The first command given to humankind in the Torah is “P’ru u’r’vu – be fruitful and multiply.” As a result, for millennia Jews have celebrated the birth of every child with meaningful rituals and a meal of celebration.
What are these customs? They include Brit Milah (ritual circumcision) for boys and Simchat Bat (baby naming ceremonies) for girls.
If you are reading this material in preparation for the birth or adoption of a child or grandchild, let us wish you “B’sha’ah tovah,” a traditional greeting which means “May the baby come at a propitious time for all.” If you have already been blessed with the birth or adoption of your child, let us say “Mazel Tov” to you and your family. If you are simply reading this so you can learn about Jewish customs, please enjoy your reading!
Raising a child is a precious gift that comes with tremendous responsibility. One of the first things that parents need to do upon the birth or adoption of a child is to choose a name for your child. One’s name is part of one’s personal identity. As Jews our Hebrew names are what we are blessed by when we are sick, when we ascend the bimah for an aliyah during the Torah service, the name that is written on our ketubah (wedding contract) and more. The bestowal of a Hebrew name is a key element of bringing your child into the covenant of the Jewish people.
Names & Judaism
In the midrash (a collection of rabbinic stories about the Torah) we are told that one of the reasons the Israelites merited to be freed from slavery in Egypt so long ago was that they kept their Hebrew names. This midrash explains the great importance of bestowing a Hebrew name on each Jewish child. Our Hebrew names are one of our most tangible links to the Jewish people.
As with many Jewish customs, there are differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities. It is customary for Ashkenazi Jews to name their children after deceased relatives and for Sephardic Jews to name after relatives. Both customs allow for parents to make a statement about their hopes and aspirations for their child through the choosing of a name. For example, choosing to name a child after a great-grandparent whose kindness inspired others means the parents hope their child exemplifies such kindness, etc.
Dating all the way back to the Book of Maccabees it has been common for Jews to possess two names: a secular name for use on a daily basis, and a Hebrew used at synagogue and for religious ritual. Today, many American Jews give their children both English and Hebrew names. Sometimes the two names start with the same letter. For instance, Scott’s Hebrew name might be Samuel and Melissa’s might be Malkah. Sometimes the English name is the English version of the Hebrew name, like Jonah and Yonah or Eva and Chava. Sometimes the English name is a name the parents chose because they simply liked it, while the Hebrew name is the exact one of a deceased relative.
There are two main sources for Hebrew names for Jewish children today. They are names from the Hebrew Bible and modern Israeli names. Modern Hebrew is a treasure trove of new names used in Israel today. Noa means pleasantness, Shir means song; Eitan means strong; Ayalah means deer; Shai means gift.
Finding the Right Name for Your Child
Now that you know how important the right name is, how do you choose the right one for your child? Do you pick an old name or new name? Do you want your child to have a unique name or a popular name? Do you want her/him to have a Hebrew name that you can use for both ritual and day-to-day use, or an English name and a totally different Hebrew name?
In making these decisions feel free to talk to those around you. However, our suggestion is that you do not allow others to name your child. Be clear when speaking with others that you are merely asking for advice or suggestions. You should listen to the names of other children in your circles, but think about the popularity of the names you are hearing. Do you want your daughter to be the third or fourth Ella in her class? Are you comfortable bestowing a name for daily use that is difficult to pronounce, obviously Hebrew, or unusual in meaning?
To help you with this choice, please feel free to check out one of the following books from the Congregation Beth Emeth library:
- Best Baby Names for Jewish Children, by Alfred J. Kolatch
- What to Name Your Jewish Baby, by Anita Diamant
There are also MANY resources on-line to help you pick the right name for your baby. These include: http://www.20000-names.com, http://babynames.net, and http://www.kveller.com/jewish-baby-name-finder.
While finding the name you want before the birth is a good idea, do not fear! If you have not narrowed your choices down to a single name as the due date approaches, be patient. Looking into your baby's eyes and getting to know their personality can help you to pick the most fitting name for your child.
Brit Milah – Welcoming Jewish Boys into the World
While the command to be fruitful and multiply was the first commandment given to humankind in the Torah, one of the first given specifically to the Jewish people was the observance of brit milah – the covenant of circumcision. In Genesis 17 God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and his son Ishmael. God then says: “And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.” Brit milah (ritual circumcision) therefore is a commandment of the Torah and binds each Jewish boy/man in a covenantal relationship with God, the same covenant established by our forefather Abraham.
The command is to have Jewish boys undergo brit milah (sometimes called a bris) on the eighth day. The way we count to the eighth day must be explained. The day of birth counts as Day One. Thus, a boy born on a Wednesday has his bris the following Wednesday. Please note that if the child is born after sundown, the brit milah is moved to the next day (in our example it would move to Thursday) because a Jewish day begins at night, and we don't want to accidentally do the brit milah on the seventh day. As an aside, scientists now know that Vitamin K, which helps with clotting, is higher on the eighth day than on any day prior. Thus, for both religious and medical reasons we don’t want to do a bris before the eighth day.
