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The festivals of youth - circumcision and bar mitzvah

The ritual of circumcision

A boy is only eight days old when he is brought to be circumcised. The wait is longer only if there are medical reasons against it. The ceremony takes place either at home or in a hospital. The grandfather or another close relative carries the baby. At least ten Jewish men should be present, as is prescribed for every worship service.

The child is presented to the circumciser (mohel). He has completed special training - in many cases he is a doctor. He lays the baby on a two-seat bench. One place for the godfather (Sandak) of the child and one for the prophet Elias. This space remains free. The child's father holds the child or puts his hand on the mohel's shoulder.

Now the godfather has the boy put in his lap. After words of blessing and the invocation of Elias, the circumciser cuts the foreskin from the limb of the little boy with a sharp, double-edged knife. Then he recites more blessings over a cup of wine and announces the child's first name. The boy's lips are moistened with a drop of wine. The godfather and mother are also given the mug. Often a party follows.

Circumcision symbolizes the covenant with God

The removal of the male foreskin is a custom that originated in pre-Israeli times - probably in the ancient Orient - and is now practiced in various cultures and religions, for example in Islam.

Around 10 to 15 percent of all men worldwide are circumcised. In North America, circumcision was a matter of course until the 1950s, and even today around half of the boys are circumcised for hygienic reasons shortly after birth.

The fact that for Jews it must be exactly the eighth day of the child's life on which it is circumcised is based on an instruction in the Torah. Judaism also draws the high symbolic content of this custom from the Holy Scriptures. The divine instruction to circumcise is part of God's covenant with Israel. That is why this ritual is also called the "covenant of circumcision" (Brit mila). The circumcised person bears the inalienable mark of belonging to God and Israel.

Girls are accepted into the community solely through their descent from a Jewish mother. If possible, on the first Sabbath after her birth, her name will be announced in the synagogue. This, too, is usually associated with a festival, the "Brita".

The ritual of the bar mitzvah

On the Sabbath after his 13th birthday, a Jewish boy makes his grand entrance in the synagogue, because he is now a bar mitzvah, a "legal age". This festival, preceded by Torah lessons by a rabbi, symbolizes the transition to the age of majority.

In the service the boy is called to recite the blessings on the Torah. For the first time he wraps himself in a prayer shawl (tallith), like the one worn by adult men. If he can, he should also sing the intended passage from the Torah. Most, however, read the text of the week from the books of the prophets (reading of the Haftarah).

All these demanding texts are of course in Hebrew in front of the 13-year-old, even without giving the vowels. Pronouncing or singing this correctly takes a lot of focus and memorization.

A Jewish boy can shine especially if he explains the text afterwards in a speech (draschah) and uses the opportunity to thank his parents and teachers. In many communities it has become customary for the rabbi to give a speech for the boy afterwards.

At the end of the readings, the father thanks in public: "Blessed be God, who has redeemed me from his (the child's) punishment." Because from now on the boy has become a man and is responsible for his actions as well as any punishments himself.

It usually follows in the evening of the day, i.e. after the Sabbath has ended, a big festival with relatives, friends and acquaintances. There are gifts, music, speeches, cheerful interludes and an often opulent celebratory meal, which the celebrated 13-year-old ends with a special prayer of thanks.

From this day on, like all men, the boy will wear phylacteries (tefillin) and cloak for morning prayers. Traditionally, the bar mitzvah is honored and celebrated like a groom.

Bat mitzvah as a sign of liberalization

A corresponding ritual was not required for girls until the end of the 19th century. At the age of twelve one becomes a "bat mitzvah", one year earlier than boys because girls become sexually mature earlier. In liberal congregations, like the boys, they can read in the synagogue on their feast day.

In the more conservative Judaism, more attention is paid to the classic distribution of roles. There it is the more important ritual that the girl lights and blesses the candles at the beginning of the Sabbath. Up to the age of twelve she should be familiar with the rules of cleanliness that affect food and her own body.

With the onset of menstruation, she has to observe new rules of conduct. Even in most strictly Orthodox communities it has become established that the "Bat Mitzvah" is celebrated with at least gifts and a festival.

Admission into the adult world

Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah are celebrations of religious maturity. From this day on, young people have the same religious rights and duties as adults. You are required to obey full Jewish law.

Before, for example, the rules of fasting on certain holidays did not apply to them. From this day on, at least boys are allowed to perform the most sacred religious act in Judaism, namely reading from the Torah in the synagogue and interpreting it.