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 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.