The mitzvah of brit milah is so central to Jewish tradition that one is required to perform the ceremony even if the eighth day falls on Shabbat or a holiday (even Yom Kippur). Considering the strict rules of Shabbat observance this is amazing! The exceptions to holding a Shabbat or Yom Tov brit milah are in the cases of births at twilight or births by voluntary C-section. In these situations the brit milah is held on the ninth day. And of course, a bris would be delayed if the newborn boy is sick. In that case medical need takes priority over brit milah and the child has a bris when the doctor says he is healthy enough to do it.
While the commandment from the Torah originally meant that each father should circumcise his own son, today this is very rare. Almost all parents designate a mohel (pronounced moy-ul) to perform the ritual on their behalf. A mohel is someone who is trained and certified to perform a brit milah. While many mohalim (plural of mohel) are rabbis, others are Jewish doctors who have received special religious training in this ritual. There are several mohalim that regularly serve the Northern Virginia Jewish community. Their information is below:
- Rabbi Michael Henesch, 1-877-990-BRIS (2747), [email protected]. http://www.mysonsbris.com
- Rabbi Avraham Rappaport, 1-877-MD-MOHEL, [email protected], http://www.mdmohel.com
- Dr. April Rubin, M.D., F.A.C.O.G, Mohel (Mohelet), 202-841-3329, [email protected]
A brit milah is often held in the home of the proud family. Sometimes it is held at the synagogue or another location conducive to such an important religious event. It is recommended that one call the mohel as soon as possible after the birth of a healthy son so that you can schedule the bris with the mohel (or mohelet). The mohalim in our area are fully capable of doing the entire service themselves. However, if you would like Rabbi Mina to participate in your simchah (joyous occasion), she is often able to coordinate with the mohel of your choice.
It is traditional to schedule the ceremony early in the day. However, if for some reason it is not possible to hold the ceremony in the morning it is permissible to have the ceremony any time on the eighth day prior to sundown. In general the mohel will provide instructions for the family. These may include the items that are traditional at a bris, including a Kiddush cup, wine, a pillow, a chair designated for Elijah the Prophet, and a challah with which to begin the seudat mitzvah, the festive meal following the brit milah, as well as items to help with the baby’s comfort after the ceremony.
The ceremony itself consists of three parts. The first part is the ritual circumcision itself, which includes several blessings hearkening back to the covenant God makes with us through our forefather Abraham. The mohel will help the parents recite any blessings necessary. The second part of the ritual is the bestowal of the Hebrew name. It is customary for parents of the infant to explain the choice of name, who the baby is named after, what qualities of the loved one you hope the child exemplifies, etc. Following the bestowal of the name is the seudat mitzvah, the meal celebrating the special occasion and fulfilment of this religious obligation.
If you have any additional questions concerning brit milah, please feel free to call Rabbi Mina at 703-860-4515.
Simchat Bat – Rejoicing in the Birth of a Daughter
The birth of every single child is a miracle that should be celebrated. It behooves us to take the time to acknowledge the miracle of life and the gift of being a parent. In Jewish tradition while baby boys are welcomed into the covenant and given their Hebrew names at a brit milah, baby girls traditionally have a naming ceremony. In the Sephardic tradition this home ceremony was called a zeved ha-bat (which means “the gift of a daughter.”) In Ashkenazic communities, baby girls often received their Hebrew names as part of a Shabbat morning service, or any other service where the Torah is read. This ceremony is simply referred to as a Baby Naming or Simchat Bat, which means “The Joy of a Daughter.” This naming ritual consists of an aliyah to the Torah by the (Jewish) parent(s), followed by a misheberach blessing by the rabbi, and the formal announcement of the baby girl’s Hebrew name(s). Just as with a bris, after the name is revealed, the parents are asked to say some words about the name chosen, the people the baby is named after, etc. Some families ask to participate in other ways in the service, either with reading from the Torah, leading a section, etc. And many families choose to enhance the special event by helping to sponsor the congregation Kiddush luncheon after the service.
In addition to the service at synagogue for a baby naming, over the past couple of decades many families have chosen to hold Simchat Bat ceremonies in their homes on a Sunday or other weekday. These ceremonies, which often include wrapping the baby in a tallit, the lighting of a candle, drinking of wine, holding a miniature Torah, etc. and naming the child, can be personalized to include many family members in the festivities. Following the ritual there is a seudat mitzvah (meal celebrating the mitzvah of naming one’s daughter) similar to that following a brit milah. Rabbi Mina can help parents who wish to create their own ceremony.
Unlike a brit milah, a baby naming or Simchat Bat does not have to take place on a certain day. However, there are some customs that can help serve as a guide in your planning. Before the advent of the Simchat Bat home ceremony, it was customary for the father to receive an aliyah as soon as possible after the birth of a daughter, even within a day or two following the birth. At that time the baby’s name would be given during a special misheberach – whether the baby or mother was present or not. This leads to the idea that just as a baby boy receives his Hebrew name fairly quickly, we shouldn’t delay with our daughters either. Thus we encourage you to plan the Simchat Bat as early as you can: the eighth day, at the first Rosh Chodesh (new moon) or Jewish holiday after the birth, or on the thirty first day. Sometimes families wait until the next large family gathering or national holiday. Whenever you decide to hold the ceremony Rabbi Mina would be delighted to help you create a meaningful ritual for your family, to officiate at CBE, or the venue of your choice. Feel free to call Rabbi Mina 703-860-4515 with any questions or to schedule your big event!