The four milestones in Jewish life
Brit Milah and naming
Brit milah, the ritual of male newborn circumcision, is a sign of entering into the covenant with God. Since this covenant is traditionally traced back to Abraham and his family, it is also known as the Abrahamic covenant. Brit milah takes place on the eighth day from the birth of a boy. If the baby is weak or ill, the brit milah can be postponed. The ceremony is accompanied by a number of blessings, and is only valid when these are recited as prescribed. Circumcision is performed by a specially trained person known as a mohel. In the past, the brit milah ceremony was performed in the synagogue; today it usually takes place either at home or at another suitable venue. When the baby is brought into the room, the guests greet him with the words Baruch ha-ba (Blessed be he who comes!"). The sandak (the equivalent of the godfather) holds the baby on his lap for the duration of the circumcision ceremony.
Brit milah pillow, Germany, late 17th century, linen cover decorated with the Sacrifice of Isaac
The naming ceremony for a newborn girl usually takes place at the first Shabbat service attended by the mother after birth. At this service, the father will be called up to read the Torah. After the Torah section has been read and the father says the concluding blessing, he adds the blessing for deliverance (birkat ha-gomel) as a prayer of thanks to God for the health of the mother. The cantor or rabbi then says a blessing for the child and her mother which includes the child’s name.
Tefillin and Tefillin bag, Germany, 20th century
Bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah
Bar mitzvah, ‘son of commandment’ and bat mitzvah, ‘daughter of commandment’, describe both the beginning of a boy’s religious maturity when he turns 13 years old and a girl’s when she turns 12 years old (in liberal Jewish thought 13 years old), as well as the ceremony itself and subsequent festivities. The ceremony is based on the point in time under Jewish law when a boy can take responsibility for observing and keeping the commandments. When a boy or girl becomes bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, he or she can then fulfil religious tasks. For the boys, this includes wearing the tefilin and fasting at Yom Kippur.
The custom of celebrating this point of religious maturity in a festive ceremony only goes back slightly more than six hundred years. With this first ‘call up to the Torah’ the bar mitzvah and in reform communities the bat mitzvah as well, are integrated fully into the service and welcomed into the community and the covenant of Abraham. The ‘son’ or ‘daughter of commandment' are required to have a knowledge of the Jewish religion and the ability to read Hebrew.
Marriage is one of the cornerstones of Jewish life and considered a divine commandment. The wedding ceremony, led by a rabbi, does not have to take place in a particular location, although it is usually held under a canopy supported by four poles (chuppah). At the wedding, the groom traditionally wears white as an expression of purity and sincerity. The bride wears a veil covering her face, indicative of her total trust in her husband-to-be.
The wedding ceremony follows a fixed routine. To begin with, the rabbi recites a betrothal blessing over a cup of wine. The couple then drink from the cup. In the presence of two male witnesses not related to the couple, the groom then places the ring on the forefinger of his bride’s right hand saying: "Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel."
Afterwards, the rabbi reads the ketubah, a prepared marriage contract with spaces to add the bride and groom’s personal data. The main ceremony takes place after this, with the rabbi reciting the seven blessings. At the end of the ceremony, the groom smashes a glass, recalling the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The gathered congregation then shout out masel tov (good luck/congratulations) or siman tov (good fortune) to the bride and groom as they start out on their married life.
View of the exhibition
Jewish Funeral Rites
On the day of a funeral, the presiding rabbi rends the garments of each family member of the deceased, as a sign of mourning. At home, a candle is lit which will burn for 7 days. The burial should be arranged within twenty-four hours after death. If a person dies on the Shabbat, the funeral takes place the next day. The Jewish faith does not normally allow cremation.
The preparations for the funeral are carried out in the buildings on the cemetery which house all the necessary equipment. The body is undressed and washed, following strict religious laws and customs, and clothed in a simple shroud comprising a white shirt, trousers and a head covering. The burial shroud symbolises simplicity and the erosion of all social differences after death. Men are also wrapped in their tallit (prayer shawl) with the fringes of the shawl cut off. Afterwards, the body is placed in a simple casket.
At the funeral service, the cantor or rabbi reads from the psalms, recites a memorial prayer and reads a eulogy in honour of the deceased. After the casket has been placed in the grave, all those present at the graveside throw three shovelfuls of earth into the grave saying: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return!” Only when the casket is completely covered by earth does a son of the deceased or another male relative say the Kaddish prayer. Kaddish is not actually a prayer of mourning, but expresses the magnificence, sacredness and sovereignty of God.
The mourners now start the second stage of mourning named shivah (seven days) after the period it lasts. During these seven days, none of the mourning family should go to work. The men are not allowed to shave, and should sit on low stools when praying. On Shabbat the following week, the mourning family do not go into the main synagogue sanctuary to take part in the service, but sit outside in the lobby. From this day on until the end of the eleventh month, the male relatives will say Kaddish for the deceased in front of the congregation at every service. The mourning family wear their mourning clothes for thirty days after the funeral. The gravestone is only put up one year after burial. A memorial candle is lit at home every year on the anniversary of a close relative’s death, and burns for twenty-four hours. The grave of the deceased is also visited, Kaddish is said, and a small stone placed on the grave.
The vast majority of Jewish funeral rites date back to Talmudic times and have remained almost unchanged down the centuries. Some minor changes were introduced following the liberalisation in the modern age. In 1564, Chief Rabbi Löw in Prague founded one of the first burial societies (khevra kadishah; literally: holy society). The burial societies look after the ill and the dying, though their main task is to arrange the funeral of the dead and assist the mourners and dependents.
Tzedakah box; master's mark: Leo Horovitz, Frankfurt am Main, c. 1910; silver, engraved; loan from I. Bubis
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Last change: 2013, August 02