Question: The other day, I heard a person say mazel tov to a pregnant woman who they had just found out was pregnant. Somehow, this didn’t sound right to me. Doesn’t one say b’sha’ah tovah under these circumstances? What’s the difference?
Answer: This is a great question and the answer is no, it is not appropriate to wish someone mazel tov on a pregnancy.
Mazel tov is a blanket expression of congratulations for just about any achievement or celebratory lifecycle event. Literally translated as “a good constellation,” mazel tov is a phrase that dates back to antiquity, implying that the stars were aligned for the celebrant to enjoy their good fortune.
When it comes to the news of a woman’s pregnancy, however, Jewish tradition suggests a little more restraint over our celestial exuberance. While news of your friend’s pregnancy is (hopefully) a welcomed tiding for the mother-to-be, Jewish tradition directs the well-wisher to be sensitive to the anxiety or complications that can unfortunately ensue throughout the months of pregnancy.
A healthy birth, in other words, can’t be guaranteed. Pre-empting the good news of the birth with a well-intended mazel tov is also considered by some to attract the ayin ha’ra, the evil eye. For that reason, the traditional response to the news of an expectant parent is “b’sha’ah tovah!” — a Hebrew phrase that literally translates to “in a good hour!” It is a wish that the baby will be born healthy in the appropriate time.
Some apply b’sha’ah tovah to the news of an engagement as well. While mazel tov is typically strewn all over the bride and groom, the full expression of celebration is sometimes withheld until the fait accompli of the wedding day.
In your friend’s case, we pray that the baby will be born when the time is right. Once the baby is born, it is appropriate to extend a hardy mazel tov to the whole family.
Rabbi Danielle Upbin teaches widely on Jewish spirituality, meditation and yoga. She is also the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater, Florida.