The Jewish Lifecycle




The birth of a child is a time for joyous celebration for the family and community.  “A baby,” wrote Carl Sandburg, “is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”  In contemporary American practice, children are often given a secular, English name, and, additionally, a Hebrew name.   In Jewish families of European origin (Ashkenazic), a child usually is named after a deceased relative. Couples might choose the same name, a name with a similar meaning or a name that begins with the same initial letter as that of the deceased loved one.  In families of Mediterranean origin (Sephardic), a child is usually named after a living relative the parents wish to honor. 

Brit Milah (Circumcision)

The circumcision ceremony, or Brit Milah, takes place on the 8th day following the birth of a male child. (The first day is included in the calculation.)  Brit means covenant; milah is word. Circumcision is a symbol of the covenant established by God with Abraham and has been continuously performed as a sign of that covenant for many thousands of years. It is a mitzvah, a religious obligation, for the parent.  Most parents choose to delegate that responsibility to a mohel, a professional who is trained in the medical and religious aspects of this ceremony. Brit Milah is often referred to as “bris”, reflecting the Yiddish pronunciation. The bris consists of two parts- the circumcision itself and the announcement of the child’s Hebrew name. The presence of the prophet Elijah is invoked, and prayers are said that the boy will grow to a life of “Torah, sacred relationship and mitzvot.”

Simchat Bat (Ceremony for the birth of a girl)

Traditionally, the name of a female child is announced in synagogue on the Sabbath following her birth, including prayers for the recovery of her mother.  It has become the custom to hold an expanded ceremony to welcome the birth of a girl and to announce her Hebrew name. This ceremony might be part of the Torah service, or, it might be held in the home of the family. The timing of this event as well as the liturgy is more fluid than that of the bris for a boy. The rabbi will assist you in creating a unique celebration to inspire your family and welcome your daughter to the family and community.

Pidyon Ha-Ben (Redemption of first-born)

The pidyon ha-ben, redemption of the first born, takes place on the 30th day after the birth of a son who is the first-born child of his mother. According to the Torah, all first borns are dedicated to the service of God, and the son must be redeemed from this commitment. The parents exchange five shekels (five silver coins) with a Kohen, a descendant of the priestly tribe, in a symbolic ceremony. This money will be donated to tzedaka. In some communities, it is the practice that first-born children, male or female, are redeemed.


Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Bar is the Aramaic word for son, Bat is Hebrew for daughter. At the age of twelve for a girl, or thirteen for a boy, the child assumes religious responsibility for their own actions.

In the non-Orthodox world, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, son/daughter of the commandments, will be called to the Torah to recite blessings and will read from the sacred text, as he or she leads the congregation in worship. In the Orthodox community, the girl will give a learned discourse reflecting on themes of the weekly Torah portion. In many congregations, Bar/Bat Mitzvah both take place at age thirteen. 

Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a reminder to parents that their children are growing up and moving towards independence. The young person is reminded that they are becoming responsible to take the lessons they have learned from their family and from their religious education and use them to make good choices and to be positive influences in the world. 

It is not required to have a ceremony in order to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and one assumes the same rights and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood regardless of whether or not an event is held. Typically, this is a meaningful time for family and friends to gather in the synagogue, usually on a Saturday but occasionally on another day when Torah is read. Often, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is accompanied by a celebratory meal. 

Many adults who did not have the opportunity to celebrate Bar/Bat Mitzvah in their youth choose to participate in the Adult Bnai Mitzvah programs offered at synagogues throughout the Valley.


Jewish education is a lifelong process; it does not end with the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Young people are encouraged to continue their commitment to Jewish learning through a program culminating in a Confirmation Ceremony, typically held at the conclusion of 10th or 11th grade. This ceremony will often be structured by the students themselves and offers an opportunity to “confirm” their ongoing role in Jewish life. It may take place at the holiday of Shavuot and is most common in non-Orthodox congregations.


