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Jewish Observances

For Jews, religious observances are a way of turning beliefs into actions. These actions are the rituals that create religious moments in a person's everyday life. There are several major Jewish rituals that mark the passage of time and make time holy, other rituals are directed at helping a person to "think" Jewishly, and still other rituals are designed to help Jews to act Jewishly.

The rituals that divide time and make time holy include the holy days and the special celebrations that are a part of the life cycle of the Jew.


The first Jewish life-cycle celebration for the male baby is Brit Milah, circumcision. Through this symbolic act, which according to the Bible began with Abraham and Isaac, Jewish males are brought into the community of Israel, marked for life as Jews, and given a Hebrew name. The practice of brit milah is common to all religious movements within Judaism and may be performed in the home or the hospital. Among Conservative and Reform Jews (and sometimes even among Orthodox Jews), a naming ceremony in the home or in the synagogue welcomes female babies to their new Jewish identities.


Around the time of their thirteenth birthday, boys and girls are initiated into adulthood in the Jewish community. The ceremony is called Bar Mitzvah for boys and Bat Mitzvah for girls -- the terms are identical, one being masculine and the other feminine; both mean "Child of the Commandment(s)." It is at the age of twelve and a half for girls and thirteen for boys that young people become adults according to Jewish law. No ceremony is actually necessary, but ceremonies have been customary since the late Middle Ages. Boys (and sometimes girls as well) are called before the congregation to lead the congregation in worship and to read from the Torah, the scroll of parchment on which are handwritten the Five Books of Moses in Hebrew. This reading is often chanted to an ancient melody called a trop. Both boys and girls read also from the Haftarah, a weekly selection from the Prophets loosely connected to the weekly Torah portion.

There are several reasons for this elaborate ceremony. First, as noted above, it marks the point at which a Jewish child becomes responsible for keeping the mitzvot (commandments) of Judaism.

Second, it marks a point in the education of the Jewish youth. Not only a rabbi but also any Jewish adult may lead a prayer service or perform a Jewish ceremony in all branches of Judaism except the Orthodox. (In Orthodox practice, only men are allowed to lead congregational worship.) So the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony is a way of demonstrating that a young person has a sufficient command of Judaism and of Hebrew to lead the congregation.

Third, Bar or Bat Mitzvah provides an important occasion for family celebration. Families typically gather at such times -- cousins, uncles, aunts, and even distant relatives making special efforts to attend the ceremony. Everyone joins in the worship service at the temple or synagogue; and, usually, a party is held in honor of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Basic Judaism--Keyterms: Jewish, jewish, Jews, jews, Judaism, judaism, Jewish beliefs, Jewish observances, Jewish holidays, Jewish holy days, Jewish history, Rossel, rossel, Seymour Rossel, seymour rossel, beliefs, belief, observances, holy days, holidays, prayer, study, professions, history, past, future, basic, introduction, customs, ceremonies, modern, movements, Moses, monotheism, faith, philosophy, Hasidism, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Torah, prayer, study, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, Jewish law, reference, WannaLearn award, ritualTHE JEWISH WEDDING

Like members of other religious groups, Jewish parents encourage their children to marry other Jews. The Jewish wedding ceremony is called Kiddushin, which means “holiness.” Rabbis or cantors officiate on behalf of both the state and the Jewish people in performing Jewish weddings. According to Jewish tradition, marriage is the most holy of all human institutions. It is counted among the 613 commandments found in the Torah and traditional Jews believe that a person must be married and have children to fulfill this mitzvah properly.

In traditional circles, a ketubah, a special marriage contract, is drawn up. This is a legal agreement between the bride and the groom concerning the marriage arrangements. Many beautifully illuminated and decorated ketubah documents have survived the ages, announcing the marriage arrangements of Jews throughout history. Reform and Conservative Jews also utilize a ketubah that may be beautifully decorated but seldom has the specific legal elements of an Orthodox ketubah.


Judaism teaches that the soul lives on after a person dies. Still, death is a sad time for Jews, as it is for all peoples. Jewish belief does not require a final rite while a person is dying. There is a brief viddui or confession, provided that the dying person is able to speak and wishes to recite it. But if the dying person does not speak the words of the viddui, or if a rabbi is not present, no Jew feels that the soul of the deceased is endangered in any way.

According to Jewish practice, the dead are buried as soon as possible. Traditional Jews do not allow cremations of the dead, and the body of the deceased is tended with great care and respect, often by a group of Jews called the Hevrah Kadishah or "holy community." As the term indicates, taking care of the dead is considered an act of great merit.

The week following a burial is a period of intense mourning for family and friends. The family remains at home, sitting on low stools as a sign of sorrow. Relatives and friends visit, and daily worship services are recited in the home. The Sabbath is an exception. Because mourning is not permitted on Shabbat, the family leaves its home and joins with the congregation at a synagogue or temple service.

During the first year after a death, the children of a dead parent and the dead person's sisters and brothers attend synagogue regularly to recite a special prayer for the dead called the Kaddish, the “hallowing” or “making holy.” Each year, on the anniversary of the death, Jews recite the kaddish in memory of a dead family member. Most Jews also light a candle in their home on the anniversary of a death as a reminder of their departed relative.


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