Baby Naming

Names & Judaism

With each child, the world begins anew.” (Ancient Jewish Saying)

Judaism places great importance on the naming of each new child. It is believed that the name of a person or thing is closely related to its essence. The name given to a child by a parent provides them with a connection to previous generations. It allows the parents to make a statement about their hopes and aspirations for their child. In many ways a Hebrew name brings to the newborn a sense of Jewish identity.

According to Anita Diamant in “What to Name Your Jewish Baby,” “Like Adam’s appointed task of giving names to all living things in Eden, naming is an exercise of power and creativity.” Many parents today put a great deal of thought and energy into deciding what to name their Jewish baby.

Hebrew Names

Hebrew names started to compete with names from other languages early on in Jewish history. As far back as the Talmudic period, between 200 B.C.E. and 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 gentile world, and a Hebrew name for religious purposes.

Hebrew names are used for calling men to the Torah. Certain prayers, such as the memorial prayer or the prayer for the sick, also use the Hebrew name. Legal documents, such as the marriage contract or ketubah, use the Hebrew name.

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 older Biblical names and modern Israeli names.

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Brit Milah

Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision, was commanded by G-d to Abraham over 3,700 years ago. It has been carried out faithfully from generation to generation, even during times of religious and ethnic persecution when Jews were forced to practice their rituals in secret. In fact, the only time the Jewish people willingly desisted from this practice was during the 40 years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness. Before entering Canaan, every male was circumcised by Joshua.

The acceptance of this commandment, or Mitzvah, established an eternal bond between G-d and the Children of Israel. Its observance today is testimony to the continuity and strength of that relationship, which requires us to perform the Mitzvah with adherence to the laws and customs prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by our sages.

G-d appeared to Abraham when he was 99 years old and commanded him to circumcise himself, his son, Ishmael, all the males of his household and all his slaves. It is said that Abraham accomplished this on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei, later designated as Yom Kippur, when the sins of the Jewish people were forgiven. The following year, when Isaac was born, he was circumcised on the eighth day. In return for his faithfulness, G-d promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation and inherit the land of Canaan for eternity.

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Bar/Bat Mitzvah

“Bar Mitzvah” literally means “son of the commandment.” “Bar” is “son” in Aramaic, which used to be the vernacular of the Jewish people. “Mitzvah” is “commandment” in both Hebrew and Aramaic. “Bat” is daughter in Hebrew and Aramaic. The Ashkenazic pronunciation is “bas”.

Under Jewish Law, children are not obligated to observe the commandments, although they are encouraged to do so as much as possible to learn the obligations they will have as adults. At the age of 13 (12 for girls), children become obligated to observe the commandments. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony formally marks the assumption of that obligation, along with the corresponding right to take part in leading religious services, to count in a minyan (the minimum number of people needed to perform certain parts of religious services), to form binding contracts, to testify before religious courts and to marry.

A Jewish boy automatically becomes a Bar Mitzvah upon reaching the age of 13 years. No ceremony is needed to confer these rights and obligations. The popular bar mitzvah ceremony is not required, and does not fulfill any commandment. It is a relatively modern innovation, not mentioned in the Talmud, and the elaborate ceremonies and receptions that are commonplace today were unheard of as recently as a century ago.

In its earliest and most basic form, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the celebrant’s first aliyah. During Shabbat services on a Saturday shortly after the child’s 13th birthday, the celebrant is called up to the Torah to recite a blessing over the weekly reading.

Today, it is common practice for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrant to do much more than just say the blessing. It is most common for the celebrant to learn the entire haftarah portion, including its traditional chant, and recite that. In some congregations, the celebrant reads the entire weekly torah portion, or leads part of the service, or leads the congregation in certain important prayers. The celebrant is also generally required to make a speech, which traditionally begins with the phrase “Today I am a man/woman.”

In modern times, the religious service is followed by a reception that is often as elaborate as a wedding reception. In Orthodox and Chasidic practice, women are not permitted to participate in religious services in these ways, so a bat mitzvah, if celebrated at all, is usually little more than a party. In other movements of Judaism, the girls do exactly the same thing as the boys.

It is important to note that a bar mitzvah is not the goal of a Jewish education, nor is it a graduation ceremony marking the end of a person’s Jewish education. We are obligated to study Torah throughout our lives. To emphasize this point, some rabbis require a bar/bat mitzvah student to sign an agreement promising to continue Jewish education after the bar mitzvah.

