Thursday, December 17, 2009

What is a "Kvatter"?

The role of the "kvatter" is to bring the baby from the mom to the dad at the start of the bris ceremony.

The term is Yiddish, and probably comes from the term "K'fater" which means "like the father." Those of Germanic descent might pronounce the word "g'fotter" with an "umlaut" over the "e" (the "e" should be pronounced like the "e" in "yes," as opposed to rolled over as it is in "fodder").

[Update 11/2014 - In the book "Minhagei Worms" (customs of the city of Worms), the author notes a custom that the woman who would take the baby from the mother (who is called the "Sandeket") would give the mother a gift called the "גיפאטר שאפט" (Gifater Shoft) in order to distract the mother from the pain her child is about to go through as she enjoys her new gift. I don't know what the literal translation of the term is (though "שאפט/shoft" seems to mean "community"), but clearly "G'fater" relates to our word in question.]

The word may also come from a diminutive or derivative of "Godfather."

There are different customs related to who is honored to play this role, particularly as pertains to what is called a "segulah" - a special merit to achieve a certain result.

This is not the place to discuss the general benefits of "segulah"s - but there is a nice list of segulahs at the "In the Pink" blog - you can read it here. [I don't recommend the last one for "getting pregnant" - and I happen to think it is a mistake. There is no way that anyone "really" ever did that. At least I hope I am correct]

The major "segulah" of this role is for people who are not yet parents to merit to become parents. Just as they are participating in the bris, just as the woman and man are "like" the mother and father of the baby in the way they are bringing him to his bris, they should merit to have a child, and if he's a boy, to bring him to his bris.

Brief History

Before the age of the mega-mom and the DIY ladies of today, whom we admire very much, by the way, women would not attend a bris in the way they do now. The mother might be in a different room or building, possibly being forced to rest by all her relatives or attendants after having given birth, and the baby would be brought to his bris.

Who would bring the baby? A woman who is trustworthy to the mother.
Who would she give the baby to? The baby's father, surely, except that it was considered immodest for a woman to hand something to a man, who is not her husband, in a public ceremony. So she would give the baby to her husband, who would bring the baby to his (baby's) father.

Present Day

I have not yet met a mother who chose to hide in a room somewhere while the bris takes place elsewhere. So why do we still have the kvatter? Let the mother bring her son to his bris!

There are a few reasons why the kvatter is still used, and other thoughts to consider when choosing a kvatter.

1. Married couples who observe the laws of "niddah" are not supposed to pass things to each other, on account of rules which limit certain practices between husband and wife during the niddah period. While "niddah" status is usually a private affair, a woman who has given birth is known to be in the status of "niddah" on account of her having given birth, so in a public Jewish ceremony, we help them follow the rules by having the "kvatter" couple as their go-between.

2. Some situations and circumstances do not make the mother's entrance possible, such as in certain synagogues or smaller rooms which have limited space. As such, the male half of the kvatter is in the room anyway and he'll take the baby from his wife to bring him to the ceremony.

3. The segulah to have a child is something that some people put a lot of stock in. Why not give them the opportunity, if it would be meaningful to them?

4. In a ceremony with limited participation - most of the honors consist of holding the baby briefly - it provides an opportunity to have more people hold the baby. Many people like to get additional "kvatter people" involved to give additional grandmothers, great aunts, friends and the like the opportunity to participate. It also provides more opportunities for photographs.

My rule in this respect (#4) is simple. Let the women pass the baby first, and the last woman gives the baby to her husband before other men pick up the hand-offs.

What if I don't have any childless married friends? Do I need to find such a couple? (Or - Who else could serve as kvatter?)

No. The couple should ideally be married to one another. Some people give it to the baby's aunt and uncle, or a great-aunt and great-uncle, or even the baby's grandparents. In the case that a married couple is not available, or they are being utilized for something else, the honor can also be given to a male-female team whose contact with one another would not be considered "immodest" in a public Jewish ceremony: for example, a mother/son or a father/daughter team. I guess a brother/sister team could also work.

What if the couple I want to include as kvatter are expecting - in other words, the wife is currently pregnant?

It really depends. Technically they don't have a baby yet, so the "segulah" could still apply. Some who are superstitious might view their being kvatter as a curse on their unborn baby (I believe this to be nonsense). Some feel that an expectant couple don't "need" to play this role.
May they be kvatters? Yes. Is it commonly done? No.

What if there is a couple with no kids that have been kvatter many times?

If they do believe in the segulah and want to play the role again, it is appropriate to give it to them as many times as possible.

BUT... be sensitive!

If they seem to be remorseful, or if it seems to be embarrassing to them because "everyone" knows they are "always" the kvatter couple, and "everyone" sees every time that they "still don't have kids" - which, of course, is nobody's business, then give the honor to somebody else.

Bottom Line

Follow the rules of a couple or appropriate tag-team, and give the honor to someone you care about and/or love.

p.s. Afterthought question

For those who follow the laws of niddah, what happens if the kvatter couple themselves are in a state of niddah?

There are two approaches:

1. This is nobody's business, and as it is a public ceremony, it does not matter. You should not be asking them, and they certainly should not be offering such information.

2. In some circles and some communities, the wife bring the baby in on two pillows, and the husband takes the baby and only the top pillow. In this way, the possibility of the wife handing the husband the baby is taken away. And as "everyone" does it this way, it removes any uncomfortable situations or needs for explaining.

2 comments:

  1. Does the couple have to be Jewish?

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  2. Good question.

    Generally speaking, I would recommmend that for a Jewish ceremony, all participants in the ceremony be Jewish. As the role of kvatter is part of the ceremony, the answer would be YES - they need to be Jewish.

    However, these days it is fairly common that baby's parents sometimes have very dear friends (or relatives!) who are not Jewish . How to include them?

    One way is to have them hold the baby before the actual "Kvatters" (who begin the real ceremony). (Most of the honors at a bris consist of simply holding the baby during the proceedings anyway.)

    Another way is to mention in the ceremony how dear they are to you, and how meaningful it is that they are present.

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