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Jewish Lifecycle

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Just as the year is punctuated with designated holy days, fasts and feasts, so within Judaism our lives also contain special religious events and rituals which mark particularly happy and sad times. From birth to death, we find our religion replete with special occasions that often bring the family and community together.

BIRTH

Perhaps the most famous and popular of all lifecycle occasions is Brit Milah or circumcision. This ceremony, by which a Jewish boy is said to enter the Covenant of Abraham, takes place on the eighth day after birth unless health considerations advise against it, in which case it is postponed until a physician gives permission. Abraham, the founder of the Jewish religion, was commanded by God to circumcise himself and all his descendants as a sign of the covenant with God (Genesis, Chapter 17). Circumcisions, if being performed on the eighth day, may even take place on Shabbat or festivals.

While parents are commanded to circumcise their sons, few are qualified to perform this surgical procedure and so they appoint a mohel as their agent. Besides the mohel, the ceremony also includes the father, who recites the relevant blessing; the kvatter (godparent) and his wife, who bring the baby into the room; and the sandek, an honoured position - often a grandfather, who holds the baby on his knees during the operation.

We also place an additional chair in the room, known as Elijah's Chair. Momentarily, before the circumcision, the baby is placed on this chair. There are two reasons for the custom of reserving a chair as Elijah's Chair. The first, our sages related, is that one of Elijah's complaints against the Israelites was that they had ceased circumcising their children; hence Jewish parents demonstrate to Elijah that they are fulfilling the covenant. The second reason is that tradition teaches that Elijah will return to earth to herald the coming of the messiah. When a baby is born, it is always possible that this child is the messiah, so he is welcomed by being held in Elijah's Chair.

Following the circumcision, the child's Hebrew name is announced. The connection between circumcision and naming derives from Genesis 17. In that chapter Abraham is given the law of circumcision and at the same time has his name changed by God from Abram to Abraham. Ashkenazi Jews (heralding from central and eastern Europe) generally name their children after deceased relatives. Sephardic (Spanish and North African) Jews often name their children after living relatives.

Traditionally, the only rite recognising the birth of a daughter is the naming of the baby. The father attends a synagogue service, at which the Torah is read (e.g. Shabbat, Festivals, Monday or Thursday mornings etc), and he is called up to make a blessing over the Torah. This is known in Hebrew as receiving an aliyah. Following the aliyah, a special prayer is recited for the infant girl; it is in this prayer that the name chosen for her by her parents is announced publicly for the first time.

In recent years, a ceremony has developed known as Simchat Bat (The Rejoicing for a Daughter). A selection of readings, classical and otherwise, is chosen, prayers are recited for the infant baby girl and, as with Brit Milah, a seudah (festive meal) concludes the proceedings.

One other ritual takes place at this time and this is known as Pidyon HaBen, the Redemption of the Firstborn. In the Book of Numbers 18:15-16 we read:

"The first issue of the womb of every being, human or animal, that is offered to the Lord shall be yours [the priest's], but the firstborn of humans shall be redeemed, and the firstlings of unclean animals shall be redeemed. Take as their redemption price from the age of one month up, the money equivalent to five shekels by the sanctuary weight, which is twenty gerahs."

The Torah claims for God every firstborn, both human and animal. The firstborn male of ancient Israelite families had special obligations since, from the day of his birth, he was consecrated to the vocation of assisting the priests in the conduct of the sacrificial cult. Once the Tabernacle was built, this duty was transferred to the Levites. Since that time, firstborn Jewish males have been released from their obligation through a ceremony called Pidyon HaBen.

Pidyon HaBen applies only to the firstborn male child. The child does not require a Pidyon HaBen if he was delivered by Caesarean section, nor if the mother had miscarried previously beyond 40 days. If either of the grandfathers is from the Levitical tribe, i.e. a Cohen or Levi, the child is also exempt.

The redemption ceremony takes place when the child is a full thirty days old, hence from the thirty-first day of life, unless that day falls on a Shabbat or festival, in which case other arrangements are made, often for later that night after the Holy Day has ended. This is because part of the ritual involves a financial transaction, which is forbidden on holy days.

