Following the birth1 of a baby boy, it is customary (especially among Ashkenazi Jews) to hold a festive gathering after the Friday night Shabbat meal, called a shalom zachor. The refreshments almost always include chickpeas (garbanzo beans) and beer. To understand why, we need to understand the main reasons behind the shalom zachor.

Primarily, we are thanking G‑d that the baby survived the birthing process, just as we celebrate and give thanks for any miracle that occurs.2

But there is another element as well. The Talmud tells us that while the child is in the mother's womb, an angel teaches it the entire Torah. However, before the baby is born, the angel strikes the baby on its mouth, which causes the baby to forget all it had learned.3 The shalom zachor serves as a way for everyone to come visit and console the soul of the baby, which has lost all of its Torah learning.4

Others explain that the baby’s soul is mourning the very fact that it came down into this world in which there is so much negativity and impurity.5

The Food of Mourning

Accordingly, it is customary to serve chickpeas (or other beans) at a shalom zachor since these foods are traditionally served to mourners, as they symbolize the cycle of life.6

Another reason for serving beans to a mourner is that the round shape has no “mouth” (opening), and, in a sense, a mourner also has no “mouth” to speak, consumed as he is with his grief.7

Celebrating Jewish Continuity

Some see a message embedded in the Yiddish word for chickpeas, "arbis," which is reminiscent of the promise G‑d gave to Abraham: "I shall multiply (harbeh arbeh) your seed like the stars of the heavens."8 9

Not So Clear Beer

Another staple at most shalom zachors is beer. However, the origin of this practice is not entirely clear.

Perhaps the earliest mention of beer at a shalom zachor is by Rabbi Yaakov Halevi Lifshitz (1838–1921) of Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, in his work Zichron Yaakov, in which he chronicles the life and history of Lithuanian Jewry. He describes how they would proclaim in the synagogue after Friday night services that “so and so” invites the congregation to a shalom zachor, and how at the shalom zachor they would serve different types of beans and beer, or a different “social drink” (chamar medinah).10

There is room to speculate that we drink beer either because it is made from barley, which is round (like beans), or perhaps because at the shalom zachor, there is a custom that lighter refreshments (as opposed to a full-fledged meal) are served.11 Thus, we serve beer, which is considered less formal than wine.

L’chaim!

Recipe: Sumac-Spiced Chickpeas