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Hebrew Names

Answer By: 
Rabbi Don Rossoff
Parent holding the hand of an infant

Can a child who was circumcised in the hospital but has not had an actual bris be considered a Jew? My husband and I are an interfaith family and we are not sure what to do with our baby.

"Bris" comes from the word covenant. At a bris, the boy is brought into the covenant between God and the Jewish people, in fulfillment of the command given by God to Abraham:

"On your part, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your children after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be sign of the covenant between Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations…" Genesis 17:9-12.

The circumcision is a sign of the covenant, a "membership badge," if you will. As a member of the covenant community, the boy is given a Hebrew name, linking him to his Jewish family and to Jewish history.

If your child has not yet been born, then I would recommend doing a bris on the eighth day. Having said that, I have learned that in intermarried situations, this can be touchy, since the whole thing is so foreign. "You are going to invite all your friends, cut off his WHAT, and then serve BAGELS??!!??" If it is not your tradition, it does seem bizarre. If this is the case, my recommendation is to focus on the religious part of the bris ceremony (circumcision and naming) and downplay the social aspect. There are some traditional mohels (ritual circumciser) who would perform this ceremony for you. If it is your husand and not you who is Jewish, they would consider the circumcision as part of a conversion of a non-Jewish boy. And, depending on your location, in many communities throughout North America there are also Reform mohels who would consider the child a Jew.

On the other hand, if the child has already been circumcised, then I believe most Reform rabbis would recommend doing a ceremony bringing the child into the covenant and giving him a Hebrew name.
By the way, when a girl is born, we do a bris as well, a ceremony in which she is brought into the covenant community and given a Hebrew name. (No, nothing is cut off ). The ceremony which I do uses the Shabbat as her sign of the covenant, so we begin the ceremony by lighting Shabbat candles.

For further information and sample ceremonies, I would recommend picking up some or all of these books:

  • The Jewish Home by Daniel Syme (UAHC) - an easily accessible guide to Jewish life cycle events, holidays, and home observances written from a Reform perspective.
  • On the Doorposts published by CCAR, a wonderful guide to home observance which includes naming ceremonies.
  • The New Jewish Baby Book: Names, Ceremonies and Customs: A Guide for Today's Families by Anita Diamant, published by Jewish Lights.
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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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Answer By: 
Rabbi Don Rossoff
A mother holding her newborn baby boy

If our baby is a little boy and we want to have him circumcised in the hospital can the ceremony of a bris still be held or would we have a baby naming?

A bris can most certainly be held in a hospital, though very few are these days. But remember that "bris" and circumcision are not synonymous. I'll explain:

"Bris" means "covenant." At a bris, the boy is brought into the covenant between God and the Jewish People, in fulfillment of the command given by God to Abraham:

"On your part, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your children after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations...." - Genesis 17:9-12.

The circumcision is a sign of the covenant, a "membership badge" if you will. What we call the "bris" (Bris Milah - Covenant of Circumcision) is the religious ceremony in which the child is brought into the covenant community by means of the circumcision and the accompanying blessings, prayers which put the "medical" procedure into a religious context. Then, as a member of the covenant community, the boy is given a Hebrew name, linking him to his Jewish family and to Jewish history.

An authentic bris is done on the eighth day, as prescribed in the Torah. (One of the reasons for this which I like has to do with the child reliving the original 7 days of creation in which God was the creative force. Then, on the 8th day, human beings take initiative and "complete" God's creation.)

Doing the bris on the eighth day in the hospital involves going back into the hospital. Many people believe that hospitals and doctors are more sanitary and safer. Depending on where you live, if you have an experienced mohel (ritual circumcisor), then the likelihood is that a bris done in your home would be no less safe or sanitary than in a hospital. You may live in an area which is fortunate to have a "Reform mohel." Most of these are doctors or nurses who have been trained in the rituals of the bris.

Finally, my sense is that if a child has already been circumcised but has not had a bris, most Reform rabbis would still do a ceremony bringing the child into the covenant and giving him a Hebrew name.

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