The laws and traditions of the first stage of life.
There is a custom to celebrate the birth of a son on the first Friday night after the birth.1 This is known as the Shalom Zachor (lit: welcoming the boy). After the Friday night meal, people gather to eat dessert, sing, and say words of Torah. Even if the infant and his mother are still in the hospital, the party is held in the place where the new father is.
A suggested reason for the Shalom Zachor is to comfort the baby from the loss of the Torah he studied in Heaven, by showing him that one day of the week, Shabbat, is devoted to spiritual pursuits.2
The night before the Bris, children are brought to the baby's crib to recite the first chapter of Shema, and the verse "May the angel who redeems" (Genesis 48:16).3 In Sefardi households, a festive meal called "Brit Yitzhak" is traditionally held the night before the Bris.
Every male among you shall be circumcised that shall be the sign of the Covenant between Me and you. At the age of eight days every male among you shall be circumcised throughout the generations... (Genesis 17:10-14)
"Mazel Tov! It's a baby boy! Call the grandparents! Tell the neighbors! Find a mohel!"
Having a new baby is so exciting... and so busy. Sometimes, the new parents barely even have time to arrange for a proper circumcision. That is why it is important that before the baby is born, the expectant parents get a recommendation for a proficient mohel, a God-fearing Jew who is trained in the art of circumcision.
Today, circumcision is recognized as a standard medical procedure that is performed in most hospitals. But it is important to find a proper mohel to perform the Bris, say the proper blessings, and ensure that the Bris accords with Jewish law.
The word Bris (or Brit) means covenant. God promised Abraham that his descendants would always remain the Chosen Nation. For his part, Abraham committed that he and all of his male progeny will retain a physical mark of God's Chosen Nation.
Every healthy boy should be circumcised on his eighth day of life,4 counting the day of his birth as day one. Therefore, if a baby is born on Tuesday afternoon, his Bris should be on the following Tuesday. (In Judaism, we associate the night with the following day. Therefore, if a baby is born on Thursday night, his Bris will be on the Friday of the following week.) If the baby is born during the twilight period just after sundown, you should consult with a rabbi as to which day is counted as the "birthday."
Making the Bris on the eighth day is so important that we perform it even on Shabbat and Yom Tov. However, if a boy did not have his Bris on the eighth day (for any reason), he should be circumcised at the first possible opportunity, but not on Shabbat or Yom Tov.5
Usually a Bris is done in the morning. This demonstrates our zealousness to fulfill this important mitzvah.6 If necessary, it may be performed in the afternoon. Under no circumstances may a Bris be performed at night.7
The mohel will evaluate the infant a day or two before the Bris. If the baby faces any health risk or is jaundiced, the Bris will be postponed to a different day.8 The mohel will also give instructions to the parents how to prepare for the Bris.
Make sure to inform all of your relatives, friends and neighbors about the special event.
In different communities, there are fascinating customs involving this event. The baby is the guest of honor and therefore not brought into the room until everything is ready. In some circles, numerous people are honored with bringing in the infant. Usually, the baby is transported on a large royal-looking pillow.
He is then placed on a special chair of Elijah the Prophet. The Midrash says that God wanted to give Elijah the job of attending all Bris milah ceremonies. Elijah refused out of concern that the father of the child – or even one of the attendees – might be evil, and Elijah did not want to participate in such an event. After much back-and-forth, God promised to forgive everybody present at every Bris (!), and Elijah agreed to attend.9
After the infant has passed hands several times, he is placed onto the lap of the pre-designated sandek. The sandek is the person who holds the baby during the circumcision. This great honor is often given to the grandfather or an important rabbi. If the sandek (or anyone else) is squeamish at the sight of blood, he need not watch.
The mitzvah of performing the Bris actually devolves onto the father. But since most fathers are not trained, the father appoints the mohel as his emissary.10
Contrary to what some people think, the Bris of a newborn causes only minor pain, as the skin is very soft. If you wonder about the baby's crying at his circumcision, it is usually due to the insecurity of having his diaper removed. When his diaper is back on again, he is usually quiet and serene.
The mohel undresses the baby and positions his instruments. He recites the blessing on the commandment of circumcision and begins the procedure. Immediately after he begins, the father recites the following blessing:11
After responding amen to the father's blessing, the assembled guests say:
K'shem she-nikhnat labrit, ken yikanes I'Torah, U'l'hupah u'l'maasim tovim.
Just as he entered the Covenant, so may he enter into a study of Torah, into marriage and into the performance of good deeds
Mazel Tov! The baby is then given a drop of wine and is bandaged.
Finally, another person is honored with a series of blessings, and calling out the baby's name.
