The Jewish Life Cycle
Birth, Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah/Confirmation, Marriage, Death and Mourning
B’rit Milah (“covenant of circumcision”), or Bris (Yiddish), refers to a religious ritual through which male babies are formally welcomed into the Jewish people. During the ceremony the boy is circumcised and given his Hebrew name. B’rit Milah is the oldest religious rite in Judaism, dating back almost 4,000 years. It is first mentioned in Genesis 17, when G-d commands Abraham: “Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. At the age of eight days, every male among you throughout the generations shall be circumcised…”
The ceremony of B’rit Milah is celebrated on the eighth day after birth, but may be delayed for reasons of health. The celebration may take place in the synagogue, hospital or home, usually during the morning or daylight hours. It is appropriate to invite family and friends to share in the happiness of the ceremony.
B’rit HaBat (“covenant of the daughter”): There is no formal ceremony to welcome baby girls to the Jewish people. Traditionally, the father is called to the Torah the week after his daughter’s birth and the baby’s Hebrew name is announced for the first time. Today, however, many Jewish families celebrate their daughter’s birth with a formal naming ceremony. Because there are no laws governing B’rit HaBat, many people feel free to experiment with home celebrations and new prayers.
It is customary to bring a gift for the baby when invited to a B’rit Milah for a boy or naming ceremony for a girl.
Bar Mitzvah; Bat Mitzvah; Confirmation
Bar Mitzvah (“son of the commandment”): Historically, the Bar Mitzvah celebration represented a ceremonial recognition that a young man had reached the age when he was responsible for the performance of the commandments. No longer a minor, the individual took on new religious privileges and responsibilities. In all branches of Judaism, the Bar Mitzvah usually is celebrated on the first Sabbath after the boy’s thirteenth birthday. The ceremony involves calling the young man up to the pulpit to chant or recite Hebrew blessings before and after scriptural readings.
Bat Mitzvah (daughter of the commandment”) for girls is a new innovation celebrated by Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular Humanist and many Conservative congregations. Since girls historically were considered adults at the age of twelve, the Bat Mitzvah ceremony may take place earlier than a Bar Mitzvah in some synagogues.
Confirmation is a new ceremony for boys and girls, tied to the Spring holiday of Shavuot. It involves a group affirmation of commitment to the Jewish people. Confirmation usually takes place when the student is in grade ten.
The traditional Jewish marriage ceremony takes place under a chuppah (canopy) symbolizing the home. It is supported by four poles, under which the bride, groom and family stand during the wedding. Originally, only the bride received a ring, however, today double ring ceremonies are quite common. The couple shares a cup of wine during the wedding ceremony, which is a symbol of joy and the Divine presence in Jewish tradition. An ancient marriage contract, known as a Ketubah, is signed prior to the ceremony and may be read and displayed during the wedding. At the conclusion of the ceremony the groom breaks a glass with his foot and the witnesses yell “Mazal Tov!” There are various theories about the origin of this custum ranging from superstition to a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. “Mazal Tov” is a Hebrew phrase that conveys a sense of “congratulations.” Customarily gifts are sent before or after the wedding ceremony.
Death and Mourning
There is a highly structured series of procedures following death and prior to burial that is part of traditional Jewish practice. Jewish custom dictates that burial should take place as soon as possible, ideally within twenty-four hours after death. Traditionally, a plain wooden box serves as a casket, though many modern Jews use wooden or metal caskets in accordance with the wishes of the family.
Traditionally, Judaism discourages instrumental music and flowers at funerals. The Jewish funeral service is a relatively simple ritual, with the major portion taking place in a funeral chapel or synagogue, followed by a procession to the cemetery. Family members recite a special memorial prayer known as the Kaddish.
Shiva is a Hebrew word meaning “seven” and refers to a seven-day period of formalized mourning by the family of the deceased observed in the home. It is most important that the family be together during this time, and be surrounded by family and friends. The appropriate time for a condolence call begins after burial during the shiva week. During designated visitation times, comforters stop by the house of mourning and typically do not stay more than thirty to forty-five minutes. During the visit, supporting, listening, and responding to the mourner should be the primary goal. Mourners are not expected to entertain their guests, but rather to be served and cared for by them. Except for food, it is not customary to bring anything with you to the house of mourning, though it is appropriate to make a contribution to the deceased’s favorite charity. It is proper and comforting for friends to write a card or note if they cannot personally be with the family in mourning.
Sheloshim is a Hebrew word meaning “thirty” and refers to the thirty-day period of mourning following burial. During this period mourners slowly begin to return to their normal routines but avoid celebratory events. Traditional Jews recite the Kaddish prayer for mourners daily for an eleven month period following the death of their loved one. At the completion of the year of mourning, the family and close friends gather for a brief unveiling ceremony, during which the headstone at the grave of their loved one is set.