The Jewish ritualizing of birth is nearly as old as Judaism itself. Brit Milah (covenantal circumcision ceremony) is first mentioned–indeed, commanded–in the Torah, as a sign of the covenant and, perhaps, as a covenant unto itself. We read: “Every male among you shall be circumcised…it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:11. There is no biblical covenantal ritual for girls parallel to that of Brit Milah for boys. Still, the laws of the ancient priesthood in Jerusalem called for thanksgiving sacrifices after the birth of a child of either sex–after 40 days for a boy, and after 80 days for a girl. The Talmud records the custom in ancient Israel of planting a cedar tree when a boy was born, and a cypress tree when a girl was born (Gittin 57a).
In recent years, additional rituals have been developed to acknowledge the birth of both boys and girls, focusing on the elements of covenant and naming. For more on the history of these birth rituals, see myjewishlearning.com
Before a Brit Milah (covenantal circumcision ceremony) or a Brit Bat (covenant ceremony for girls), a baby is simply the child of particular parents–even referred to only as “the baby.” After such a ceremony, she becomes herself, he becomes himself, in Rabbi Laura Geller’s words, “a Jew linked through ritual to covenant, and transformed through ritual into so-and-so [the child of] particular parents within the context of the Jewish people.…The infant is transformed, named, given tribe and history, roots and purpose, baggage and wings.” The community too is changed, having once again engaged with our history and our future, and having welcomed another member into our midst.
When a Brit Milah or Brit Bat takes place, the child’s Hebrew name is formally announced and given (according to traditional custom, for the first time) during that ceremony. Sometimes, a child will simply be “named” during the Torah service of morning services (often on Shabbat).
The custom of naming a baby after a deceased family member is the practice of Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardic Jews often honor living relatives by naming a child after them. In addition, there are many other traditions and inspirations governing the naming of Jewish children, including using biblical names, names popular in modern Israel, and names associated with a holiday or Torah reading near the child’s birth. Many parents give their child a “secular name” (which appears on the birth certificate and may be used in non-Jewish contexts) and a “Hebrew name” (which for Ashkenazic Jews may also be Yiddish). Others prefer to give their child a Hebrew name by which they may comfortably be known in all aspects of their life.
Celebrating the Birth of a Son - Brit Milah
Lifecycle rituals, including circumcision, are transformative. Not only does the boy emerge physically different after the Brit Milah, but he is also transformed from baby to covenanted Jew; from an infant with no history, to a person with a past and a future.
Circumcision (milah), to be ritually performed after eight days following birth, is a cutting away of the foreskin of the penis. This is usually done in the context of a religious service of covenant (brit) in which the boy is also given his Hebrew name.
There are no special rules about the place in which the rite is to be carried out. The following roles are typically found in a Brit Milah ceremony:
Sandak holds the baby on his lap while the baby is circumcised.
Kvatterin is the “godmother” who takes the baby from the mother to the Kvatter.
Kvatter is the “godfather” who takes the baby from the Kvatterin to the Mohel.
Mohel is the ritual circumciser who has been trained in the physical procedures of circumcision and who understands the religious significance of the circumcision.
After the ceremony, there is a festive meal, and special prayers are recited in the grace after the meal blessing the parents, the infant, the mohel, and the sandek.