so she can prepare for her wedding night by visiting the mikvah. This tradition grew into sending gifts to the bride, gifts she could us to prepare for her wedding night. Called swanee, the tradition has grown, whereas the gifts are sent on fancy trays, with magnificent white flowers, and almonds covered in white candy.
The modern day swanee maintains the same tradition of sending gifts to the bride, such as a nightgown, perfumes, an evening purse, and jewelry. The gifts have become more and more elaborate. Today, it is widely accepted that gifts are also bought for the groom by the bride’s parents. The swanee, or collection, is sent to the home of the bride, where the gifts are displayed for friends and relatives, and it is an occasion for celebration. The celebration can be an afternoon tea, where coffee and desserts are served, or an evening party. Often the swanee is combined with the American tradition of a bridal shower. Today, it is expected that there be a table where the mother of the bride sends gifts to the groom as well, as a way to welcome him into the family.
Foods Reserved for Special Occasions
Our community has foods typically reserved for special occasions. Generally, shob el boz (made from cornstarch and sugar) or el maziye, a white drink made from almond juice, is served at engagement parties. Knafe, made from shredded phyllo dough and ricotta cheese, is served at brit milahs.
Passover – Fast of the Firstborn
In the tenth and final plague inflicted upon Egypt, Gd killed the firstborns in all of Egypt. But, as in all the plagues brought upon Egypt, the Children of Israel were spared. To express their gratitude, all firstborn males fast on the day before Passover (ErevPesah). The fathers of firstborn boys under the age of 13 fast in their stead.
The prevailing custom, however, is for the firstborn to exempt themselves from the obligation to fast by participating in a seudat mitzvah, a festive meal after morning prayers erev Pesah. In our community, firstborn women do not fast. I always remember the firstborn in our family having macaroons!
Passover – the Sack of Matzah
Sephardic families have special traditions after the afikomen is hidden. The Seder leader at a Moroccan Jewish Seder takes the Seder tray and walks around the table, singing a special prayer and passing the tray over the head of each person.
Syrian Jews place the matzah in a napkin or sack. This sack is passed around the table. Using the right hand, the sack is placed over the left shoulder. Each person says, “Mishaarotam” (carrying the possessions tied in bags on their shoulders as they left Egypt). The family then asks, “Minwen jaiyeh?” (Where are you coming from?) He replies, “Mimetzrayim” (from Egypt). Then, “Lawen rayech?” (Where are you going to?) He replies, “Liyerushalayim” (Jerusalem). And then, “Ishu zawatek?” (What are you carrying?) And he replies, “Matzah.”
Visitors to our Passover Seders find this tradition fascinating!