Just as the year is punctuated with designated holy days, fasts and feasts, so within Judaism our lives also contain special religious events and rituals to mark both happy and sad times. From birth to death, we find our religion replete with special occasions that bring the family and community together.
Perhaps the most famous and popular of all life cycle occasions is the Brit Milah or male circumcision. This ceremony, by which a Jewish boy is said to enter the Covenant of Abraham, takes place on the eighth day after birth unless health considerations advise against it, in which case it is postponed until a physician gives permission. Abraham, the founder of the Jewish religion, was commanded by God to circumcise himself and all his descendants as a sign of the covenant with God (Genesis, Chapter 17). Circumcisions, if being performed on the eighth day, may even take place on Shabbat and festivals.
Parents are commanded to circumcise their sons, but since few are qualified to perform this surgical procedure, they generally appoint a mohel as their agent. Besides the mohel, the ceremony also includes the father, who recites the relevant blessing; the kvatter (godparent) and his wife, who bring the baby into the room; and the sandek, an honoured position – often a grandfather, who holds the baby on his knees during the operation.
We also place an additional chair in the room, known as Elijah’s Chair. Momentarily, before the circumcision, the baby is placed on this chair. There are two reasons for the custom of reserving a chair as Elijah’s Chair. The first, our sages relate, is that one of Elijah’s complaints against the Israelites was that they had ceased circumcising their children; hence Jewish parents demonstrate to him that they are fulfilling the covenant. The second reason is that tradition teaches that Elijah will return to earth to herald the coming of the messiah. When a baby is born, it is always possible that this child is the messiah, so he is welcomed by being held in Elijah’s Chair.
Following the circumcision, the child’s Hebrew name is announced. The connection between circumcision and naming derives from Genesis 17. In that chapter Abraham is given the law of circumcision and at the same time has his name changed by God from Abram to Abraham. Ashkenazi Jews (heralding from central and eastern Europe) generally name their children after deceased relatives. Sephardic (Spanish and North African) Jews often name their children after living relatives.
Traditionally, the only rite recognising the birth of a daughter is the naming of the baby. The father attends a synagogue service, at which the Torah is read (e.g. Shabbat, Festivals, Monday or Thursday mornings etc), and he is called up to make a blessing over the Torah. This is known in Hebrew as receiving an aliyah. Following the aliyah, a special prayer is recited for the infant girl; it is in this prayer that the name chosen for her by her parents is announced publicly for the first time.
In recent years however, a ceremony has developed known as Simchat Bat (The Rejoicing for a Daughter). A selection of readings, classical and otherwise, is chosen, prayers are recited for the infant baby girl and, as with Brit Milah, a seudah (festive meal) concludes the proceedings.
One other ritual takes place soon after the birth of certain Jewish baby boys and this is known as Pidyon Haben, the Redemption of the Firstborn. In the Book of Numbers 18:15-16 we read:
“The first issue of the womb of every being, human or animal, that is offered to the Lord shall be yours [the priests’], but the firstborn of humans shall be redeemed, and the firstlings of unclean animals shall be redeemed. Take as their redemption price from the age of one month up, the money equivalent to five shekels by the sanctuary weight, which is twenty gerahs.“
Pidyon HaBen applies only to the firstborn male child. The child does not require a Pidyon Haben if he was delivered by Caesarean section, or if the mother had miscarried previously beyond 40 days. If either of the grandfathers is from the Levitical tribe, i.e.: a Cohen or Levi, the child is also exempt.
The redemption ceremony takes place when the child is a full thirty days old (i.e. on the thirty-first day of life) unless that day falls on a Shabbat or yom tov, in which event the Pidyon HaBen is postponed until the following day. The baby must be redeemed from a Cohen.. A seudah (celebratory meal) is held immediately after completion of the redemption.
BAR MITZVAH AND BAT MITZVAH
Orthodox Judaism teaches that the age of majority for boys is 13, and for girls 12. For other branches of Judaism, boys and girls are treated the same and the age of majority is 13.
At this time a young person becomes responsible for the performance of Jewish obligations themselves and can no longer rely entirely on their parents. To mark this change of status, celebrations are often held. When a boy reaches 13 for example, he celebrates his Bar Mitzvah (implying – duty bound to God’s commandments) by receiving an aliyah in synagogue. He often recites part of the service that day too.
For Conservative and Reform Jews the same celebration is held for girls who turn 13. For orthodox girls celebrating their Bat Mitzvah, traditions vary – some simply hold a party, others engage the young girl in some way within the synagogue. Orthodox Jewish Day Schools often organise Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.
Following adolescence, Judaism perceives that the next great stage of life is marriage. The decision to leave one’s parental home and to share one’s life with another, in love and respect, is seen to be critical to the ongoing success and continuity of the Jewish people. To enter this state, Judaism provides a series of rituals and ceremonies.
