Literally "good luck", it's used to tell Jewish people "congratulations!". You often say it when you are at a simcha
(joyous event) or even when you hear about one. Note that it's perfectly common to say Mazel Tov
at the event, not just the ones celebrating it.
Before You Begin
Before you begin reading about the major Jewish religious life events, you should read the page on Judaism
, or some of the statements about different denominations and traditions might go right over your head!
- The thanksgiving for helping you through a dangerous situation, the birth, is said by the mother.
- A girl is named when her parent is called to the Torah during Shacharis (the morning prayers).
Often shortened to just "bris". Can also be pronounced Brit Milah among Israelis and Sephardim; "bris" is the Ashkenazi pronunciation. This is the "Covenant of Circumcision
", and probably the most squick-worthy
of Jewish rituals. It is only done for boys, when they are eight days old (it can be delayed if the baby is ill, e.g. jaundiced). A naming ceremony called a simchat bat may be done for baby girls on their eighth day of life instead. The idea of a bris comes from the Bible and was commanded to Abraham way back; it symbolizes the dedication of Jews to God's will (it's more of a "deal", in fact - we do what he says and he watches over us).
The ceremony generally takes place after morning prayers. The important people involved are:
- The mohel. This is the person who will actually do the deed. Nowadays some choose to do it with a professional doctor, although this is not a requirement, in order to minimise the odds of disease.
- The sandek. It is considered an honor to do this; essentially they hold the baby on a pillow while the deed is done. Generally given to one of the grandfathers. Wear something to protect your suit. The word is the one commonly used when "godfather" needs to be translated to Hebrew.
- The kvatter. Pretty much only an Ashkenazi role, they just carry the baby to the sandek. Again, an honor, though a minor one.
- The father of the baby. His job is to act nervous.
- The baby. His job is to cry in extreme agony.
- The bagels. There are always bagels served at the celebratory meal (because Jews are incapable of celebrating anything without food).
The baby is first brought to the father by the kvatter
. Some stuff is said. The baby is then placed on a chair, dubbed the "Chair of Eliyahu the Prophet". Then the baby is given to the sandek
, who sits in the chair, and the actual circumcision (removal of the foreskin) is done. Afterwards, the parents announce the baby's name, everyone goes over to say "Mazel Tov", and then depart for a festive breakfast. Oh, and the baby gets given wine, partially as a sedative.
Note that, in the Orthodox tradition, all of these positions are exclusively held by men. In the conservative movement, any of the positions may be held by a woman. In the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, the bris is not even considered a required practice, although it is still very widely done.
Grown men who convert to Judaism must go through this if they have not been medically circumcised. If they have
been medically circumcised, blood is drawn from a certain place on the penis. It is called a hatafat dam brit
(the drawing of the blood of the Covenant), and constitutes the mohel
giving the male in question a little prick
with a scalpel.
Finally, it's worth noting that circumcision is frequently performed on non-Jewish babies too, albeit for (somewhat controversial
) medical reasons rather than religious reasons and without the ceremony (if they’re American), or for cultural reasons (if they’re Philippino, African, Christian Arabs, or Muslims).
As far as records show, this ceremony has never been performed in the back seat of a
Mercury Grand Marquis Royal Deluxe II
"Redeeming of the Son". This is done very infrequently, as the requirements are seldom met (neither grandfather can be a Levi or Kohen, the firstborn must be a male, not born by C-section and it has to be the mother's first pregnancy i.e: she can't have had a miscarriage or abortion). A much more low-key event, it represents the transfer of priestly responsibilities from the firstborn (who did them originally) to the Kohanim (priests). It involves bringing a 30-day-old boy to a Kohen. Five shekel/dollar coins are given to the Kohen to "redeem" the boy. The baby is often brought in on a silver platter, and decorated with silver jewelry, which can induce in watchers the urge to stuff an apple in the baby's mouth. Then you eat. The end.
Probably the most universal of Jewish events and therefore the one with the most wild variety. The word means "someone eligible for mitzvot
(commandments)" and actually refers to the boy himself. It occurs when he turns 13. While it's known as an event marking the boy "becoming a man", everyone knows that's rubbish, and he's still a kid. The real thing it marks is that he is responsible for his own actions and for keeping the mitzvot
Interestingly, there is no religious requirement for any sort of event marking this date; it's purely a social thing. A bar mitzvah was not originally something you "have"
— and, among religious Jews (particularly outside of the United States), it still isn't. Neglecting to celebrate your bar mitzva prevents you from coming of age just as much as neglecting to have an 18th birthday party prevents you from being eligible to vote - i.e., not at all.
