Rituals and Practices

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Circumcision (Brit Milah)

Milah is the Hebrew term for ‘circumcision’ and refers to the initiation ritual for Jewish newborn baby boys. The practice usually takes place during a special ceremony, with the family and community members as witnesses. In the ritual, the eight-day-old baby boy sits on the lap of the person chosen to act as the sandek (a ‘companion of the child’, usually the grandfather or the family rabbi) while a mohel (the person performing the circumcision) circumcises the baby boy.

After the ceremony, the family typically celebrates with a festive meal. In some branches of Judaism, failure to complete the practice results in the penalty of karet (being cut off from the rest of the Jewish community). A common alternative to circumcision is bris shalom, a naming ceremony that also allows newborn baby girls to partake in initiation.

Religious Adulthood (Bar/Bat Mitzvah)

A bar mitzvah is a Jewish ritual and celebration that commemorates the religious maturation of a Jewish boy on his 13th birthday. Although once exclusively for males, most Jewish traditions have instituted a female-equivalent ceremony to mark the religious adulthood of girls, called bat mitzvah. The rite is performed by having the child called up during a religious service following their 13th birthday to read from the Torah. In some cases, the event may happen at age 12 for girls and she is not called to read from the Torah. After the religious ceremony, there are festivities such as a family social dinner. After the child’s bar/bat mitzvah, the child is regarded as personally responsible for fulfilling all their own religious obligations.

Ritual Bath (Mikveh)

In the Jewish tradition, a ritual bath (mikveh) is a pool of natural water in which one bathes to restore ritual purity. There are various reasons why one would bathe in a mikveh, but these rituals are usually followed by more traditional Jewish people. Males will usually bathe each Friday and before major festivities, while women typically bathe before their wedding and after childbirth. Women in streams may ritually bathe each month following their monthly menstruation to restore ritual purity.

Prayer (Tefillah)

Jewish prayers (tefillah) typically entail recitations and contemplations. Some may pray three times a day within specific time ranges (z’manim); shacharit (morning prayer), mincha (afternoon prayer) and ma’ariv (evening prayer). Traditionally, men typically pray three times a day while women pray one to two times a day depending on the stream of Judaism. When praying, people will often use a Jewish prayer book (siddur) as additional assistance.

The morning prayer is usually the longest of the three and may include the use of attire. For instance, many wear a tallit (prayer shawl), while some may also wear a kippah (skullcap). In some denominations of Judaism, Jewish males of 13 years and older wear phylacteries on their head (tefillin shel rosh) and on their left arm (tefillin shel yad) once every day during their morning prayers. There is also a distinction between personal and communal prayers. The latter requires a minyan.

Avoidance of Writing and Uttering ‘God’

In strands of Judaism, speaking the name(s) of God is generally forbidden. This is often due to the belief that language cannot truly capture the being known as ‘God’. The most often used name of God in the Hebrew Bible is ’YHWH’, which are the Hebrew letters of ‘Yud’, ‘He’, ‘Vav’, ‘He’. Expanded in English as ‘Yahweh’, this formulation of God’s name is prolific throughout the Jewish tradition. Some substitutes used to refer to God verbally include using the word ‘Adonai’. Some extend this restriction to the writing of God’s names, opting to instead write ‘G-d’. By doing so, the name of God will not be defaced or erased should the paper be destroyed.

Charity (Tzedakah)

The term ‘tzedakah’ is the Hebrew term for charity. The amount of money or goods donated depends on the tradition of Judaism. Many traditional Jewish homes have a pushke, which is a collection box for coins to be offered as charity to the less fortunate. There are many ways Jewish people act charitably. For example, donating to health care institutions, synagogues, supporting one’s children beyond the age when a parent is legally required to or supporting one’s ageing parents. The donation does not necessarily need to be offered to Jewish organisations; one may give to non-Jewish causes.

Weekly Observance (Shabbat)

The Hebrew word ‘Shabbat’ refers to the day of rest and holiness observed by many Jewish people. Shabbat begins on the sunset of Friday and ends at nightfall on the following day. On this day primarily dedicated to rest and spiritual enrichment, Jewish people practice two interrelated commands: to remember (zachor) and observe (shamor) Shabbat.

On Shabbat, people may meet at their local synagogue to attend a service and socialise. The structure of the service differs depending on the synagogue. Usually, a portion of the Torah is read, followed by the recitation of prayers, chants or a selection of literature from the prophets (known as Haftarah) led by the cantor (chazzan). Members of the congregation normally follow along with a prayer book (siddur). Services may be held in Hebrew, English or a mixture of both. During the Shabbat service, a Jewish child whose 13th birthday has occurred during the previous week will be called to speak a portion of the reading to commemorate their bar/bat mitzvah.

People may also celebrate Shabbat in their homes. For example, two candles dedicated to remembrance and observance are lit before sunset on Friday evening accompanied by stating a blessing or prayer. Thereafter, the family partakes in a shared meal, which is usually prepared before Shabbat.

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