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Birth | Naming a Child | Circumcision | Redemption of Firstborn | Adoption
In Jewish law, life begins at birth, that is, at the time when all of the child's head has emerged from the mother's body, or when the child is more than halfway out if the head does not come out first. The consequences of this are discussed in more detail in the section on Abortion.
The Torah completely rejects the notion of original sin. According to the Torah, a child is born pure, completely free from sin. We say daily "God, the soul which you have given 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 as a 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 (Leviticus 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, it appears 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 sexes.
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). 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. Many in Israel only use their Hebrew names, rejecting non-Hebrew names (and, some, even family names) as a new custom imitating the Gentiles.
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).
The standard form of a Hebrew name for a male is [child's name] ben [father's name], where "ben" means son of. For a female, the form is [child's name] bat [father's name], where "bat" means daughter of. If the child is a Kohein, the suffix ha-Kohein is added. If the child is a Levi, the suffix ha-Levi is added.
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.
Of all of the Torah's 613 commandments, the "brit milah" (literally, Covenant of Circumcision) is probably the one most universally observed. It is commonly referred to as a "brit" (covenant). Even the most secular of Jews, who observe no other part of Torah, are almost always circumcised. In countries where all males are routinely surgically circumcised, this does not 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 Genesis 17,10-14 and Leviticus 12,3. The covenant was originally made with Abraham.
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 God 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 karet, 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 the sabbath. 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 serious illness.
Circumcision involves surgically removing the foreskin of the penis. Although some cultures have a similar circumcision ritual for females, circumcision in Torah applies only to males. The circumcision is performed by a "mohel" (literally, circumciser), a pious, observant Jew educated in the relevant Jewish law and in surgical techniques. Circumcision performed by a regular non-observant or non-Jewish 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 sandak. In English, this is often referred to as a godfather. It is an honor to be a sandak for a brit. The sandak 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 brit.
As with most Jewish life events, the ritual is followed by refreshments or a festive meal.
In recent times, some psychologists have hypothesized that infant circumcision has harmful psychological effects, and may cause sexual dysfunction. To the best of our knowledge, there is no concrete, statistical evidence that circumcision has any harmful effect. However, some people have written asking about the Jewish opinion on this controversy. 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 God 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.
The first and best of all things belongs to God. 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, God chose the tribe of Levi over the firstborn for this sacred role. This is explained in Numbers 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) to a kohein (preferably a pious one familiar with the procedure) and performing a brief ritual. This procedure is commanded at Numbers 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 portion of the Jewish people. 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 that qualifies for the mother to be impure as if she had born a fully developed child, 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, the Torah does have certain laws that are relevant in circumstances where a child is raised by someone other than the 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, regardless of who raises them. 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, no need for prior education. It is really more of a formality. The conversion must be approved by a Bet Din (rabbinic court), a circumcision or hatafat dam brit must be performed, the child must be immersed in a kosher mikveh, and the parents must commit to educating the child as a Jew. For more details about the process of conversion generally, See Conversion.
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