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Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

Although there is no prohibition against baby showers, traditionally, Jews do not have them prior to the birth of a child. Some couples do not buy any baby items or set up the nursery until the child is born. There is no religious basis for this custom, which is rooted in superstition. Nonetheless, it is a prevalent custom in the Jewish community.

The custom stems from the idea that drawing attention to a happy occasion also draws the attention of evil spirits. This custom also may hearken back to a time when infant mortality was a concern. Though it is much less an issue today, and most people are not overly superstitious, many Jews still shy away from lavish showers, preferring instead to buy only what they need to prepare, or to order items ahead of time that will be delivered only after the baby is born.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

A father's responsibilities to his son are outlined in the Talmud, Kiddushin 29a. According to the text, a father is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem him if he is the firstborn, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Talmudic scholars added that a father must also teach his son to swim.

These directives are all intended to help a child grow into a successful and independent adult, one who will be part of the Jewish community, establish a household and find meaningful work. While teaching a child to swim may seem less important than other items on this list, the sages interpreted this as an essential survival skill.

Today, we think of these instructions as incumbent upon both fathers and mothers and applicable to both sons and daughters, as appropriate. Many modern Jews also no longer feel obligated to help find a spouse for their children, though parental meddling is a tradition that seems to endure.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Larry Sernovitz

Dear Rabbi,
We are planning our wedding. We are not convinced of the need to get tested for Jewish Genetic Diseases before we get married. We have too much to do before the wedding anyway and we just don't have time to get it done. Whatever our carrier status happens to be, it isn't going to prevent us from getting married so why should we get tested anyway?

Planning for a wedding can be a very time consuming process, especially for a young couple. All of this can be extremely overwhelming. However, genetic testing should not be tossed off the list just because there are so many other things to be done. Getting a simple blood test can make all the difference. If one partner is a carrier of any of the 19 Jewish genetic diseases, the other partner should be screened as well. If both partners are carriers, there is a 25% chance the couple will give birth to an affected child. Once you have this knowledge, you can make intelligent decisions regarding the future. This can include in-vitro fertilization, virtually eliminating the chances of having an affected child, or having a natural pregnancy with the knowledge that a tough decision might have to be made down the road. If this is the chosen route, having a CVS test (Chorionic villus sampling , a prenatal test that detects chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome as well as genetic diseases) completed around 11-12 weeks can identity genetic diseases in the fetus and give you the knowledge to make an informed decision.

Here is what you can do:

Get in touch with the Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases. They have centers in Philadelphia, Boston, and Miami. Their website is filled with useful information. They will give you all the information you need to make informed decisions and to get tested.

Additionally, for information about genetic counselors nationwide, you can visit the National Society of Genetic Counselors website for a listing of genetic counselors and screening centers nationwide. All counselors are accredited and are excellent resources for you.

Rabbi Larry Sernovitz serves Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, NJ.

Topic: Bioethics, Birth
Answer By: 
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis

We are expecting a child in a few weeks. We think it will be a girl. Is there an equivalent to the bris ceremony for boys? We want to do something to welcome her and give her a Hebrew name.

Traditionally, a brit milah is the ceremony whereby a Jewish boy is brought into the covenant. For a girl, there was a naming which took place in the synagogue, usually done by the father or grandfather coming to the synagogue and having a blessing said on behalf of the baby, who usually wasn't present. There have been attempts in various times and places to create something more ceremonious for girls, but it wasn't until the advent of the women's movement in the 1970's that there has been a general interest in such things. Today, it is quite common to have a naming ceremony for a girl, although the form it takes varies from community to community and even from family to family.

The Reform Rabbi's Manual contains a naming ceremony for girls which has all the same blessings and reading for a girl as for a boy, minus the blessing of milah itself. Some people like to have some kind of physical ritual for a girl that would in some way be analogous to the milah. One idea is to have a miniature mikveh for the girl, as her sign of entering the covenant. Others just go with a naming ceremony without any physical manifestations. Such ceremonies usually include blessings by the mother thanking God for a safe delivery, by the parents thanking God for a healthy child, and asking for help in raising the child, pledging to raise her Jewishly. Other family members may give blessings or say something, godparents may be honored with holding the baby, as in a brit milah, or may give a blessing. The child's name is announced, with some explanation of who she was named for or what the significance is of the name. The rabbi or officiant will bless the child, as in a brit milah, and then there is a party.

More simply, the child can be brought to synagogue on Shabbat and be named by the rabbi in front of the ark during services, which is a nice way of making this personal family event also a celebration for the community and a chance for the community to welcome the newest member into the Jewish community.

You can find out more about different kinds of naming ceremonies, for both boys and girls, in the following resources:

  • The Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant
  • Lifecycles by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
  • Jewish and Female by Susan Weidman Schneider
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