This is followed by a festive meal.12 If the Bris is performed on a day that a meal cannot be observed (e.g. Yom Kippur or Tisha B'Av), the meal may be eaten the following night.13
Here is a list of honors that may be given out at the Bris:
- Mohel – performs the circumcision
- K'vatter – couple that carries the baby in
- Kisei Shel Eliyahu – puts the baby on the Throne of Elijah
- Mai'HaKisei – takes the baby off the Throne of Elijah
- Chaika – multiple people can be honored with passing the baby to the father
- Sandak – holds the baby on his lap during the actual circumcision; the highest honor
- Mai'HaSandek – takes the baby from the Sandak after the circumcision
- Brachot – recites the blessings and announces the baby's name
- Amidah L'Brachot – holds the baby during the recitation of the blessings
If a boy was circumcised without following the halachas (e.g. before the eight day), he is required to have a symbolic circumcision called hatafat dam brit. This involves letting a spot of blood with a pin-prick, whereby the Covenant of Abraham is affirmed.14
Read more at: What is Circumcision?
Naming a Baby
The naming of a Jewish baby is a most profound spiritual moment.
On a mystical level, the name serves as the spiritual designation of the person – character, specialness, and path in life. For at the beginning of life we are given a name, and at the end of life a "good name" is all we take with us.15 It is important to choose a name that will have a positive effect, since every time it is used the person is reminded of its meaning.16
Further, the Talmud tells us that parents receive one-sixtieth of prophecy when picking a name. An angel comes to the parents and whispers the Jewish name that the new baby will embody.17
Therefore, it is important to choose a name that is meaningful. Most often, a child is named after a relative. Ashkenazim do not name a child after a living person.18 If you name a child after a deceased relative, make sure it was someone who was an honorable person that you would like your child to emulate.19
As well, in the Diaspora where children are generally given non-Hebrew names in the civil birth records, the giving of an additional Hebrew name provides an important lifelong identification with the Jewish faith.
Some customarily choose a name based on the Jewish holiday coinciding with the birth. For example, a baby born at Purim – time might be named Esther or Mordechai. Similarly, names are sometimes chosen from the Torah portion corresponding to the week of the birth. Many names and events are mentioned in each Torah portion, offering a spiritual connection between the baby and that particular biblical figure.
A boy is not given a Jewish name until after he has joined the covenant – i.e. had his Bris. In fact, a person does not receive his full measure of soul until receiving a Hebrew name.20
The custom is that the name is not mentioned to anyone before the child is formally named. However, you may discuss your choice of names with a rabbi before its designation.
For a baby girl, the naming ceremony is linked to the public reading of the Torah. During the Torah reading, a special "Mi Sheberach" blessing is said. The blessing begins with a prayer for the mother's health. It continues with the giving of the baby's name – and a prayer that this new Jewish daughter should grow to be a wise and understanding Jewish woman of goodness and greatness.
A "kiddush" is traditionally sponsored in honor of a baby girl, where friends and relatives gather to share good food, speak words of Torah, and share the family's profound joy. The kiddush need not be immediately after the birth.21
The Hebrew name, accompanied by the father's name,22 is used for all religious purposes and Hebrew legal documents (e.g. aliyah to the Torah, Ketubah, Get, prayer for the deceased, etc.):
For a boy: name 'ben' (son of) father's name
If the father is a Kohen or Levi, the title HaKohen or HaLevi is appended to the name.
For a girl: name 'bat' (daughter of) father's name
When praying for someone who is sick, we use the person's name and his/her mother's name.23
Redemption of the First Born24
During the Exodus from Egypt, all of the first-born Egyptians perished, but the Jewish first-born males were designated with special significance for all time.25 Thus the Torah requires the father of a first-born male to "redeem" him from a kohen. This is a special ceremony called Pidyon HaBen. (Girls do not undergo a redemption process, as first-born females were not singled out in Egypt.)
There are many factors that determine when and if to perform Pidyon HaBen. In general, Pidyon HaBen only applies to a son who "opened his mother's womb." Therefore, all the following conditions must apply:
- The mother is Jewish,26 and she has never had a baby before, male or female.27 (In a situation of multiple births, only the first to emerge is the firstborn.)28
- The baby was delivered in the normal way, not via C-section.29
- The mother had no abortions or miscarriages prior to this birth.30
- The father of the baby is not a Kohen or a Levi, and the mother's father is not a Kohen or a Levi.31
- Since the mitzvah applies to any son who "opens his mother's womb," a Pidyon HaBen could also be required in the event of a father's second marriage.
When does this ceremony take place? Not before the 31st day of the child's life. For example, if the child was born on March 1, the redemption should occur on March 31. However, if the 31st day falls on Shabbat or Yom Tov, the Pidyon HaBen is postponed until the following day.32
Ideally, the child's father should redeem him.33 If that is not an option, the boy's paternal grandfather may perform the redemption.34 The child may not be redeemed by anyone else.35 At age 13, if the child was not yet redeemed, he should redeem himself.36
The redemption is performed with the equivalent value of five silver shekels, which is estimated as 100 grams (3.53 oz.) of silver.37 In the United States, people sometimes use five Liberty silver dollars. After the ceremony, the kohen has the right to keep or return the money.
