In Jewish law, although the human soul exists before birth, human life begins at birth, that is, at the time when the child is more than halfway emerged from the mother’s body. For more details about the consequences of this doctrine, see Abortion.
Judaism completely rejects the notion of original sin. According to Judaism, a child is born pure, completely free from sin. We pray daily “Oh G-d, the soul which you gave me is pure. You created it, you fashioned it, you breathed it into me.”
Birth by Caesarean section is permitted in Jewish law, as would be just about any procedure necessary to preserve the life of the mother or the child.
Immediately after birth, a woman is considered niddah and must remain sexually separated from her husband for a period of seven days after the birth of a male child and 14 days after the birth of a female child. Lev. 12:2. This separation is the same as the regular monthly niddah separation. In the days of the Temple, when considerations of ritual purity were more important, a woman was considered partially impure for an additional period of 33 days after the birth of a male child and 66 days after the birth of a female child. No reason is stated why the period is longer for a female child than for a male child; however, one of my resources emphasizes that a female child is not more defiling than a male child, because the method of purification at the end of this period is the same for both genders.
After a child is born, the father is given the honor of an aliyah (an opportunity to bless the reading of the Torah) in synagogue at the next opportunity. At that time, a blessing is recited for the health of the mother and the child. If the child is a girl, she is named at that time.
Although attitudes towards this are changing, Jews traditionally did not hold baby showers before the baby was born. In fact, traditionally Jewish parents did not even purchase things for the baby or discuss baby names until the baby was born. The usual reason given for this custom is pure superstition: drawing attention to the baby also draws bad luck to the baby.
However, there are solid psychological reasons for this custom as well: the old proverb about not counting your chickens before they’ve hatched. There was a time when miscarriages, stillborn babies and infant mortality were quite common. 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. Remember actress Katey Sagal (whose father is Jewish, though I don’t know if she considers herself Jewish). She became pregnant while she was starring in the TV series Married with Children and the producers decided to incorporate her pregnancy into the storyline … until her sudden miscarriage required the writers to turn the already-aired pregnancy episodes into a dream sequence.
In general, you should be guided by the wishes of the parents in these matters. Many Jewish couples today would not think twice about having a baby shower, might even be offended if their friends did not throw one. But some Jewish couples feel strongly about the custom not to have one until after the baby is born, and if that is what they want then you should respect their wishes and wait until after the baby is born to give the new parents presents. If you find it difficult to restrain yourself, consider: how will you feel if, G-d forbid, something should happen to the child after you throw a shower in violation of the parents’ wishes?
The formal Hebrew name is used in Jewish rituals, primarily in calling the person to the Torah for an aliyah, or in the ketubah (marriage contract).
A girl’s name is officially given in synagogue when the father takes an aliyah after the birth, discussed above. A boy’s name is given during the brit milah (ritual circumcision), see below.
The standard form of a Hebrew name for a male is [child’s name] ben [father’s name]. For a female, the form is [child’s name] bat [father’s name]. If the child is a kohein, the suffix ha-Kohein is added. If the child is of the tribe of Levi, the subject Ha-Levi is added.
There are no formal religious requirements for naming a child. The name has no inherent religious significance. In fact, the child’s “Hebrew name” need not even be Hebrew; Yiddish names are often used, or even English ones.
It is customary among Ashkenazic Jews to name a child after a recently deceased relative. This custom comes partly from a desire to honor the dead relative, and partly from superstition against naming a child after a living relative. It is almost unheard of for an Ashkenazic Jew to be named after his own father, though it does occasionally happen. Among Sephardic Jews, it is not unusual to name a child after a parent or living relative.
Brit Milah: Circumcision
Of all of the commandments in Judaism, the brit milah (literally, Covenant of Circumcision) is probably the one most universally observed. It is commonly referred to as a bris (covenant, using the Ashkenazic pronunciation). Even the most secular of Jews, who observe no other part of Judaism, almost always observe these laws. Of course, until quite recently, the majority of males in the United States were routinely circumcised, so this doesn’t seem very surprising. But keep in mind that there is more to the ritual of the brit milah than merely the process of physically removing the foreskin, and many otherwise non-observant Jews observe the entire ritual.
