Birth, Blessing & Circumcision
This article covers adapted biblical Israelite / Hebrew customs, rather than rabbinical Jewish customs, although some of them may overlap. Since Talmidaism values biblical culture as being part of Israel’s direct witness to the power and presence of Yahveh, this is what will be described and concentrated on here. It is generally left up to individual sects to decide amongst themselves the degree they will go in the customs they will follow.
This article will cover customs surrounding birth, circumcision, naming of the baby, cleansing and purification customs for the mother, and the weaning of the baby.
A note about the western practice of ‘Baby Showers’
In the Israelite way of thinking, you give thanks to God for something after it has happened, not before. For example, with meals you say the blessing after the meal, and not before. In the same way, you hold a party and give thanks for a baby after it is born, not before. Jews therefore do not hold baby showers before a baby is born. In fact, in centuries gone by, traditionally Jewish parents did not even purchase things for the baby or discuss baby names until the baby was born. The Israelite equivalent of a baby shower are the weaning festivities (gemilah).
There are solid psychological reasons for this custom. There was a time when miscarriages, stillborn babies and infant mortality were quite common; and even today miscarriages still occur. Consider the pain of a parent who has lost a potential child but is left with piles of gifts that the baby will never use, gifts that they have to return, reopening the wound each time. Although this sort of thing is less common today than it was a century ago, it still happens.
Gift-giving of items for the baby’s or mother’s immediate use is at circumcision (for a boy) or the naming ceremony (for a girl); the main gift giving and festivities are held instead at the weaning of the child, when they bring gifts for the newborn at about 3.5 months / 15 weeks (usually things for the parents to keep until the child is 18, such as religious ritual objects or money).
The parents say the Shema` when the child is born – the father in the case of a son, the mother in the case of a daughter. If the mother is not able to, then the father can recite the Shema`, and vice versa. In ancient times, immediately after birth the infant was rubbed with salt, bathed, and wrapped in swaddling-clothes (Ezek 16:4 et seq).
It is not customary to drink in celebration when a child is born. Josephus (“Contra Apion” ii. 26) says: “The law does not permit us to make festivities at the birth of our children, and thereby to cause drinking to excess.” Between birth and the circumcision/naming ceremony, the mother is never left alone for long.
After a child is born, by tradition the parents are given the honour of an aliyah (an opportunity to go up and bless the reading of the Torah) in the synagogue; the father in the event of a son, on the next Sabbath after circumcision, and the mother the next Sabbath after the daughter’s naming ceremony. At that time, a blessing is recited for the health of the mother and the child as well.
According to ancient custom in the Land of Israel, in the case of a boy, the night before circumcision (watch-night or laylat shmirah), an oil-lamp with many wicks was brought into the house, and there is general rejoicing. In the case of a girl, this is done the night before the naming ceremony; watch-night is before the mother is ritually immersed.
Cleansing after childbirth
This was done as a ritual purification from the blood of childbirth (Lev 12:1-5). In the case of a boy it was after 8 days, and in the case of a girl it was 15 days. The mother immerses in a miqveh before the circumcision or naming ceremony, not after.
The child itself is considered pure, but the mother is considered ritually impure for seven days after the birth of a boy, and for fourteen days after the birth of a girl. Since this impurity is compared to the ritual impurity of menstruation, it is likely that the impurity comes about because of the issue of blood during childbirth.
By tradition, the mother is not supposed to perform any work during this period; everything is done for her. During this period the mother is therefore not left alone to fend for herself.
In the case of a boy, on the 8th day after birth, the child is circumcised, a ceremony which enters him into the covenant of Abraham and binds him to the Land. The most ancient tradition has this happen in the home of the parents.
There are no godparents, a custom which originates from Greek tradition. In the Hebrew tradition, the responsibility for bringing up the child in the event of the parents’ death falls to the brother or sister of either of the parents.
The mother brings the child into the room. The guests greet the newborn with the words, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of YHVH!” (Ps 118:26). The child is placed on a cushion on his father’s lap while seated (the custom of Elijah’s chair is a late rabbinical custom).
The father holds the child on his lap during the operation. The mohel reads the passage from Torah that refers to circumcision (Gen 17:1-14), then he may read prayers and psalms appropriate to the occasion, which the guests can join in with.
Throughout the ceremony, the boy is only referred to as ‘he’ or ‘him’, since he has not yet been named.
The mohel then takes a cup of wine or grape juice and says:
“Blessed be YHVH, who has created the fruit of the vine. (Amein)
Blessed be YHVH, who has sanctified this child from the womb, and has given an ordinance for his kindred, and has thereby sealed his future descendants with the sign of the holy covenant. (Amein)Therefore on this account O living God, our Inheritance and our Rock, save his beloved kindred Israel for the sake of Your covenant which You have put upon our flesh!
Blessed be YHVH, Cutter of the Covenant (Amein)”.
Immediately after the circumcision ceremony (in the case of a boy), or on the fifteenth day after birth (in the case of a girl), the child is named. The child is not named after his father or her mother.
In ancient times, the naming could be done either by the father (e.g. Gen. 17:19; 41:51-52), or the mother (Gen. 4:1, 25; 29:32-35). To enable a measure of consistency and give the opportunity for both parents to act as namers for any children born to them, it is suggested that the father name the sons in the ceremony, and the mother name any daughters.
The appropriate parent begins by holding the child in his/her arms, and says:
“O God and God of our ancestors! Preserve this child in Your holy covenant, and lead him/her along your paths. Instil in him/her a love of Your Torah, and of Your Holy Name alone, and encourage him/her in the performance of good deeds with compassion and humility.”
