Ritual, custom and festive meals characterize life-cycle events

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

New babies, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and death. Life cycle events involve ritual and custom.

Many life-cycle events are rooted in the Bible and observed today much as they were 4,000 years ago. Others have been adapted to suit modern life. And some have absolutely no biblical basis.

But one thing has remained constant over the centuries: Food is an integral part of a Jewish celebration.

The simcha, or joyous occasion, has always been followed by a seudat mitzvah, the meal celebrating performance of a mitzvah. Even funerals are followed by a meal. But party planners and "Goodbye Columbus"-style extravaganzas were not part of the original program.

According to Daniel Syme in "The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living," at one time community leaders enacted guidelines or special taxes to ensure feasts would not be ostentatious, nor detract from a ceremony's religious significance.

In fact, many of the customs of life-cycle events discourage ostentation, promoting a belief in the equality of all.

Another constant is the presence of a minyan at all life-cycle events except for the pidyon haben, redemption of the first-born son. A minyan is 10 Jewish adults over the age of 13. In Orthodoxy, a minyan only includes men.

The brit

The ceremony of the brit (ritual circumcision) represents the covenant between God and Abraham and is mandated in Genesis 17:10-14.

Abraham circumcised himself at the age of 99. If that seems painful, think of Sarah. She gave birth at 90.

The brit takes place during daylight hours on the eighth day after birth, although it may fall on Shabbat or even Yom Kippur. According to Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Berkeley's Congregation Beth El, postponement is permissible on the grounds of the infant's health. If delayed beyond the eighth day, the brit is not rescheduled for Shabbat or another holiday.

Mercifully, the mother is not required to witness the ceremony.

At one time, fathers circumcised their own sons. But these days, the brit is usually performed by a mohel — an Orthodox Jew specially trained to perform circumcisions. Reform Judaism trains and certifies Jewish physicians to perform the ritual.

The baby is given his Hebrew name at the brit.

Pidyon haben

Pidyon haben, redemption of the first-born son, is a ceremony that also finds its roots in the Bible, in Numbers 18:15-16.

According to Arlene Rossen Cardozo in "Jewish Family Celebrations", pidyon haben was probably a Jewish refashioning of the ancient custom of sacrificing first-born sons.

In Jewish tradition, a first-born son had special obligations to God. According to Rabbi Raj, if the infant was not redeemed by his parents, he belonged to the priests.

Today, pidyon haben is observed mainly by Conservative and Orthodox Jews. It is performed 31 days after a son's birth, provided he is the mother's first-born — the child who opens the womb. In the spirit of gender equity, some rabbis have created a pidyon habat ceremony for first-born daughters.

Only the parents, infant and a kohen (priest) need be present. The kohen asks the father whether he`d rather let the priest keep the baby or redeem him for five shekels. Since shekels are hard to come by these days, five silver dollars are paid to the kohen and the infant is redeemed.

Bar and bat mitzvah

Literally meaning "son or daughter of the commandment," the bar and bat mitzvah mark a child's entry into the Jewish community and assumption of the responsibilities of mitzvot.

Bar and bat mitzvahs are of relatively recent origin. There is no biblical authority for the event nor is there anything indicating that 13 is the age of religious majority.

According to Syme, a section of the Babylonian Talmud says that until the 13th year, it is the father's duty to raise his son. The Pirke Avot 5:24 says that at age 13 a boy is responsible for the mitzvot.

Syme goes on to say that wasn't until the Middle Ages, about 600 years ago, that the ritual of having the boy read from the Torah developed. This happened on Monday, Thursday or Saturday — days the Torah is traditionally read.

After the Torah reading, the boy's father would proclaim the blessing, "Blessed is He who has freed me from responsibility for this boy."

The first-known bat mitzvah took place in 1921. Judith Kaplan, daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, who founded the Reconstructionist movement, did not read from the Torah, just the haftorah, Syme writes.

Marriage and the wedding

The origin of marriage goes back to the beginning at Genesis 2:18, 24.

In fact, the first of the Torah's 613 mitzvot is the commandment "to be fruitful and multiply."

While the concept of marriage is biblical, the wedding ceremony as we know it today, is of a much later vintage.

In biblical times, most marriages were arranged by the father. A bride price was paid to compensate the bride's family for the loss of her services after the marriage.

Men could have more than one wife, although women were restricted to one husband. Certain marriages were forbidden, but a Jew could marry an outsider provided the mate agreed to embrace Judaism.

Many of today's marriage rituals evolved from those practiced in Talmudic times, the first five centuries of the Common Era.

Originally a Jewish marriage was composed of two rituals. The first, kiddushim (consecration) or erusin (betrothal), constituted an engagement and was accomplished through an exchange of money, the signing of a document or, occasionally intercourse. One year later came the ritual of nissuin (elevation), when the bride was escorted to the groom's tent to consummate the marriage.

Today these rituals have merged into one — the marriage ceremony.

The chuppah or canopy under which the wedding is performed replaces the groom's tent in the rite of nissuin.

The ring, a gift from the groom to the bride, represents the ancient custom of kesef, an exchange of money or other object of value for betrothal. Traditionally the ring should be a simple metal band to dispel any suspicion that the woman is marrying for money.

The ketubah, also a carry-over from the kiddushin, is the marriage contract signed just before the wedding ceremony. Originally the ketubah protected the bride's rights. Today, the document sets out the rights and obligations of both parties.

The custom of breaking the glass at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony is talmudic in origin. There are several explanations for its symbolism including the destruction of the Second Temple. In times of joy we must also remember that life brings sadness, and love is fragile and must be protected.