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If you are interested in Jewish birth customs, it might be because you are awaiting the birth of your child or grandchild or you have just been blessed by the birth or adoption of a child. If you are awaiting a birth or upcoming adoption, let us wish you “B’sha’ah tovah,” a traditional greeting which means “May the baby come at a propitious time for all.” If your child has already been born or adopted, let us say “Mazel Tov” on such a wonderful event!
Whether you are still awaiting the birth of your child or you are already holding him/her in your arms, you now are presented with the opportunity to bestow a Hebrew name on your child and bring them into the covenant of the Jewish people. On this page therefore, we will speak about both the importance of Jewish names and the birth customs in which we bestow those names on our children, the Simchat Bat or Baby Naming for girls and the Brit Milah (bris) or ritual circumcision for boys.
Names & Judaism
There is an ancient Jewish saying that "With each child, the world begins anew." Judaism places great importance on the naming of each new child. It is customary for Ashkenazi Jews to name their children after deceased relatives and for Sephardic Jews to name after relatives. The name given to a child allows the parents to make a statement about their hopes and aspirations for their child. In many ways a Hebrew name brings to the child a sense of Jewish identity.
Hebrew names started to compete with names from other languages early on in Jewish history. As far back as the Talmudic period (200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.) many Jews gave their children Aramaic, Greek and Roman names.
Later, during the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe, it became customary for Jewish parents to give their children two names: a secular name for use in the day-to-day world, and a Hebrew name for religious ritual. Hebrew names are used for calling men and women to the Torah. Certain prayers, such as the memorial prayer or the prayer for the sick, also use Hebrew names. Legal documents, such as the ketubah or marriage contract, also use Hebrew names.
Today, many American Jews give their children both English and Hebrew names. Often the two names start with the same letter. For instance, Blake's Hebrew name might be Boaz and Lindsey's might be Leah. Sometimes the English name is the English version of the Hebrew name, like Jonah and Yonah or Eva and Chava. The two main sources for Hebrew names for today's Jewish babies are Biblical names and modern Israeli names. There are many new and creative Modern Hebrew names used in Israel today. Shir means song; Gal means wave; Gil means joy; Aviv means spring; Noam means pleasant; Shai means gift.
Finding the Right Name for Your Child
So what is the right name for your child? An old name or new name? A popular name or unique name? An English name, a Hebrew name, or both? Only you can answer this question!
Talk to those around you, but by no means allow others to name your child. Be clear that you are merely asking for advice or suggestions. Listen to the names of other children in your circles, but think about the popularity of the names you are hearing. Do you want your son to be the third or fourth Jacob in his class?
To help you with this choice, please feel free to check out one of the following books from our Temple Beth-El library:
- Best Baby Names for Jewish Children, by Alfred J. Kolatch
- What to Name Your Jewish Baby, by Anita Diamant
While finding the name you want before the birth is a good idea, do not fear! If you have not narrowed your choices down to a single name as the due date approaches, be patient. Looking into your baby's eyes and getting to know their personality can help you to pick the most fitting name for your child.
Brit Milah – Welcoming Jewish Boys into the World
Rabbi Elliot Pachter once explained Brit Milah as follows: “Brit (or bris) Milah, which means Circumcision of the Covenant, is the ceremony required of all Jewish baby boys on the eighth day of life. Brit Milah is a commandment of the Torah and binds each participant to a covenantal relationship with God, first established by Abraham.
When counting the eighth day, remember that the day of birth counts as Day One. So, a boy born on a Tuesday has a brit milah on the following Tuesday. If the child is born after sundown, then the brit milah is moved to Wednesday because a Jewish day begins at night, and we don't want to make the mistake of doing brit milah on the seventh day. If we're in doubt about the count, better to err on the side of doing the brit milah on the ninth day, and never on the seventh day…
So important is the mitzvah of brit milah that one is required to perform the ceremony even on Shabbat or a holiday (even Yom Kippur!). The exceptions to holding a Shabbat or Yom Tov brit milah are in the cases of births at twilight or births by [voluntary] C-section. In these situations the brit milah is held on the ninth day. The brit milah would also be delayed in the case of medical need.”
