In Judaism, key life events are marked with special ceremonies. The circumcision of baby boys is a universal Jewish custom, dating back to biblical times. More recently, people have also begun to welcome baby girls with a baby-naming ceremony. Bar and Bat Mitzvah mark the point at which children become adult members of the community. Some Reform Jewish communities also celebrate a coming of age for both sexes at 15 or 16 in a ceremony called confirmation. There are specific Jewish customs marking marriage, and also surrounding death and mourning. All these life-cycle events are celebrated publicly, stressing the communal nature of Jewish life.
BAR AND BAT MITZVAH PRESENTS
This siddur is designed to be given to a girl on her Bat Mitzvah. Although gifts are often given to mark the occasion, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not about presents, but about taking on the responsibilities of a Jewish adult.
In addition to an English name, every Jewish child is given a Hebrew name, which will be used for the rites of passage. Often, the Hebrew name will be the same as that of a relative who has recently died. The Hebrew name of a baby boy is announced at his Brit Milah (circumcision) ceremony, while that of a baby girl is announced in the synagogue on the first Shabbat after her birth or, alternatively, at a special baby-naming ceremony.
Brit milah is carried out on the eighth day after the birth of a boy. It dates back to God’s promise with Abraham that every male child be circumcised to show that he is a member of the Jewish people. A trained mohel (circumciser), who is often a rabbi or a doctor, performs the operation.
In former times, circumcision amulets were used by some communities to protect newborn babies against evil. These small pieces of parchment, paper, or metal were inscribed with magical signs, combinations of letters, names of angels or of God. They were worn or placed on a wall near the baby’s crib. Many rabbis, including Maimonides, opposed such amulets as mere superstition.
Coming of Age
At the age of 13, a boy is considered to be Bar Mitzvah (“son of the commandment”), and becomes responsible for his religious actions. For example, he must fast on Yom Kippur, and he may be counted as part of the minyan in the synagogue. A girl is considered to be Bat Mizvah (“daughter of the commandment”) at 12 years old. Depending on her community, she may or may not participate in a minyan or read from the Torah.
Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for girls did not develop until the beginning of the 20thÂ€century. Today, this rite of passage can be marked in different ways, ranging from one in which the girl reads from the Torah, exactly the same as boys do, to an Orthodox Bat Chayil, where the girl gives a sermon in the synagogue. Some Orthodox communities do not publicly mark Bat Mitzvah.
An Orthodox boy will be given a set of tefillin for his Bar Mitzvah. From then on he is expected to pray every weekday morning wearing the tefillin. When not being worn, they are kept in a bag, which may be decorated with the owner’s name in Hebrew.
At a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, the boy is called to read a section from the Torah, which he has prepared in advance. This symbolizes his acceptance of the commandments. In very observant communities, a boy may read the entire sidra (portion) for that week normally four to six chapters long. The Bar Mitzvah is celebrated after the synagogue service, where most boys also give a speech called a dvar Torah (“word of Torah”).
Observant Jews see marriage as a gift from God, and it is an important religious occasion. The marriage is the start of a new home, and, often, a new family to ensure that the practices and traditions of Judaism continue. Ceremonies vary depending on whether the service is Orthodox or Reform, and there are also different local customs. Generally, Jewish weddings can take place anywhere—in a synagogue, at home, or in the open air.
The main service is conducted by a rabbi under the huppah, a cloth canopy supported by four poles. In some Jewish communities, a prayer shawl is held over the bride and groom. The huppah symbolizes the couple’s new home.
The Jewish marriage contract, which details the obligations of the groom toward his bride, is called a ketubah. It is signed by the groom at the start of the ceremony, although in modern weddings both the bride and groom sign the document. The ketubah is read during the marriage service, and decorative ones are often displayed at home.
BREAKING THE GLASS
The end of the ceremony is marked by the groom breaking a wine glass. This symbolizes the destruction of the Temple and the fragility of marriage. The picture above shows a Reform service, where both the bride and groom share the symbolic gesture.
In many Jewish weddings, it is customary for the bride to wear white and sometimes also the groom. in contrast, Yemenite Jews dress in highly ornate clothing, as illustrated.
The exchange of wedding rings was a Roman practice adopted by various faiths, including Judaism. In traditional Jewish weddings the groom places a ring on the bride’s finger and blessings are recited. In the past, some Jewish communities would loan the bride a magnificent ring, often decorated with a miniature house and inscribed with the words Mazel Tov (“Good Luck”).
AN OLD CUSTOM
Traditionally, a father would begin saving almost from the time his daughter was born so he could give her a dowry. In the case of orphans or girls from very poor families, the Jewish community would pool together to provide basic items for a dowry. In modern families, this is not considered necessary.
In the past, the bride would be given gifts by the groom. The ketubah contained a clause saying that if the couple divorced, the woman would be able to claim these possessions as her own. This made Judaism an enlightened religion, because for centuries, Christian or Muslim wives had no formal right to any property in the event of a divorce. This bridal casket was a gift to a Jewish bride by her wealthy groom.
The traditional customs associated with the last rite of passage have two purposes: to show respect for the dead and to help the grieving process. Mourners usually express their initial grief by making a tear in their clothing. It is also important for the deceased to be buried promptly (usually within three days). However, some Jews today prefer cremation. The funeral services are simple affairs, so that there is no distinction between a rich and a poor person’s ceremony.
MARK OF RESPECT
From the time of the death to the burial, the body is not left alone. A special candle is also lit and placed next to the body as a sign of respect. On the eve of the anniversary another candle is lit, known as yahrzeit (meaning “year time”). The candle is left burning for 24 hours, the flame symbolizing the soul of the deceased.
A seven-day mourning period begins on the day of the burial. This is known as shiva (meaning “seven”) and usually takes place at the home of the deceased. All mirrors in the house are covered, and mourners sit on low stools, reciting the kaddish, a prayer in praise of God and affirming life. For close family of the deceased, the mourning continues for 12 months, during which all parties and celebrations are avoided.