Celebrating the Cycles of Life in Judaism

Judaism honors and celebrates the major stages of life with rituals, including the bris (circumcision for boys), Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and funeral rites.

The cutting edge ritual

After a child is born, he or she is greeted by parents, family, and community, and is given a name. Often, a rabbi says special blessings over the child in synagogue, too. For boys, this process is combined with a short ceremony called a brit milah (many American Jews call it by its Ashkenazi pronunciation, "bris."

Brit milah means "covenant of circumcision" The Bible (Genesis 17:10) says that Abraham made a deal with God: Abraham's wife, Sarah, will bear a child (Isaac), and their descendents will possess the Promised Land. In exchange, God wanted Abraham and every male child to be circumcised. Given that Abraham was 99 years old at the time, it's impressive that he agreed to this deal. But agree he did, and ever since then Jewish parents have continued the covenant.

The bris is a rite of passage, unconsciously for the child (who is obviously in no position to make a covenant), and deliberately by the parents of the child. Some rabbis teach that the bris is a symbol of taking control over animal nature — an obvious reminder that men can control sexual urges and lustful appetites. But ultimately, it's important to remember that the brit milah connects a boy to hundreds of generations of men before him, each of whom had a bris on the eighth day of his life.

Thanking God for little girls

While blessings are often said welcoming both girls and boys in the synagogue, the lack of a more intimate celebration and naming ceremony for girls has historically meant that the birth of a girl has appeared less notable. The Reform movement introduced a home naming ceremony for girls, too, and more recently this ceremony has become common practice in Conservative and even some Orthodox communities.

The ceremony can include the child being passed from one family member to another, blessings over wine and the baby girl, the naming, and often a symbolic ritual that takes the place of the circumcision. For example, the parents may wash the baby's hands and feet, or immerse her body (not head) in water.

Bar and bat mitzvahs

Jewish tradition says that when girls turn 12 and boys turn 13, they take on new responsibilities in the community. In traditional congregations, this is the point at which boys are expected to start performing daily prayers in a minyan (prayer group). There are fewer external changes for girls, though they are expected to learn the ways of keeping a home. Even though in today's world no one expects these teenagers to suddenly become adults after the ceremony, it's important to honor this change with ritual.

In Judaism, every boy is automatically Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and a day, and every girl is Bat Mitzvah at age 12 and a day. The traditional Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony requires study and discipline on the part of the boy or girl. They must learn enough Hebrew to read from the Torah and master enough Jewish history and law to understand the context of what they're reading. To prepare, kids take classes and often work one-on-one with their rabbi, cantor, or teacher, focusing on their portion of the Torah.

Get me to the chuppah on time

In Judaism, weddings are profoundly holy acts, as important as living and dying. In fact, the marriage ceremony is so sacred that it's called kiddushin ("sanctification"). Most weddings include eight basic symbols and rituals: the marriage canopy (or chuppah), the wine, the rings, the seven blessings, breaking a glass, the marriage contract (ketubah), the bedeken (the veiling before the ceremony), and the yichud (when the newly married couple spends a few minutes alone after the ceremony).

Following are a few highlights:

  • The marriage canopy: Also called a chuppah, the canopy is held over the heads of the bride and groom. The chuppah is a symbol of a new home being created.
  • Breaking the glass: Probably the most well-known Jewish ritual is the custom of stomping on a glass (wrapped in a napkin, as a safety measure) at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding. Traditionalists say the shattered glass refers to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others view the breaking glass as a reminder that even at a time of great joy, shattering losses are also important parts of human experience. Whatever the case, as soon as the glass is broken, everyone in attendance shouts "Mazel tov!"
  • Marriage contract: The terms of the ketubah, or marriage contract between bride and groom, are negotiated long before the wedding — much like today's prenuptial agreements. While in recent years more liberal Jews have taken to writing their own ketubot — usually focusing more on the spiritual and interpersonal aspects of their relationship — the traditional ketubah long used by Orthodox Jews is clearly an unromantic legal document that spells out the financial obligations of each partner.

Stepping through the valley

Judaism is very clear on what you do immediately after someone dies. First, upon witnessing or hearing about a death, Jews traditionally recite a blessing:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Ruler, the True Judge.

You may also hear people use a shorter version: "Blessed is the one true Judge". Then, everything done between death and the funeral focuses on respecting and honoring the person who has just died, as well as preparing for the funeral and burial.

Judaism believes that the funeral should happen as quickly after death as possible — preferably the same or next day, although the funeral is often postponed a day or two if family must travel from out of town. Also, funerals aren't held on Shabbat or other holidays.

It's also traditional for the body not to be left alone, and people take turns being a shomer ("guard"), reciting Psalms next to the deceased until the funeral. Sometimes people are paid to serve as a shomer.

Much of the focus in Jewish tradition regarding death revolves around returning the body to the earth in a consecrated Jewish cemetery as quickly and naturally as possible — a respectful appreciation that death is a natural part of life.

Just before the funeral, close relatives of the deceased observe the rite of k'riah, making a small rip — in a tie, a coat, a blouse, or perhaps the sleeve of a dress — as a symbol of grief. Many Jews pin a black ribbon to their jacket and then tear that. The point is that Judaism doesn't want you to just show up; it wants you to really show your grief, without regard to vanity or decorum, and the k'riah is like ripping open a bag of grief to allow the tears and strong emotions to fall out.

At the end of the funeral, when the casket is lowered into the ground, the closest family or friends throw the first dirt over it, often using a shovel or even their hands. By forcing the mourners to actively participate in the burial, to hear the earth landing on the casket, Jewish tradition ensures that people recognize the reality of death and helps them begin the process of letting go.

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