In Jewish law, although the human soul exists before birth, human life begins at birth. Judaism completely rejects the notion of original sin. According to Judaism, a child is born pure, free from sin. Birth by Caesarean section is permitted in Jewish law, as would be just about any procedure necessary to preserve the life of the mother or the child, with mother's life being the first priority.
Abortion is generally speaking forbidden, unless the life of the mother is at risk.
After a child is born, the father is given the honor of an aliyah (an opportunity to bless the reading of the Torah) in synagogue at the next opportunity. At that time, a blessing is recited for the health of the mother and the child. If the child is a girl, she is named at that time. A boy's name is given during the brit milah (ritual circumcision).
Of all of the commandments in Judaism, the brit milah (literally, Covenant of Circumcision) is probably the one most universally observed. Even the most secular of Jews, who observe no other part of Judaism, almost always observe these laws.
Circumcision is performed on the eighth day of the child's life, during the day. As with almost any commandment, circumcision can be postponed for health reasons. The circumcision is performed by a mohel , a pious, observant Jew educated in the relevant Jewish law and in surgical techniques. Circumcision performed by a regular non-Jewish physician does not qualify as a valid brit milah, regardless of whether a rabbi says a blessing over it, because the removal of the foreskin is itself a religious ritual that must be performed by someone religiously qualified.
"Bar Mitzvah" literally means "son of the commandment" and "Bat Mitzvah" means "daughter of commandment". Technically, the term refers to the child who is coming of age, but it is more commonly used to refer to the coming of age ceremony itself.
Under Jewish Law, children are not obligated to observe the commandments, although they are encouraged to do so as much as possible to learn the obligations they will have as adults. At the age of 13 for boys and 12 for girls, children become obligated to observe the commandments. The bar mitzvah ceremony formally marks the assumption of that obligation, along with the corresponding right to take part in leading religious services, to count in a minyan (the minimum number of people needed to perform certain parts of religious services), to form binding contracts, to testify before religious courts and to marry.
A Jewish boy automatically becomes a bar mitzvah upon reaching the age of 13 years, and a girl upon reaching the age of 12 years. No ceremony is needed to confer these rights and obligations. The popular bar mitzvah ceremony is not required, and does not fulfill any commandment. The ceremonies and receptions that are commonplace today were unheard of as recently as a century ago.
Many people mock the idea that a 12 or 13 year old child is an adult, claiming that it is an outdated notion based on the needs of an agricultural society. But bar mitzvah is not about being a full adult in every sense of the word, ready to marry, go out on your own, earn a living and raise children. The Talmud makes this abundantly clear. Bar mitzvah is simply the age when a person is held responsible for his actions and minimally qualified to marry.
The Torah provides very little guidance with regard to the procedures of a marriage. The method of finding a spouse, the form of the wedding ceremony, and the nature of the marital relationship are all explained in the Talmud.
According to the Talmud, 40 days before a male child is conceived, a voice from heaven announces whose daughter he is going to marry, literally a match made in heaven!
The Talmud specifies that a woman is acquired (i.e., to be a wife) in three ways: through money, a contract, and sexual intercourse. Ordinarily, all three of these conditions are satisfied, although only one is necessary to effect a binding marriage.
Acquisition by money is normally satisfied by the wedding ring. The wife's acceptance of the money is a symbolic way of demonstrating her acceptance of the husband. In all cases, the Talmud specifies that a woman can be acquired only with her consent, and not without it.
As part of the wedding ceremony, the husband gives the wife a ketubah, the marriage contract. The ketubah spells out the husband's obligations to the wife during marriage, conditions of inheritance upon his death, and obligations regarding the support of children of the marriage. It also provides for the wife's support in the event of divorce. The ketubah is often a beautiful work of calligraphy, framed and displayed in the home.
The process of marriage occurs in two distinct stages: kiddushin (commonly translated as betrothal) and nisuin (full-fledged marriage). The relationship created by kiddushin can only be dissolved by death or divorce. However, the spouses do not live together at the time of the kiddushin, and the mutual obligations created by the marital relationship do not take effect until the nisuin is complete.
