The Judæo-German term for the night preceding the day of circumcision, spent in feasting and the recitation of hymns and prayers by the mohel, sandik, and members of the family. The ostensible object of the watch is to ward off the "evil spirit" and to drive away the "devils," especially Lilith, who is supposed to be inimical to the child about to enter into the covenant of Abraham. The cabalists deduce the peril of this time from the circumstances attending the circumcision of the son of Zipporah (Ex. iv. 24-26; Zohar, Lek Leka, 93b); but the real purpose was to inquire after the health and needs of the mother, for the Rabbis advised a similar procedure in the case of the sick (Ber. 54b), and preparations were also made for the ceremony and feasting accompanying the circumcision. Other plausible reasons for the watch were the repeated edicts of the Gentile governments in the early periods against circumcision and the persecutions by Hadrian, so that those who took part in the ceremony were obliged to adopt all precautions and to assemble on the night before it to prevent publicity. Since circumcision could be performed only by day, the same need of caution required that all doors and windows be closed and the daylight excluded, so that the ceremony was carried out by the light of lamps and candles. Different communities had secret signs and signals to announce the "Wachnacht," such as the grinding of a millstone or the lighting of a lamp. The eve of circumcision itself was disguised under the term "shabua' ha-ben" (week of the son; Sanh. 32b, and Rashi ad loc.). Even after the persecutions had ceased, the lights were still lit (Yer. Ket. i. 5). Rab, Samuel, and Rab Assi met at a shabua' ha-ben (B. Ḳ. 80a); and the author of the Vitry Maḥzor mentions a festal gathering on the eve of the day of circumcision as an ancient traditional custom (p. 627).
In Germany the pressure of business during the week finally fixed the gathering for the night of the Friday before the circumcision. The feast was then called "zakar" (male; comp. Isserlein, "Terumat ha-Deshen," responsum No. 269), and in modern times it is termed "shalom zakar," "shalom" meaning "peace," and both indicating the birth of a male child and also implying an inquiry after the health of the mother as well as safety from persecution. The festival is considered a feast of merit ("se'uddat miẓwah"; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 265, 12, note by Isserles).
In eastern Europe the small boys of the neighborhood are accustomed to assemble every night of the week before the circumcision and recite the "Shema'" and a few verses of the Bible, ending with "The Angel which redeemed" (Gen. xlviii. 16), for which they are given nuts and sweetmeats. The ceremony is more elaborate in the Orient, especially in Jerusalem, where, even at the birth of a girl, two women act as nurses of the mother during the entire week, while two men in another room recite and study the Scriptures and tiḳḳunim. The chief ceremony, however, is on the eve of the eighth day, when all who actually take part in the circumcision assemble together with the friends of the parents at the house of the latter and pass the entire night in celebration of the event, each guest bringing wine and cake as well as a lamp with olive-oil for illumination. The Sephardim decorate their lamps with wreaths of flowers, and march in the street to the beating of a drum until they reach the house, where the ḥakam delivers an address. The reading in the house consists of selections from the Bible, a few chapters of mishnayot, including the Mishnah Bekorot if the child is a first-born, and selections from the Zohar (Emden, "Siddur Bet Ya'aḳob," i. 99b-102a, Warsaw, 1881). In his "Ḥemdat Yamim" (i. 8, Leghorn, 1762) Nathan Benjamin Ghazzati transmits a rabbinical tradition that if the watch was observed with full ceremony throughout the eight days, or at least during the four preceding the circumcision, the childwould be destined to remain faithful to God; while Aaron Berechiah of Modena recommended the recitation of the "Piṭṭum ha-Ḳeṭoret" ("Ma'abar Yabboḳ," vi. 8, 5).
- Lewinsohn, Meḳore Minhagim, p. 65;
- Auerbach, Berit Abraham, 2d ed., pp. 35-38, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1880;
- Glassberg, Zikron Berit la-Rishonim, Appendix, pp. 151-173, Cracow, 1892;
- Luncz, Jerusalem, i. 2;
- Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, p. 143, note.