A Jewish family is part of a covenantal community. The birth of a baby or the adoption of a child calls for ceremonies, both ancient and contemporary, for ritual celebration as the child is welcomed into the covenantal community. When a name is chosen, the parents connect with significant stories, events, and people in their lives.
The book of Genesis records Abraham’s circumcising the male members of his house hold. The brit milah or “covenant of circumcision” has its roots in Abraham’s story. Continuity and covenant for the Jewish people are held in this persistent and deep symbol. Brit milah, also know as “bris,” occurs on the eighth day of life. Words of blessing are offered. The boy child is circumcised, and a name is bestowed upon the child. The baby’s father traditionally takes responsibility for arranging the bris, engaging a person trained in the rituals and practices, to lead the ceremony and circumcise the boy.
Traditionally observant Jews practice Pidyon HaBen, a ceremony in which first-born Jewish males were symbolically given for service to the ancient priests. Today, this is marked by a private, small ceremony in which a cohen, a person believed to be a descendant of the priestly class, releases the child back to the parents symbolically.
Inspired by Jewish feminism, a parrallel contemporary ceremony has evolved. Simchat bat, (celebration of a daughter) or brit banot, (daughters’ covenant) is practiced in the majority of liberal and some traditional communities. Simchat bat is commonly referred to as baby naming. Unlike boys, whose brit milah is mandated to be celebrated on the eighth day of life, there is no specific day assigned for baby naming of a girl child. The structure of this ceremony follows a similar structure as the ceremony for boys. Welcoming acts such as candle lighting, foot washing or being wrapped in a prayer shawl are centerpieces of the ceremony. Alternatively, some families prefer to follow the longer-standing custom of giving their daughter her Hebrew or Yiddish name during a regular Torah-reading service at the synagogue.
Since most babies come on their own time schedule, a celebration for a Jewish baby is often planned in haste. Family and community members have a significant role to play in the event, having a sacred obligation to enjoy a festive meal or seudah. Families have a variety of ways to mark this occasion. Some donate to charity (tzedakah). Others engage in a social action project. Still others honor each child with the ancient custom of planting a tree.
The celebration of the arrival of babies by families and communities has varied throughout Jewish history, influenced by local Jewish traditions and customs.