Judaism accepts the validity of many spiritual paths and has typically not sought out converts from other religious traditions. It has been customary for many years to discourage conversion, in consonance with our belief that ‘the righteous of all faiths have a share in the world to come’. We are, however, open to those who join our people. The decision to become Jewish should not be undertaken likely. The process will begin by scheduling an appointment with a Rabbi. You might wish to visit a number of synagogues to find one that feels comfortable. The Rabbi will direct a program of study, often lasting a year or more. Depending on the community, an immersion in the mikve, a ritual bath, and a meeting with a bet din, a Jewish religious court, will be the culmination of the conversion process.


The Hebrew word for marriage, kiddushin, expresses the essential nature of the holiness of the marriage relationship. (The root is the word kadosh – holy.) In describing the creation of the world and humanity, God is depicted as saying that it is not good for humans to be alone- we are designed to be in relationship. 

Tradition recognizes three ways to sanctify a marriage — through a written contract, through the exchange of an object of value in front of witnesses, or through sexual intimacy for the purpose of marriage. Contemporary wedding ceremonies incorporate all three of these elements. The couple selects a ketuba, a written wedding contract; an exchange of rings takes place (in Orthodox practice only the bride will receive a ring); and the couple shares a few moments of yichud, alone time, following the ceremony.

The couple may choose to immerse themselves in a mikve, a ritual bath, prior to the wedding ceremony. The ceremony will begin with the signing of the ketuba and the bedeken, or veiling, of the bride. Tradition suggests that the patriarch wished to marry his beloved Rachel and discovered after the ceremony that his heavily veiled bride was actually her sister Leah. Since that time, grooms are given the opportunity to “check out” and make sure they are marrying their intended.

A chuppah, marriage canopy, is erected and the couple proceeds towards the chuppah, often surrounded by family and friends. The chuppah symbolizes the home they are establishing together. It is open on all four sides, representing the sense of openness we hope will characterize their relationship.

It has been traditional for the bride to circle the groom seven times as the ceremony begins. Many couples do not include this ritual, though there is an emerging adaptation for the groom to circle the bride three times, the bride to circle the groom three times, and the couple to join hands for a final circuit together.

The Rabbi will continue by welcoming the participants and chanting the Erusin, or engagement blessing, after which the couple will share a sip of wine or juice. This is followed by the exchange of rings and the reading of the ketuba. Sheva brachot – seven blessings are chanted, expressing our hope that each day of the couple’s life together will be filled with blessing. Occasionally the couple may ask friends to read the translation of each of these blessings.

The Rabbi will often share some words of wisdom about the nature of marriage and the unique attributes of the couple, and the ceremony concludes with the breaking of a glass. Laden with meaning, the breaking of the glass is a reminder of our connection to history and a warning to the couple of the fragility of the marriage relationship. Following the ceremony, the couple should be allowed a few moments alone to share their first experience as husband and wife.

Many local Rabbis will work with gay and lesbian couples to adapt these traditions and create new ceremonies to celebrate their love and commitment within the context of Jewish tradition.


Many moments in Jewish life call for immersion in the mikve, a ritual bath of “living waters.”  Immersion in the mikve is a profound and moving way to experience transitions in our personal lives within a Jewish context. In traditional homes, a woman will go to the mikve to mark the end of her menstrual cycle as she renews a sexual relationship with her husband. Brides and grooms sometimes go to the mikve before the wedding, and mikve is an important part of the experience of conversion. It is customary to bring new pots, pans and dishes to the mikve before they are brought into our home.

Mikve rituals have been developed for a whole host of contemporary experiences, including divorce recovery, healing from rape, adult Bar/Bat mitzvah and many other powerful moments in our lives.

Chanukat Habayit (Dedicating a home)

We read in the Torah that “you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.”  We fulfill this mitzvah by putting a mezuzah on the right side of the doors of our homes (with the exception of the bathroom), 2/3 of the way up, facing in to the room. The mezuzah is a constant reminder of God’s presence in our home and should be hung within 30 days of moving in. 

The Rabbis debated whether the mezuzah should be hung vertically or horizontally; the slanted position encourages us to remember the importance of compromise as we strive for shalom bayit, peace in our homes. 


