A quote from an old coworker of mine:
My son married a Jewish girl. And they had a Jewish wedding. My wife and I couldn’t believe how much Jews enjoyed life! Everything was about how much fun they could have. It was such a celebration.
I’m likely misquoting, but you get the idea. To be a Jew is to live communally. And as celebrations are either about commemorating moments of seasonal change or historical events (holidays or “holy-days”), the lifecycle acts as a way of celebrating the individual and their place in the society…in this case, in the Jewish peoplehood.
Birth and Childhood
Judaism as growing out of a tribal peoplehood considers Jewish identity based on birth*. There is no need to make a child Jewish. They already are.
Having said that, Jews do practice three rituals connected to birth: brit milah (or as Ashkenazi American Jews know it, “the bris”), simchat bat, and a lesser known tradition called shalom zachar.
This video taken at a family’s bris gives you an inside understanding of the ritual.
When a baby boy is born, there is an additional celebration of shalom zachar, which you find in the Orthodox world.
For girls, the ceremony is a bit looser, as the question of circumcision goes away. A simchat bat (literally “joy of daughter”). It involves some of the rituals we find in a boy’s celebration, and often some fun reinterpretations. I like the ceremonies you find here on RitualWell.org
Another ritual that families may include for a young child include Upsherin. It’s based on the idea that a child’s gender does not truly reveal until age three. You’ll find in the Orthodox world young boys with very long hair often confused for female. It’s because they have not had their Upsherin. This gender idea is just one interpretation. There are many, many more as you’ll see when you Google it.
It’s at this point in custom that a child would begin some kind of formal Jewish education — day school, Hebrew school, etc. Though to be honest, this is becoming less common as parents opt for a Jewish education for their child at a much later age.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah
When a female turns 12 and a male 13, they are said to be daughters or sons of the mitzvah. This is a poetic way of saying that a child is fully conscious and able to regulate their behavior in religious affairs. To put it bluntly: up until this time, a child’s ability to do mitzvot is “on the parents”. Now, it’s on the kid.
One note: the age of majority in Judaism has changed over the years. The Bible considers military conscription at age 20. Marriage ages have evolved. It seems like the bar mitzvah as we understand it is Medieval in time period. And of course, we should note that the modern bat mitzvah happened 100 years ago, even though some suggest versions of the Jewish girls’ coming of age ritual happened in earlier times, even if it wasn’t symmetrical to that of boys.
Training for bar and bat mitzvah is centered around an ability to understand the Jewish prayer service and reading from the Torah. At least, this was the original idea. Now you find that the bar and bat mitzvah is a more comprehensive education around all the things you are learning in this Being Jewish program, though altered to suit a younger audience.
Rabbi’s Rant: my experience as a bar/bat mitzvah tutor is that the Hebrew is overemphasized at the expense of Jewish identity. The visual marker of a child opening a sefer torah and reading Hebrew is a dramatic psycho-social experience for many parents, that this ability to “do the darn thing” becomes the most important part. I have tutored kids who did not know who Adam and Eve were, but could sound out Hebrew words (did they understand what those words were? That’s a whole other question. There is even the term “getting bar mitzah’d” or “I was bat mitzvah’d” as if to say that the b’nai mitzvah is something that is done TO you. Words speak volumes!
Marriage and Family
It is considered a mitzvah to marry and have a family. To learn more about the Jewish wedding, I highly recommend the Bim Bam lifecycle videos.
Never been to a Jewish wedding? Let’s see one!
A few keywords you need to know in the Jewish wedding vocab can be found in this document by Beth Ahavah here in Richmond, VA (thanks BH!) Those terms begin on page 8.
You’ll note that there are also synagogue policies in this document. Those are unrelated to Jewish ritual, so don’t get it twisted 🙂
An interesting, somewhat forgotten ritual in a wedding is Yechud, or seclusion. I recommend it as soon as the ceremony is over, because many couples go immediately into taking pictures, drinking, eating, etc. That wipes you out! Taking a 15 minute breather alone with one another is not-so-bad.
Just as there are many diverse couples, so too are their many diverse Jewish weddings. In an era of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, this becomes even more colorful, with couples adding and subtracting rituals based on their own values and needs.
While traditionally Judaism did not accept intermarriage, Reform, Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionist rabbis do. Some Conservative rabbis are attempting to make intermarriage accepted by their movement, others are strictly against it.
Let’s move now to the family. Parents are religiously required to make sure their children receive a Jewish education as well as “a trade”. See this academic article on Judaism and education.
Parents are responsible to make sure their children understand Judaism (in a classical sense, Jewish law), as well as a secular education that allows them to work. This bumps up against the yeshiva system where men often train more in Judaism than in other areas, which is why you find in some communities that women have Master’s degrees but men mature into the secular education system much later.
