The Jewish Life Cycle

Why We Celebrate the Jewish Holidays

As a Messianic Jewish Congregation we believe it is important that we maintain our Jewish identity in celebrating the holidays and in our lifestyles. Of course, we realize that that expression can be seen in various levels in our different homes and even among messianic congregations across this nation and around the world. Why is it important? First, because we are a Jewish congregation. So it is quite normal for Jewish people to live as Jews.

But more importantly, we recognize the spiritual benefit and blessing in observing G-d’s word in celebrating the holidays. G-d had a reason for each holiday. We need to understand that reason so that we can enjoy the benefit of celebration. We find it a joy not a burden to be able to follow G-d’s word in these areas. These things are an outward expression of what G-d has done in our hearts.

Third, as believers in Yeshua, we want to follow His example and the example of His disciples. They all lived an observant Jewish lifestyle. Yeshua and his disciples never stopped being Jewish. Neither do we have to.

The Jewish Life Cycle

From birth to death there is much tradition and custom interwoven into our lifestyle. Over the years certain observances have developed that link us to all Jewish people throughout the world.

Birth of a Child

In ancient Israel it was considered a blessing to have a large family. The Scriptures tell us to “Be fruitful and multiply.” Psalm 127.4,5 declare to us “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies at the gate.” This tradition is still observed among the Chasidic community where large families are common.

Giving a name to a child is a very important aspect of Jewish tradition. Even in Scriptures, we see that names were given that had significance to them. Joseph was given his name because it came from the Hebrew word meaning “to add”. Rachel declared, “The L-rd added to me another son.” The name Deborah means “bee.” Tamar means palm tree. Today it is tradition to name someone after a deceased relative. This is considered an honor and is meant to keep the name of the person alive and remembered in the family.

One of the first things done after a child is born if it is a male is a brit milah, circumcision. This occurs on the eighth day. This command was given to us by G-d in the Scriptures. In Genesis 17.10-11 G-d is reaffirming His covenant with Abraham and declares: “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.” The eighth day symbolizes a new cycle of life, as it is the beginning of a new week for the child. This command is considered so important that it is fulfilled even if the eighth day falls on Shabbat or Yom Kippur. The only time circumcision is delayed is if there are medical reasons for the baby. Circumcision does not make one Jewish. It is a sign of the covenant. There were many ancient peoples who practiced circumcision before the Jewish people did, but G-d chose it to be the sign that set them apart as His people.

It can take place at the hospital or synagogue. But normally this ceremony is performed in the home and there is a great celebration that follows. It is a family event as it marks one of life cycle events. The rabbis feel it is the father’s responsibility to circumcise his own son. However, since most fathers are unable to do it, they designate someone in their place named a shaliach meaning representative. This person is called a mohel. He is someone in the Jewish community who is respected and considered a spiritual leader. Often a rabbi serves as a mohel. Medical training is also necessary to be a mohel.

There are several other important people at a brit milah ceremony. The first is called the kvatterin or godmother. Her responsibility is to take the baby from the mother and bring the child to the door of the room where the ceremony is being held. As the child is brought into the room, all people call out Baruch haba b’Shem Adonai, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the L-rd. The kvatterin then gives the child to the kvatter who is the godfather. His role is to bring the child to Elijah’s chair. There is a special seat reserved in honor of the prophet and the child is placed in this seat before he is circumcised. One tradition is that this so the child will grow strong and healthy. No one else will set in this chair. Elijah is considered to be present at this ceremony as he is at other ceremonies like Passover. One of the reasons he is honored is because he was one of the few people of his generation who stood as keeper of the covenant of G-d.

The child is then given to the father by a designated person called mikisey l’yad ha-av which translates from the chair to the hand of the father. At this point the father will hand his child over to the sandek. The sandek actually holds the baby during the ceremony. The sandek sits on a chair and holds the baby on a pillow waiting for the mohel to begin the actual ceremony. The mohel begins by reciting the blessing. Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha-milah. Blessed are You O L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us concerning the circumcision.

The actual circumcision takes 10 to 15 minutes. No anesthetic is given to the child. Often they are given a piece of material dipped in wine to suck on. At some point during the ceremony the father will say Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hakniso bivrito shel Avraham avinu. Blessed are You, O L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to bring our sons into the covenant of our father Abraham.

After the ceremony the child is given to the sandek sheni, the second sandek, who holds the child during the closing blessings. The wine is blessed as a symbol of the joy of the occasion.