The ceremony involves a Cohen (a direct descendant of the priestly family), who at the outset of the ceremony is given the baby. Following some negotiation, he returns the baby to his parents for the contemporary equivalent of five shekels of silver. Nowadays, a silver cup is often used. A seudah accompanies the celebration.

BAR MITZVAH and BAT MITZVAH

Orthodox Judaism teaches that the age of majority for boys is 13, and for girls 12. For other branches of Judaism, boys and girls are treated the same and the age of majority is 13. At this time a young person becomes responsible for the performance of Jewish obligations themselves and can no longer rely entirely on their parents. To mark this change of status, celebrations are often held. When a boy reaches 13 for example, he celebrates his Bar Mitzvah (implying - duty bound to God's commandments) by receiving an aliyah in synagogue. He often recites part of the service that day too. For Conservative and Reform Jews the same celebration is held for girls who turn 13. For orthodox girls celebrating their Bat Mitzvah, traditions vary - some simply hold a party, others engage the young girl in some way within the synagogue. Orthodox Jewish Day Schools often organise Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.

MARRIAGE

Following adolescence, Judaism perceives that the next great stage of life is marriage. The decision to leave one's parental home and to share one's life with another, in love and respect, is seen to be critical to the ongoing success and continuity of the Jewish people. To enter this state, Judaism provides a series of rituals and ceremonies.

There is no direct equivalent to the 'engagement' in Judaism. No ring is given or vows exchanged prior to the wedding ceremony - simply an announcement that these two people will marry at some stage in the future. It is true that that in some religious circles we have a practice known as tenaim, at which conditions for the marriage are drawn up and signed prior to the wedding. Tenaim constitute a mutual agreement between the parents of the prospective bride and groom concerning the date and financial arrangements of the marriage. The drawing up of tenaim dates back to the third century of the Common Era and serves both to discourage disorganised arrangements as well as misunderstandings which can lead to hurt feelings and strained family relationships.

In reality, the Jewish wedding ceremony itself contains the engagement, which in earlier times was held up to a year before the marriage blessings. Nowadays both parts, the erusin and the nisuin are held at the same time to avoid any legal complication were the erusin (the betrothal) to take place, but not the nisuin (the marriage blessings).

This double ceremony takes place beneath a chuppah - a canopy, representing the new home of the bride (kallah) and groom (chatan). The term chuppah is also used to mean the actual wedding ceremony. The chuppah often takes place inside a synagogue, but other popular locations are hotels, homes and parks. Many religious couples deliberately choose to be married outside, under the sky so to speak, since the number of stars in the sky are said to represent the future fruitfulness of the couple.

On the Shabbat preceding the chuppah, the chatan is entitled to an aliyah in an orthodox synagogue. In Conservative and Reform synagogues both the chatan and the kallah receive an aliyah. This call to the Torah is accompanied by great rejoicing and is known as the aufruf. Some couples choose to have the aufruf one week earlier. The kallah also has her responsibilities leading up to the wedding day, most importantly, she attends the mikveh (ritual bath) and immerses herself and purifies herself in readiness for her wedding night.

The wedding must not take place on a Sabbath or major festival, but is allowed on all other regular days of the week. There are a number of weeks in the year, which have a sad aura about them due to incidents in Jewish history, and during these weeks no marriages may be conducted. The wedding day itself takes on a special character for the chatan and kallah who treat the day with added solemnity and fast from rising in the morning until the ceremony is completed. There are a few exceptions to this if the wedding day is a minor festival.

Immediately prior to the chuppah, the chatan authorises two observant men to act as witnesses to his marriage. The Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism admit both men and women to this role. The marriage document, known as the ketubah, is then signed by these two witnesses. The chatan is then led to where the kallah is waiting and he lowers her veil over her face as a sign of the modesty expected from a married woman. This follows the example of Rebecca when she married Isaac. This ceremony, which also includes a poignant blessing from father to daughter as she embarks on married life, is known as bedekin. Some also consider that the purpose of this ceremony is so that the chatan may check the identity of his future wife and not make the same mistake as Jacob who married Leah instead of Rachel because her face was covered and he could not see her true identity.

