Birth in Chabad: Magical Amulets and Other Customs
By Dovi Seldowitz
Chabad customs concerning childbirth are part of an eclectic source of material. When taking into account customs relating to pregnancy, childbirth, circumcision and other birth-related rituals, Chabad birth customs include dozens of individual practices. These customs range from commonsensical ideas, to mystical rites, from individual family traditions, to standardized legalistic guidelines. A good deal of Chabad customs surrounding birth overlap the customs of other Orthodox and Chasidic communities, however, the custom particular to Chabad is the use of a Kabbalistic mandala popularly known as a “‘shir hamaalot‘ card” after its inscription of a Psalm beginning with those words. The Chabad is known for promoting this particular birth custom, after it being heavily encouraged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
This Chabad practice of the “‘shir hamaalot‘ card” is not entirely original; both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities have a long history of including magical practices, including amulets, at the birth of a Jewish child. While those medieval rites have waned in modern times, Chabad’s public emphasis in using a Kabbalistic birth amulet makes the movement stand out within general Orthodoxy, as Chabad promotes these long-forgotten Jewish customs even in contemporary birth settings where Western medicine is typically placed ahead of all other alternative forms of healing.
Sociologists have noted the contemporary trend towards the medicalization of childbirth. What was once a purely social and/or personal event now specifically takes place within a medical context. Chabad’s stance on placing a Jewish mandala in a hospital birthing room allows Jewish families to reclaim an increasingly medicalized event as their own personal moment, placing Western medicine alongside the traditional belief of divine protection.
Another custom quite particular to Chabad relates to the birth of a baby girl. Chabad customs include exclaiming traditional congratulations for the child, making sure to emphasize female Torah study. The congratulations is that the child will be raised “to (study) Torah, to marry and to (perform) good deeds.” This egalitarian attribution of the value of Torah study for both males and females is not restricted to Chabad, but Chabad has emphasized this idea in a particularly powerful manner, as this custom emphasizes female Torah study from the time of one’s birth.
Chabad’s emphasis on particular childbirth customs reveal some of the movement’s core values. The use of a Kabbalistic amulet points to Chabad’s mission to raise general awareness and pride of Jewish traditions, even in settings not entirely conducive to such practices. And the Chabad’s stance on the involvement of women in Jewish life is also revealed in some of the customs surrounding the birth of baby girls. Overall, Chabad childbirth customs can be seen within the greater context of the movement’s emphasis on keeping Jewish traditions alive today and reinforcing them with the particular ideological approach of Chabad Chasidus.
 See, Avraham Yeshaya Holtzberg, “Kovetz Minhagim: Customs of Pregnancy and Birth,” Shimon Neubort trans, The Jewish Woman, Chabad.org.
 See for example, Alyson Henley-Einion, “The medicalisation of childbirth,” The Social Context of Birth, Caroline Squire ed. Radcliffe Publishing, (2003): 173-186; Gay Becker and Robert D. Nachtigall, “Eager for medicalisation: the social production of infertility as a disease.” Sociology of Health & Illness 14, no. 4 (1992): 456-471.
POSTSCRIPT: For background information on mystical amulets and other traditions from the magical Kabbalah, stay tuned for the new Kabbalah Exhibition, a social history of the development of the Jewish mystical tradition. Preview it at https://www.kabbalahexhibition.com