At this point it is time to name the child. This is where the child is given a Hebrew name that will identify him in the synagogue and for other Jewish ceremonies. The Ashkenazi consider it bad luck to name a child after a living person. The Sephardic consider it an honor. The Hebrew name usually begins with the same sound as the English name. It is not a translation of the English name. So a person named Richard might be named Reuben.

The blessing for naming the child is as follows:

Our G-d and G-d of our fathers, sustain this child in life and health and let him be known in the household of Israel by the name of ____________ Ben _____________. (Then an explanation and significance of the name is given.) Cause the parents to rejoice in this child whom You have entrusted to their care. As he has been brought into the covenant of Abraham, so many he be led to the study of Your Torah, enter into a marriage worthy of Your blessing, and life a life enriched with good deeds.

The final part of the ceremony is the Sudan mitzvah, the meal of the commandment. This is the festive meal that celebrates the new life given in the child. It can be elaborate or simple. It is a reminder of the joy of entering into the covenant of Abraham.

Circumcision is given spiritual significance and meaning throughout the Scriptures and by the rabbis. The rabbis say that it is a reminder that our hearts are to be submitted to G-d. G-d often talks about circumcision of the heart. G-d alone is the one who can change our hearts. Deuteronomy 30.6 says “The L-rd your G-d will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him, with all your heart, and with all your soul and live.” Spiritual circumcision is obviously of greater value than physical circumcision is. Colossians 2.9-11 tells us that G-d has circumcised us by stripping away the old nature’s control over us. Of course, one does not negate the other. Never do the New Covenant Scriptures command us not to observe circumcision. In fact, there are several circumcisions recorded for us in the New Covenant Scriptures. First is John the Immerser. Luke 1.59 says “On the eight day they came to circumcise the child.” It was at this time that Zechariah, John’s father, was able to once again speak and gave him his name. Of course, Miriam and Joseph circumcised Yeshua on the eighth day. (See Luke 2.21) Paul was circumcised (Philippians 3.5). Timothy was circumcised (Acts 16.1-3)

Paul is the only one who discourages the act of circumcision (Galatians 5). However, the context of this passage is to Gentile believers who were undergoing the act of circumcision as a means of justification. Paul is making it clear that none of our traditions or customs can justify. It is only by the means of the blood of Yeshua that our sins are atoned for.

Girls obviously do not have a brit milah ceremony. Over the past years a tradition has developed called brit bat, covenant of the daughter. This is a ceremony in honor of the birth of the daughter. There is no set structure to this ceremony as it is a modern custom. But similar elements of blessing, naming, etc. are included in this ceremony. It is traditional also for the girl to receive her name in the synagogue on the Shabbat after her birth when the father is called up to the Torah.


Pidyon HaBen

Another ceremony for the firstborn male takes place at the end of his first month. This is the redemption of the firstborn male. In Exodus 13.11-15 G-d tells us to redeem our firstborn males among our livestock and our sons. This is a reminder of G-d’s deliverance from Egypt in which the firstborn of every Egyptian household was killed. G-d spared the Israelites’ firstborn and G-d is saying that they are His. G-d’s hand saved them and they were now to serve Him. So, this is what took place when Israel first left Egypt. Then G-d called a specific tribe, the tribe of Levi to be His priests. Now something had to be done with those who had previously been designated for this. Therefore, each male child was set free by paying five shekalim to the priests. Today it is customary to invite a cohen who receives the money and then turns it over to a Jewish charity. Usually five pieces of silver are given.

In ancient Israel, the father would take the son into the Tabernacle or Temple and find a priest. The priest would ask, which do you want to do, give your firstborn to serve or redeem him as commanded in the Torah? The father would then give the five shekels of silver to the priest.

Today the father gives his son to a designated cohen and says, “This is the firstborn son of his mother, and G-d has commanded us to redeem it, as it is written in the Torah. He then reads Exodus 13.11-15. The father is asked which do you want to do. He responds I want to redeem my child and then gives the money to the priest. The father then reads the portion from Numbers 18-15-16. As part of the ceremony the Hebrew phrase zeh tachat zeh. “This in place of this” is said.

The blessing is said” Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheynu, melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al pidyon haben. Blessed are You, O L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us concerning the redemption of the firstborn.

The parents then recite the Shehecheyanu in thanks for the new life given to them.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah means “son of the commandment.” Bat means “daughter.” It is the time when the child accepts the responsibilities of being Jewish and observing Jewish law for himself. The boy is traditionally age thirteen when he becomes a bar mitzvah. For a girl the age is twelve. We’re not sure when the age was fixed but there is a passage in the work Ethics of the Fathers which says, “At five a child is brought to the Bible, at ten to the Mishnah, at thirteen to the Commandments.”

