My daughter was connected to the web of her extended family as well as the vast ocean
Once we arrived in North Carolina, the natural wonders of our seaside location served as inspiration for our daughter's naming ritual. I gazed out the big picture window at the ocean and the horizon, watching dolphins rising in the waves and dragonflies droning over the dunes. I thought about the way in which the Hebrew word for the sky, shamayim, contains within it the word mayim, water.
This image reminded me of a text that would be perfect for the welcome ceremony: “Ilu Finu,” part of an ancient piece of poetry called Nishmat Kol Hai, which is said on Shabbat and festivals. (Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar gives a terrific explanation of the history of Nishmat, available on the Hadar podcast series.) Nishmat emphasizes we can never sufficiently praise G-d, but it is nevertheless the duty of all created things l’hodot, to acknowledge G-d’s benevolence. Here is the excerpt:
וְאִלוּ פִינוּ מָלֵא שִירָה כַיָּם, וּלְשוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה כַּהֲמוֹן גַּלָּיו, וְשִׂפְתוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁבַח כְּמֶרְחֲבֵי רָקִיעַ, וְעֵינֵינוּ מְאִירוֹת כַּשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְכַיָּרֵחַ, וְיָדֵינוּ פְרוּשׂוֹת כְּנִשְׁרֵי שָׁמַיִם, וְרַגְלֵינוּ קַלּוֹת כָּאַיָּלוֹת, אֵין אֲנַחְנוּ מַסְפִּיקִים לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ
V'Ilu finu maleh shirah kayam,
u-l’shoneinu rinah kahamon galav,
v’siftoteinu shevakh k’merkhavei raki’a,
v’eineinu m’irot kashemesh v’khayarei’akh,
v’yadeinu f’rusot k’nishrei shamayim,
v’ragleinu kallot ka’ayalot,
ein anakhnu maspikim l’hodot l’kha . . .
Even if our mouths were as full with song as the sea,
and joy would move our tongue like countless waves,
If our lips were full of praise like the expanse of heaven,
and our eyes could fill with light like the sun and moon,
if our arms were outstretched like eagles of the sky,
and our feet as swift as gazelles’,
still we could not thank You enough.
The imagery of these verses is undeniably powerful, linking the sea (yam) and its waves (galim), to the sky (referred to as shamayim, and also as raki’a, a word based on the Hebrew for a hammered out metal plate, often translated as firmament). The natural wonders of sky and sea function as metaphors for infinity, which, in the poet’s mind, is still an inadequate amount for praising and thanking our divine creator.
The line of “Ilu Finu” that resonates most for me has to do with our eyes, the vehicle of sight: v’eineinu me’irot kashemesh v’khayarei’ah – “our eyes could fill with light like the sun and the moon.” I love the astronomical references to the sun as well as the moon, whose cycles are linked to women’s rhythms and, through Rosh Hodesh ceremonies, our ritual gatherings. The root of the verb me’irot is or, light, which is also the root of my daughter’s name—the child whose shining blue eyes now look out onto the world, the child for whom a single flower petal or a floating butterfly is every bit as wondrous as the infinite ocean waves.
This text led me to a wonderful musical selection: an adaptation of “Ilu Finu” composed by Rabbi Miriam Margles. There are several “Ilu Finu” recordings available, from the Hadar Ensemble (“This is the Day,” 2018), Kehilla Community Synagogue (“Arise Kehilla!,” 2010), and others.
After finding the central text and music, other pieces of the ceremony came together easily. In keeping with our seaside locale, I chose to end the ceremony with foot washing right in the ocean. This ritual echoes Abraham’s act of washing the feet of the angels who visited his tent (Genesis 18), a gesture read as welcoming his honored guests.
On the particular July evening when we held the welcome ceremony last summer, it was extremely sunny—not a coincidence, in my opinion. Like the line in “Ilu Finu,” our eyes were definitely me’irot, filled with light. We began the ceremony indoors, moving through texts and explanations of her names, and said kiddush over tiny cups of sparkling grape juice. We then stepped into the blazing sunshine and walked the family’s newest member down to the water’s edge, some cousins running ahead with whoops and yells. The mood was festive and slightly wild, in the best way. As we dipped her feet, we recited a blessing that praises Hashem as m’kor mayim hayim, “source of living water.” At that moment of illumination, my daughter was connected to the web of her extended family as well as the vast ocean that envelopes our world.
Read the baby naming ceremony here.
Hannah S. Pressman writes about Jewish languages, gender, and religion. She received her Ph.D. in modern Hebrew literature from New York University. Her writing has appeared in Tablet, Lilith, the Forward, Kveller, My Jewish Learning, and eJewish Philanthropy, as well as academic volumes. Hannah is currently working on a memoir connecting her Sephardic family history to explorations of American Jewish identity.