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Brit Milah

The laws of milah are the same for all Jews; some customs, however, vary between countries and communities. A sampling of Sephardic customs is presented below. These customs have been compiled from various sources.

Prior To the Brit

In most communities, on the night before the brit, the men of the family and their friends gather to recite portions of Zohar related to milah. The gathering itself is called Zohar or Brit Yitzchak (Covenant of Isaac). Cakes and various sweets are served and the Chacham (Rabbi) delivers a Torah lecture. Some celebrate this evening instead of the Shalom Zachar that Ashkenazic Jews celebrate on the Friday night following the birth Moroccan Jews celebrate both the Shalom Zachar and Zohar.

Many hang Kabbalistic charts on the walls and door of the child's room as a protection against the "evil spirits" (Satan and his cohort). These signs bear many protective Biblical quotations. Some also place the milah knife under the pillow of the child as an added protection. (Both of these customs are also practiced in some Ashkenazic circles.)

Day of Brit

At Syrian circumcisions, a large tiered tray is filled with flowers and candles. Guests place contributions on the tray and, following the Brit, the tray is sold to the highest bidder. The money bid, along with that on the tray, is then donated to charity. Some use this "money of blessing" to begin a new financial endeavor (e.g., to start a business, to buy a home), as an omen for success.

At Persian circumcisions, a large tray of apples is placed on a table and young couples are encouraged to partake. Assumedly this custom is based on the Midrash that when Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill all newborn Jewish males, the Jewish women hid in the apple orchards. There, Heavenly emissaries assisted them with the birth and subsequent care of the baby. This is alluded to in the verse; Under the apple tree I begot you (Song of Songs 8:5; Rashi to Sotah 11b). Thus, apples are propitious for easy labor and delivery.

In many communities, the father bestows upon his son the blessings: May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:20). Some add: May it be His will that you be a brother to seven and also to eight. This latter blessing is a play on Ecclesiastes 11:2, and is an allusion to the princes of Menashe and Ephraim who were the seventh and eighth tribal leaders to bring their offerings at the inauguration of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] in the Wilderness (see Numbers 7:48, 54). This custom is based upon Targum Yonasan to Genesis 48:20 who pharaphrases: This blessing will be conferred by a father on the day of his son's circumcision (R' Yaakov HaCozer).

Moroccan Jews place a dish of sand near the mohel to signify that the child should be as fruitful as the grains of sand, as it is written: And the count of the Children of Israel will be like the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured nor counted (Hosea 2:1). This sand is also used to cover the excised foreskin.

Throne of Elijah

At Syrian circumcisions a special ornate curtain bearing the name of Elijah the Prophet is draped over the chair designated as the Throne of Elijah.

In Moroccan families, on the night prior to the brit, the Throne of Elijah is brought from the synagogue to the home of the infant where it is decorated with many colorful fabrics. During the brit, the sandak sits on the Throne of Elijah as he holds the infant.

In Sefrou, Morocco, the Throne of Elijah was placed near a mezuzah in the home of the child. This was considered auspicious for long life for the child, as alluded to by the juxtaposition of On the doorposts of your house,.. In order to prolong your days (Deuteronomy 11 :20-21). Unlike other parts of Morocco, in sefrou the sandak did not sit on the Throne of Elijah but on a separate chair next to it.

Spanish Jews drape the chair set aside for Elijah with purple and gold braided material to give it the appearance of a throne. It is placed next to the sandak and a Chumash or Siddur is placed on it as a reminder that it represents Elijah's presence and is not to be used by anyone else.

At the Brit

In many communities an infant is brought to the synagogue where his brit is to take place, accompanied by musical instruments. The women ululate in high staccato sounds that sound like "Ielelelelelelele," a chant of joy in many Middle Eastern countries. (Zichron. Brit LaRishonim, p. 178).

It is customary to bring the baby in on a large pillow draped with colorful scarves and shawls of exquisite lace and embroidery.

Among some sephardim the family name is included in the naming of the child (e.g., if the family name is Haddad, the child is given the name Moshe ben Gavriel Haddad).

It is customary to smell fragrant spices following the blessing over the wine. At Moroccan circumcisions dried rose petals are traditionally used for this purpose. Some explain the custom for smelling spices as an allusion to the verse in Genesis 2:7, regarding the creation of Adam: And God blew into his nostrils the soul of life and man became a living soul. Zohar (Shelach) writes that a Jewish male attains his soul [connection of the soul] at his brit. Therefore the sense of smell is used, which is reminiscent of the original infusion of the soul into man (see Ohel David III, Psalms 44:23).

Others see the use of fragrances as an allusion to the Midrash, which relates that when Abraham circumcised the members of his household, he piled their foreskins into a heap. The odor of the foreskins rose to heaven and was as appreciated by God as the fragrance of the incense burned on the Altar at the Temple (See Midrash Shir HaShirim 4:6 a,ld Yalkut Shimoni, Lech Lecha 82).

