Author Archives: Dr. Michele Klein

About Dr. Michele Klein

Michele Klein has a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of London. She is the author of New Life: A Diary For Jewish Parents and A Time To Be Born.

A Historical View of Choosing a Name

Reprinted with permission from A Time To Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).

In the Bible, Jacob blessed his sons and grandchildren, not when they were named (an occasion without ceremony), but when he was on his deathbed, with the hope that the children would remember their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In biblical times, family lineage was very important: genealogies were written down, and these rarely mentioned the same name twice.

Biblical Names

In biblical times, a parent sometimes chose a baby’s name from circum­stances associated with the conception (as in the case of Isaac) or the delivery (as with Jacob and Benjamin), sometimes from divine acts or attributes (all those including as prefix or suffix “el,” “eh,” “ya,” and “yahu”), and sometimes from nature (for exam­ple, Deborah, meaning bee, and Jonah, which means dove).

During the period of the Second Temple (516 BCE-70 CE), Jews began naming their children after grandparents instead of after events and circumstances. This change in naming custom was due partly to the difficulty of maintaining genealogies in the Diaspora and partly to the influence of non-Jewish practices, espe­cially Greek and Egyptian customs.

Talmudic Names

Since talmudic times, when naming his son at the baby’s circumcision, a father has expressed the hope that his child will grow up to a life of Torah, to marry, and to perform good deeds. This blessing has become part of the circumcision rit­ual, and centuries later, Jews have included it in girl-naming ceremonies, too.

Talmudic rabbis believed that, in biblical times, there had been divine inspiration for naming a baby, but when this ceased, parents chose names known to give good fortune because a person’s name was thought to determine his or her fate and destiny. A further consideration was that the Angel of Death, who was prone to make mistakes, could neglect a person who had the same name as one already dead. These two considerations have affected how Jews chose names for their newborns.

Brit Milah: Ceremonies for Boys

This article provides a very brief orientation to the origins and significance of brit milah, introducing topics that are explored in more detail in this section: biblical roots and rabbinic interpretations, history and anthropology of circumcision and brit milah, and reasons for and the meaning of the practice. The author’s reference in the second paragraph to “all the religious ceremonies after birth” likely includes other elements of a brit milah ceremony (for example, the naming of the child), the ceremony of pidyon ha-ben (the redemption of the first born), and many other optional customs of welcome and celebration. (Elsewhere in her book, Klein also covers the newer but important welcoming and covenant ceremonies for Jewish girls.) The distinction she draws between Jews who live according to Jewish law and “secular Jews” may be a bit exaggerated. For many nontraditional Jews, brit milah is with few reservations a very powerful and meaningful experience. Conversely, traditional Jews may have complex emotions in connection with this ancient practice.

Reprinted with permission from A Time To Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).

bris for boysSuch shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep. Every male among you shall be cir­cumcised … and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days…. And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant (Genesis 17:10-14). 

The circumcision is the most important of all the religious ceremonies after birth. Jews circumcise their baby boys on the eighth day after delivery if the infant is in good health. Jews have imbued the rite of circumcision with great spiri­tual significance because it maintains the covenant between God and Abraham, between God and the Jewish people. The Bible warns that one who does not fulfill this duty is “cut off” by God from the community; he receives the ultimate divine punishment, because God cuts off his soul from its spiritual source. Throughout the ages, rabbis have offered at least twenty different reasons for the importance of cir­cumcision, revealing contemporary beliefs and tensions surrounding the ritual.

A History of Brit Milah

Reprinted with permission from A Time To Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society 1998).

Abraham and his Israelite descendants were likely not unique in circum­cising their sons: Others in the ancient Near East probably did so, too. The Bible refers several times to mass circumcision of adult men, hardly an individual confirmation of a divine covenant but more likely a result of social coercion to remove the disgrace of the foreskin–the Israelites clearly considered the foreskin contemptuously. Even though the generation of the desert was uncircumcised, and the operation was some­times neglected during the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Genesis 17:10-14 elevated circumcision into a religious rite with individual religious significance.

Prohibitions Against Circumcision

When the Greeks, and later the Romans, issued prohibitions against cir­cumcision, the religious ritual gained renewed importance in defining who was a Jew. Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c. 215-c. 163 BCE) prohibited the rite, and mothers who had their sons circumcised were thrown off the city walls after being paraded de­meaningly around the city with their infants tied to their breasts. The Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) similarly prohibited the rite and decapitated Jews who performed it on their sons. The early Christians in Jerusalem also rejected cir­cumcision, a step that had profound repercussions in later centuries.

The Mishnah [one of the major documents of early rabbinic Judaism, compiled c. 200 CE] explains how and when to perform the operation. In the many volumes of Jewish law formulated during the first few centuries of the Christian Era, however, no tractate is devoted to circumcision. Circumcision was dis­cussed frequently at that time, but in the context of other Jewish laws, especially those pertaining to the Sabbath. In addition, during the talmudic period, the sages told many stories about the merits of circumcision, to stress its importance. They said that were it not for circumcision, heaven and earth would not exist. They taught that per­formance of this duty is proof of a Jew’s acceptance of God, enables him to enter the Promised Land, and prevents him from entering Gehenna [the Jewish equivalent of hell]. At that time, non-Jews in Palestine and in Babylon viewed circumcision as a mutilation and forbade it. In response, rabbis stressed that circumcision removes a blemish (the foreskin) and enables a man to achieve bodily perfection by fulfilling a divine commandment.

A Historical View of Pidyon HaBen

Reprinted with permission from A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society).

A first child has special significance for both parents, and this was as true in biblical times as today, but then only when the child was male. A mother’s first­born boy was consecrated to divine service, and a father gave his first-born son a double portion of his possessions as his birthright inheritance. In medieval times, it was customary for a father to vow his first-born son to the study of Torah. In later centuries, too, it was not uncommon for an eldest son to study while his younger brothers learned a trade.

history of pidyon habenThe Book of Exodus tells that God spared the Israelite first-born sons when casting the 10th plague on the ancient Egyptians, because first-borns were divinely consecrated. The Israelites raised their first-born sons to a life of priest­hood. After the incident of the Golden Calf, however, only the tribe of Levi proved themselves worthy of priesthood. Ever since, an observant Jewish father who is not of levitic or of priestly lineage (a cohen) has redeemed his wife’s first-born son from lifelong service to God (provided his wife is not of a levitic or priestly family). The father redeems his baby when the child is one month old, by paying the money equivalent of five shekels “by the sanctuary weight.”

Additional details regarding this ritual were laid down in the Mishnah, in a tractate entitled Bekhorot, “first-borns,” and in the later codes. The blessings and statements recited during the ritual were formalized and included in the first true prayer book, in the ninth century.

Unlike the circumcision ritual, the redemption of the first-born is post­poned for a Sabbath or Jewish festival. It is not performed if the mother had aborted [or miscarried] a formed fetus previously [40 days or more after conception], because the miscarriage preceded the newborn in opening the womb; nor is it done if the baby was born by caesarean section, because in this case the womb was opened artificially. If a mother had one or more babies by cae­sarean section and then eventually gave birth vaginally to a son, she would redeem this baby, the first to open her womb naturally.