Soon after these rituals are completed the various parties to the wedding find themselves beneath the chuppah. A series of blessings are recited, the rabbi gives a short address, the wedding ring is handed over, the ketubah is read out, more blessings are said and a glass is broken to remind everyone present, that in spite of the joy of the moment, Jewish history in general and the history of Jerusalem in particular has contained many sad moments. The priestly blessing is then recited and following a brief interlude when bride and groom share time alone with each other, all the participants and their guests make their way to the reception at which eating and drinking, singing and dancing, speeches and toasts are the order of the day.

For some couples the wedding festivities are extended over a whole week and special banquets are organised by friends and family in their honour. This week has a title - it is known as sheva brachot (seven blessings), because seven additional blessings are added to the prayers said after a meal during the first week of the marriage when the bride and groom are in attendance.

DEATH AND MOURNING

Fundamentally, Judaism is a happy and optimistic faith, yet it recognises that there are times when sadness overtakes a person and a process of mourning must take place. Never more so than when we lose one of our close relatives: mother, father, brother, sister, spouse, son or daughter.

In Judaism the deceased is buried as soon as possible. This takes place following a short period of time, during which the Jewish burial society - known as the Chevra Kadisha, prepares the body for burial. Observant Jews of all branches of Judaism do not cremate . At the funeral, each member of the immediate family, as defined above, makes a short tear in one of their garments. This action, known as keriah, symbolises the way the death has torn, or broken their heart.

During the funeral, kaddish is recited for the first time. This prayer, a praise of God, is said by mourners for the next eleven months. Many mourners make an extraordinary effort to go to synagogue regularly during this time since this prayer can only be said in the company of a minyan (ten Jewish men over the age of Bar Mitzvah for orthodox Judiasm and ten person of either gender in the other branches of Judaism).

After the funeral, the mourners return home and share a meal of condolence together.

Jewish tradition divides mourning into three successive periods which structure the mourners' lives and help them to gradually and gently return to the activities of life and work.

   1. Shiva (7): The first period is the seven-day shiva period, when the mourners abstain from all work and sit together at home receiving visitors who provide company and consolation. Friends and neighbours provide meals and take care of day-to-day tasks for the mourners. During this intense week of mourning, bathing, shaving, haircuts, marital relations and the wearing of leather shoes are forbidden.

   2. Sheloshim (30): Following shiva, up until the end of thirty days counting from the burial, the mourners may return to work, but they abstain from most forms of entertainment, such as concerts, parties and movies. Many continue to avoid having a haircut or even a shave during this time.

   3. Yud-Bet Chodesh (12 months): From the end of sheloshim until a year of mourning has passed, the close relatives avoid joyous activities, especially music and parties.

Besides this first difficult year, Judaism impresses on us the need to remember and respect the memory of our departed relatives. We do this by lighting a candle on the anniversary of their death each year. This anniversary is known as the yahrzeit. The candle burns at home for 24 hours and kaddish is recited in synagogue on that day.

A further ceremony is known as yizkor. This is a prayer commencing with the word yizkor (meaning May God remember the soul of ) which is said in synagogue four times a year on major festivals.

Finally, we are instructed to cover the grave with a stone. We read that Jacob set up a marker over Rachel's grave (Genesis 35:20). Hence Jewish graves are marked with the name of the deceased. Rabban Gamaliel's instructions for burial emphasised equality and simplicity and thus large, ornate stone markers are discouraged. His son, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel is quoted in an early rabbinic work as saying, "We need not erect monuments for the righteous; their accomplishments are their memorials." We are also aware that according to Jewish law, Cohanim - the priestly descendants of Aaron must not come too close to a grave for reasons of purity. Gravestones assist them in identifying the exact location of the graves. The stone or matzevah is normally erected during the first year of mourning. 

 

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