Naming Ceremony for Girls

Zeved habat (Hebrew: זֶבֶד הַבָּת‎) or Simchat bat (Hebrew: שמחת בת‎) is a Jewish naming ceremony for newborn girls.

Many Sephardi Jews name the baby at the Torah reading and in addition read a verse from Song of Songs, chapter 2, verse 14, “At the sea He said to me, ‘O My dove, trapped at the sea as if in the clefts of the rock, the concealment of the terrace. Show Me your prayerful gaze, let Me hear your supplicating voice, for your voice is sweet and your countenance comely.’” If the girl is the first born, an additional verse from Song of Songs is said, chapter 6, verse 9, “Unique is she, My constant dove, My perfect one. Unique is she, this nation striving for the truth; pure is she to Jacob who begot her. Nations saw her and acclaimed her; queens and concubines, and they praised her.” In contrast to the Ashkanzim’s blessing which begins with the patriarchs, the one by the Sepharadim begins with the matriarchs: Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

In some Sephardi communities the girl is only named at home. They believe that the mother and baby shouldn’t leave the house for a month and therefore the naming is done at home so both mother and daughter can be present for it. There are also various customs performed to ward off the evil eye.

Modern Day Simchat Bat - The birth of a child is a momentous occasion that we all want to share with everyone around us. That is why we, in modern day times, have created a more formal service of bringing our daughters into the world -- into the covenant with G-d -- the same as what we do for our sons. Since there is no specific format to go by, people have created their own traditions as to when to have a “party” for the baby -- celebrate the Simchat Bat -- and what rituals, if any, are performed at the festivity.

Some have a light meal after synagogue the Sabbath in which the father has named the baby, while others invite family and friends to their home or to a hall on a different day to share in their joy (simcha). Others opt to make it into more of a traditional ceremony citing various prayers (such as from the Book of Psalms), saying a special blessing over wine and having a festive meal.

Whichever form of celebration is followed, Jewish families are increasingly finding formal ways of expressing joy on the birth of a girl as well as the birth of a boy.

Bar Mitzvah

A Bar Mitzvah celebrates the emergence of a young Jewish man into full representation in the Jewish community. It is the start of adult participation in Jewish life.

Congregational Practices

Head coverings, kippah, are worn as a sign of respect and awareness of the presence of G-D. Non-Jewish men are asked to wear a kippah in respect. A tallit (prayer shawl) is worn by Jewish worshippers to fulfill the commandment, “Speak to the Israelites and instruct them to make for themselves fringes (‘tzizit’) on the corners of their garments…”. Out of respect, non-Jewish guests are asked to stand when the congregation rises.

Shacharit Service

The Shacharit service consists of two major prayers, the Shema and the Amida, which are preceded and followed by several blessings. The Barchu is the formal call to public worship. The Shema, proclaims the unity of G-d as the central principle of Judaism. The blessing after the Shema praises G-d alone as the Redeemer of Israel.

The Amida, prayer makes room for both personal meditations and the concerns we share as a community The Amida, means “standing” and is almost 2000 years old, having been composed about 100 C.E. It is considered the heart of the Jewish worship service. It is composed of seven blessings offering prayers and thanks to G-d.

The Torah Service

The Sefer Torah is a scroll of the Five Books of Moses, handwritten with a quill on parchment. It is kept in the Hechal, the Holy Ark. The public reading of the Torah has been part of Jewish services worldwide since the second century B.C.E. The Torah was divided into 54 portions, (each called a Parashah), according to the number of weeks in a year on the Jewish calendar. The Torah is removed from the Ark and carried in procession as those closest to it kiss it as a sign of love and devotion.

Family, friends, and congregants will also participate in the Torah Service this morning by opening and closing the Ark, carrying the Torah scroll or being called for an Aliya (reciting blessings). The Bar Mitzvah boy will then be called up to chant the Maftir, the concluding portion of the weekly Torah reading. The Torah reading is followed by a short selection from one of the books of the Prophets. Hence, the reading known as Haftarah, which means “concluding portion”. The Haftarah is chosen because it has a thematic relationship to the weekly Torah reading.

Musaf Service

The Musaf service is a reminder of the additional sacrifices that were offered in the ancient Temple. Adon Olam is sung at the conclusion of the service. It is a poetic rendition of a Jewish philosophical concept of G-d. Following Adon Olam we will chant Kiddush, the blessing for wine. Then we will chant Hamotzi, the blessing for bread to sanctify the Sabbath.

Bat Mitzvah

The ceremony of a young lady becoming Bat Mitzvah is not as detailed as for a young man becoming Bar Mitzvah - but the celebration is!

The majority of Orthodox Jews reject the idea that a woman can publicly read from the Torah or lead prayer services whenever there is a minyan (quorum of 10 males) available to do so. However, the public celebration of a girl becoming Bat Mitzvah in other ways has made strong inroads in Modern Orthodox Judaism and also in some elements of Haredi Judaism.