Orthodox boys will begin putting on tefillin
(phylacteries) and some will also begin wearing a tallit
(prayer shawl) slightly before they become bar mitzvah, to get used to it. In more liberal (Conservative and Reform) tradition, the tallit
is given on the day of the bar mitzvah, and tefillin
is rarely worn at all by adults, let alone by 13 year old boys. (In many Conservative and most Reform congregations, girls will also wear tallit
at their bat mitzvah.)
In Orthodox circles, the Bar Mitzvah bochur
(young man) will study for several months before the Sabbath that his birthday falls on (according to the Jewish calendar). On the Sabbath, he will go up to read the week's portion of the Torah in front of the congregation. He will also be given an aliyah
, an opportunity to recite blessings over the Torah. The father generally gets one as well, and he gets a special blessing thanking God that he's no longer responsible for his son's actions (phew!). In Conservative and Reform circles, the process is quite similar, and applies to children of both genders. Some other practices, such as allowing the mother or grandparents to recite prayers over the children, vary by synagogue.
The actual party can be almost anything depending on who and where you are. It can take place on the actual Sabbath (in which case Orthodox people will have no music) or some other day nearby in the calendar. Bar mitzvahs can be ridiculously lavish affairs or small, low-key get-togethers. There's absolutely no rules about what happens in them, but they are generally formal-attire only.
The female version of this is much less common amongst Orthodox circles. It's called a bat mitzvah
and can be celebrated when the girl is 12 (since girls mature physically faster than boys). Non-Orthodox congregations practice bat mitazvahs
much more frequently than Orthodox ones. They will often give the girl an aliyah
, but Orthodox ones usually won't. As with a bar mitzvah, the actual event may be at any time or place and can be any kind of event.
At Conservative and Reform B'nei Mitzvah parties, the B'nei Mitzvah is lifted on a chair during a celebratory hora
, much as would be done at a wedding. Often, the parents and siblings of the B'nei Mitzvah will also be lifted on chairs. Note that, considering the lifters are often tipsy, the liftee should be holding onto the chair for dear life.
A very important termonology note:
Boys become a bar mitzvah.
Girls become a bat mitzvah.
If a boy and girl have the ceremony on the same day in the same service, the service is a "B'nei Mitzvah," but the boy still is a bar mitzvah and the girl a bat mitzvah. The invitation would just say "come celebrate [girl] and [boy]'s b'nai mitzvah!" or something like that.
If you don't know the gender, it's a b'nai mitzvah ("I have to go to one of my cousin's b'nai mitzvah").
Generally, referring to one's b'nai mitzvah as your "Get out of jail free card" is frowned upon by the older generation, who remember Saturday and Wednesday school with far more love.
The longest and most expensive event is also the one with a surprising amount of standardization among Orthodox circles. Due to the experience
of the authorial tropers, the main thrust will be Ashkenazi Orthodox weddings, with additions pertaining to Conservative and Reform ones. Further additions are welcome via Wiki Magic
The initial parties
Firstly, there is the l'chaim
often taking place the night of the engagement. This is for the immediate families, and constitutes a little pastry and some whiskey.
Next, there is the vort
, to which extended family and friends are invited. This is an informal party with much more food.
Then there is the aufruf
. The Sabbath before the wedding, the groom is called up for an aliyah
, and is then pelted with bags of candy. Afterwards, the congregation and some family members are invited to a small luncheon.
Pay attention to the invitation when invited to an Orthodox wedding. First, there will usually be a "Kabolas Ponim", or reception. After this comes the "Chupah", or wedding ceremony. Finally there is the meal and dancing. Weddings will usually begin between 5:00 and 7:00 PM.
Dos and don'ts:
The Wedding Day
- Don't worry about getting there exactly on time. Very few Jewish weddings adhere to an exact schedule, regardless of what's printed on the invitation. You may find yourself with nothing to do for half an hour while they get their act together. (This is true of most Jewish ceremonies. Among American Jews, this is often referred to as "Jewish Standard Time".)
