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?




Eikev: Insight on Circumcision

Image: An infant, possibly Jesus? brought for circumcision. Photograph of a painting by Vincenzo Catena [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Parashat Eikev offers us a path to deeper understanding of brit milah [ritual circumcision] with its command, “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart and be no more stiff-necked.” (Deut. 10:16) What is the connection between circumcision and a stiff neck? Sukkah 52a offers a clue, saying:

R. Avira (or some say R. Joshua b. Levi) taught that… “Uncircumcised” is one of the names of the yetzer hara.”

Yetzer hara is usually translated “evil inclination” but I prefer “selfish inclination.” It is a necessary part of human nature, and we’re all born with it. It fuels our drive to survive as infants and toddlers: to wail when we are hungry or uncomfortable, to selfishly take whatever we need to survive. An infant doesn’t care that his nutrition may be coming at the detriment to his undernourished mother (hence the old saying, “every child costs a tooth”) – he simply sucks down the milk so that he can live. 

There is a story in the Talmud about the sages who decided they were going to extinguish the yetzer harah from their community:

They (The Ancient Sages) ordered a fast of three days and three nights, whereupon he (The Yetzer HaRa) was surrendered to them. He came forth from the Holy of Holies like a young fiery lion. He (one of the rabbis) said to them: Realize that if you kill him, the world goes down. They imprisoned him for three days, then looked in the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find it. Thereupon they said: What shall we do now? Shall we kill him? The world would then go down. Shall we beg for half-mercy? They do not grant ‘halves’ in heaven. They put out his eyes and let him go. – Yoma 69b

[They] “looked in the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find it.” – That is to say, without the selfish inclination, hens did not even ovulate – the world without the yetzer hara is sterile. The rabbis realized that we need the yetzer hara to survive.

The commandments of Torah are all aimed at subduing our individual and communal selfish inclinations. When we are selfish, or “stiff-necked,” we want our own way. We don’t want to think about the big picture or the greater good. We want to have food NOW, we want to have sex NOW, we want MORE. We don’t care what impact that has on others.

The mitzvot, commandments, are about limits: “You will bury the dead,” even though the dead cannot return the favor, cannot do anything for us. “You will love the stranger” even though strangers are scary and inconvenient, or easily plundered. “You will pursue justice” even though it might be more satisfying to pursue vengeance or profit. “You will eat only these foods” and “You will not commit incest” sets limits upon our most basic appetites. We may eat, but only certain foods. We may have sex, but only with the appropriate people.

Brit milah is a consecration of the male body to the covenant and to the behaviors associated with the covenant (mitzvot). The penis is the locus of male sexuality and a symbol of male power; removing the foreskin in the context of brit milah ritual is an expression of dedication to the behaviors associated with Torah. It is a pledge to control the human inclination to selfishness. However, that dedication should not end on the eighth day, nor be limited to males. Jews of all genders are commanded to live out the promise implied in brit milah, to control of our yetzer hara, our selfish inclination.

The Jewish reverence for the body underlines the seriousness of this act. We do not 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 and Jewish behavior for themselves and their son, and yes, for the women in the family as well.

This d’var Torah appeared in a slightly different form in the Summer 2016 issue of the CCAR Newsletter.

Zipporah is My Hero

Image: A flint knife from Egypt, c.1000 BCE. This historical image held by Wellcome Images is available under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license.

Parashat Shemot has a curious little story in it, one of the most mysterious passages in the Torah.

Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of Yitro, the priest of Midian. There is no mention of any conversion to Judaism. This gives us two alternatives:

  1. It wasn’t mentioned because she never converted.
  2. It wasn’t mentioned because of course she converted.

Traditional interpretations tend to go with #2. However, I am not so sure. Was the marriage of Moses and Zipporah an intermarriage? We have stories in midrash about how Yitro eventually converted to the religion of the Hebrews, but I am not aware of any such midrashim concerning Zipporah.

The story in Exodus 4:24-26:

So it happened on the way, at the lodging-place, that God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.’ So he let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.’

It looks like a fragment of a story, sandwiched in between God’s instructions to Moses and the little family’s arrival in Egypt. The pronouns make it particularly confusing, and I left them as written, because I thought you might enjoy puzzling over them.

To my eyes, it looks like Moses neglected to give Gershom a bris [ritual circumcision.] God was unhappy about this, so unhappy that He suddenly announced he was going to kill Moses. Zipporah stepped in and performed the bris, throwing the foreskin at Moses’ (?) feet. Then she said something very weird, and God left them alone. Zipporah, realizing that she’d said something weird, tried to clarify it.

All that’s really clear here is that Zipporah is the heroine of the tale, and Gershom was finally circumcised.

When I attend a bris for a family in which the mother is not Jewish, or the mother is a convert to Judaism, I like to tell her about Zipporah. We would not have made it out of Egypt had she not seized that piece of flint! And whether she was a convert to Judaism or not, she saved the whole nation of Israel.

Rabbi David Kasher has a fascinating take on this story, and did a better job of searching the midrashim. You can read his article on Parsha Nut.

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.


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.