The commandment to circumcise is given at Gen. 17:10-14 and Lev. 12:3. The covenant was originally made with Abraham. It is the first commandment specific to the Jews.
Circumcision is performed only on males. Although some cultures have a practice of removing all or part of the woman’s clitoris, often erroneously referred to as “female circumcision,” that ritual has never been a part of Judaism.
Like so many Jewish commandments, the brit milah is commonly perceived to be a hygienic measure; however the biblical text states the reason for this commandment quite clearly: circumcision is an outward physical sign of the eternal covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. It is also a sign that the Jewish people will be perpetuated through the circumcised man. The health benefits of this practice are merely incidental. It is worth noting, however, that circumcised males have a lower risk of certain cancers, and the sexual partners of circumcised males also have a lower risk of certain cancers.
The commandment is binding upon both the father of the child and the child himself. If a father does not have his son circumcised, the son is obligated to have himself circumcised as soon as he becomes an adult. A person who is uncircumcised suffers the penalty of kareit, spiritual excision; in other words, regardless of how good a Jew he is in all other ways, a man has no place in the World to Come if he is uncircumcised.
Circumcision is performed on the eighth day of the child’s life, during the day. The day the child is born counts as the first day, thus if the child is born on a Wednesday, he is circumcised on the following Wednesday. Keep in mind that Jewish days begin at sunset, so if the child is born on a Wednesday evening, he is circumcised the following Thursday. Circumcisions are performed on Shabbat, even though they involve the drawing of blood which is ordinarily forbidden on Shabbat. The Bible does not specify a reason for the choice of the eighth day; however, modern medicine has revealed that an infant’s blood clotting mechanism stabilizes on the eighth day after birth. As with almost any commandment, circumcision can be postponed for health reasons. Jewish law provides that where the child’s health is at issue, circumcision must wait until seven days after a doctor declares the child healthy enough to undergo the procedure.
Circumcision involves surgically removing the foreskin of the penis. The circumcision is performed by a mohel (lit. circumciser; rhymes with oil), a pious, observant Jew educated in the relevant Jewish law and in surgical techniques. Circumcision performed by a regular physician does not qualify as a valid brit milah, regardless of whether a rabbi says a blessing over it, because the removal of the foreskin is itself a religious ritual that must be performed by someone religiously qualified.
If the child is born without a foreskin (it happens occasionally), or if the child was previously circumcised without the appropriate religious intent or in a manner that rendered the circumcision religiously invalid, a symbolic circumcision may be performed by taking a pinprick of blood from the tip of the penis. This is referred to as hatafat dam brit.
While the circumcision is performed, the child is held by a person called a sandek. In English, this is often referred to as a godfather. It is an honor to be a sandek for a bris. The sandek is usually a grandparent or the family rabbi. Traditionally, a chair (often an ornate one) is set aside for Elijah, who is said to preside over all circumcisions. Various blessings are recited, including one over wine, and a drop of wine is placed in the child’s mouth. The child is then given a formal Hebrew name.
It is not necessary to have a minyan for a bris, but it is desirable if feasible.
As with most Jewish life events, the ritual is followed by refreshments or a festive meal.
The Circumcision Controversy
In recent times, circumcision has become controversial. Some have hypothesized that infant circumcision has harmful psychological effects and may cause sexual dysfunction. Many websites have sprung up promoting this point of view, and even in Israel there are those who want to outlaw circumcision as child abuse.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no concrete, scientific evidence that circumcision has any harmful effect. The rate of complications from circumcision is one of the lowest of all surgical procedures, and the most common complication is simply excessive bleeding. At most, the latest scientific evidence indicates that the health benefits of circumcision are not as great as previously assumed, thus there is no reason to perform routine circumcisions for the purposes of hygiene. However, as stated above, Jewish circumcision is not performed for the purpose of hygiene.