The two commandments associated with the Bar Mitzvah is the wearing of Tefillin and the privilege of being called to the Torah to recite the blessing. It was a custom for the Bar Mitzvah to take place on a Monday or Thursday because the Torah is also read on these days. In this way the child could perform both responsibilities at once. Today this is usually just practiced by the strict Orthodox and Chassidic communities. Most will hold the ceremony on a Saturday when attendance is greater.

The portion of the week is called the Sidrah. It is divided into seven sections. Originally every person called to the Torah would be expected to read his section. Today, however, there is one official reader, and every one who is called up to the Torah recites the blessing. This is to avoid embarrassing people who are not able to read Hebrew. However, the older custom is still preserved when a child becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The child recites his section and sometimes the entire Sidrah of the week.

The development of this ceremony and its historical background is hard to trace. The ceremony is said to have existed in some form as early as the sixth century CE. In ancient Israel the child would appear before the priest in the Temple for a special blessing. There is the story of one scholar in Palestine who stood to his feet when his son was called to read the Torah for the first time and prayed: “Blessed be He who has relieved me of the responsibility of this child.” This is a prayer that is said as a part of the traditional ceremony when one becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It is not a custom that we observe here in Beth Emanuel. During the Middle Ages the ceremony became very extensive. And the ceremony we now observe became an official ceremony. It also became common during this time for the child to deliver a drashah (teaching) on some difficult point of the Talmud or other rabbinical subject. It would take place in the home not in the synagogue.

The Bar Mitzvah ceremony is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures. We do have reference to something in the New Covenant that might have been an ancient Bar Mitzvah ceremony. In Luke 2 it tells us the story of Yeshua being taken up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover with his family. He was 12 at the time and was left behind and found in the Temple speaking with the priests.

Preparation for this ceremony takes place for many years. Most children will study Hebrew and other topics relevant to Jewish life as a part of their training. They will learn the cantillation marks, which will tell them how to chant the portions. They will prepare a devar Torah to share what the portion means to them and to thank parents, teachers, rabbis, etc. for their help. A big celebration usually follows it with family and friends.

Marriage

The next event in the cycle of life after becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah would be the marriage ceremony. Marriage is the third of three blessing given to a boy at his brit. There is high value placed on marriage in the Jewish community. Celibacy is not a virtue. The rabbis say:

“A man who has no wife is doomed to an existence without joy, without blessing, without experiencing life’s true goodness, without Torah, without protection, and without peace.” (Yevamot 62b)

Proverbs 18.22 says that He who finds a wife finds a good thing and receives favor or blessing from the L-rd.

There are three parts to a Jewish wedding according to ancient tradition.

Shidduchin. This is the arrangement aspect of the wedding. In ancient times it was common for the father of the groom to select a bride for his son. A biblical example of this was Abraham. He sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. Even though it was an arranged marriage, the woman needed to agree to the marriage.
Erusin. This word means betrothal. It is when the couple appeared under the chuppah. In this ceremony they would make a commitment to each other for marriage. The actual ceremony under the chuppah was called kiddushin, which means to separate. They were agreeing to separate themselves unto each other. A formal document was signed. It was called the Tannaim. Orthodox Jews still sign this. An approximate date for the wedding was set. Then for one year they would live separate from each other and prepare for the marriage. This “engagement” period was much more serious than our modern day version. The only way it could be broken was through a legal document. During this year period, both groom and bride would be in a time of preparation. The groom was to prepare a home for his new bride and their future children. The bride would concentrate on preparing herself for the wedding day.
Nissuin. This is the final step in the marriage process. Nissuin comes from the word meaning “to lift up or to carry.” It was when the groom would appear and carry his bride away to her new home. The time of the groom’s exact arrival was unknown. The father of the groom determined when he would go bring his bride home. The bridal party would wait in great anticipation. At night it was their responsibility to keep their oil lamps burning. It was customary for a member of the groom’s party to come ahead with a lamp and proclaim, “Behold the bridegroom comes!” The sounding of the shofar would follow this.

Today there is not the year long time lapse between the erusin and nussuin parts of the ceremony. One reason given is that during the Middle Ages, there was no guarantee that the groom and bride would be alive in a year because of the persecution, et cetera. Therefore, these two elements were placed together.

In the shetl parents would go to a matchmaker who was called a shadchen in order to find a suitable mate for their child. The young people had little choice in it although if there was a strong aversion, they would make it known.

