Life-Cycle Primer

Birth

Jewish children are given Hebrew names in addition to their English names. The most prominent ceremony surrounding a birth in our tradition is the circumcision of the male child, performed on the eighth day after birth. The ceremony is called a brit milah, which means covenant, harking back to when Abraham entered into a covenant with God and circumcised himself as a sign of that covenant. The circumcision is performed by a highly trained person called a mohel or, if a mohel is unavailable, by a Jewish doctor under the supervision of a rabbi. A brit or bris is an occasion for great joy and celebration in the Jewish tradition.

A part of this ceremony is the giving of the baby’s Hebrew name and the special prayer for newborns, also given to girls when they are named. While there is no specific covenant ceremony for girls, many have been created in recent years.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah

The ceremony of bar or bat mitzvah is the formal rite of passage into adulthood for Jewish boys and girls. A boy actually becomes a bar mitzvah simply by achieving his 13th birthday. For girls, the bat mitzvah is typically anytime during the year after the 12th birthday. According to Jewish law, young men and women are obligated to observe Jewish laws at this time, whether or not they have a formal ceremony. In common practice, however, one is said to become a bar or bat mitzvah when one is called to the Torah for the first time. In liberal synagogues, both men and women are called to the Torah. The ceremony is the culmination of much effort and preparation on the part of the young person.

Weddings

Traditional Jewish weddings are performed by rabbis. The ceremony takes place under a chuppah (wedding canopy). It may take place anytime other than Shabbat (Friday night sundown until Saturday night sundown), Jewish holidays and some designated periods on the calendar. The ceremony begins with words of greeting, after which the rabbi says blessings over a cup of wine shared by the bride and groom. The groom then presents the bride with a ring, which may be accompanied by the bride presenting the groom with a ring. The groom’s declaration to the bride, first in Hebrew and then English, is, “be thou consecrated unto me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” If the bride gives her groom a ring, the bride may make the same declaration or use one taken from the “Song of Songs” or some other appropriate source. The ketubah (wedding contract) is read, and the cantor or rabbi chants the Sheva brachot (seven blessings) in Hebrew. Finally the groom (and sometimes the bride) will shatter a wine glass, wrapped in a cloth, with his (her) foot. When the glass is broken, the congregation often shouts, “Mazel Tov!”

• Orthodox (and some Conservative) brides will visit the mikvah (ritual bath) prior to their wedding as a spiritual cleansing to prepare them for their new life transition.

• The groom, may be called to the Torah for a special blessing at a service preceding the wedding where the Torah is read. This custom is called an aufruf. If the synagogue allows women to be called to the Torah, the bride and groom may be called individually or as a couple.

• The chuppah under which the wedding takes place symbolizes the bridal chamber and the Jewish home the couple is about to create together. It also is symbolic of hospitality.

• The breaking of the glass at the conclusion of the ceremony has been interpreted by many to symbolize the remembrance of sorrow at our moment of greatest joy. It commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, in the year 70 C.E., and reminds us that life consists of both joy and sorrow.

Death and Mourning

When a Jewish person dies, there are clear directions as to how things should proceed with regard to the body, the burial, the funeral and mourning. The concept of honoring the dead is reflected in all Jewish burial customs. burial takes place as soon as possible, sometimes within 24 hours after death, or as soon thereafter as relatives can gather for the service.

• Prior to the service, traditional Jewish mourners participate in the custom of kri’a, which is a symbolic tearing of clothing accompanied by a prayer to symbolize the tear in the heart of a loved one. • The casket is kept closed. Out of respect for the deceased. • At the conclusion of the service, the mourners, family and friends proceed to graveside for the burial. The mourners recite the mourner’s prayer and the casket is lowered into the ground. It is considered a mitzvah to participate in the ritual of burial by shoveling some earth onto the casket.

• Upon leaving the cemetery, it is customary to wash one’s hands. • Only Jews are permitted to be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Within some liberal branches of Judaism exceptions are made for non-Jewish family members.

• It is not generally the custom to send flowers to a Jewish funeral, although it is sometimes done. Similarly, it is not customary to bring flowers when visiting the cemetery. Some visitors, however, leave a small stone on the tombstone or the edge of the grave to indicate they have been to visit.

Jewish mourning laws recognize the need for grieving. They also recognize the need for healing. We are required to mourn intensely for seven days after burial. This period is known as shiva, which means seven. During this time, one stays at home, sits on low chairs and wears only slippers or stockings instead of shoes. These are traditional signs of mourning. Mourners also may cover all mirrors and not groom themselves (shave or put on makeup) to show the feeling of pain and loss. Services are held in the home of the deceased on the night of the funeral and for as many nights during the first week as the family desires in liberal families, and for all nights during shiva (except Shabbat) in Orthodox families. Morning services are often held in the home, as well. In order for the mourners to say the mourner’s prayer, a minyan (quorum) must be present. It is a special mitz- vah to ensure that a minyan will be present for the mourners in the home during this period.

The 30 days following the funeral is the period of mourning called sheloshim (meaning 30). During this time, the mourners return to their work, but they refrain from excessive enjoyment such as attending parties, the theater, dances, vacations and the

like. The Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer), may be said for 11 months less one day after the death of a loved one. This prayer is a part of every synagogue service and therefore is said by the mourner whenever attending services. In addition, traditional Jews often go to minyan (daily service) every day, morning and night, if it is available, in order to say the prayer every day.

After the 11 months are over, traditionally, the only time the mourners are permitted to say the mourner’s prayer is at Yizkor, a memorial service that occurs four times during the year on specific holidays, and on the yahrzeit (anniversary) of the person’s death. In this way, our healing and mourning are defined by degree, with the end goal of returning fully to our lives in society.

Unveiling

Jews do not erect tombstones at the time of death or at the funeral service. In America, this is done some time around the end of the mourning period (11 months). At this time, the family holds a graveside service called an unveiling, at which prayers are recited, more words are said about the deceased and the mourners remove a sheet covering the tombstone, thus unveiling it. 

(Adapted from her book Welcome to the Family: Opening Doors to the Jewish Experience. the book is available at loisshenker.com.)

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