Ceremonies to Welcome Babies
The central ritual for welcoming boys into the Jewish people’s covenant with God, brit milah (ritual circumcision), is nearly as old as Jewishness itself. However, related ceremonies for girls are only a product of the last 30 years, and are not universally practiced. Though relatively new, these ceremonies are influenced by longstanding, diverse folks customs, as well as the ancient tradition of brit milah. The laws of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem called for sacrifices of thanksgiving after the birth of a child of either sex, and the Talmud records the custom in ancient Israel of planting trees when a child was born.
Ceremonies for Boys
Brit milah is first mentioned--indeed, commanded--in the Torah, as a sign of the covenant and, perhaps, as a covenant unto itself. We read: "Every male among you shall be circumcised...it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:11). Other “signs” are associated in the Torah with divine-human covenant, including Shabbat and the rainbow covenant with Noah after the flood.
The Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) refers to ears, lips, and the heart as having an orlah (the Hebrew word for "foreskin"), which can interfere with one’s ability to properly use them and to connect with God. Some ancient rabbinic and modern commentators speculate on the possible symbolism of generativity associated specifically with the foreskin of the penis; one rabbinic interpretation, or midrash, even playfully asks how Abraham knew it was that foreskin (and not another) which was to be “circumcised” (and answers by virtue of the connection between the covenantal promise of future generations and the male organ which would contribute to that promise).
In rabbinic thought, brit milah is described as being a sign, to God as well as oneself, of membership in the Jewish people’s covenant with God. The sages of the Talmudic period told many stories about the merits of circumcision to stress its importance--including its affecting (men’s) spiritual fate in World to Come. (Women are variously described as already being full members of the covenant; being included in men’s covenantal sign; or having their own sign in the monthly cycle of menstruation.) One explanation of circumcision’s importance reflects the notion that God has created a world beautiful but incomplete, leaving human beings to bring it to greater perfection.