Jewish tradition recognizes that sometimes divorce is the best option for a couple. A get, a Jewish certificate of divorce, is prepared for the couple and presented in front of a bet din, a Jewish religious court. The Reform movement does not require a get as a precondition for marriage by a Rabbi if there has been a civil divorce. Since the marital status of the parents may affect the status of future children, a Rabbi should always be consulted with regard to issues of personal status in the community.


The Jewish traditions related to death and mourning are intended to recognize death as a part of life. The traditions of preparing the body, sitting Shiva (a seven-day period of mourning immediately after a funeral), saying Kaddish (prayer for the dead), and observing Yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) provide a sense of structure at this difficult time of loss. Through the observance of Jewish rituals, the mourner remains connected to a caring community who can offer support and be part of the healing process.

From the time one learns of a loss until the burial, one is relieved of all religious responsibilities in order to focus on one’s own grief and the practical arrangements which must be made. Jewish practice mandates in-ground burial as soon as possible after a death. The realities of contemporary life often dictate a delay of a day or more as family members gather from many far-flung corners. Some non-Orthodox rabbis will provide services for families who choose cremation as well.

The body is treated with great respect, as befitting the image of God, lovingly washed and dressed in tachritim, shrouds. Members of the immediate family will tear their clothing or attach a ribbon to their clothing, which is rent. This is a way of expressing outwardly the sense of being torn up on the inside.

A simple coffin is place into the graveside as part of the funeral service. The service will consist of traditional prayers and excerpts from psalms, and includes a eulogy in which we highlight the life and legacy of the deceased. 

The family will adjourn to their home for a meal of consolation and to begin the process of shiva, the first seven days of mourning. In some non-Orthodox communities, the period of mourning may be abbreviated to a shorter time period. During this time, friends will visit the home to support the family with food and prayer.

The next period of Sheloshim – 30 days (incorporating the shiva) – is the time when the mourner begins to reconnect with the world, still avoiding celebrations and reciting the mourner’s kaddish prayer daily. Mourning continues for eleven months. We continue to honor our deceased loved ones at the Yizkor service four times per year and on the yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the death according to the Jewish calendar.

Derech Eretz: A Sermon for Rosh HaShana

Delivered this sermon on the importance of good manners and civility at Temple Chai on Rosh HaShanah 5771.

[Holding Blackberry Device]

Wait just a minute, I have one more text message I need to respond to and then I’ll put this on vibrate and be right with you. . . )  Here it is Rosh HaShana, a day to address grand themes, deeply meaningful and inspiring themes, themes of ultimate importance. However, I have chosen instead to speak to you about something petty, in fact, about a lot of petty things, because, more and more, the lack of civil behavior has become a plague in our society. It was just last month that a flight attendant on Jet Blue bailed out of the flight. An editorial in the AZ Republic commented that, “Good manners weren’t designed to just win your grandmother’s approval. The purpose of good manners is to keep civilization civil and to allow people who may have differing opinions to engage in conversation.”

[1]  “Manners?  What Manners?”, read the headline in the USA Today on July 22nd. The High Holidays were barely over last year when I wondered what would be an appropriate theme for this year. My question was answered when I read Harvey Mackay’s column a week after Yom Kippur:  “Civility, Good Manners are Timeless- and Free.”

We really don’t need newspapers to alert us to this epidemic. When was the last time you had all your invited guests RSVP in a timely fashion to your invitation. Enough said? A recent survey invited readers to write in regarding what was the rudest thing that had happened to them lately? Responses poured in by the hundreds. A lady in Indiana reported that she and her husband went to a buffet restaurant. Her husband put his jacket on the booth, and they laid out table settings. When they returned from the buffet line, they found another couple sitting in “their” booth, eating. She concludes, “My husband asked the man to pass him his jacket and silverware, which he did, without a word. We had to find another table to eat at.”  A capital offense? Hardly. Khutzpadik? Guilty as charged.