- Do take note about whether there is a reply card in the invitation. This is important. If there is no reply card, it means you have only gotten a "reception invitation". You are expected to show up to the reception and the chupah, and you may come back for dessert much later, but you will not be given a place at the meal. (It's fairly rare for non-Jews to be given these kinds of invitation, however.)
- Do prepare yourself for the spectacle. Jews don't kid around at weddings. A small Jewish wedding will have about 200-300 people. Large ones can have more than twice that. Often, about 99% of the invitees will be Orthodox.
- Don't assume you'll be eating anything immediately. Some weddings only have very little food to nibble on until the food actually gets served, which can sometimes be as late as 10:00 depending on the wedding. Most are better at this, though. In any case, it's good planning to have a snack before you leave.
- Do try and bring a kippah (skullcap) if possible. Those paper-thin silk ones are pretty embarrassing, so try and get at least a knitted one. You may also want to bring a bobby pin to attach it. Those who are bald may want a larger kippah which will stay on witout a pin or clip. Note that only men are required to wear kippot, and that at Orthodox services women are discouraged from doing so.
- Do dress modestly. Formal wear among Orthodox women is suits and gowns which cover the knees and elbows. Walking around in low-cut, bare-armed dresses will get you some stares in the more conservative weddings. You won't be lynched, but you will make some people feel uncomfortable. If you are going to a Reform service, typical wedding attire is fine. At Conservative services, it varies, but standards are generally more relaxed than Orthodox services.
- In general for conservative weddings, it's fine to wear sleeveless or strapless attire to the reception as long as you wear a cardigan or shawl to cover your shoulders in shul.
Among Ashkenazi Jews, the bride and groom don't see each other for not only the day of the wedding, but the entire week (sometimes only starting from Sabbath). Both bride and groom are supposed to be accompanied at all times by a shomer
(watcher) (not that kind of watcher
) for the groom, and a shomeret
for the bride, but this doesn't always happen. As a result, on the day of the wedding, the bride and groom usually spend copious amounts of time taking pictures separately before the wedding starts, in order to cut down on the time to take pictures during the wedding itself. Reform and Conservative Jews generally take all their pictures before the wedding, though.
Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, who mostly come from Muslim countries rather than Christian ones, for the most part never adopted the idea that seeing the bride before the wedding day is bad luck, although it is starting to become more widespread. As a result, on the day of the wedding, the bride and groom spend copious amounts of time taking pictures together before the wedding starts.
Neither the bride nor groom eat or drink anything before the wedding ceremony.
The bride will have a sort of throne set up for her; she will be surrounded by her immediate family and all the women invited will cluster around her and talk at the top of their lungs. Meantime, the groom will be in a room with all the men, who will eat cake and herring (hopefully not in front of the groom, because he'll be quite hungry). The important rabbis will write up a contract of sorts, which the groom will sign. This is not the wedding contract, it's a more basic agreement. Once this is done, the mothers of the bride and groom will come in and smash a plate (usually covered by a cloth) on the back of a chair (though many Jewish customs have this happen at the engagement instead of at the wedding).
At Conservative and Reform receptions, everyone will be in the same room. There is no throne.
The music will then start up, and the groom will head to the bride's room, while all the guys around him are dancing and singing. The women will stand around watching them, poising their cameras and sobbing. The groom goes up to the bride and places the veil over her face (there are always sweet looks), their parents and grandparents usually bless them, and then everyone leaves and goes to where the chuppah
is taking place.
The actual wedding ceremony is often done outside, barring inclement weather; at least there is supposed to be a skylight over the canopy. The music played during the ceremony is usually sad and wistful. In America, several people will generally walk down the aisle; this can include children, because they're cute, and grandparents, because they're respected. Their entrance can be before the groom or between the groom and bride. In Israel, as well as among Sephardi and Mizrachi communities, this generally isn't done (another example of Christian vs. Muslim influence).
The groom (among Orthodox Ashkenazim, wearing a white garment called a kittel
, sometimes covered by a black coat) will walk down next, accompanied on either side by his parents, each of whom hold a candle. The bride walks down next, again accompanied by her parents. Then, as her mother and almost-mother-in-law holds the train of her dress (so she doesn't trip), she walks around the groom seven times.