At Beth Hamidrash, women do not read from the Torah or lead prayer services, but the Bat Mitzvah will lecture on a Jewish topic following Shabbat services to mark their coming of age. This is typically followed by a simcha in her honour. In some modern Orthodox circles, Bat Mitzvah girls will read from the Torah and lead prayer services in a women's tefillah.

Wedding Ceremony

The Bride Circles

Upon first arriving at the chupa (canopy), the bride circles the groom seven times, symbolically reenacting the seven days of creation. The circling also represents union and the cycles of life - as does the ring that the groom gives the bride later in the ceremony. In circling, the bride also demarcates their first home, and shows her commitment to protect the family they will start building together on this day.

Taba'at - The Ring

There is only one ring involved in the ceremony - the one the groom gives to the bride. The groom places the ring on the bride’s right forefinger and recites in Hebrew, "Behold, you are sanctified to me with this ring in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel." The tradition of placing the ring on the right forefinger stems from an ancient belief that the forefinger connects directly to the heart through a special artery. In placing the ring on the bride’s forefinger the groom thereby symbolically joins their two hearts. And the bride, by accepting the ring, demonstrates her wish to marry the groom.

Ketubah - Marriage Contract

Ketubah literally means, "that which is written," and is a legal contract written in Aramaic. Since the ketubah is not a contract between bride and groom, they do not sign it. Rather, two witnesses sign the ketubah attesting that the groom agrees to fulfill his obligations to the bride as her husband in accordance with Jewish law. The ketubah then becomes the bride’s possession and guarantees her rights and status in the marriage. In keeping with Sephardic tradition, the Rabbi will chant the entire contents of the ketubah.

Shevah Brachot - Seven Blessings

The second segment of the wedding ceremony, the nissuin, is made up primarily of the shevah brachot (seven blessings). The shevah brachot commence with a second blessing over the wine, this one to honour all of you - the guests. The next bracha (blessing) blesses G-d for all His creation, and the third and fourth for His creation of Adam in G-d's image. The final three brachot speak most directly to the bride and groom, blessing G-d for bringing joy to the people of Israel through their children, and for creating the bride and the groom. These blessings also foretell that the bride and groom will rejoice with the people of Israel in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. The shevah brachot thus take us back to the Garden of Eden and then sweep through time and hint at the coming of Messianic days in which the voices of both the bride and the groom will rise up in celebration with all of Israel.

The Marriage Ceremony

In the hour leading up to the ceremony the Rabbi and the immediate families of the bride and groom gather for the signing of the ketubah, the marriage contract. Next, the bedeking (lowering of the veil) takes place when the groom lifts the bride's veil to make sure that the person he is marrying is, in fact, his bride. This tradition goes all the way back to the time of our forefathers when Jacob thought he was marrying Rachel only to discover too late that his bride was her sister Leah. In Jewish mysticism, it is said that when the groom lifts his bride's veil, each can see the 70 faces of their beloved.

The public ceremony begins with the Rabbi reciting a blessing over a single cup of wine as well as the birchat erussin (the prenuptual blessing). The bride and groom will both drink from the cup signifying that they will always drink from the same cup of life, no matter what it brings them.

The groom then places the ring on the bride's forefinger which marks the end of the betrothal segment of the ceremony. The Rabbi bridges the first and second segments of the ceremony by chanting the contents of the ketubah. During the next segment the Rabbi sings the sheva brachot. Finally, following the public segments of the ceremony, the bride and groom will spend some quiet moments together in Yichud (seclusion), thus completing the third and final part of the marriage ceremony.

Chupa - Bridal Canopy

The tallit, or prayer shawl, is traditionally the bride's gift to the groom on their wedding day. The groom will recite a blessing as he puts on his new tallit for the first time. The tallit will then form the roof of the chupa. In the days of the Torah the groom's tent served as the chupa. The bride arrived at the chupa at the end of the betrothal period as part of a festive procession. Since those early days the chupa has served symbolically as the couple's first home. The four sides are open as a sign of hospitality and recall Abraham's tent which had four entrances so that a stranger coming from any direction would not have to search for the entrance.

Breaking the Glass

The breaking of the wine glass ends the formal ceremony with a bang. There are many interpretations for this. The most widely known is that at this moment of our greatest joy we must recall the destruction of Jerusalem and her Temple. Jerusalem's destruction reminds us that our happiness can never be complete until the world is fully redeemed and Jerusalem and the Land of Israel are rebuilt and secure. We must also remember that life is fragile and precious, and brings both joy and sadness. The shattered glass also serves as a caution that human relationships, once shattered, are as difficult to restore as the broken glass.

Yichud - Oneness

In the third and final act of the marriage ceremony, the bride and groom briefly seclude themselves in Yichud (seclusion). In past centuries the newly married couple consummated their marriage during Yichud. Now Yichud is a time for emotional consummation, a chance to exhale and to let all that has just happened sink in.

Tzedakah

In times of rejoicing, Jewish tradition remembers the less fortunate. In this spirit the bride and groom will often provide tzedakah (charity) in the form of a donation to an organization they have chosen.