And this story from California —  “A woman in my casual carpool was drinking coffee from an insulated coffee mug.  When we reached the drop-off point, she dumped half the contents onto the back seat of my car as she got out. She said, ‘Well, it doesn’t look like the first time that’s happened,’ then shut the door and walked away. There was no apology and not even a token attempt to clean the spill.”

I’m told that in some parts of the country parents are required to put two deposits down to reserve a location for a Bar or Bat Mitzva celebration — one to hold the room and a second to cover the costs of vandalism that may be done to the facility. The message is clear. Our kids have no concept of the value and respect with which the property of others ought to be treated. We can expect that they will wreak havoc at the event. Simply put, they have no derech eretz.  Derech eretz in Hebrew literally means “the way of the land”, but it is the term we use to describe good manners, common decency, civil behavior.

George Will offered his own, “Theory of Vulgarity in Our Contemporary Life.”  In his column he referred to “today’s casual coarseness” which he described as a “facet of a larger phenomenon of which incivility is a part.”  “Incivility”, he suggests, “is becoming normal.”   He also suggests that the pervasive use of technology has cut us off from social connection, leaving us dissociated from any social context and resulting in pervasive boorishness. “Can you hear me now?”  This sense of disconnection explains why people will exhibit behavior while driving that they would never consider if they were in situations where they might be recognizable and accountable as individuals.

I’m sure you could add your own examples and I think I’ve made my point. When the Jewish people left Egypt and Moses needed to provide water for them in the wilderness, he was instructed to strike a rock and water spewed forth.  After the people had experienced freedom and a new generation arose, God told Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth water. Why the difference? In a free society to function successfully, we must learn to speak to each other, to find gentle ways to live together and not resort immediately to violence, whether physical or verbal.

The notion of what is socially acceptable changes from one generation to the next, but throughout the generations Judaism has emphasized the principle, “Derech eretz kadma la-kol- Good manners comes before everything else.”  What does it mean to be a religious person? The answer of our tradition is that it doesn’t matter how strictly we observe Shabbat, how often we come to shul, whether we keep kosher inside and outside our homes, or even how much we contribute to tzedaka- none of it means anything if we do not live in a gracious manner.

The Seder Eliyahu Rabba (26) depicts God as teaching us, “My beloved children, am I in want of anything that I should request of you?  But what I ask of you is that you should love, honor and respect one another.”  The way we treat each other is the one thing which is out of God’s control and the ultimate expression of our humanity. Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say, “God created man with feet so that he could stride ahead, but man generally prefers to advance by using his elbows.”

Our own Rabbi Barton Lee has spent many years studying a text on derech eretz, written in 1885 by Rabbi Joshua Briskin. He quotes Rabbi Briskin, for example, on the subject of table manners:  “One should accustom one’s self not to converse at meals with food in his mouth, not even words of Torah- because of the danger lest he swallow so that it goes down the wrong pipe. Further, he should not let the food in his mouth be seen by others while speaking and eating, for that is repulsive.” The category of what constitutes derech eretz, Rabbi Lee concludes, includes things which may be harmful to us as well as things which are offensive to others. Elsewhere in Eliyahu Rabba we are also taught that we should choose as our table companions those from whom we can learn Torah.

What is the ultimate goal of Jewish life?  Judaism does not suggest that the highest goal is to withdraw from life and to live a life of contemplation and solitude.  Rather, it challenges us to live with all the frustration and temptations of life in the world, and to find a way to elevate every moment, to seek the holiness in our smallest gestures and behaviors.

Since eating is one of our most frequent activities, it makes sense that there is an enormous body of literature offering guidance as to how we might make our eating into a religious activity. We read in the Shulkhan Arukh that, “Even things of personal choice, such as eating and drinking, walking, sitting and standing, sexual intercourse, conversation, and everything connected with the needs of your body- all should be for the service of God, or for something that leads to the service of God.”

[2]  Washing our hands and saying a blessing before we eat are much-needed reminders that derech eretz is the foundation on which all other goals of Torah rests.

Rabbi Abraham of Slonim was a man who knew how to enjoy a meal, “Contrary to what you might think, it is possible sometimes to come closer to God when you are involved in material things like eating and drinking, than when you are involved with ‘religious’ activities like Torah and prayer. Because when the heart opens up due to the sense pleasures, and there is a feeling of satisfaction and happiness, then is the fit time to come close to holiness.”

