Jewish male children are circumcised when they are eight days old, as a symbol of inheriting Abraham’s covenant. At this ceremony, prayers are said, wine is drunk and the child is given his name, after which there are celebrations.
Sacred duties fall upon the first-born male child (Bohor) of the Children of Israel. Because he is the first, he is dedicated to God, just as is the first sheaf of the harvest. When, on Mount Moriah, Abraham was preparing to kill his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God, the angel of the Lord called out to him to stop and in Isaac’s place to sacrifice a ram, which God had sent for this purpose. This tradition is no longer observed. (In the Islamic version of this story, Abraham’s first son was called Ishmael.) Today, Jews celebrate the ransoming by God of their first-born son with rejoicing, a ceremony held within the family.
Even today some very devout Jews perform a ceremony for their son’s first hair-cut, after that the side-locks on his temples, called peot, are not cut.
At the age of 13, a Jewish boy becomes Bar Mitzvah, (son of the commandment), and he is then expected to fulfil the duties laid down in the Body of Laws. At the synagogue service he reads from the scroll of the Torah in the presence of the entire family. Today, a child who has reached this age is reckoned to be on a par with other adults when worshipping and praying. Ten adults are required to make up a quorum (minyan) for public prayer in the synagogue. It is thought that this tradition derived from the belief that it was because God could not find ten good men in Sodom and Gomorrah that He destroyed these two evil cities, and that wherever ten good men are found, God’s intercession is there among them. It is also maintained that if God visits a synagogue and does not find a minyan there, it is cause for His anger. To be Bar-mitzvah is essential if he is to be counted as a man.
Jewish female children are not regarded with the same respect as the males. On reaching puberty at the age of 12 she is now Bat Mitzvah, (daughter of the commandment), the ceremony being relatively plain and unimportant, when compared to that for the male. When a woman bears a daughter, she is reckoned to be unclean for a period twice as long as when she bears a son, and she cannot enter a synagogue while unclean. Except in the Reformist community, women sit separate from men in the synagogue, in a women’s gallery. Unlike men, women are not expected to attend daily services in the synagogue, and even if they do, their presence does not contribute to the minyan. Women are not invited to read from the scroll of the Torah in the synagogue, but there are many places in the Torah and the Talmud which exalt women and recognise their rights. A woman’s basic responsibility is to safeguard the religious purity of the Jewish home and bring up her children in accordance with Jewish traditions. The woman wields the authority within the household and Jewishness is passed down only through the mother.
Jewish children are instructed in their religion from an early age, and Jews were the first to accept the responsibility for educating their children. While in Europe the majority of the population was illiterate and education a privilege enjoyed only by the wealthy, there were very few male Jews who could not read.
In Judaism, marriage is ordained by God. It is a source of good news in the community that the line of the Children of Israel will continue, so to remain childless by design is disapproved of. Before the marriage ceremony, the bridegroom signs the marriage contract, called Ketubah, whose binding provisions safeguard the woman’s rights, such as repayment of the bride’s dowry in case of death or divorce. The cost of the wedding is borne by the bride’s family. Marriage to anyone not of the Jewish faith is inadmissible. If certain rabbis do give their consent, it is on condition that the children of the mixed marriage are brought up as Jews, as in a similar practice in the Roman Catholic Church. The ceremony is not performed by the Rabbi, but by a special official; the Rabbi’s function is to see that the ceremony is carried out in accordance with the religious laws.