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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Getting Family and Friends Involved

In addition to the excitement and joy which comes with the birth of every child, friends and family gather to celebrate the continuation of our People, and our relationship with God that is symbolized by the bris.

For most people, especially those with a very close family, it is essential that family members participate in the ceremony. This is ideal.

Thankfully, the ceremony has many roles that need to be filled. But first, a word about protocol.

Men and Women

When it comes to public ceremonies, Jewish tradition has a thought about what is considered proper and improper, modest and immodest. These issues are subjects of a much larger discussion which I may write about elsewhere.

In a nutshell, to help keep modesty in check, Jewish law established separation of sexes in public ceremonies. As such, while a man may stand next to his wife (and vice versa), it is considered immodest for a man to stand with someone else's wife lest others perceive something, get the wrong idea and perhaps start gossiping.

Where the bris ceremony takes place, such as a home or a synagogue, would determine the proper protocol for the setting - is it, in essence, a private or a public ceremony? This would also determine the degree of participation of both sexes.

The Roles to be Played

In this segment, I will lay out the roles, briefly explain them, and make suggestions as to who should/can play the role and in what context it is inappropriate. Participants in the ceremony should all be Jewish. In the event the father is not Jewish, there are times when he can hold his son during the ceremony as well.

Kvatter - This couple (man and woman) bring the baby to the bris room, the wife taking the baby from his mother, handing him to her kvatter husband, who brings the baby to his father.
This is a male/female tag team. They are either a married couple, or a father/daughter or mother/son team (some might allow sister/brother)

Kisei Eliyahu (Elijah's Chair) - A person puts the baby on a chair designated for Elijah the Prophet.
In a synagogue it is usually a male, often the baby's uncle or great uncle, or some other relative or friend. At home, it can be the same, or baby's aunt, etc.

Sandak - Holds the baby on his lap during the bris.
Synagogue or home - the sandak must be male. First dibs go to baby's grandfather or great-grandfather. If grandfathers have been used at brisses of your older sons, some people include rabbis or dear friends, as the custom in Ashkenazic families is to not repeat sandaks among siblings.

Brachot/Blessings - Two blessings are recited to sanctify the moment and give special significance to the day.
The male reciting the blessings should read Hebrew fluently, understand their meaning, and should be a committed Jew. The default figures for these blessings are the mohel or the rabbi.

Naming the baby - This is a paragraph in Hebrew that officially invokes the baby's Hebrew name.
It is often recited by the same person who is honored to say the blessings (previous). It may be recited by anyone, but as it is a long paragraph in Hebrew, the person should be able to read Hebrew well.

EVERYONE in the room responds with declarations praising God and wishing well - blessings and all - upon the baby. When the crowd is unfamiliar with these Hebrew statements, I generally recite them word by word so all can repeat them together in unison.

Holding the baby for blessings and/or naming (previous two entries) - The person who plays this (these) role(s), should be significant to your family. Imagine this person having a relationship with you and your baby for a long time.
If one grandfather sat as sandak, consider having the baby's second grandfather hold him for the naming - this role is sometimes called the "Standing Sandak." Otherwise, in a synagogue a male will often play this role, while at home, it might be either of the baby's parents or grandparents. Sometimes two people will hold the baby together - both grandmothers, for example.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What Makes a Jew

When I was studying to be a mohel in Israel, one kind of experience was repeated at many brisses.

As my teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Sasson, is a Sephardic mohel, most of the brisses he'd perform would be for Sephardic Jews, who have a rich cultural heritage which brings the entire family and community into every bris. (or should I say "brit"?)

Typically, after the ceremony was over and Rabbi Sasson was doing his post-op examination, some old-school grandmother or great-aunt would smilingly look upon the now circumcised baby and say עכשיו נהיית יהודי (akhshav nih'yayta yehudi) - "Now you have become a Jew."


This concept may be true in other religions (e.g. before baptism, a Christian child is not a Christian), but in Judaism, one's Jewishness stems from one's birth mother. If the mother is a Jew, the child that emerges is a Jew. Consider girls, who are thankfully not circumcised. How are they to "become" Jews if circumcision is what makes a Jew?

Circumcision does not make a person a Jew.

While this blog is not the forum for discussing the rules surrounding conversion and the Reform practice of accepting people as Jews based on patrilineal descent, I am here to discuss the role of circumcision in all of these procedures.

Judaism manifests itself in Jews in two ways - nationally and religiously - and both are meant to be informed and enlightened by the totality of what we call "Torah" (not just the Five Books of Moses). According to Jewish law, the national element is given to a person at birth and can never be revoked (except in very extreme cases of apostasy). The religious component has always been a question of individual practice - there have always been Jews who were more observant of the law and the Torah's guidelines and Jews who were less observant of the law and the Torah's guidelines.


In the last few hundred years, there have been different movements in Judaism who defined new ways to experience the "religious" element of their Judaism (in no particular order): Hassidim (and all its branches and extremes), Maskilim, Reform (and all its branches and extremes), Conservative (and all its branches and extremes), Orthodox (and all its branches and extremes), Reconstructionist, BILU, New-wave, Humanist, Traditional, Cultural, non-affiliated (the list is surely not exhaustive).

Most continue to circumcise their sons. Some do not.


On the national level, a Jew should ideally feel a sense of camaraderie with other Jews. (Yesterday was Yom HaShoah - I have long advocated that if Hitler did not distinguish between Jews, why should we treat other Jews in any manner other than respectfully?) Some people express this through their family name, through a "Jewish feeling," culturally, identifying with other Jews ('some of my best friends are Jews!'), identifying with the land of Israel, the State of Israel, the people of Israel, Yiddish theater, eating "Jewish food," etc.

Most continue to circumcise their sons. Some do not.

Bottom Line

According to all Jewish approaches, if a child is born to a direct maternal-line of Jews, the child is Jewish, regardless of levels of observance. (The questions arise when a conversion took place in that maternal line, as to what were the circumstances of the conversion.)

The circumcision the boys undergo puts a mark on the flesh that is the symbol of the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 17.

When a male non-Jew decides to go through the process of conversion, he may undergo circumcision (if he was not circumcised as a child) or an equivalent procedure significance-wise (if he is already circumcised), but the circumcision is not what makes him a Jew.

Any person who converts undergoes a program of study, and is dutifully tested for sincerity and commitment to the Jewish faith, and subsequently immerses in a mikveh to complete the conversion.