A Gift for New Parents

Image: Hands knitting teal yarn. (guteksk7/Shutterstock, rights reserved)

I’m a knitter. When I find out that a friend is expecting a baby, my fingers begin to twitch. I start rummaging through my yarn bag, because I want to weave a web of love for that little one and their parents.

However, although I start knitting very early for babies I usually do not talk about it very much, and I never give the finished product to the parent(s) until the baby is safely in the land of the living. I do this because of a wise old Jewish custom that is based both on superstition and on sad facts.

The superstition is that if we draw attention to a pregnancy, evil spirits might be attracted to the child. I don’t know any modern Reform Jews who believe such a thing, but they may well have heard a grandparent talk about it. The fear may lurk, even as they shake it off as superstition.

The more practical reason is that pregnancy carries risks for both mother and child. 10-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage (loss of pregnancy before the 20th week.) Stillbirth affects about 1 percent of all pregnancies in the US (pregnancy loss after the 20th week.) Pregnancy and birth carry risks for mothers, as well – for more data about maternal mortality, see this report from the Centers for Disease Control.

While we hope that everything will be OK, the truth is that pregnancy and childbirth are not risk-free, and a certain number of pregnancies end in grief. Should something go amiss, we don’t want to add to the pain of the family by leaving them with a pile of baby things.

That’s why Jewish custom is that we don’t congratulate the parents until baby is safely born, and we don’t give presents before then, either.

And a related topic: What do we say to a pregnant woman, if not “congratulations” or “mazal tov“? We have a special saying that we say to expectant parents:

B’shah-AH Toh-VAH! – At a good time!

This is a way to say, “I hope all goes well for you and for the new life on the way.” It does not allude to anything going wrong – that would be upsetting – it simply expresses our wishes for parents and child. Understood another way, it could also mean, “May your labor come at the time that is easiest for you, and may the hour of birth be a good one for all.”

When I weave my little webs of love, I hope to give joy, not sorrow. Jewish tradition teaches us to wait before giving, so that in the fullness of time, our gifts will give purely joy.

Welcome for a Jewish Baby Girl

Image: Sleeping infant wearing a purple flower cap. (pixabay)

Having a baby girl?

There’s a welcome custom for infant girls, which is called by several different names, depending on the community: brit bat (covenant of the daughter,) zeved habat (presentation of the daughter,) or simchat bat (celebration of the daughter.) It may consist of many different elements, but the center of the ceremony is the gift of a Hebrew name for the little girl. This is the name by which she will be called to the Torah when she is old enough, called at her wedding, and the name that will be read at her funeral.

Brit bat is a relatively new lifecycle ceremony with ancient roots. It has been revived in recent years in Ashkenazi communities as families wished to welcome a daughter with the same enthusiasm that they welcome sons. In some Sephardic communities, zeved habat has been celebrated for centuries.

A brit bat, like a brit milah or bris, may be held either in the home or at the synagogue. A rabbi might officiate, or in the absence of a rabbi, a Jewishly knowledgeable member of the family might do so.

Like a bris, the infant will receive a Hebrew name. Unlike a bris, there is no circumcision and it need not be performed on the eighth day after birth. Often parents hold it when grandparents or other relatives can come to town and participate.

Some elements one might include in a brit bat:

  • A song or a niggun, a wordless turn sung together by all present
  • A welcome to the guests, and introduction of grandparents and other special guests
  • A thanksgiving prayer for the deliverance of mother and child
  • A shehecheyanu blessing, giving thanks that this day has arrived,
  • Readings from Song of Songs, such as 2:14 or 6:9
  • A welcome of the baby girl to the covenant, which might include wrapping her in a prayer shawl, or wrapping the entire family in a prayer shawl
  • The official naming of the baby girl with her Hebrew name
  • Poems, prayers, and other readings (for the choices available, talk with your rabbi)
  • Close with the hamotzi blessing for bread and the blessing of wine in a kiddush cup

The ritual would normally finish with a festive meal or snacks.

Have you been to a brit bat? What was memorable about it?




Why Do Jews Circumcise?

“Intro” students ask terrific questions. They have what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” – that is, their minds are open to more possibilities than those of us who have been steeping in a subject for a long time.

Last week, when we were talking about Jewish death and mourning practices, I explained that we have great reverence for the body and try hard to maintain its integrity even after death (no embalming or unnecessary autopsies, etc.) One student asked me, “So then how do you account for circumcision?”

Brilliant question!

Brit milah, ritual circumcision, has been a key Jewish practice for millennia. The Biblical command appears in Genesis 17: 11-12:

Every male among you shall be circumcised…it shall be a sign of a the covenant between Me and you. Whoever is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations.