The Reform movement tried to do away with the Bar Mitzvah for a while, scorning the idea that a 13 year old child was an adult. They replaced it with a confirmation at the age of 16 or 18. However, due to the overwhelming popularity of the ceremonies, the Reform movement has revived the practice. There is not a Reform synagogue today that does not encourage the practice of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs today. In some Conservative synagogues, however, the confirmation practice continues as a way to keep children involved in Jewish education for a few more years.

The age set for bar/bat mitzvah is not an outdated notion based on the needs of an agricultural society, as some suggest. This criticism comes from a misunderstanding of the significance of the ritual. Bar/Bat mitzvah is not about being a full adult in every sense of the word: Ready to marry, go out on your own, earn a living and raise children. The Talmud makes this abundantly clear. In Pirkei Avot, it is said that while 13 is the proper age for fulfillment of the Commandments, 18 is the proper age for marriage and 20 is the proper age for earning a livelihood. Elsewhere in the Talmud, the proper age for marriage is said to be 16-24. Bar/Bat mitzvah is simply the age when a person is held responsible for his actions and minimally qualified to marry.

If you compare this to secular law, you will find that it is not so very far from our modern notions of a child’s maturity. In Anglo-American common law, a child the age of 14 is old enough to assume many of the responsibilities of an adult, including minimal criminal liability. In many states, a fourteen year old can marry with parental consent. Children of any age are permitted to testify in court, and children over the age of 14 are permitted to have significant input into custody decisions in cases of divorce.

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“And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and upon your gates.”

These words of the Sh’ma (deuteronomy 11:13-21) are the source for the essential Jewish tradition of the mezzuzah. The mezzuzah is a small scroll, called ‘klaf’ in Hebrew on which the words of the Sh’ma have been handwritten. The first paragraph declares, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”, and continues with an individual’s acceptance of God’s sovereignty. The second paragraph alludes to all the good things that will come when the commandments are followed, “your days and the days of your children will be lengthened”. The scroll is placed in a small box or container that is then attached, at an angle, to the doorposts of a house.A kosher mezzuzah should be handwritten on parchment, and cannot contain any mistakes. The mezzuzah and case containing the scroll should be placed in the top third of the doorpost on every door in the house, except a bathroom, on the righthand side as you enter a room, or on the side without the hinges, although a mezzuzah can also be affixed to a doorway without a door, that connects two rooms. It should be placed at an angle so the top of the mezzuzah tips into the room as you enter. The slanted position resulted from a compromise between Rashi and his grandson. Rashi argued that the mezzuzah should be placed vertically, and his grandson argued horizontally.

Before affixing the mezzuzah to the doorpost, one should recite the following blessing:

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vetzevanu leek-bo-ah mezzuzah.

Which means in English: Blessed are You, Lord our God, Master of the universe, Who has sanctified us with the Commandments, and has commanded us to affix a mezzuzah.

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Traditional Jewish practice forbids the consumption of some types of food: certain varieties of animals, animals slaughtered by any but the accepted method, the blood of mammals or birds and some combinations of foods (meat with milk products). It mandates kitchen practices that help maintain those restrictions. These laws, known collectively as kashrut, which literally means “fitness”, are observed in varying degrees among Jewish families and individuals. For those who choose to observe some or all of the system of kashrut, it serves as a frequent reminder of their distinct identity as Jews.

Many explanations have been offered for each aspect of kashrut. The Torah suggests that the Israelites attain unique holiness through food restrictions that distinguish them from other peoples. Some later explanations are framed in behavioral categories internal to Judaism, such as inculcating kindness and preventing cruelty to animals. Others are the insights of historians and anthropologists, frequently on the basis of comparison with other religious systems. None has proved universally satisfactory, but many have served to bolster the desire of some Jews to observe these challenging restrictions.

History: The Torah is the source of limitations on what foods from animal sources may be consumed and of the ban on “cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.” Rabbinic tradition interprets those prohibitions, filling in operative details and setting up further restrictions to provide greater assurance that the Torah’s bans are not violated. Over centuries of application and interpretation, these restrictions have been extended and refined. Modern Jewish thinkers and movements vary in the degree to which they advocate the observance of kashrut. Some have tried to blend it with such contemporary concerns as vegetarianism and environmentalism.