As for other aspects of parenting, Judaism is generally against corporal punishment (though it wasn’t always), males and female children are supposed to be treated equally, and the general outlook on parenting is that the best way to parent is by being a strong, united couple. No amount of what-you-do matters nearly as much as who-you-are-together.
Judaism does permit divorce or “gett”. For Conservative and Orthodox Jews, the process is both civil and religious, requiring a bet din. For other Progressive Jews, divorce is handled entirely through the civil legal system. This article from a Chasidic perspective does a fairly good job of laying out all the concepts.
One quirk of Jewish history is that originally women could not divorce their husband without his agreeing. Men “gave” their women a divorce — literally handing a gett document. This caused a problem called agunah, a chained woman, meaning she could not move on with her life because a man was not willing to grant her wish. Conservative Judaism resolved this issue through something called the Leiberman Clause, a halachic document that acts as a pre-nup allowing a woman to declare divorce. Some ketubot include the Leiberman Clause and in other cases it’s a separate document.
Aging, Death & Leaving a Legacy
As Jews age, there is placed upon us the idea of leaving a legacy. This can mean sharing an ethical will, imparting wisdom on children and grandchildren, sharing family stories, as well as leaving a financial inheritance for both the family and for charity. You will find many hospitals, art galleries, foundations and other charities with the names of Jews. Understanding that your wealth was a partnership between you and God, at the end of life one should give that money back to one’s partner.
And now the least fun part — death.
Judaism does not shy away from close encounters with death, but frames them ritually. Much attention is paid to treating the dead (and even a dead body) with respect (k’vod ha-met) and to comforting mourners (nichum aveilim).https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/death-mourning-101/
A few key ideas to understand about Judaism and death:
- When it is revealed that a Jew has died, a custom is to say “baruch dayan ha-emet” or “blessed is the true judge”. It is to remind us that life is not in our control, no matter how much we wish to fool ourselves into thinking so
- In death, everyone is equal. We wash the body, bury in a plain wood box, and the deceased is wrapped in a burial shroud. In some circles, a shomer (meaning guard) watches the body. We take this approach because we believe that a person who has died is the most vulnerable person among the Jewish people
- Jews traditionally were buried in Jewish cemeteries per Jewish law, though through blended families that has changed greatly
- Traditional Judaism is against cremation, and this is made more emotionally relevant in wake of HaShoah (the Holocaust). However, many non-traditional Jews are opting for cremation
- A Jewish funeral involves a set liturgy, eulogies, military honors when applicable, and at the end the physical burial by the mourners. The burial can come as a surprise to non-Jews and in some peoples minds seem vulgar, but again, we do not shy away from the reality of what is taking place. We do not bring cut flowers as we do not believe in adding death-to-death, but this is cultural and won’t offend most people
- A shiva, the gathering after a funeral, is where comforters must go to be with the bereaved. A person in mourning is obligated to sit and be taken care of, with more customs surrounding food, not working, etc.
- A mourner will recite Kaddish for eleven months following the death. There is a custom of having a gravestone unveiling after this time, but there are no specific rituals for that ceremony
- When you visit the grave of a Jew, there is a custom to leave a stone on the grave. Many interpretations of where that comes from, but none historically definitive
Now is a good time to learn how to say Kaddish, as it is part of Jewish life liturgically beyond just funerals.
More info on the Jewish funeral and mourning can be found on My Jewish Learning.
And now, the afterlife.
There have been many different understandings of the afterlife in Jewish tradition. To summarize, Judaism focuses on a here-and-now theology: that what one does in this life, and for this life, is more important than a reward. Originally Judaism believed the afterlife to be an amoral, shadowy world called sheol which can also mean pit or grave.
Central to a Jewish afterlife is the idea of olam haba, the World to Come. This is not heaven. It is this world, made better. All of the righteous of the world, Jewish or otherwise, have a share in this world to come. Those who do not life righteously will simply not be there.
The Reward and Punishment elements of the afterlife do come into play in some Jewish theology. Heaven (often thought of as an Edenic paradise) and hell (called gehenah or gehinom — named after a real place — the Valley of Hinnom in Israel which was a flaming Roman trash pit where idolaters once sacrificed their children) are temporary states of being until this judgement day and the world to come.
Some Jews believe in a kind of reincarnation where one experiences multiple lives, often within the same family lineage, with the punitive aspects of the afterlife as a way to cleanse the soul. Some Jews are atheists and put the matter to rest. Alas, we’re a diverse bunch.
* This is a slightly complicated issue as the biblical periods saw Jewish identity as patrilineal, then it evolved to matrilineal and also offering the option of conversion. The question of “who is a Jew” has evolved and will continue to do so.