The procedure for Pidyon HaBen is as follows:
The father and child should be dressed in their finest clothing. The father places the baby before the kohen and declares that this baby is his firstborn son. The kohen ceremonially asks the father if he chooses to redeem the child. The father responds in the affirmative and then, while holding the five silver coins, recites the two blessings:
Baruch ata Adonoy Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kidishanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu al pidyon haben.
Blessed art You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us concerning the redemption of the first-born son.
The father then says the blessing of She'hecheyanu.
The kohen accepts the money from the father, hands the baby back to the father, and then recites the blessing over wine. Then, everyone enjoys the festive meal.38
Read more about Pidyon HaBen.
Traditional Jews often wait until a boy's third birthday before giving his first haircut. This is known as "upsherin" in Yiddish (meaning to "cut off"), or "chalakah" in Hebrew. The custom is first mentioned in Sha'ar HaKavonot by Rabbi Chaim Vital, the student of the great 16th century Kabbalist, the Arizal.
The third birthday is a significant stage in the life of a Jewish boy, when he officially begins his Torah education, and starts to wear a kippah and tzitzit (if he is toilet trained and can keep the tzitzit clean).
The idea of three years as the transition stage derives from the mitzvah of orlah. The Torah says that if you plant a tree, all fruits which grow during the first three years are "orlah" – off-limits.39 Just as orlah fruit is off – limits for three years, so too we leave a child's hair alone during the first three years. This is because in various places, the Torah compares a person to a tree.40
For the haircut itself, it is customary for friends and family to take a snip. The first cut is done at the front of the head, at the spot where the boy will later place his tefillin upon becoming Bar Mitzvah.
After snipping, people give the boy a blessing for success in Torah. It is also a good idea to take the boy to receive blessings from great rabbis. Some also have a custom to weigh the boy's hair, and then give an equivalent value in gold or silver to charity – in the merit that the boy should have success in Torah.
Upsherin day also includes learning the Aleph-Bet with the child. A beautiful way to do this is to get a plastic-coated Aleph-Bet card, and place a bit of honey on each letter. Then have the child lick the honey while saying each letter. This is so the Torah should be "sweet on his tongue!"
In Israel, many boys get their first haircut on Lag B'Omer, at the tomb of Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai in Meiron. It's an incredibly joyous scene as thousands of boys receive their first haircut there all in one day!
Read more about the Upsherin.
Educating for Mitzvot
Although children are not biblically obligated to observe the mitzvot, there is a rabbinic directive for parents to educate their children. The laws and details of the important issue are discussed in "Daily Living – Children and Halacha."
- Rama – Yoreh De’ah 265:12
- Taz (Yoreh De'ah 265:13); Derech Pikudecha; Machshirai Milah 133; based on Midrash Rabba V'Yikra 27:10
- Zocher HaBrit 3:14
- Yoreh De’ah 260:1
- Yoreh De’ah 266:2
- Yoreh De'ah 262:1
- Yoreh De’ah 260:2, 263:1
- based on Pirkei D'Reb Eliezer 28; Bnei Yisoschor (Tishrei 4:7)
- Rama – Yoreh De’ah 264:1; Shach – Choshen Mishpat 382
- Yoreh De’ah 265:1
- Yoreh De’ah 265:12
- Orach Chaim 686:2 with Mishnah Berurah
- Yoreh De'ah 262:1; 264:1
- Talmud – Brachot 7b; Arizal – Sha'ar HaGilgulim 24b
- Midrash Tanchuma – Ha'Azinu 7
- based on Talmud – Brachot 7b
- Sefer Chassidim 460
- Sova Semachot II; Agudah Shabbat I pg. 17
- see Zohar – Lech Lecha 93a, Ta'amei Minhagim 929
- See Emet L’Yaakov al Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, note #316)
- based on Numbers 1:2
- Zohar I (Parshat Lech Lecha 84); Talmud – Shabbat 66b; Ben Yehoyoda (Ben Ish Chai) – Brachot 55b.
- These laws are detailed in Shulchan Aruch – Yoreh De’ah 305
- Numbers 3:13
- Yoreh De'ah 305:1, 21
- Yoreh De'ah 305:17
- Yoreh De'ah 305:22
- Yoreh De'ah 305:24
- Yoreh De'ah 305:23
- Yoreh De'ah 305:18
- Yoreh De'ah 305:11
- Yoreh De'ah 305:1
- Yoreh De'ah 305:10, 15
- Yoreh De'ah 305:15 with Pitchei Teshuva 25
- Shiurin Shel Torah (pg. 96)
- Yoreh De'ah 305:10
- Leviticus 19:23
- Deut. 20:19; Isaiah 65:22; Jeremiah 17:8