Kosher Food: Food from animal sources is subject to many conditions. Only certain species of mammals and birds are kosher, and then only if slaughtered in a particular fashion and found healthy upon inspection. The prohibition on consuming blood requires that meat be salted and soaked. Fish with fins and scales are kosher, and their flesh requires no such special treatment.

Today, Jews who observe kashrut rely on recognized supervision agencies whose symbols on packaged foods or whose certificates in shops and restaurants testify to the acceptability of the food within.

Kosher Lifestyle: Preventing the mixing of meat products and milk products has led to the practice of maintaining separate sets of cookware, tableware, and flatware for meat and dairy. Some households also have items used for neither meat nor milk (this category is called pareve, or neutral); food prepared using these can be eaten with either meat or dairy.

Establishing a kosher kitchen requires some work, but the regularities are not difficult to maintain. Making an existing kitchen kosher may involve replacing some equipment, but many items can be made kosher and some need no treatment at all. With good will, flexibility, and creativity, individuals can “keep kosher” in nonkosher homes andrestaurants.

Ask an average person to describe kosher food and they might say it is food “blessed by a rabbi.” The word “kosher,” however, is Hebrew for “fit” or “appropriate” and describes the food that is suitable for a Jew to eat. With its roots in the Hebrew Bible, the system of defining which foods are kosher was developed by the rabbis of late antiquity. Its application to changing realities has been the work of subsequent generations, including our own.

Close readers of the Torah might notice that according to the book of Genesis, vegetarianism was commanded by God as the ideal diet (see Genesis 1:29). However, in the course of the biblical narratives, this changed to include a variety of different animals. According to the Torah (Leviticus, chapter 11), only certain kinds of animals are considered inherently kosher. For land animals, any creature that both chews its cud and has split hooves is kosher. For sea creatures, any fish that has both fins and scales is acceptable, and for birds, only those birds approved by the Torah (or others that later authorities have judged to be like them, a list that excludes scavengers and birds of prey). In addition, it is repeated three times in the Torah that it is forbidden to cook a baby goat in its own mother’s milk.

The rabbis in the Talmud further developed these principles of kashrut. In order to consume kosher land animals and birds, it is necessary to slaughter them in a prescribed way, in a manner that has been described as a more humane method than is practiced commercially. In addition, the prohibition of cooking a baby goat in its own mother’s milk is the basis for the complete, physical, hermetic separation of all milk and meat products. These are the fundamental elements of kashrut.

All questions, problems or issues about keeping kosher ultimately revolve around the basic principles of kashrut described above. Usually, the questions have to do with the last basic element, the complete separation of milk and meat products. The use of different sets of dishes and pots and pans, developed in order to ensure a greater separation between milk and meat foods. This is also the basis of waiting several hours after eating a meat dish before eating a dairy product, so that the two types of food shouldn’t even mix together in our stomachs.

Whether a particular food is considered kosher or not usually has to do with whether any substance or product used in its manufacture was derived from a non-kosher animal or even an animal that is kosher but was not slaughtered in the prescribed manner. Rabbinic supervision of the production of food, a practiced called hashgachah enables it to carry a “seal of approval”. It is not “blessed by a rabbi”.

There are three categories of kosher foods:

  • Dairy, such as cheese, milk, yogurt, ice cream, etc.
  • Meat, which includes all kosher animals and fowl slaughtered in the prescribed manner, as well as their derivative products.
  • Pareve, is a Yiddish word meaning “neutral.” These are foods that are neither dairy nor meat, such as eggs and fish, tofu, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, and the like, as long as they are not prepared with milk or meat products.

In keeping kosher, it is necessary to keep all dairy and meat foods completely separate. Pareve foods, however, may be mixed in and served with either category of food since these foods are neither milk or meat.

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To Jews today, the term tzedakah means giving charitable contributions, but the term originates in another realm. In the Bible, tzedakah means “righteous behavior” and is often paired with justice. In Jewish thought and tradition, material support for those in need is not a matter of charity — a term that implies generosity beyond what may be expected, but a requirement. As in most areas of life, here too Jewish tradition makes practical demands and states expectations.

