Jewish Tradition and the Lifecycle

Jewish lifecycle rituals reflect a communal orientation, the democratic nature of traditions, the relationship between the biological and the social, and the inevitability of evolution and change.

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The commandments recited in every morning service from [the rabbinic texts] Mishnah Peah 1:1 and Shabbat 127a--that every Jewish community band to­gether to dower poor brides, house travelers, visit the sick, and escort the dead to the grave--exemplify the democratic nature of these rituals. In reality, of course, there was always some differentiation between rich and poor, not in the rituals themselves but in the ceremonies that accom­panied them. In late medieval and early modern times, rabbis in some communities even had to invoke sumptuary laws restraining ostenta­tion. Nevertheless, the fundamentally egalitarian nature of life cycle rituals continued, inhering in their universal availability to the commu­nity.

Biological Passages and Social Inventions

Some life cycle events, such as birth, puberty, illness, and death, mark passages that are biologically determined, whereas others, such as ado­lescence, marriage, divorce, and midlife, owe more to social invention. Over time, however, these differentiations may disappear as social con­vention gains precedence over biological determinism. For example, the fact that the legal status of Bar and Bat Mitzvah originally marked the onset of puberty has become irrelevant to their celebration now; but even so, the attempt by the Reform movement to replace them with Confirmation at age eighteen and later sixteen proved unsuccessful.

Within Jewish law these legal marking-off points were in fact always fixed to a certain age regardless of the physical maturity of an individual child (thus a girl reaches majority at age 12 or the appearance of two pubic hairs), suggesting that there was always a sociological as well as a biological definition of reaching the age of responsibility for fulfilling the commandments.

The Question of Universal Passages: The Necessity and Inevitability of Change

Theoretically, all Jews are entitled to celebrate most public ritual cere­monies. Therefore, those who have been single and/or childless and thus unable to participate in those ceremonies and rituals linked to marriage and parenting--and for young men, Bar Mitzvah--have themselves felt cheated while often being pitied by the community. Precisely because every Jew felt entitled to participate in such events, those who missed out often suffered a profound sense of deprivation. For women, the absence of rituals surrounding marriage and childbearing, with their accompany­ing statuses of wife and mother, led to feelings of isolation and loss. Until our own century, the lack of a "coming of age" ceremony for girls such as the Bat Mitzvah must have created some feelings of exclusion. Some men whose thirteenth birthdays were ignored have felt the lack of this ceremony all their lives. Thus we sometimes read of elderly Jewish men staging lavish Bar Mitzvah ceremonies for themselves. (Armand Ham­mer was planning one just before he died.)

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Rela M. Geffen is the President of Baltimore Hebrew University and former Dean of Gratz College. A founding Fellow of the Center for Jewish Community Studies, the forerunner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, her books include The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas & Opportunities (2000); Freedom and Responsibility: Exploring the Challenges of Jewish Continuity (1998); and Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism (1993).