Rites of passage in the Jewish religion and culture vary between families and society. These rituals mark the transitions of a person throughout their lives, integrating cultural experiences with biological destiny. There are three phases in accordance to the few rites of passage, separation or the preliminary phase that signifies removal from the past and is the beginning of the passage. The second is transition or the threshold in which there is a ceremony and reaction from the individual that is going through the passage. The third is incorporation or inclusion in ceremonies or rituals in the synagogue. Most of these rituals have altered over the centuries and have become more distinct within different denominations of Judaism. They are performed within a group or societal setting to strengthen ties with the temple. Specific aspects of some rituals have influenced other religious ceremonies around the world. The life events covered include birth, naming, bar/bat mitzvah or societal introduction, marriage and death. In this paper, only the life cycle rites of passage that pertain to society will be argued and compared.
The first defining rite of passage is birth as it is also the beginning of life biologically. In order emphasize the beginning of life religiously, there are ceremonies that occur shortly after birth. For a male, circumcision is one of the most defining rituals as it is meant to initiate the son into the Covenant of Abraham. This occurs on the eighth day after birth in the presence of friends and family and is accompanied by a celebration or feast. There is no parallel for daughters when it comes to circumcision or an introduction to the world. In order to start a tradition, two women of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College created the Brit B’not Yisrael which translates roughly to a covenant ceremony for the Daughters of Israel. It began in the 1970’s during the women’s rights and liberation movement and was designed as a home-centered celebration. It still was not held in the same regard as circumcision ceremonies held for sons in the Jewish faith and culture. Another ritual that corresponds with birth is the naming ceremonies. When named, it is individualized and incorporated into society. A prevailing question posed is with whom does the authority to name lie? Although naming ceremonies are used to separate those who are inside and those who are outside of the culture, the act of naming has historically been reserved mainly for the men (Leissner 140). The Hebrew Bible mentions naming by outsiders such as God, prophets or even neighbors and later on reverts to the parents. There is also much discussion on which parent reserves the right to name the child first. For this honor, there are many circumstances and scenarios of which an individual parent or both may name the child. In this case, the first son has carried most of the naming importance over the centuries as it coincides with the circumcision ceremonies. These scenarios include being named by the mother alone, by the father alone, by both and incorporating two names, as well as after the mother’s father; deciding factors vary per cultural preference. As the son’s naming traditions hold more background, there is little to no mentions of daughters being named. The Bible also does not mention many daughters being bestowed names excluding the Book of Job (Job 42:14). Naming in the Bible signifies endowment with a role to play in history. Connecting back to patriarchal tendencies of naming being reserved for men, Adam naming Eve in Genesis 2:23 gave him dominion over her while they were meant to be equals. In modern times, naming is a cause for celebration and feast while done on the Sabbath with the congregation. There is a separation of sexes with respect to ceremonies of birth and naming since those rituals have been taking place since the beginning of Judaism and originated in a patriarchal society.
Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood is incorporated into the ritual ceremonies of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, roughly translated to Son/Daughter of Commandment. It is a formal acknowledgement of growth and gives an individual a sense of transition or ceremonial recognition that is needed for that life event. This correlates to the first phase of passage of which one acknowledges the removal of the past and the start to a new passage. Aaron B. Seidman states that it is the introduction to the more responsible forms of worship and is recognized as a step towards social maturation. Though a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a celebration, it is also a rite of passage into adulthood and therefore aligns with the second phase of passage where there is a ceremony to mark the transition. It is preceded by education and followed by new responsibilities at home and in synagogue. For a girl, it is done at age twelve while boys are celebrated at age thirteen in correspondence with the age of Ishmael when he was circumcised (Genesis 17:25). At these ages, they are considered adults and can now participate in events or ceremonies in synagogue that require adulthood. This aspect relates to the incorporation phase of rite of passages as they have earned their place in the Temple. This tradition can aide the youth in maintaining steadiness and perspective while focusing on life-direction and relating to others in a more meaningful way. Though important socially, this rite of passage is made up in most ways for it was not commanded nor specified by any laws.
The next rite of passage is marriage or a wedding ceremony. For women, there is no other single universal rite of passage in Jewish traditions and rituals. It connects back to baby naming ceremonies where prayers included blessings for the baby girl to grow, be married and bare sons. This blessing has been historically constant throughout various cultural traditions across most religions. For example, in medieval times the wife had a singular purpose of baring sons or heirs to carry the family name. This is still true in some societies today as the first male son holds the status of heir. The Mishnah, Written Oral Law, states that a woman is acquired in three ways, money, deed and intercourse. The economics of money historically began with a brideprice which has been exempt and taken over by a dowry. Virtue was an aspect that was taken very seriously when betrothed, even checks were done by Rabbi at the request of the husband post ceremony. Marriages were arranged through parents mutually agreeing based upon deed and dowry. Brides were to be checked by groom’s female family members while focusing on beauty which is an asset and pre-marital virginity. It is said in Genesis 2:18 that it is not good for a man to be alone meaning for them to take a wife and provide protection. Historically, women were expected to marry when they are teens while men would usually marry in their thirties or younger. Men married after they have completed Torah study which leads to an older age for them to marry. Most laws are laid out in the Nashim or Women chapter in the Mishnah stating matrimonial law.
The last rite of passage is the last moment of life and is the ultimate transition, death. This ritual has two sides, the deceased and the mourners. It is a highly choreographed event which includes a speedy burial for there was concern of the freshness of the body. It was to be washed, shrouded or wrapped, and on occasion burned. There is no distinction of class or status for a funeral or burial. This two-sided rite of passage begins with the deceased where they transition out of the earthly world and ends with the survivors, also known as mourners. It is a state of transition brought on by grief and expectation. For example: the death of a parent or leadership role leaves an empty spot and thus needs to be filled which leads to the transitory rite of passage. Only after the burial does the surviving kin become mourners. Mourning activities and rituals extend from seven days to a year. Immediately after the funeral the family sits in their home for seven days while the community comes to them, this is called Shivah or Seven. After those seven days end, thirty days of lesser and moderate mourning takes place. Once the thirty days end, there is a remembrance one year after death where the Mourner’s Kaddish is prayed at the end of a service and concludes with ways of praising God. Some funeral rites have translated on to other religious traditions. At a Jewish funeral, the family wears specific attire including rips in clothing to show death. This has disappeared over time and in turn the men wear black ties and the women take black handkerchiefs. The black attire has influenced popular Christian traditions of wearing black as a sign of mourning and a continuation of wearing black for an extended time to show respect for the deceased. The final rite of passage in the life cycle has characteristics of both societal ritual practices and familiar practices, though each play a part and work together to instill tradition.
All five of these major life events as a whole join to create the life cycle rite of passages. They are comprised of biological and cultural experiences that one goes through in the course of their lifetime. Each encompasses parts of the three phases, passage, transition and incorporation in different ways. The three steps of any rite of passage describes what each life event is about, leaving the past behind, transitioning into a new part of life, and becoming included in all aspects of society and familiar duties possible. Most events are formal acknowledgements signifying an individual’s incorporation into society beginning with birth and ending with death. Although some traditions have failed or been phased out, the overarching symbol has been integrated in another. There are standing questions brought forward as a result of the beginning of most religious rituals were formed during a time of patriarchs. Men were seen as more important and aspects of traditions highlight that importance. As seen with the female birth rituals, new traditions have been created out of societal changes such as the women’s liberation movement in the nineteen-seventies and will continue to change and be created. Rite of passage events are overall ways to celebrate life with the opportunity to dance, sing, tell stories, grieve, share joys and experience life with one another.
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