[3]  So what we’ve suspected all along is true, good food is a religious experience!

“Similarly, Rabbi Briskin holds, it is a rule of derech eretz that:  ‘one should always be careful that his nose not be runny and that a bad odor not come forth from his mouth’.”

[4]  Wearing nice clothing, which is appropriate to the time and place, is also a concern of derech eretz.  Greeting others warmly and greeting them first, using their name if we know it, is one of the principles of derech eretz we can put to use here in our congregation. A contemporary rabbi offers this example, “. . . when I was growing up. . . If you came to the table improperly dressed, my father would just say two words. Derech eretz. And then you went upstairs and changed.”[5]

Watching what we say and how we too often use words to hurt others is critical. The medieval Orchot HaTzaddikim details specific rules for good manners in speech.

[6]  Speak gently- if someone embarrasses or misleads you, do not attack and reciprocate. Share the burdens of others and try to soothe them when they are angry or worried. Avoid speaking about others in a derogatory manner.  “Good manners require us not to ask someone for information we know they don’t have, or praise them for virtue or talents they don’t possess, or speak to them in ways which would embarrass them publicly. When we do have to rebuke or criticize people, we are to speak gently and privately to them.”

Our tradition does not tell us that we must be total conformists, that we must abandon our own individuality in order to fit in to a preconceived model of behavior. It does expect us to be sensitive to the situation in which we find ourselves and to conduct ourselves in a manner which will endear rather than alienate us from those around us. So, we read in the Talmud, “A person should not be awake among those who are sleeping, nor sleeping among those who are awake; one should not cry among those who are laughing, nor laugh among those who are crying. One should not stand among those who are sitting, nor sit among those who are standing. One should not study Bible among those who are studying Oral Torah, nor Oral Torah among those who are studying Bible.”

[7] I mean how rude can you get!  “The general rule is that a person’s behavior should be in accord with people around them, as long as their behavior is not foolish and is for the sake of heaven.”

Derech eretz kadma la-kol- good manners are more important than anything else. The midrash relates a poignant tale which illustrates how a great sage learned this lesson- “Rabbi Yannai was taking a walk and he saw a man of impressive appearance. Rabbi Yannai said to him, ‘Would you be my guest?’ He said, ‘Yes.’  So Rabbi Yannai took him to his house, and gave him food and drink. He spoke to him of talmudic matters and found that the man knew nothing; then he spoke about the Mishna, the Aggada and the Bible and saw that the man was ignorant of all of them.  Then he said to him, ‘Take the wine cup and recite the blessing.’  The man said, ‘Let Yannai make the blessing in his own house.’  Rabbi Yannai said, ‘Can you repeat what I say to you?’  He said, ‘Yes.’  ‘Then say, ‘A dog has eaten Yannai’s bread’.’  The man jumped up, seized Yannai and said, ‘You have my inheritance, which you are withholding from me.’  Yannai said, “What inheritance of yours do I have?’  The man answered, ‘Once I passed a school, and I heard the voices of children reciting, ‘The Torah which Moses commanded us is the inheritance of Jacob’; they did not say, ‘the inheritance of the congregation only of Yannai’.’  Then Rabbi Yannai said, ‘What merit have you, what good deeds have you done, that you should eat at my table?’  The man said, ‘I never heard malicious gossip and repeated it, particularly not to the person being spoken of, nor did I ever see two people quarreling without making peace between them.’  Said Rabbi Yannai, ‘You have such fine qualities, such derech eretz, and I called you a dog’.”

[8] The lesson, my friends, is simple. It’s great to have you all here in shul. But the true test of how religious you are will come when you close the siddur and go out into the courtyard. Will you treat each other with kindness and consideration, with derech eretz, or will you trample each other in your haste to be the first one out of the parking lot?   As Leonard Fein put it so succinctly, “It is not the services we attend but the services we perform which define us.”

