Tue | Apr 24, 2018

The origins, rituals and practices of Judaism – Part 11

Published:Saturday | January 7, 2017 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams

Religious Jews participate in rituals of birth, marriage and death, and observe harvest festival and holy days. For instance, on the first Sabbath following birth, a baby-naming ceremony (Simchat Bat) is held for a girl. At this ceremony, the father or the mother reads select passages from the Torah and offers blessings to the daughter. Brit Milahs are held for boys, who are circumcised on the eight day after birth.

Boys celebrate their passage into adulthood with bar mitzvahs, while girls celebrate with bat mitzvahs. Bar mitzvah means 'son of the commandment', while bat mitzvah is 'daughter of the commandment'. The terms are commonly used to refer to the coming-of-age ceremony itself. And soon there will be a wedding.

A marriage is a contractual arrangement, and there might not be an official wedding ceremony. Wedding ceremonies involve the exchange of wedding rings and reciting ancient Jewish prayers. Divorce, though not encouraged, may occur under the supervision of a rabbinical court. And the bride and the groom sometimes might have met through the connection made by a professional match-maker. The tradition of match-making is called shidduch, which is common within the orthodox Jewish communities.

Orthodox and other religious Jews observe several holy days and festivals which fall within the Jewish calendar year which might have 13 months based on the lunar cycle, though not a true lunar calendar. The 12 regular months of the Jewish calendar year are Lyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Menacham Av, Elul, Tishrei, Marcheshvan, Kislev, Tevet-Hanakkah, Shevat and Adar. According to the lunar cycle, an additional month called Adar 1 is inserted before Adar, which becomes Adar 2.


Some important Jewish holy days are the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest of the holy days; Passover; Rosh Ha'Shanah; and Chanukah/Hanukkah, which, according to Ainsley Henriques of the United Congregations of Israelites in Kingston, is a special holiday because of the joy it brings. There are two main versions of its origin, but there is a third one which Henriques said was added by non-Jews and the one which has caused much misunderstanding.

Because of the holiday's proximity to Christmas, as in last year, when the first night of Chanukah was Christmas Eve, many non-Jews simple assume that Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas. But, Henriques said while Christmas is a major Christian Holiday, Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday.

And if Chanukah is a minor holiday, the Day of Atonement is a major one. Called Yom Kippur, it is the day when Jews seek forgiveness for their sins against God and their fellowmen. The day and evening of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt. It is hoped that sins are forgiven at the end of the that day, which is the 10th day of the seventh month (Tishrei) the first day of which is Rosh Ha'Shanah, when forgiveness is also sought.

The eight-day festival of Passover is celebrated in the early spring, from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. It commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. Passover is divided into two parts: The first two days and last two days are full holidays. Holiday candles are lit at night, and there are nightly and daily feasts. Places of employment are closed. There is no driving, writing or the use of electric devices. Work is permitted during the four middle days. During Passover no leavened grain or anything made of it is to be possessed or consumed.

The highlight of Passover is the Seder, observed on each of the first two nights of the holiday. The Seder is a 15-step family-oriented tradition and ritualistic feast which includes eating matzah (flat unleavened bread) and bitter herbs, drinking four cups of wine or grape juice, the recitation of the Haggadah, a liturgy that describes in detail the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

The most important Jewish burial tradition is that burial should occur within 24 hours of death. The body is not taken into the synagogue. The traditional Jewish funeral, called levayah, begins with the family of the deceased asking for forgiveness and ends with the shovelling of soil over the casket while specific prayers are being said. Jewish law prohibits displaying of the body, cremation and embalming. While floral arrangements are not strictly forbidden, it is customary not to send them.