The Birth Of A Child In Jewish Culture

As in all cultures, the birth of a child is an occasion for joyous celebration in Judaism. Indeed, the first commandment in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). The first part of the Jewish rite of passage is the birth of the child, each gender would have specific things that they do to make the children right in the eyes of God.

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The birth of the son ritual entails the boy to be circumcised. Male circumcision is known and practiced by many peoples. In Judaism it is a religious requirement, based on a divine command: This is my covenant which you shall keep; every male among you shall be circumcised, and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin. (Genesis 17:10 – 11).

It is the first life-cycle ritual that is mentioned in the Torah. It signifies a commitment by the Jewish people to the divine being, recorded as a physical sign on the body. The circumcision is carried out on the eighth day after birth, or later if medical reasons make postponement advisable. The operation takes place in the midst of family and friends, symbolizing the community’s welcome to the new-born child. Prayers and benedictions are recited, a Hebrew name is bestowed on the child, and all present express the wish that he may progress from one sacred moment of his life to another, particularly to marriage and good deeds. (Jewish rites of Passage 1 ). The birth of the daughter ritual is much different than that of the son’s ritual which is more physical than anything else. The birth of a Jewish daughter is celebrated by the father being called to the reading of the Torah in the synagogue on the first Sabbath (or Monday or Thursday – when the Torah is read) after the birth. A blessing is pronounced, and the baby’s name is announced. Further ceremonials on the birth of a daughter have developed in recent years. These rituals have been given a variety of different names, such as Simchat Bat (Rejoicing of the Daughter) or Brit B’not Yisrael (The Covenant of the Daughters of Israel). A service and celebration of the event takes place in the home. (Jewish rites of Passage1.)

As the Jewish kids get older the boys and girls celebrate their coming of age differently than most other religions and rites of passage of the coming of age for the teenagers to be. ‘Bar Mitzvah’ literally mean ‘son of the mitzvot’ (commandments). When a Jewish boy reaches the age of 13, whether he ‘celebrates’ it or not, he is now bound to live by the commandments of the Torah. From that date, he will wear tefillin on a daily basis, participate in synagogue services and take his place in the Jewish community. This milestonecalled a bar mitzvahis often celebrated with a ceremony in synagogue, tefillin wearing, and parties. The celebrant may be called to the Torah, lead services, deliver a speech or otherwise demonstrate his newfound status. (Bar mitzvah 1). 

His obligations include personal responsibility for observance of these, and his privileges include the right to be called to read the Torah, the right to be counted as one of the ten adult males required for full synagogue services in Orthodoxy. The bar mitzvah event is marked by the boy being called to the reading of the Torah in the synagogue. He reads the weekly portion from the scrolls of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and usually also reads that week’s lesson from the Prophets (called the Haftarah). The reading is in the Hebrew language and is chanted in the ancient melody, the phrases of which are shown as symbols in the printed version of the Bible in Hebrew. Sometimes the bar mitzvah boy also leads part or all of the service. In order to fulfil these duties, the boy usually studies for approximately a year before his Bar mitzvah. On that same Sabbath or on the following day, a party is held to celebrate the occasion with friends and family, and the party can range from a quiet family celebration in the home to a full-scale banquet. (Rites of Passage 1.)

Although young boys are trained to keep all the mitzvahs even before their bar mitzvah, tefillin are the exception. A boy does not put on tefillin until he approaches the age of thirteen. For this reason, more than any other practice, tefillin have always served as the mark of honor that a boy receives upon his bar mitzvah. Traditionally, the purchase of tefillin for a bar mitzvah boy is regarded with special pride by his parents and grandparents. ( Bar mitzvah 1). The scale of how big a Bar Mitzvah gets attention as much as a wedding in Jewish culture due to the responsibilities being placed on the child entering adulthood and how they are going to be going into their adult lives.

Recently for the daughter’s version of the Bar mitzvah it has recently came around the 20th century and takes place at their 12th birth day instead of their 13th birthday like the boys do.  When a girl reaches 12-years-old she becomes a bat mitzvah and is recognized by Jewish tradition as having the same rights as an adult. She is now morally and ethically responsible for her decisions and actions, whereas prior to her adulthood, her parents would be morally and ethically responsible for her actions. (Bat mitzvah 1).

 In Conservative and Progressive congregations, the girl’s ceremony is identical with the boys’ bar mitzvah ceremony, with the reading of the Torah taking place in the Temple on the Sabbath. Orthodox congregations have found various solutions to the problems posed by Jewish traditional custom and law. Any present appropriate for a 13-year-old girl’s birthday can be given. Cash is commonly given as a bat mitzvah gift as well. It has become the practice of many families to donate a portion of any monetary gift to a charity of the bat mitzvah’s choosing, with the remainder often being added to the child’s college fund or contributing to any further Jewish education programs she may attend. (Bat Mitzvah 1). The girl may perform the identical readings to a boy at an exclusively women’s service on the Sabbath, with the men separated by a barrier.

Alternatively, the same reading may be made on a day other than the Sabbath, and without the formal blessings. Another arrangement is for a communal Bat Mitzvah ceremony to be held for a group of girls on day other than the Sabbath and organized by a Jewish school or synagogue. There is no specific religious ritual and the girls study and prepare readings, often including a statement of commitment, reading a passage from the Bible, and other texts which reflect on the Jewish woman’s duties and responsibilities. The ceremonies are usually followed by celebrations, again ranging from a quiet family gathering in the home to a full-scale banquet. (rites of Passage 1). While the bat mitzvah ceremony is a milestone life-cycle event and is the culmination of years of study, it is not the end of a girl’s Jewish education. It simply marks the beginning of a lifetime of Jewish learning, study, and participation in the Jewish community. (Bat mitzvah 1).

Even after the party for both genders they can chose to continue their Jewish education at a Jewish school or an after-school program at a Hebrew school that would allow them to continue their education. A bar mitzvah is not just a once in a lifetime event, rather it’s an important link in a continuous chain of religious and spiritual experiences. Therefore, the most important aspect of the bar mitzvah is not the party or the performance, but the impact and long-term effect this experience will have on the young man’s identity as a Jew. The preparations for the bar mitzvah should reflect this focus and not be dominated by less important matters. (Bar Mitzvah 1).

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