The tannaim set forth conditions including the amount of dowry the bridegroom would pay and any penalties he would pay if the marriage did not materialize. During the engagement period the groom and bride would exchange gifts. The bride might give a tallit or kittel to her husband. The kittel would sometimes be worn as the wedding garment and definitely was his garment on the Days of Awe and when he died. The groom might give a ring. He would give a prayerbook that was beautifully adorned with silk or velvet. It would be the place where she would record the names of their children.

Marriages cannot take place on Shabbat or a festival day when legal transactions were prohibited. There are not allowed during the counting of the Omer except on Lag B’Omer. And they are not allowed on the half holidays of Passover and Sukkot.

On the Shabbat before the wedding, the groom is called up to the Torah. Here he is given a special blessing. On the night before, the bride and groom exchange the gifts they have made for each other.

The bride awaits the groom with her veil on but her face uncovered. The groom must see whom he is marrying. Then he places the veil over her face. This custom is because of the deception of Laban in giving Jacob Leah instead of Rachel.

Here are the elements of a traditional ceremony that is common to all branches of Judaism. Reformed and Conservative will omit some of these features.

  1. Men and women gather together in the men’s section even in orthodox synagogues.
  2. Kinyan Siddur. Witnesses accompany the groom and he makes the “acquisition through a cloth.” In the modern world an agreement is sealed by a handshake. In ancient Israel the passing of a piece of cloth from seller to buyer sealed it. The witnesses represent the bride and hand the groom a piece of cloth.
  3. Bedecken. The groom comes to the bride in her room where witnesses surround her. He looks at her and then places the veil over her face. He speaks Genesis 24.60 over her, “O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads”
  4. Two witnesses are necessary to sign the ketubah, marriage contract. They should be able to write their names in Hebrew. The go to the bimah with the Rabbi.
  5. The procession begins with the groom entering usually escorted by his father and the bride’s father. Next the bride enters escorted by her mother and the groom’s mother. (Today there is often a wedding party of bridesmaids and groomsmen) Traditionally, both parents stand by their children during the ceremony.
  6. The groom stands under the chuppah and the bride walks around him. This is a custom that is not widely practiced. But this practice is based on the Scripture in Jeremiah 31.21 “The woman shall surround the man.” Sometimes she circles him seven times. This is symbolic of entering into the core of her husband by penetrating the “seven shells” that surround him.
  7. Under the chuppah, wedding canopy, the act of betrothal is first performed. Blessings are spoken over the cup and it is given to the groom who drinks and then gives it to the bride.
  8. The groom gives a ring to the bride. Traditional Judaism does not have a double ring ceremony because the ring is the symbol of the groom acquiring his wife and the wife is not acquiring her groom. So, a double ring ceremony is one of sentimental value only. The groom places the ring on the index finger of the bride’s right hand and repeats the following: Harei at mekudeshet li ta-ba’at zu ke-dat Moshe v’Yisrael. Be you consecrated to me by this ring, in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.
  9. If the bride does give a ring, often these words from Shir HaShirim are spoken: “Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li.” I belong to my beloved and my beloved belongs to me. Shir HaShirim 6.3
  10. Next the rabbi reads the ketubah. It is a contract that spells out the groom’s responsibilities and the rights of the bride. The two witnesses sign the ketubah not the groom and bride. It is given to the bride.
  11. The seven blessings are then pronounced over the couple. Thanks is given to G-d for the following seven things:
    a. for the fruit of the vine
    b. for creating the universe
    c. for creating human beings
    d. for creating human beings in His image
    e. for His grace in making Zion joyful by the return of her children
    f. for making the groom and bride joyful
  12. The rabbi pronounces the couple to be husband and wife and recites the Aaronic benediction.
  13. The ceremony ends with the breaking of a glass. At the sound of the glass breaking, the entire congregation declares Mazel tov to the couple. The breaking of the glass is tied to the last blessing for the restoration of Zion. There is sorrow because that day has not yet come.
  14. Yihud – coming together is the last element in an orthodox ceremony. The couple is taken to a private room that is guarded by witnesses. Here they break their fast and consummate the marriage.
  15. There is a time of great celebration and feasting.

A traditional Jewish wedding lasts seven days.

Death

This is the last of the cycle of Jewish life. Death is faced in Judaism with mixed emotions. Life is cherished and therefore it is considered praiseworthy to fight off the end with all one’s might. Premature death is a tragedy. Isaiah declares that G-d will “destroy death forever.” (Isaiah 25.8) Yet death is viewed as a necessary thing. Even Proverbs tells us there is an appointed time for man to die. When a loved one dies the family members declare, “Baruch Atah Adonai, Dayan ha-emet.” Blessed are you L-rd, the true judge. This prayer is said in recognition and acceptance of the sovereignty of G-d and the acceptance of His decrees.