When we close the ark and put the Torah away, we sing, “Dracheha darchei noam, v’kol netivoteha shalom- The ways of Torah are ways of pleasantness, and all her pathways are peace.”  This is the challenge for all of us as the new year begins, to make pleasantness and peacefulness the guiding principle in all our relationships.  Derech eretz kadma la-kol- Good manners, civil behavior, are the most important thing.

©   Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
Temple Chai

4645 E. Marilyn Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85032
(602 ) 971-1234

[1] AZ Republic, Aug., 11, 2010

[2] 31:1,2

[3] Torat Avot, p. 195

[4] Lee, Rabbi Barton, “Derech Erez- Good Manners:  A Jewish Viewpoint”, American Rabbi

[5] from an unpublished sermon, source unknown

[6] quoted in Lee, op. cit.

[7] Massekhet Derech Eretz

[8] Leviticus Rabba 9:3

Respect for Law Alliance

On June 1, 2010, I had the privilege of being honored by the Respect for Law Alliance as their Military Leader Honoree.  Below is the text of my remarks on that occasion.  — Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 16, verse 20, we read, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, in order that you may thrive.”  Jewish tradition is founded on many beautiful values- loving acts of kindness, humility, righteous giving to the needy- but justice is the foundational and fundamental value on which all others rest.  We believe that we are formed in the image of God, and obligated to imitate the qualities we attribute to the Holy One, the Righteous Judge.  Society will quickly deteriorate without a commitment to a system of justice and the means to enforce it.

I encounter many people who tell me that they are not religious, but they observe the Ten Commandments.  When asked to name them, most people fail.  We believe in, we pray and work for a messianic age, a time of universal peace, but, until that blessed time arrives, we recognize the need for law and for an impartial system of law enforcement.  Sadly, we cannot rely on individual conscience. “The lamb may lie down with the lion, “ it has been said,  “but the lamb won’t get much rest!  We all rest better knowing our law enforcement professionals are on the job!

For 32 years, I have had the humbling privilege of serving in the United States Army Reserve as a chaplain.  Now, you may wonder, how can a self-defined religious individual function in an environment such as the United States Army, whose stated goal is to “break things and kill people.”  The answer is that Judaism is not a pacifist tradition.  We believe not only in the right, but the obligation to self-defense.  If someone is seeking to kill you, we read in the Talmud, rise up earlier and kill him first.

A contemporary Orthodox Professor, Michael Wyshograd seeks to define a category of what he calls “abnormal evil”.  He writes that, “basically it comes down to recognizing one when you see one. . .When dealing with normal evil, noninterference, at least in the military sense, ought to be the rule. But when the situation reaches the level of abnormal evil, this principle of noninterference cannot remain absolute. . . We are commanded:  ‘Do not standby idly at the blood of your brother’ (Leviticus 19:16). There comes a time when military intervention is justified and the religious community,” he concludes,  “has a duty to speak clearly when that point is reached.”

While war may at times be necessary, as Jews we are taught never to rejoice in the suffering of our enemies- at the Passover seder, we spill a drop of wine from our cups, symbol of rejoicing, as we recall the 10 plagues which were a necessary part of our journey towards liberation.  Our celebration is muted. We are adjured in Psalms (34:14) to seek peace and pursue it, and prayers for peace are a major focus of our liturgy.  It was King Solomon, whose very name comes from the root “shalom”, meaning peace, who built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, not King David, the triumphant warrior. When Golda Meir was asked if she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers, her poignant response was- “It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers.”  Ultimately, we must pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on us. We give thanks this evening for the opportunity to come together in peaceful fellowship, and take a moment to offer prayers on behalf of our brave comrades who are, even now, deployed in harm’s way, away from their loved ones and prepared to lay down their lives in service to these United States of America, and for all of the courageous service members who serve in our military. How blessed are we all to live in this land of freedom and justice for all!

I will conclude by thanking you for this amazing honor, and to remind all of us of one of my favorite verses in Psalms, (29:11), “God will give strength to the people, God will bless us with peace.”  Peace, we learn, must come from a position of strength.

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