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Baby Naming and Brit Milah (Bris)


The first command given to humankind in the Torah is “P’ru u’r’vu – be fruitful and multiply.” As a result, for millennia, Jews have celebrated the birth of every child with meaningful rituals and a meal of celebration.

What are these customs? They include Brit Milah (ritual circumcision) for boys and Simchat Bat (baby naming ceremonies) for girls.

If you are reading this material in preparation for the birth or adoption of a child or grandchild, let us wish you “B’sha’ah tovah,” a traditional greeting that means “May the baby come at a propitious time for all.” If you have already been blessed with the birth or adoption of your child, let us say “Mazel Tov” to you and your family. If you are reading this so you can learn about Jewish customs, please enjoy your reading!  

Raising a child is a precious gift that comes with tremendous responsibility. One of the first things that parents need to do upon the birth or adoption of a child is to choose a name for their child. One’s name is part of one’s identity. As Jews, our Hebrew names are what we are blessed by when we are sick, when we ascend the bimah for an aliyah during the Torah service, the name written on our ketubah (wedding contract), and more. The bestowal of a Hebrew name is a crucial element of bringing your child into the Jewish people's covenant.

Names & Judaism

In the midrash (a collection of rabbinic stories about the Torah), we are told that one of the reasons the Israelites merited to be freed from slavery in Egypt so long ago was that they kept their Hebrew names. This midrash explains the importance of bestowing a Hebrew name on each Jewish child. Our Hebrew names are one of our most tangible links to the Jewish people.  

As with many Jewish customs, there are differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities. It is customary for Ashkenazi Jews to name their children after deceased relatives and Sephardic Jews to name after relatives. Both customs allow parents to make a statement about their hopes and aspirations for their child by choosing a name. For example, choosing to name a child after a great-grandparent whose kindness inspired others means the parents hope their child exemplifies such compassion, etc.  

Hebrew Names

Dating back to the Book of Maccabees, it has been shared that Jews possess two names: a secular name for daily use and a Hebrew used at synagogue and for religious rituals. Today, many American Jews give their children both English and Hebrew names. Sometimes, the two names start with the same letter. For instance, Scott’s Hebrew name might be Samuel, and Melissa’s might be Malkah. Sometimes, the English name is the English version of the Hebrew name, like Jonah and Yonah or Eva and Chava. Sometimes, the English name is a name the parents chose because they liked it, while the Hebrew name is the exact name of a deceased relative.

There are two primary sources for Hebrew names for Jewish children today. They are names from the Hebrew Bible and modern Israeli names.  Modern Hebrew is a treasure trove of new terms used in Israel today. Noa means pleasantness, Shir means song, Eitan means strong,  Ayalah means deer,  and Shai means gift.

Finding the Right Name for Your Child

Now that you know how vital the correct name is, how do you choose the right one for your child? Do you pick an old name or a new name? Do you want your child to have a unique or popular name? Do you want them to have a Hebrew word that you can use for both ritual and day-to-day use, or an English name and a different Hebrew name?

In making these decisions, you can talk to those around you. However, we suggest you not allow others to name your child. Be sure that when speaking with others , please be clear that you are simply asking for advice or suggestions. It would help if you listened to other children's names in your circles, but think about the popularity of the words you hear. Do you want your daughter to be the third or fourth Ella in her class? Are you comfortable bestowing a name for daily use that is difficult to pronounce, obviously Hebrew, or unusual in meaning?

To help you with this choice, please feel free to check out one of the following books from the Congregation Beth Emeth library:

  • Best Baby Names for Jewish Children, by Alfred J. Kolatch 
  • What to Name Your Jewish Baby, by Anita Diamant

There are also MANY resources online to help you pick the right name for your baby. These include: http://www.20000-names.com, http://babynames.net, and http://www.kveller.com/jewish-baby-name-finder.

While finding the name you want before birth is a good idea, do not fear! Be patient if you have yet to narrow your choices down to a single name as the due date approaches. Looking into your baby's eyes and getting to know their personality can help you to pick the most fitting name for your child. 

