• Circumcision
  • Bar Mitzvah
  • Marriage
  • Death and Burial


Ritual circumcision (brit milah) symbolizes the permanent covenant between God and the Jewish people. Genesis 17:9-12 directs parents to circumcise every male infant at the age of eight days. The circumcision is performed by a mohel who has been specially trained. Benedictions are recited by the participants and a festive meal is often served after the ceremony. The prophet Elijah is said to be an invisible participant at circumcisions; a special chair is often reserved for him. In modern times, in many synagogues, the brit milah and bar mitzvah rites have been expanded to include a naming ceremony for a female infant and the bat mitzvah—a celebration of a young woman’s coming of age.

The blade of the mohel’s knife shown at left was used in the 19th century; the handle is thought to be a later addition.


Every 13-year-old Jewish child who has publicly read from the Torah is referred to as a bar/bat mitzvah (son/daughter of the commandment).  This ceremony marks a young person’s first public participation in communal life—the passage into adulthood as a Jew—and officially indicates that a child has attained enough maturity to take on religious responsibilities.

The bar/bat mitzvah celebrant may be given a prayer book to mark the occasion. A young man may also receive a pair of phylacteries (tefillin) and a prayer shawl (tallit) in a cloth bag embroidered with his name. Other gifts may include a kiddush cup or Shabbat candlesticks.

This embroidered velvet cape with matching skullcap (kippah) and tefillin bag was worn by a 19th century Polish youth celebrating his bar mitzvah.


“He who finds a wife has found happiness.”

Jewish teaching regards marriage as the ideal human state, fulfilling the needs for both companionship and propagation. Marriage is considered the central event in the cycle of life. Jewish customs associated with weddings vary widely from place to place. Some elements, however, are always found. The couple stands under a canopy (chupah) made of a cloth held on four supports. Deriving from the time when Jews lived in tents, the chupah creates a sacred place where the ceremony is held.

A wedding ring given to the bride by the groom marks the beginning of the marriage, a symbol of attachment and fidelity. It may be of any metal, but does not contain a stone. Also, under Jewish law (halakhah) no man may marry without giving his bride a ketubah (marriage contract) which outlines the obligations he undertakes towards his wife after marriage.

The ketubah itself is written in Aramaic, an ancient language related to Hebrew that was spoken in Palestine during the Roman period. The historical roots of the ketubah go back at least to Roman times; composed more or less in that era, the form continues in use. The ketubah is among the earliest documents to grant women civil rights in marriage. Ketubot are similar in both phrasing and context: If a single woman is left economically vulnerable and in need of special protection, the document guarantees that she will have a particular claim on her husband’s estate or a particular settlement if he should divorce her. There may be other pledges as well; the man may be required to take care of his wife in various ways. The ketubah is signed by both partners before the marriage is actually considered valid.

The custom of decorating ketubot (plural) dates to the Middle Ages. Ketubot used by European Jews are traditionally illuminated with Biblical themes or Jewish symbols. Near Eastern Jews often decorated them with floral and plant motifs. The marriage contract at left comes from Persia and is dated 1902.


Jewish teaching has always held that the soul is immortal. The ultimate rejoining of the soul and its resurrected body to stand in judgment before God has been an important aspect of Jewish belief. Death is not regarded as retribution for earthly sin, but as an inevitable and natural part of the divine order. In Jewish communities, it is an honor to belong to the local burial society (chevra kadisha). It is customary for synagogues, especially the more traditional ones, to have a chevra kadisha made up of volunteers from the congregation. These volunteers prepare the body of a deceased person for burial. Jewish burial practices stress dignity and avoid any kind of ostentation, so Jews are traditionally laid out in a simple white shroud and buried in a plain wooden coffin. This simplicity is intended to emphasize the equality of all in death. Family members observe a formal seven-day period of mourning (shivah) and the death is commemorated for a full year with daily recitations of the mourner’s prayer (Kaddish). In synagogues and Jewish homes, on each anniversary of a death, a 24-hour memorial light (yahrzeit) is kindled as a symbol of the soul of the departed. The memorial lamp above is from North Africa.

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