It is a mitzvah to be present with a dying person at the very end. Often observant Jewish people will recite Vidui, confessions that are made during Yom Kippur. It is considered a merit that the last words from a Jewish person be the Shema.

When death occurs, the eyes and mouth are closed usually by the firstborn son. The body is covered with a sheet. It is not to be left alone from this point until its burial. A shomer meaning guard will stay with the body and will read Psalms.

The immediate family will tear their clothing a custom known as kriah. Today among non-orthodox this is practiced by wearing on one’s lapel a small black ribbon which is torn. The torn clothes are worn for the entire seven day mourning period.

Next comes the chaverah kadishah, which means holy society. They are the burial society that makes up any large Jewish community. Their job is to prepare the body for burial. This is considered one of the greatest mitzvot because the recipient cannot repay this act of kindness. The body is washed and wrapped in a white linen cloth. Outside Israel, a male is also wrapped in his tallit with the tzittzit cut off them symbolizing that he is no longer required to do this mitzvah. In Jerusalem the earth is considered a tallit so the male is only wrapped in a white cloth.

Outside of the United States, this all that a Jewish person will be buried in. In the United States the body is also placed in a casket. This is a simple box made without nails. Embalming is not a Jewish practice. The whole idea is that nothing should stop the body from returning to dust.

Outside Israel a bag of earth from Israel is often placed under the head of the deceased. The Orthodox believe that when the Messiah returns, those buried in Israel will be revived first.

Jewish custom is to bury the deceased person within 24 hours if at all possible. Allowances are made for relatives who must travel long distances. There is a short service that will be held before the burial. There is no set liturgy for this ceremony. Often Psalm 23 is recited. The Memorial prayer, El Maleh Rachamim (G-d full of compassion) and the Mourner’s Kaddish are recited along with a eulogy. At the grave site Kaddish and El Maleh Rachamim are recited again.

At the graveside it is customary for each person, beginning with the immediate family to take a shovel and place three shovelfuls of dirt in the grave. It is an act of honor to the deceased because the person is actively taking part in the burial and not leaving it to someone else. Usually the shovel is not passed around. When one finishes they stick the shovel in the dirt and the next person comes and picks it up on their own.

It is customary to wash your hands before you leave the cemetery. This is because contact with a dead person makes one unclean. Even walking into a cemetery makes one unclean.

Now begins the time of mourning. After the funeral the family and close friends return to the home and serve a traditional meal consisting of bread and a hard boiled egg. The egg is symbolic of fertility and represents new life in the face of death. The first seven days are known as Shiva. Shiva is suspended on Shabbat. During this time, mirrors will be covered or removed. Not leather shoes are worn. One sits on a low stool, boxes or the floor. The mourners are forbidden to shave, bathe, go to work or study Torah during these seen days. Visiting the mourners is an expression of the community and often food is brought for the family. Shiva ends on the morning of the seventh day after the death of the loved one. That is where it gets its name. Shiva means seven. The mourning continues for 30 days known as sheloshim. The restrictions for this period include no hair cuts and men cannot shave. Mourning for spouses, children and siblings last thirty days but mourning for parents last eleven months.

In Israel the tombstone is erected at the end of the sheloshim. In America we wait one full year. The ceremony is called unveiling. The tombstone is covered with a white linen cloth, which is removed sometime during the ceremony. Once again, there is no set liturgy for this event.

The anniversary of a close relative’s death is called yahrzeit. This is a Yiddish word that means Time of year. At this time family members will say Kaddish or light a memorial candle.

Even though many would have us to believe otherwise, Jewish thought and tradition does not reject life after death. Traditional Judaism views the Torah as vague on specifics of this life after death recognizing that the Scriptures mention Sheol. However, traditional Judaism recognizes that belief in the resurrection of the dead was solidly a part of Judaism’s vision of the Messianic age from the time of the Pharisees. One historian, Louis Jacobs, dates the idea of the resurrection of the dead back to the time of the Maccabees in the second century BCE. The Mishnah clearly states that the resurrection of the dead is a part the world to come. The Amidah prayer contains a line stating Blessed is “Adonai who gives life to the dead.” Even Maimonides reveals this belief as a part of Jewish theology in his “Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith” which states:

“I believe with perfect faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator, blessed be His name, and exalted be the remembrance of Him forever and ever.”

As Messianic Jews, we definitely believe in the resurrection of the dead and realize the truth of the New Covenant Scriptures. One, death has no sting for those who die in Messiah. Secondly, we do not mourn as those who have no hope. Our hope is in Messiah Yeshua for those who have died in Him.



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