There is no direct equivalent to the ‘engagement’ in Judaism. No ring is given or vows exchanged prior to the wedding ceremony – simply an announcement that these two people will marry at some stage in the future. It is true that that in some religious circles we have a practice known as tenaim (conditions), at which conditions for the marriage are drawn up and signed prior to the wedding. tenaim constitute a mutual agreement between the parents of the prospective bride and groom concerning the date and financial arrangements of the marriage. The drawing up of Tenaim dates back to the third century of the Common Era and serves both to discourage disorganised arrangements as well as misunderstandings which can lead to hurt feelings and strained family relationships.
In reality, the Jewish wedding ceremony itself contains the engagement, which in earlier times was held up to a year before the marriage blessings. Nowadays both parts, the erusin (the betrothal) and the nisuin (the marriage blessings) are held at the same time to avoid any legal complication were the erusin to take place, but not the nisuin.
This double ceremony takes place beneath a chuppah, which is a canopy representing the new home of the bride (kallah) and groom (chatan). The term chuppah is also used to refer to the actual wedding ceremony. The chuppah often takes place inside a synagogue, but other popular locations are hotels, homes and parks. Many religious couples deliberately choose to be married outside, under the sky so to speak, since the number of stars in the sky are said to represent the future fruitfulness of the couple.
On the Shabbat preceding the chuppah, the chatan is entitled to an aliyah in an orthodox synagogue. In Conservative and Reform synagogues both the chatan and the kallah receive an aliyah. This call to theTorah is accompanied by great rejoicing and is also known in Yiddish as the aufruf. Some couples choose to have the aufruf one week earlier. The kallah also has responsibilities leading up to the wedding day, most importantly, she attends the mikveh (ritual bath) and immerses herself and purifies herself in readiness for her wedding night.
The wedding must not take place on a Sabbath or major festival, but is allowed on all other regular days of the week. There are a number of weeks in the year which have a sad aura about them due to incidents in Jewish history, and during these weeks no marriages may be conducted. The wedding day itself takes on a special character for the chatan and kallah, who treat the day with added solemnity and fast from rising in the morning until the ceremony is completed. There are a few exceptions to this if the wedding day is a minor festival.
Immediately prior to the chuppah, the chatan authorises two observant men to act as witnesses to his marriage. The Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism admit both men and women to this role. These two witnesses then sign the marriage document, known as the ketubah. The chatan is then led to where the kallah is waiting and he lowers her veil over her face as a sign of the modesty expected from a married woman. This ceremony, which also includes a poignant blessing from father to daughter as she embarks on married life, is known as bedeken. Some also consider that the purpose of this ceremony is so that the chatan may check the identity of his future wife and not make the same mistake as Jacob who married Leah instead of Rachel because her face was covered and he could not see her true identity.
Soon after these rituals are completed the various parties to the wedding find themselves beneath the chuppah. A series of blessings are recited, the rabbi gives a short address, the wedding ring is handed over, the ketubah is read out, more blessings are said and a glass is broken to remind everyone present that in spite of the joy of the moment, Jewish history in general and the history of Jerusalem in particular have contained many sad moments. The priestly blessing is then recited and following a brief interlude when bride and groom share time alone with each other, all the participants and their guests make their way to the reception at which eating and drinking, singing and dancing, speeches and toasts are the order of the day.
For more religious couples the wedding festivities are extended over a whole week and special banquets are organised by friends and family in their honour. This week has a title: it is known as Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings), because seven additional blessings are added to the prayers said after a meal during the first week of the marriage when the bride and groom are in attendance.
DEATH AND MOURNING
In Judaism the deceased is buried as soon as possible. This takes place following a short period of time, during which the Jewish burial society – known as the Chevra Kadisha, prepares the body for burial. At the funeral, each member of the immediate family makes a short tear in one of their garments to symbolise the way the death has torn, or broken their heart.
During the funeral, Kaddish is recited for the first time. Mourners say this prayer, a praise of God, for the next eleven months. After the funeral, the mourners return home and share a meal of condolence together. A gravestone or matzevah is normally erected during the first year of mourning.
Jewish tradition divides mourning into three successive periods:
1. Shiva (7): The first period is the seven-day Shiva period, when the mourners abstain from all work and sit together at home receiving visitors who provide company and consolation.
2. Sheloshim (30): Following shiva, up until the end of thirty days counting from the burial, the mourners may return to work, but they abstain from most forms of entertainment.
3. Yud-Bet Chodesh (12 months): From the end of sheloshim until a year of mourning has passed, the close relatives avoid joyous activities.
Judaism emphasises the need to remember and respect the memory of our departed relatives and provides two important ways to do this. We light a candle on the anniversary of their death each year, called theYahrzeit. We also say a prayer called Yizkor in the synagogue four times a year on major festivals.
For more information, please see our Death and Mourning page.