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.
BRIT MILAH AND NAMING
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
BAR AND BAT MITZVAH
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
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 AND DEATH
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.