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. At Congregation Beth Jacob, we affirm the power of introducing our babies, both male and female, into the covenant. Upon birth or adoption of a baby, we provide personalized assistance in developing a ceremony of circumcision and/or baby naming for your child.
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 (brit bat, "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.
Why do we need ceremonies at all to welcome Jewish babies? A baby born to a Jewish mother (or in some liberal communities, to a Jewish father) or who is converted to Judaism is a Jewish baby, period. What is the purpose of a ceremony of welcome, of covenant, of naming?
Such ceremonies and their rituals serve many purposes. They initiate a lifetime of marking significant events in the context of tradition and community functions. They represent the fulfillment of mitzvot, of commandments or obligations, that require such ceremonies. They help us to avoid what Rabbi Harold Schulweis calls "riteless passages"--moments of significance that simply happen, without notice or celebration. They link us to the Jewish past and commit us to a Jewish future. They serve as an opportunity to reinforce central beliefs and symbols--for example, covenant, commandment, and community--that characterize Judaism and Jewish life.
Perhaps most significantly, as Rabbi Laura Geller notes, they effect transformation. Before a brit milah (covenantal circumcision ceremony) or a brit bat (covenant ceremony for girls), a baby is simply the child of particular parents--even referred to only as "the baby." After such a ceremony, she becomes herself, he becomes himself, in Geller's words, "a Jew linked through ritual to covenant and messiah, and transformed through ritual into so-and-so [the child of] particular parents within the context of the Jewish people.…The infant is transformed, named, given tribe and history, roots and purpose, baggage and wings" (Lifecycles, Vol. I, ed. Rabbi Debra Orenstein, pp. 61-62). The community too is changed, having once again engaged with our history and our future, and having welcomed another member into our midst.
Adoption represents a special case in the larger context of welcoming new Jewish babies, with two additional sets of issues. First, a child who was not Jewish at birth needs to be converted to Judaism. His brit milah or her brit bat may incorporate part of what is necessary to make this baby Jewish (e.g., circumcision is in most communities required to convert a Jewish boy), but the additional requirement of immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) for converts of any age is usually practiced as well. Second, while there is no Jewish ritual for adoption--indeed, adoption has no special history in Jewish law or custom--many Jewish adoptive parents wish to find ways to mark Jewishly this particular way of expanding their family. Special readings or rituals may be added to the baby's ceremony, or families may wish to find other ways to mark this event in the context of community, e.g., with an aliyah to the Torah or a party for their congregation.
Where a brit milah or brit bat takes place, the child's Hebrew name is formally announced and given (according to traditional custom, for the first time) during that ceremony. Sometimes, a girl will simply be "named" during the Torah service of morning services (often on Shabbat), either in lieu of a brit bat or before it is scheduled.
While popular wisdom suggests that "Jews name children for dead relatives," the reality is much more expansive. The custom of naming a baby after a deceased family member is the practice only among Ashkenazic Jews; Sephardic Jews often honor living relatives by naming a child after them. In addition, there are many other traditions and inspirations governing the naming of Jewish children, including using biblical names, names popular in modern Israel, and names associated with a holiday or Torah reading near the child's birth. Many parents give their child a "secular name" (which appears on the birth certificate and may be used in non-Jewish contexts) and a "Hebrew name" (which for Ashkenazic Jews may also be Yiddish). Others prefer to give their child a Hebrew name by which they may comfortably be known in all aspects of their life.
Dr. Julie Kohl, 650-269-1296
Piser and Piser, 510-654-8004, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Mark Rubenstein, 925-932-6650
Rabbi Moshe Trager, 415-366-6757, RabbiTrager@comcast.net
For more information or to notify Rabbi Ezray of a birth, please call the synagogue office at 650-366-8481 or email Rabbi Ezray.