Inviting new life into our world
Jewish birth rituals vary depending on the gender of the child. There are also different rituals for children adopted into the family, depending on certain circumstances.
Birth of a Boy
On the eighth day of his life, a Jewish boy is circumcised in a ritual ceremony called a b’rit milah. Commonly known as a b’ris, the Hebrew word for covenant, the circumcision or milah, is performed by a mohel, who has been thoroughly trained not only in the surgical procedure but also in the study of all the laws concerning the rite. Since the time of Abraham, it has been the father’s responsibility to circumcise his son. Thus, all mohelim have traditionally been men. In the more liberal movements, a few women have recently undertaken the training as well.
Since the 10th century, a close relative or friend has customarily been invited to be the sandak (derived from the Greek word for godfather) to act as a ba’al b’rit, or master of the circumcision ceremony. It is the sandak’s responsibility and honor to hold the infant during the actual circumcision. Many families place beside the sandak an empty chair called the Chair of Elijah. According to tradition, the prophet Elijah attends every b’ris in order to protect the infant from danger.
B’rit milah is a holy moment, and the emotions surrounding it are manifold. There is joy, and naturally there is anxiety. Some Jewish parents, unwilling to subject their son to the procedure, forgo the rite, but they are very much in the minority. A b’ris is the first of many religious opportunities for Jews to create a new link in the long chain of Jewish history. It is the first of many joyous milestones in the life of a Jewish family.
Birth of a Girl
There used to be little fanfare celebrating the birth of a daughter. It was custom for the infant girl’s father to name her, in absentia, in the synagogue. Since the ’70s, however, parents, inspired by feminism, have welcomed their infant girls into the covenant with a ceremony called a simchat bat, or celebration of a daughter. Since there is no set ritual or liturgy, families have been free to structure their own, combining both traditional and contemporary blessings, psalms and readings from secular literature. In some cases, rituals such as foot-washing or candle-lighting are incorporated into a ceremony that celebrates the arrival of a daughter with as much festivity as that traditionally summoned for her brother.
When parents adopt a baby not born of a Jewish mother, Jewish law (though not the Reform movement) requires conversion of the child by immersion in the mikvah, ritual bath. When the infant to be converted is a male, a ritual circumcision must then be performed by a mohel. If the infant has already been circumcised, the mohel performs a symbolic circumcision called a hatafat dam b’rit. This procedure consists of a pinprick that results in the letting of a speck of blood. A beit din, rabbinic court comprised of three qualified rabbis, must oversee and approve of the conversion.
More about Jewish Life and Customs
These and more experiences of Jewish life are woven into personal stories and accounts in my book, This Jewish Life. The book is made up of 54 stories of birth, holidays, life cycle events and more. My book is one calendar year of Jewish life as told by a diversity of voices.
If you are interested in more information on Jewish life, continue to browse these pages or check out my book, This Jewish Life.
- Return to category page: Resources: About Jewish Life
- Related Story: The Eight Day — the story of my son’s birth
- Check out my book: This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery, Connection & Joy