(marriage contract) is read over a cup of wine, and the bride and groom each take a sip. (At this point the bride is unveiled so the groom knows that, unlike the biblical Jacob, he is going to be married to the right woman.) In addition to the rabbi, two Jewish witnesses who are unrelated to the bride and groom also sign the ketubah
. The groom gives the bride a ring (this is actually required as a legal transaction - the groom is buying the bride's "marriageability"). Seven blessings are recited. At this point, a glass is placed on the ground in front of the groom, who stomps on it, breaking it. This requires some explanation.
The story goes that at an expensive, lavish wedding many centuries ago, the groom, annoyed that everybody is getting too happy in an era supposed to be marked by the sadness of the non-existence of the Jewish Temple, smashed a glass suddenly in the middle of the party, throwing everybody into shock. This developed into an integral part of the wedding ceremony, supposed to be a reminder of how, even on this happiest of occasions, our happiness is not yet complete. However, the meaning behind this action has been slowly forgotten
, mostly because it marks the end of the ceremony, and at many weddings this is considered the most joyful part — the music starts up, everyone shouts "Mazel Tov!" and spends half an hour shaking hands and hugging. Over the last few decades there has been a recent backlash against this among Orthodox Jewry, with sad music being deliberately played at this point (or a speech to this effect being given by the rabbi or the groom) in order to prevent this.
On the other hand, Jewish anthropology indicates that the smashing of a glass may serve a function similar to the henna ceremony of Mizrachi and Sfardi communities: it wards off demons that would otherwise try to cause trouble or take the place of one of the newlyweds.
Often this solemn second turns out to be hysterical
if the glass will not break.
The bride and groom are taken to a yichud
room, i.e. a room where they need to be alone for at least 18 minutes. This is another legal dealie, because, ahem, consummating the marriage is another way to do it, and when witnesses see the bride and groom go into a room alone and come out 18 minutes later, they can assume that's what happened. Of course, that's not actually the case, because both bride and groom are tired and starving, having eaten nothing all day, and generally spend the time relaxing and talking (and eating - the room is generally stocked with food). Also it took a hell of a time getting them into their clothes, and they have no intention of doing it again.
At this point, too, Orthodox women, now being married, are not supposed to show their hair to other men. Therefore, haredi and some highly Orthodox denominations will have the woman put on a wig at this point. Even among the Orthodox, however, this isn't common; those girls did not spend all that time, money and hair spray just to be forced to wear a wig during the pictures. This tradition is generally not practiced by Conservatives and Reform Jews.
Then the bride and groom come out and join their family for pictures. Lots and lots and lots
of pictures. They take pictures with each other, with their families, with their extended families, with their cousin's father's uncle's Labrador retriever's families, the works. This can take a very long time, and it's common for over an hour to elapse between the chupah
and the entrance of the bride and groom.
Meal and Dancing
More conservative (note the lower-case "c") Orthodox weddings are "separate seating" - women and men will sit on opposite halves of the hall. They are usually separated by a mechitzah
- a barrier of some kind, usually festooned with flowers. The head table is often at the front of the mechitzah
, so the immediate family will all sit together. More liberal Orthodox weddings have mixed seating, but separate dancing.
At Conservative and Reform weddings, the seating arrangements and dancing are gender-integrated.
The guests are given a course or two while waiting (and waiting
). Finally, the bride and groom enter and a spirited dance starts up. Men's dances, especially at the beginning while everyone is still there, consists largely of everyone going around in a circle (often several concentric circles), while energetic youngsters will try and mix it up a bit. Sometimes the groom will be put on a chair and lifted up, or sat down and people will do little dances in front of him. On the women's side, dances are often intricate affairs, with steps and instructions and everything, and lots of props. Both men and women (these are usually friends of the bride and groom) do particularly funny entertainment (shtick
The bride and groom will sometimes engage in a dance together, and sometimes they will sit side-by-side as guests dance in front of them, but other than that the two genders will usually be separate. Most often, they are lifted on chairs while the chair holders dance them. This can get dangerous, especially for the photographer on the ladder.
(Please note that drinks have already been provided, meaning that the strong men entrusted with keeping the chairs steady as they are lifted enthusiastically
into their air have likely had a few.)