Then the child is named with the following formula:
For a son:
His name shall be called [NAME], which means [meaning of name], because [reason why name was chosen].
Therefore his name shall be called [NAME] son of (father’s personal name) and of (mother’s personal name), of the house of (father’s family name), and of the house of (mother’s maternal family name).
He is a son of the tribe of (father’s tribe);
(If father is a Cohen or a Levite:
His name shall be called [NAME], which means [meaning of name], because [reason why name was chosen)
Therefore his name shall be called [NAME], son of (father’s personal name) ha-kohein / ha-levi, and (mother’s personal name), of the house of (mother’s family name)
For a daughter:
Her name shall be called [NAME], which means [meaning of name], because [reason why name was chosen].
Therefore her name shall be called [NAME], daughter of (mother’s personal name), and of (father’s personal name), of the house of (mother’s family name) and of the house of (father’s house)
She is a daughter of the tribe of (mother’s tribe),
The parent concludes by saying:
“It is written, ‘Your father and mother will rejoice, she who bore you will exult’ (Prov 23:25).
The congregation responds, saying:
“Let the name of [Name], son/daughter of [mother or father’s name] grow great in Israeland among the nations!”
Redemption of firstborn
Rabbanites say this is restricted to boys, but Torah clearly states the offspring that opens the womb is to be redeemed, and that logically can be a boy or a girl. It also therefore applies to the firstborn of a woman, not to the eldest child of a man (Num 18:15-16). So if a man has several wives during his lifetime, and they have children, then each woman who gives birth for the first time has their child redeemed.
When the child is one month old (30 days), the child is taken to the synagogue, and a redemption price of five shekels of silver, or the monetary equivalent, is paid to the priest in the service of the synagogue, who will give it towards the upkeep of the synagogue.
The firstborn of every womb belonged to God. Kosher firstborn animals were sacrificed, but human firstborn were bought back (‘redeemed’). The firstborn holds a special responsibility to God, in that they bear witness to God’s presence within the family. It is also the custom for the firstborn to fast before Pesach in remembrance of the firstborn of Egypt who died in the tenth plague.
Purification after childbirth
Leviticus chap. 12 deals with purification after childbirth, more precisely the ritual status of a mother after childbirth. The mother waits 33 days after the birth of a son, and 66 days after the birth of a daughter (Lev 12:1-8). In Temple times, at the end of the purification period a lamb, a pigeon or turtledove was given for a sin offering. In modern times, grain, flour or bread would be acceptable in place of the sin offering, which can then be given to the poor.
The ‘sin’ being referred to, is not sin as most moderns would understand it. ‘Sin’ in ancient Israelite theology was ‘anything which diminishes the healthy wholeness of your life-force (nefesh)’. While this includes wrongdoing, it is not limited to wrongdoing. The stress of childbirth was one of the things that was considered to diminish the health of one’s life-force, and the purification ceremonies were a symbolic restoration of one’s wholeness, symbolising that the mother was being brought into the presence of God to be restored by YHVH’s glory.
Also, in modern English the word ‘impure’ gives the wrong impression of the intent of the purification commandments. The new mother was not in a state of ‘badness’, rather she was in a state of susceptibility to illness and disease, and the periods of separation were intended to protect the mother. All her needs would be catered for by the family – but she was not to become a social outcast; sadly, some extreme Jewish communities treat the mother almost like a pariah, but this is not the purpose of the separation – separation is not meant to be like prison, but a comforting, restorative period for the mother.
The child was protected by this separation too – child mortality in the ancient world was very high. The arrival of a new child was always a joy, but it was also a time of worry too – the first month or two of life were crucial. Like all Middle-Eastern peoples of that time, the ancient Israelites feared that mothers and their newborns could be harmed by evil spirits; whereas other nations chanted magical spells to ward off evil, YHVH prescribed a ritual way of spiritual reassurance to the parents and relatives of the newborn – since we don’t believe in evil spirits. Properly, all these laws should be seen as protective rather than deprecatory.
The reason why a new mother was not permitted to touch ritually ‘clean’ objects during the purification period, was to emphasise the difference between what is of humanity, and what is of God. Through this custom, it is brought home to us that humans reproduce this way, and that God – our God – does not reproduce or beget. Whereas the myths of pagan gods tell how they reproduced in exactly the same way as human beings, in the Israelite religion the ritual separation of all human bodily functions from the holiness of ritual objects, helped the ancient Israelites towards the psychological and spiritual realisation that the God of their ancestors was nothing like the gods of other nations.
Weaning is celebrated by festivities; in Gen 21:8, Abraham holds a feast for Isaac when he was weaned. This takes place at about 3.5 months (15 weeks or 105 days).
In ancient times, the weaning festivities were often delayed as long as possible, often through superstition. If the child has still not come onto solid food by 3.5 months, it can be delayed until the child is 6 months old (some modern medical authorities also now advise to wait until 6 months for weaning, saying that the baby’s gut is not really ready to come onto solid food until 6 months, even if the baby itself wants to).
At the weaning festivities, gifts are given, which would include gifts for the child when it becomes an adult. This can include ritual objects like candlesticks, Kiddush cup, spice holders etc, or even money to be invested and given to the child when he/she is 18 or gets married.
To summarise, these are the dates of birth customs for a boy:
8th day: cleansing of mother, then circumcision of son, then naming of son.
30th day: (if firstborn) redemption
33rd day: purification of the mother
105th (or 182nd) day: weaning festivities
and for a girl:
15th day: cleansing of mother, then naming of daughter.
30th day: (if firstborn) redemption
66th day: purification of the mother
105th (or 182nd) day: weaning festivities