In Biblical terms, we perform brit milah because it is commanded, as a “sign of the covenant.” And indeed, it is called brit milah, “covenant of circumcision.” Like Passover, this is an observance that even minimally-observant Jews worldwide keep. Even Jews who do not believe in God frequently insist on brit milah for their sons out of a feeling that this is simply what Jews do.

On a religious level, this is a consecration of the male body to the covenant and to the behavior connected with the covenant. The penis is the locus of male sexuality and a symbol of male power; removing the foreskin in the context of the brit milah ritual is a way of saying that this child or man is dedicated to the behaviors associated with Torah. He is dedicated to a life that looks beyond self-gratification to a manly holiness of purpose.

The Jewish reverence for the body underlines the seriousness of this act. We don’t modify the body lightly or thoughtlessly. This outward sign of the covenant is not easy, but it is an expression by Jewish parents of seriousness about Jewish identity for themselves and their son.


What’s in a Hebrew Name?


Your Hebrew name is your Jewish ID. You will need it every time you are called to the Torah, when you sign your ketubah, and when you are sick. Those who mourn you will need it for your funeral.

A Hebrew name consists of a name, a relationship, and the names of those through whose merit a person claims membership in the Jewish people.

For example: My name is רות, Ruth, and בת, (daughter) followed by the names of those through whose merit I am a member of the Jewish people: in my case, אברהם ושרה, (of Abraham and Sarah) since I became Jewish as an adult.  A male who was born Jewish might be named דוד (David) בן (son) יעקוב ורבקה (of Jacob and Rebecca, his Jewish parents.)

What if you don’t know your Hebrew name? First, if your parents are living and are Jewish, ask them (ask for their names, too, while you are at it.) If it has been forgotten, look for any documents that might have it: a bris certificate, a naming certificate, or a bar/bat mitzvah certificate.

If you never received a Hebrew name, it isn’t too late! Talk to your rabbi. Tell them you didn’t get a Hebrew name and you want one. It is, after all, your Jewish ID! The rabbi can help you choose a name (perhaps a Hebrew form of your legal name, perhaps another name meaningful to you.) It is never too late for a naming.

What is your Hebrew name? Do you know why it was chosen for you? Or if you chose it, why that particular name?



Invited to Your First Bris?

Image: An infant at a bris. (Photo: via wikimedia.)

You’ve been invited to a bris! If this is your first bris, there are some things that you should know.

1. WHAT’S A BRIS? A bris, or brit milah, is the ritual circumcision of a Jew. A bris is not merely a medical procedure, however. It is a symbol of the Jewish partnership with God, the covenant of Abraham. For the son of Jewish parents, a bris is usually on the 8th day after birth.

2. WHERE? A bris may take place in a home, in a doctor’s office, or in a synagogue. If you have been invited to attend as a guest, dress for the place: a bris at a home will be a bit more casual than one at a synagogue.  When in doubt about dress, it is ok to call and ask.

3. TIME? A bris is often scheduled for the morning, usually on the eighth day after birth.  The actual bris takes only a few minutes, but there will be schmoozing before and schmoozing and a festive meal afterwards, so allow an hour or even two.

4. WHO PERFORMS THE BRISA bris is performed by a mohel (moyl),  a Jew who has been trained specifically for this ritual. Generally,  liberal (Reform or Conservative) mohelim (mo-heh-LEEM) are physicians who have received additional ritual training. Orthodox mohelim may be doctors, or they may have graduated from a program that trains mohelim in surgical techniques, aseptic techniques, and Jewish ritual and law.

5. DO I HAVE TO WATCH?  No. The mohel will tell everyone where to stand, but unless you are the sandak (the person who holds the baby and delivers him to the mohel) you are unlikely to see much anyway. If blood bothers you, don’t look.

6. DOES IT HURT THE BABY? At most of the brissim I have attended, if the baby cried, it was when his diaper was removed (cold air).  An experienced mohel will do the circumcision as painlessly as possible. Most modern mohelim use a local anesthetic.

7. PRESENTS? It is not customary to give a present at a bris. However, if you wish to take a baby gift or something for the parents, it is OK to do so.  “Gag gifts” such as one might have at a baby shower  are in poor taste, however; this is a serious religious ritual.

8. GREETINGS “Mazal tov!”  A bris is one of the happiest occasions in Jewish life, when the covenant moves to the next generation.

9. NAMING A Jewish boy receives his name at the bris. Many parents do not call him by name until after the bris; before that he is simply “Baby Lastname.” If you ask about the name and they are cagey about it, that’s what’s going on – go to the bris and you will learn the name when everyone else does.