A baby is born or adopted into a Jewish family, and through that, into a covenantal community. From the ancient tradition of circumcision to contemporary, innovative ceremonies, a new Jewish boy or girl becomes a focal point for ritual and celebration. The choosing of a name becomes an opportunity to connect with people, stories, events, and associations that are significant to the parents.
History and Development
The practice of circumcising baby boys (brit milah, or “the covenant of circumcision”) has its roots in Abraham’s circumcising the male members of his household, as recorded in the biblical Book of Genesis. It is a deep and persistent symbol of covenant and continuity for the Jewish people.
A parallel ceremony for girls (often called a simchat bat, “celebration of a daughter,” or brit banot, “daughters’ covenant”) is a contemporary development with historical and cultural predecessors, inspired by Jewish feminism, and practiced in most liberal and some traditional communities. Families and communities have also acknowledged and celebrated the arrival of babies in many other ways throughout Jewish history, and in different Jewish traditions throughout the world, with a variety of home and synagogue rituals of celebration and naming.
Liturgy, Ritual, and Custom
For boys, the ceremony for brit milah (also known as a “bris”) traditionally takes place on the eighth day of life, and includes words of blessing, the circumcision itself, and the giving of a name. Traditionally the responsibility of the baby’s father, the act of circumcision is usually performed (according to prescribed custom) by a mohel, an individual trained in the practice and its rituals. For many girls, the much newer simchat bat or brit banot (frequently referred to in English as a “baby naming”) can take place on a variety of days. It often follows a similar structure as the brit milah, with one of several covenantal or welcoming acts (e.g., candlelighting, footwashing, or being wrapped in a tallit [prayer shawl]) as the ritual centerpiece. Some families follow the simpler and longer-standing custom of having their new daughter receive her Hebrew or Yiddish name during a synagogue Torah-reading service, rather than holding a freestanding simchat bat.
Just as the longstanding tradition of brit milah for boys inspired the creation of parallel ceremonies for girls, the creative approach to tradition that has marked simchat bat ceremonies has in many cases shaped the way that brit milah is celebrated, for example, with fuller involvement of the mother, and an emphasis on themes equally applicable to girls and boys.
A ceremony and celebration for a Jewish baby is often planned in a hurry after the baby is born. Fortunately, there are many resources available to parents and families to help with the planning a brit milah or a simchat bat. Those attending such an event have a special role to play as family and community members. Enjoying the festive meal (or seudah) is considered a sacred obligation. Families may mark the occasion with a tzedakah (charity) donation or other social action project, or continue the ancient custom of planting a tree in honor of each child.
Jewish tradition mandates a ceremony in which first-born Jewish males (those who are the first to “open the womb” of their mother) are “redeemed” from the service of the ancient priests. It is usually a small, private ceremony in which someone who is believed to be a descendant from the priestly class (a cohen) symbolically releases the child back to his parents. It is mainly practiced today by traditionally observant Jews.
The encounter between tradition and modernity, and between different Jewish customs, raises interesting questions about ceremonies of welcoming, naming, and covenant. What are the connections and differences between ceremonies for girls and those for boys? Is there a move toward standardization or diversity in ceremonies for girls? And what happens when Jewish tradition collides with contemporary debates about the morality and effects of circumcision? Finally with a large percentage of Jews marrying non-Jews, some couples debate what faith tradition to raise their child, and if both, then how are newborn ceremonies reflecting those decisions?
Pronounced: breet mee-LAH, Origin: Hebrew, literally “covenant of circumcision,” the Jewish circumcision ceremony for an 8-day-old boy, marking the covenant between God and the Jews. Also known as a bris.
Pronounced: SEEM-khat BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, ceremony welcoming a Jewish baby girl, also known as a brit bat.
Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.