In the past, the kiddushin and nisuin would routinely occur as much as a year apart. During that time, the husband would prepare a home for the new family. Today, the two ceremonies are normally performed together.
Because marriage under Jewish law is essentially a private contractual agreement between a man and a woman, it does not require the presence of a rabbi or any other religious official. It is common, however, for rabbis to officiate.
It is customary for the bride and groom not to see each other for a week preceding the wedding. There are exuberant celebrations in the synagogue at the time of the wedding. Throwing candy at the bride and groom to symbolize the sweetness of the event is common. Traditionally, the day before the wedding, both the bride and the groom fast.
Before the ceremony, the bride is veiled, in remembrance of the fact that Rebecca veiled her face when she was first brought to Isaac to be his wife.
The ceremony itself lasts 20-30 minutes. The bride enters, accompanied by her mother and the groom's mother, and approaches and circles the groom. Two blessings are recited over wine: one the standard blessing over wine and the other regarding the commandments related to marriage. The man then places the ring on woman's finger. After the kiddushin is complete, the ketubah is read aloud.
The bride and groom stand beneath the chuppah, a canopy held up by four poles, symbolic of their dwelling together and of the husband's bringing the wife into his home. The importance of the chuppah is so great that the wedding ceremony is sometimes referred to as the chuppah. The bride and groom recite seven blessings in the presence of a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 adult Jewish men). The couple then drinks the wine. The groom smashes a glass (or a small symbolic piece of glass) with his right foot, to symbolize the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The couple then retires briefly to a completely private room, symbolic of the groom bringing the wife into his home.
This is followed by a festive meal. Exuberant music and dancing traditionally accompany the ceremony and the reception.
According to the Torah and the Talmud, a man was permitted to marry more than one wife, but a woman could not marry more than one man. Although polygyny was permitted, it was never common. The Talmud never mentions any rabbi with more than one wife. Around 1000 C.E., Ashkenazic Jewry banned polygyny because of pressure from the predominant Christian culture. It continued to be permitted for Sephardic Jews in Islamic lands until the latter half of the twentieth century.
A husband is responsible for providing his wife with food, clothing and sexual relations. Marital sexual relations are the woman's right, not the man's. A man cannot force his wife to engage in sexual relations with him, nor is he permitted to abuse his wife in any way .
A married woman retains ownership of any property she brought to the marriage, but the husband has the right to manage the property and to enjoy profits from the property.
The minimum age for marriage under Jewish law is 13 for boys, 12 for girls; however, the kiddushin can take place before that, and often did in medieval times. The Talmud recommends that a man marry at age 18, or somewhere between 16 and 24. Today, young Jews rarely marry before the age of twenty.
Judaism recognized the concept of "no-fault" divorce thousands of years ago. Judaism generally maintains that it is better for a couple to divorce than to remain together in a state of constant bitterness and strife. Under Jewish law, a man can divorce a woman for any reason or no reason. In fact, Jewish law requires divorce in some circumstances: when the wife commits a sexual transgression, a man must divorce her, even if he is inclined to forgive her. Many aspects of Jewish law discourage divorce. The procedural details involved in arranging a divorce are complex and exacting.
In Judaism, life is valued above almost all else. The Talmud notes that all people are descended from a single person, thus taking a single life is like destroying an entire world, and saving a single life is like saving an entire world. Of the 613 commandments, only the prohibitions against murder, idolatry, incest and adultery are so important that they cannot be violated to save a life. Judaism not only permits, but often requires a person to violate the commandments if necessary to save a life.
Because life is so valuable, Jews are not permitted to do anything that may hasten death. Suicide is strictly forbidden by Jewish law.
In Judaism, death is not just a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances. Death is a natural process. Jews believe that our deaths, like our lives, have meaning and are all part of God's plan. In addition, Jews have a firm belief in an afterlife, a world to come, where those who have lived a worthy life will be rewarded.
Mourning practices in Judaism are extensive, but they are not an expression of fear or distaste for death. Jewish practices relating to death and mourning have two purposes: to show respect for the dead, and to comfort the living, who will miss the deceased.