In March 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) and New York City recommended circumcision to reduce the spread of AIDS after a large-scale study found that circumcision reduced the rate of HIV infection of men through heterosexual sex by almost 60%. This finding isn’t actually anything new; there have been many studies for many years coming to the same conclusion. But even this finding is controversial: anti-circumcision advocates reject these findings and claim that the studies are flawed. In any case, circumcision is no substitute for safe sex!
From the traditional Jewish point of view, there is no controversy. The ritual of circumcision was commanded by our Creator, and He certainly knows what is and is not good for us. The G-d who commanded us not to harm ourselves certainly would not command us to do something harmful to ourselves, and even if He did, the observant Jew would nonetheless heed His wishes.
For more information on the traditional Jewish response to the circumcision controversy, see Bris Milah: Beautiful or Barbaric? at Aish ha-Torah’s website.
Pidyon ha-Ben: Redemption of the First Born
The first and best of all things belong to G-d. This is true even of the firstborn of children. Originally, it was intended that the firstborn would serve as the priests and Temple functionaries of Israel; however, after the incident of the Golden Calf, in which the tribe of Levi did not participate, G-d chose the tribe of Levi over the firstborn for this sacred role. This is explained in Num. 8:14-18. However, even though their place has been taken by the Levites, the firstborn still retain a certain degree of sanctity, and for this reason, they must be redeemed.
The ritual of redemption is referred to as pidyon ha-ben, literally, Redemption of the Son.
A firstborn son must be redeemed after he reaches 31 days of age. Ordinarily, the ritual is performed on the 31st day (the day of birth being the first day); however, the ritual cannot be performed on Shabbat because it involves the exchange of money. The child is redeemed by paying a small sum (five silver shekels in biblical times; today, usually five silver dollars) to a kohein (preferably a pious one familiar with the procedure) and performing a brief ritual. This procedure is commanded at Num. 18:15-16.
It is important to remember that rabbis are not necessarily koheins and koheins are not necessarily rabbis. Redemption from a rabbi is not valid unless the rabbi is also a kohein. See Rabbis, Priests and Other Religious Functionaries for more information about this distinction.
The ritual of pidyon ha-ben applies to a relatively small number of Jews. It applies only to the firstborn male child if it is born by natural childbirth. Thus, if a female is the firstborn, no child in the family is subject to the ritual. If the first child is born by Caesarean section, the ritual does not apply to that child (nor, according to most sources, to any child born after that child). If the first conception ends in miscarriage after more than 40 days’ term, it does not apply to any subsequent child. It does not apply to members of the tribe of Levi, or children born to a daughter of a member of the tribe of Levi.
There is no formal procedure of adoption in Jewish law. Adoption as it exists in civil law is irrelevant, because civil adoption is essentially a transfer of title from one parent to another, and in Jewish law, parents do not own their children. However, Judaism does have certain laws that are relevant in circumstances where a child is raised by someone other than the birth parents.
In most ways, the adoptive parents are to the child as any birth parent would be. The Talmud says that he who raises someone else’s child is regarded as if he had actually brought him into the world physically. For those who cannot have children of their own, raising adoptive children satisfies the obligation to be fruitful and multiply. The child may be formally named (see above) as the child of the adoptive parents, owes the adoptive parents the same duty of respect as he would a birth parent, and observes formal mourning for the adoptive parents as he would for birth parents.
Matters relevant to the child’s status are determined by the status of the birth parents, not by that of the adoptive parents. The child’s status as a Kohein, a Levi, a Jew, and/or a firstborn, are all determined by reference to the birth parents.
This issue of status is particularly important in the case of non-Jewish children adopted by Jews. Children born of non-Jewish parents are not Jewish unless they are converted, regardless of who raises them or how they were raised. The status as a Jew is more a matter of citizenship than a matter of belief. For more information about this issue, see Who is a Jew?
If Jewish parents adopt a non-Jewish child, the child must be converted. This process is somewhat simpler for an infant than it is for an adult convert, because there is generally no need to try to talk the person out of converting and no need for prior education. It is really more of a formality. The conversion must be approved by a Beit Din (rabbinic court); a circumcision or hatafat dam brit must be performed; the child must be immersed in a kosher mikvah and the parents must commit to educating the child as a Jew. For more details about the process of conversion generally, See Conversion.