As in all cultures, the birth of a child is an occasion for joyous celebration in Judaism. Indeed, the first commandment in the Torah is to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).

The Birth of a Son and Ritual Circumcision

Male circumcision is known and practised by many peoples. In Judaism it is a religious requirement, based on a divine command:

“This is my covenant which you shall keep; every male among you shall be circumcised, and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin.” (Genesis 17:10 – 11)

It is the first life-cycle ritual that is mentioned in the Torah. It signifies a commitment by the Jewish people to the divine being, recorded as a physical sign on the body. The circumcision is carried out on the eighth day after birth, or later if medical reasons make postponement advisable. The operation takes place in the midst of family and friends, symbolising the community’s welcome to the new-born child. Prayers and benedictions are recited, a Hebrew name is bestowed on the child, and all present express the wish that he may progress from one sacred moment of his life to another, particularly to marriage and good deeds.

A Jewish baby boy is rarely left uncircumcised, even among those who are not strict in their observance of other Jewish practices. For example, in the Former Soviet Union, where all religious practice was banned and was punished severely if discovered, Jews regularly went to extreme lengths to organise for the circumcision of their baby boys.

The Birth of a Daughter

The birth of a Jewish daughter is celebrated by the father being called to the reading of the Torah in the synagogue on the first Sabbath (or Monday or Thursday – when the Torah is read) after the birth. A blessing is pronounced and the baby’s name is announced.

Further ceremonials on the birth of a daughter have developed in recent years. These rituals have been given a variety of different names, such as Simchat Bat (Rejoicing of the Daughter) or Brit B’not Yisrael (The Covenant of the Daughters of Israel). A service and celebration of the event takes place in the home.

Bar Mitzvah

‘Bar Mitzvah’ literally mean ‘son of the mitzvot’ (commandements). When a Jewish boy reaches the age of 13, whether he ‘celebrates’ it or not, he is now bound to live by the commandments of the Torah. His obligations include personal responsibility for observance of these, and his privileges include the right to be called to read the Torah, the right to be counted as one of the ten adult males required for full synagogue services in Orthodoxy.

The barmitzvah event is marked by the boy being called to the reading of the Torah in the synagogue. He reads the weekly portion from the scrolls of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and usually also reads that week’s lesson from the Prophets (called the Haftarah). The reading is in the Hebrew language and is chanted in the ancient melody, the phrases of which are shown as symbols in the printed version of the Bible in Hebrew. Sometimes the barmitzvah boy also leads part or all of the service. In order to fulfil these duties, the boy usually studies for approximately a year before his Barmitzvah.

On that same Sabbath or on the following day, a party is held to celebrate the occasion with friends and family, and the party can range from a quiet family celebration in the home to a full scale banquet.

Bat Mitzvah

The Bat Mitzvah for girls is a twentieth century innovation, and takes different forms in different places. It is generally agreed that girls mature earlier than boys, and the Bat Mitzvah takes place on or after the 12th birthday.

In Conservative and Progressive congregations, the girl’s ceremony is identical with the boys’ bar mitzvah ceremony, with the reading of the Torah taking place in the Temple on the Sabbath.

Orthodox congregations have found various solutions to the problems posed by Jewish traditional custom and law. The girl may perform the identical readings to a boy at an exclusively women’s service on the Sabbath, with the men separated by a barrier. Alternatively the same reading may be made on a day other than the Sabbath, and without the formal blessings.

Another arrangement is for a communal Bat Mitzvah ceremony to be held for a group of girls on day other than the Sabbath, and organised by a Jewish school or synagogue. There is no specific religious ritual and the girls study and prepare readings, often including a statement of commitment, reading a passage from the Bible, and other texts which reflect on the Jewish woman’s duties and responsibilities. The ceremonies are usually followed by celebrations, again ranging from a quiet family gathering in the home to a full scale banquet.