Biblical prophets castigated the Israelites for neglecting and even exploiting the poor, insisting that God has particular concern for those in need. The rabbis of classical Judaism praised tzedakah, calling it, for example, “equal in value to all the other mitzvot commandments combined.” They also praised those who practice it, saying that they attain the level of holiness of someone who brought sacrifices in the ancient Temple. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy lists tzedakah alongside repentance and prayer as a human act capable of averting a negative divine decree.

History: Although the term tzedakah is applied to giving to individuals in need only in post-biblical Judaism, the Bible has many references that show concern for the poor. Biblical laws like those calling on farmers to leave aside some of their crops during harvest for the landless become in rabbinic Judaism the basis for an extensive social welfare system built on individual initiative and shared responsibility. Communities of sufficient size created voluntary societies to care for the ill, provide for newlywed couples, house travelers, bury the dead, and offer interest-free loans to the needy. This tradition of grassroots organizing to assist those in need is even now a distinguishing feature of Jewish communities.

Requirements: Traditional Jewish law regulates the collection and disbursement of tzedakah in an attempt to assure fairness in both functions. There are few mathematical formulas offered, but Judaism provides guidance on how much to give, how to minimize embarrassment to the receiver, and how to set priorities among competing demands for assistance.  The medieval thinker Maimonides, one of the best-known Jewish sources on this subject, emphasizes the importance of anonymous, generous giving, and on helping those in need become self-sufficient.

Contemporary Problems: The social and economic realities of modernity have raised new questions and challenges for Jews who want to act upon the traditional Jewish obligation to assist the poor. To what extent does the modern welfare state obviate the necessity for individual initiative in tzedakah? What balance should be struck by contemporary Jews who want to partake fully in the life of the wider community, between assisting needy Jews and addressing Jewish needs, and providing for all those in need? To what extent must Jews today return to the biblical origins of tzedakah in a wider concern for fairness and justice, shaping a Jewish imperative to address the root causes of poverty and social injustice?

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The Dreidel

A dreidel is a four-sided top. The Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay, and shin are inscribed on the four sides. They are the first letters of the words “Nes gadol hayah sham” which means “A great miracle happened there.”

The rules are simple:

  • If your dreidel lands on nun, you forfeit your turn and the next player spins.
  • If your dreidel lands on gimel, you win all the pieces in the pot, and all the players ante-up again.
  • If your dreidel lands on hay, you collect half the pieces in the pot. (If there are an odd number of pieces, the players decide among themselves what the convention will be for their game.)
  • If your dreidel lands on shin, you put one more piece into the pot.

History and Origins of the Dreidel

Legend says that when the Syrians outlawed the study of Torah in an effort to destroy Judaism, Jews would gather in secret to study, posting children outside the door as lookouts for the Syrian soldiers. The children would play an innocent-looking game with a spinning top, justifying their presence outside the door of a house. If they saw soldiers coming, they would alert the adults studying Torah inside, and the holy books would be safely hidden away.

There is a midrashic explanation of the meaning of the dreidel that holds that the four letters on the sides of the dreidel represent the four kingdoms which attempted to destroy Israel in ancient times, but which passed away from history, while Israel is still alive and well. They are, according to the letters on the dreidel: NUN (Nebuchadnezzar/Babylonia); HAY (Haman/Persia); GIMEL (Gog/Greece); SHIN/SIN (Se’ir/identified with Esau and hence with Rome). Although this explanation is midrashic in nature and does not explain the origins of the dreidel, it is an explanation very much in keeping with the history and theme of Chanukah.

The actual origins of the dreidel go back to a game called “totum” or “teetotum” which was played in England and Ireland in the 16th century. It required a four-sided spinning top with a letter inscribed on each side directing the player to take a specific action: T (take all); H (take half); P (put in); N (nothing). When the game was played in Germany, which by all counts appears to be the source of the Jewish version, the letters were as follows: N (nichts/nothing); G (ganz/all); H (halb/half); and S (stell ein/put in). Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe substituted the Hebrew letters producing the same sounds: nun, gimel, hay, and shin.

From these four letters (nun, gimel, hay, shin) the phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” (“a great miracle happened there”) was created. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, an Israeli version was created. The letter pay was substituted for shin to correspond with the word “po” rendering the phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Po” (“a great miracle happened here”).

In Yiddish the terms “fargle” and “varfl” are sometimes used to connote the dreidel. In Israel, the Hebrew term sevivon (from the root, which means turn around or spin) is used.

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