Once again, at Conservative and Reform weddings, the bride and groom will always dance together. They are still lifted on chairs, which sounds fun but is often terrifying. (See above.) The chair lifting usually follows a lively circle dance called a hora
, and may be incorporated into the dance itself.
There are generally 2-3 dances throughout the night, each lasting 20-30 minutes. The music can be LOUD
. Tunes can range from exclusively Jewish music, to having some secular tunes sprinkled in, to being mostly non-Jewish. In between dances are more food courses and (sometimes) speeches.
The wedding concludes with the recitation of the Sheva brachot
(seven blessings), over a cup of wine. Each bracha
is recited by someone else, and there is often some wrangling over which are people are asked to say which blessing.
Weddings can drag on late (the actual family members often don't leave until after 2 AM), so don't worry if you don't stay for the whole thing.
For the next seven days after the wedding, different family members host dinner parties at which the sheva brachot
are recited after eating. It is customary to invite people who were not present at the wedding, called panim chodoshos
(new faces). Asides from the bride, groom, and their immediate families, the choice of who is invited is entirely up to the hosts. Again, there is often some wrangling over who gets which bracha
Well, we're done with the Mazel Tovs. (Again, the following section is for Orthodox only.) When someone passes on, they must be buried within 24 hours (the timeframe is extended if the person died on the Sabbath). Someone is supposed to stay up with the body all night (there can be shifts). These people are called shomrim
(watchers again) and generally recite psalms or prayers during the night.
Judaism does not allow for embalming, autopsies (without a very good reason, as it is viewed as a desecration of the remains), cremation, or open-casket funerals (except in Israel where no casket is used at all - the exception being military funerals, which are always closed-casket. This is because some ways in which soldiers die can leave the body looking not much like a body at all, and the casket is the more decent option.). Organ donation is permitted by some authorities due to the emphasis Judaism places on the preservation of life, or pikuach nefesh
. Generally there will be an hour or so of eulogies in a synagogue or funeral home. The eulogy, or hesped
among Haredim and Hasidim is an emotional speech scattered with references to Torah verses and much wailing. Among Modern Orthodox and Lubavitch Hasidim, this is replaced with a eulogy that celebrates the life of the deceased and his or her strengths and merits. In North America, the casket, a plain wooden (often pine) box (or in Israel, where coffins are not used, the body is placed on a stretcher and covered by a prayer shawl (tallis
)), is usually waiting inside the synagogue but outside the main sanctuary, and the congregation will empty out to the street and follow the coffin into the hearse, then walk with the hearse as it drives slowly for a few blocks. The congregation will then get to their own cars and arrive at the graveyard. (Note that Jews who are Kohanim/priests may not be in the same building as the body, so they must wait outside. Often synagogues have outside speaker systems set up so they can hear the eulogies - these are also necessary for larger funerals - the most respected and well-liked members of a community may have hundreds of people show up for their funerals, and extremely prominent rabbis can have funerals attended by hundreds of thousands).
No speeches are given at the graveyard (or feld
), other than a few prayers and kaddish
by the mourners. The mourners tear their clothing before it begins. Generally the mourners will begin the burial by shoveling some earth onto the casket after it is lowered, followed by the rest of those present. It is considered a great mitzvah
to help bury a dead person - or to do anything on their behalf - as it is a kindness you know in advance will not be returned.
After the burial, the visitors form two lines. The mourners pass between them, and the guests recite the line "Hamakom y'nachem etchem b'toch sh'ar aveilei Tziyon vi'Yerushalayim
", "May the Omnipresent comfort you amongst the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem". When anyone returns from a graveyard they must wash their hands before going into their houses, because dead bodies are considered "unclean", even if not physically touched.
The week after the burial is known as Shiva (for "seven"). Mourners live in the house of the deceased; they sit on low stools rather than chairs; all mirrors are covered; and rather than going to synagogue for prayers, visitors will join them for prayer sessions in the house. After every prayer session (and whenever visitors come to call) it is customary to say the "Hamakom" line above before leaving. Among Sephardic Jews, the line used at Shiva is Nachamu min hashamayim
(approximately), meaning "May you be comforted from the heavens".