Though the Torah commands each father to circumcise his son, it is our practice to have the father designate a mohel to perform the ritual on his behalf. The mohel is trained and certified in this function.” There are no mohalim in Birmingham. However, there are a number of excellent mohalim from nearby communities who will travel to Birmingham and perform this mitzvah for you. These include: Rabbi Shmuel Khoshkerman (404) 315-9020, Rabbi Ariel Asa 1-800-96-MOHEL, Dr. Daniel Goodman (404) 256-9312, and Dr. Mark Safra (770) 452-1427. In addition it is permissible and common nowadays, for a Jewish physician to perform the circumcision while in the presence of a rabbi or cantor who then recites the words of the ritual, transforming it from a medical procedure into a religious event.
“The brit milah is often held in a private home [or at the synagogue]. It is traditional to schedule the ceremony early in the day, but it is acceptable anytime on the eighth day prior to sundown. The mohel, [rabbi, or cantor] will provide the family with specific instructions. Among the traditional items at a brit milah are kosher wine and a kiddush cup, a pillow, a chair designated for Elijah the Prophet (the same Elijah who visits our seder table also visits each brit milah), and a challah with which to begin a festive meal following the ceremony. The ceremony consists of two parts. First the mohel performs the circumcision, then the boy is given his Hebrew name. The naming can be performed by the mohel, other clergy, a member of the family or a friend.” Following the bestowal of the name it is customary for the parents to explain the choice of names, who the child is named after, etc. After this it is time for the seudat mitzvah, the meal to celebrate the observance of this mitzvah.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact the TBE Office. And of course, when the time comes for you to schedule your Brit Milah, please contact one of the above mohalim, or a local Jewish physician, as well as TBE.
Simchat Bat – Rejoicing in the Birth of a Daughter
The birth of a child is a joyous occasion which leads us naturally to want to thank and praise God for the precious gift we have been given. As Rabbi Elliot Patchter once wrote concerning the way we show our joy, “for daughters we traditionally hold a naming ceremony. The naming typically occurs at a Shabbat morning service, but can also be held on any occasion when the Torah is read, such as Saturday at the afternoon Minchah service, Monday or Thursday morning, [or] any holiday morning.
This naming ceremony consists of an Aliyah to the Torah….followed by a blessing in which we offer good wishes to the [parents] and formally announce the daughter's Hebrew name(s). Some families choose to enhance this celebration by further participation in the service.
In the past few decades it has become increasingly popular to create and hold a ceremony for girls which contains many elements found in the boys' Brit Milah, minus, of course, the circumcision. Such a ceremony is usually called Simchat Bat (literally, "joy of a daughter")… In addition to the very meaningful Torah ceremony, many parents welcome the opportunity to hold a more private ritual in their home. The home-based Simchat Bat ceremony gives parents extra time to focus on the blessing of their newborn daughter and to include the participation of close friends and relatives.
Since there is not yet a fixed format for the Simchat Bat many couples choose to create their own ceremony.” Our clergy can help parents that wish to create their own ceremony. They each have sample ceremonies they can show you. There are books in our synagogue library that can be of assistance as well. Most ceremonies include one or more of the following rituals – candle lighting, wrapping the baby in a tallit, washing the little girl’s hands and/or feet, naming the baby, blessings of Thanksgiving, and the seudat mitzvah, the festive meal.
Unlike the Brit Milah, which is supposed to take place on the eighth day, there is no fixed time at which a baby daughter's naming must take place. There are however, customs that can serve as a guide. In the past it was customary for the father to receive an aliyah at the first possible moment after the birth of a daughter, even within a day or two following the birth. At that time the baby’s name would be given during a special misheberach – whether the baby was present or not. This leads to the idea that just as a baby boy receives his Hebrew name fairly quickly, we shouldn’t delay with our daughters either. Thus we encourage you to plan the Simchat Bat as early as you can: the eighth day, at the first Rosh Chodesh (new moon) or Jewish holiday after the birth, or on the thirty first day. Whenever you decide to hold the ceremony our clergy would be delighted to help you not only create a meaningful ritual for your family, but to officiate at the Temple or the venue of your choice. Feel free to call us at 205-933-2740 with questions or to schedule your big event!