The Journey of Life

The key rites of an individual Jew mark their passage through life from birth to death.

Life itself lies at the centre of Jewish existence with the toast L’Chaim – to life.

The first two rites of passage are, at least within Orthodox Judaism, for the male.

At eight days old (or as soon as possible afterwards if the child is ill) a Jewish baby is circumcised – Brit Milah. This ceremony welcomes the child into the faith and gives them the physical mark of the Jewish male.

Pidyon Haben (redemption of the first-born son): G-d instructed the Israelites that every firstborn child was to be given to his service. So every firstborn male child (without the woman having had a miscarriage after three months of pregnancy or the birth being by Caesarean section) has to be redeemed by a Jew who is a member of the Cohen tribe (a Jew of priestly descent). The child is bought back for five silver shekels.

On the first Sabbath after the birth of a girl, her father will be called up to the bimah to offer a blessing:

He Who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, may He bless the mother N and her new-born daughter, whose name in Israel shall be N; May they raise her for the marriage canopy and for a life of good deeds, and let us say Amen.

The Jewish initiation ceremony is called Bar Mitzvah but it is not a mitzvah as there is no requirement for the boy to go through such a ceremony. Traditionally, when a boy reaches the age of thirteen, he is responsible for his own actions and can be fully responsible for fulfilling the commandments. This only applies to his religious life. Bar Mitzvah means Son of the Commandment.

Before the ceremony the boy is taught how to put on or ‘lay’ tefillin and to read Hebrew and he prepares his ‘portion’. This is a passage of the scriptures that he will read in the synagogue.

After the synagogue service his father says: ‘Blessed be He Who has released me from the responsibilities of this child.’

There are similar services for girls in Progressive communities.

Kiddushin – marriage: The Jewish family and home are at the centre of religious life and marriage is therefore very important. The marriage service can take place anywhere provided that the couple are married under a chuppah or canopy. Weddings can take place on any day of the week except for the Sabbath but many Orthodox Jews still choose to be married on a Tuesday because in the Biblical account of the Creation of the world the sentence ‘And G-d saw that it was good’ is said twice for the day.

Before the ceremony, two male witnesses sign a contract or ketubah saying what duties each partner will undertake as husband or wife.

The groom is then taken to where the bride is waiting and lets the veil down over her face. The groom is now sure that he is marrying the right woman. (Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah instead of her younger sister Rachel, because the bride was veiled – Genesis 29:21-30) The Rabbi or chazzan says the blessing which was said to Rebecca before she married Isaac:

O sister!

May you grow

Into thousands of myriads;

May your offspring seize

The gates of their foes. (Genesis 24:60).

The groom stands under the chuppah facing Jerusalem while the bride walks around him seven times. There is a blessing over wine followed by the marriage blessing:

Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us regarding forbidden unions; Who forbade betrothed women to us, the permitted women who are married to us through canopy and consecration. Blessed are You Hashem, Who sanctifies His people Israel through canopy and consecration.

The groom puts a plain gold ring on the first finger of the bride’s right hand and says: ‘Be sanctified to me with this ring in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel.’

There are then seven blessings – Sheva berachot. A glass is wrapped in a cloth and the groom smashes it under his foot. The bride and groom now go to a private room where they are alone together for the first time as husband and wife.

These three rites of passage all serve to strengthen the faith of a Jew by establishing their place in the community and history of Judaism.

Death is the final rite of passage. Judaism is concerned with life rather than death and lacks any clear teaching on the purpose of death or what follow it. In this respect it is very different from religions such as Christianity and Islam and also from those which teach reincarnation.

As they are dying, Jews try to say the Shema. After a death Jews say kaddish which is often described as a mourning prayer but is actually a prayer praising G-d. If possible, burial should take place on the day of death but if not then on the following one. The body is washed and dried and then dressed in a simple white shroud. Men are wrapped in a tallit – prayer shawl – from which the fringes have been cut to show that he is now freed from the religious laws that bound him on earth. The body is buried in a plain wooden coffin. There is a very simple service with no flowers as everyone is deemed equal in death.

After the funeral the family will go home to sit Shiva ‘seven’. For seven days a candle is kept burning and the mirrors in the house are covered while the mourners do not leave their home. Kaddish is said three times a day.

Sheloshim is the period of thirty days after the burial when the bereaved do not go out for pleasure and continue to mourn.

For the next eleven months (but no longer), called Shanah, Kaddish is said every day.

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