- In many customs, the mourners also don't go to work, or leave the house at all, during the Shiva. Also, anyone who knows the mourners or the deceased, and is able to do so, is expected to pay a visit at least once, not specifically to pray but to be there for the mourners. And that means anyone who knows them. On any day of the Shiva, there will usually be some visitors present for most hours of the day, only leaving at night, while closer friends of the mourners will usually take care of the hospitality for the other guests.
- The Shiva, it should also be noted, is mostly for the mourners, rather than the deceased - to the extent that visitors are not even allowed to speak to a mourner until and unless spoken to (though not everybody follows this rule in practice). The rules placed on the mourners are not meant to burden them but to make them face their grief in the time where they will be surrounded by many people only there to support and comfort them. The Mishna specifically instructs to "cry for the mourners not the departed, for they rest - and we moan." (roughly translated)
The 30 days and 12 months after a death still carry mourning rituals (such as not shaving for the former, or not listening to music for the latter), though the 12 months are only for mourning a parent. The mourning ritual is, most basically, the recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish
On the anniversary of the death of a close loved one, yartzeit
is observed, during which a candle is lit and allowed to burn for 24 hours. In Sephardic tradition, this is called nahala
. On this day, the Mourner's Kaddish
is recited as well.
Whenever hearing of a death, Orthodox Jews recite a pseudo-blessing: "Baruch Dayan Ha'Emet", "Blessed is the True Judge".
Visitors to a grave will often leave stones on top, though this doesn't actually have a basis in religion (see Reform/Conservative, below).
The headstone (matzeivah
) is erected some time later, often at the end of the thirty-day mourning period, at an unveiling where a few more speeches are said, along with kaddish
and generally some Tehillim
The majority of reform Judaism's traditions are generally the same as those of Orthodox funerals. The body isn't left alone, and usually buried within a day, or the earliest possible moment. Technically speaking, Reform Judaism doesn't allow cremation, but people do it anyway. As with the Orthodox, there are no open-casket funerals. The body is buried without jewelery and in only a white sheet (traditionally a tallit
At the synagogue, there is a service similar (or almost exactly the same) to the Orthodox version. There need to be thirteen Jewish adults present to conduct this service, so it's always sad when you see in the back a group of 15-year-olds fulfilling their community service hours by going to funerals.
Burying the dead is considered the greatest mitzvah, because you know with absolute certainty that they will never return the favor. Everybody present should be able to fulfill such a great mitzvah, so everybody helps bury the person by throwing a shovel full of dirt on. Also, no one can leave until the casket is covered (can be just a thin layer, but must be enough that you can't see the casket). Stones are traditionally left on top of the grave when visited. Several reasons are given for this:
- Rocks are eternal.
- We don't mix the living and the dead. This is why you must wash your hands after leaving a cemetery.
- At various points in history, grave robbing was fairly common. In order to prevent this, one is place a stone on any grave they pass. Enough people pass by a grave and there are a lot of rocks, hopefully, enough to deter would-be grave robbers.
- Stones are free. This way everyone can honor the dead, and no one needs to notice that another mourner can afford a more ostentatious tribute. The vicinity of death is nowhere to be showing off anyway.
- Tradition is a nice thing to have.
Like the Orthodox, on the anniversary of a death of a close loved one, yartzeit is observed and you light a candle for 24 hours. Every single person in the entire world seems to light the exact same one: it is blue, in a glass container, about a foot tall, and has a star of David on the front.
- Some are about three inches tall, and many of the candles white. In glass containers with a magen David on the front.
- Some are in tin containers. With a magen David on the front.
On the anniversary of the death of a close loved one, yartzeit
is observed, during which a candle is lit and allowed to burn for 24 hours. In Sphardic tradition, this is called nahala
. On this day, the Mourner's Kaddish
is recited as well. Even non-Orthodox Jews generally recite it, with varying results on how many of them actually manage to figure out the words.
Note: While some Jewish parents often warn their children by telling them at a young age that, 'if you get a tattoo, you can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
' This is in fact not true, as many different types of Jews (Reform, Reconstructionist, etc) are buried in Jewish cemeteries and while getting a tattoo (defacing your body) is breaking a Jewish law, so is eating pork and writing on Saturday.
Funny story that demonstrates this is even false among the Orthodox: a question recently submitted to a prominent Israeli rabbi's SMS Q&A service asked, "Why do we remove tattoos from a body before burying it?" The rabbi answered, "We don't."