Brit Milah – Welcoming Jewish Boys into the World

While the command to be fruitful and multiply was the first commandment given to humankind in the Torah, one of the first explicitly given to the Jewish people was the observance of brit milah – the covenant of circumcision. In Genesis 17 God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and his son Ishmael. God says, "And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at eight days.” Brit milah (ritual circumcision), therefore, is a commandment of the Torah and binds each Jewish boy/man in a covenantal relationship with God, the same covenant established by our forefather Abraham.

The command is to have Jewish boys undergo brit milah (sometimes called a bris) on the eighth day. The way we count to the eighth day must be explained. The day of birth counts as Day One. Thus, a boy born on a Wednesday has his bris the following Wednesday. Please note that if the child is born after sundown, the brit milah is moved to the next day (in our example, it would move to Thursday) because a Jewish day begins at night, and we don't want to do the britmilah on the seventh day accidentally. As an aside, scientists now know that Vitamin K, which helps with clotting, is higher on the eighth day than on any day prior. Thus, we don’t want to do a bris before the eighth day for religious and medical reasons.

The mitzvah of brit milah is so central to a Jewish tradition that one must perform the ceremony even if the eighth day falls on Shabbat or a holiday (even Yom Kippur). Considering the strict rules of Shabbat observance, this is amazing! The exceptions to holding a Shabbat or Yom Tov brit milah are in the cases of births at twilight or deliveries by voluntary C-section.  In these situations, the brit milah is held on the ninth day. And, of course, a bris would be delayed if the newborn boy is sick. In that case, medical need takes priority over brit milah, and the child has a bris when the doctor says he is healthy enough to do it.

While the commandment from the Torah originally meant that each father should circumcise his son, today, this is very rare. Almost all parents designate a mohel (pronounced moy-ul) to perform the ritual on their behalf. A mohel is someone who is trained and certified to perform a brit milah. While many mohalim (plural of mohel) are rabbis, others are Jewish doctors who have received special religious training in this ritual. There are several mohalim that regularly serve the Northern Virginia Jewish community. Their information is below:

A brit milah is often held in the home of the proud family. Sometimes, it is held at the synagogue or another location conducive to such an important religious event. It is recommended that one call the mohel as soon as possible after the birth of a healthy son so that you can schedule the bris with the mohel (or mohelet). The mohalim in our area can do the entire service themselves. However, if you would like Rabbi Warner to participate in your simchah (joyous occasion), she can often coordinate with the mohel of your choice.

It is traditional to schedule the ceremony early in the day. However, if it is not possible to hold the ceremony in the morning, it is permissible to have the ceremony any time on the eighth day before sundown. In general, the mohel will provide instructions for the family. These may include the items that are traditional at a bris, including a Kiddush cup, wine, a pillow, a chair designated for Elijah the Prophet, and a challah with which to begin the seudat mitzvah, the festive meal following the brit milah, as well as items to help with the baby’s comfort after the ceremony.

The ceremony itself consists of three parts. The first part is the ritual circumcision, which includes several blessings hearkening back to God's covenant with us through our forefather Abraham. The mohel will help the parents recite any prayers necessary. The second part of the ritual is the bestowal of the Hebrew name. It is customary for parents of the infant to explain the choice of name, who the baby is named after, what qualities of the loved one you hope the child exemplifies, etc. Following the bestowal of the name is the seudat mitzvah, the meal celebrating the special occasion and fulfilling this religious obligation.

Our former Rabbi, Michelle "Mina" Goldsmith, has written an original prayer you may want to use to name your son, shown below. If you have additional questions concerning brit milah, don't hesitate to contact Rabbi Warner at rabbiwarner@bethemeth.org.

Prayer of our Patriarchs

As we gather this morning to welcome ….. into the Jewish people's covenant, our thoughts naturally turn to the many Jewish men who came before him. We pray that he embodies the many beautiful attributes of these outstanding Jewish men. 

May you be as welcoming to strangers as our ancestor Abraham.
May you be as faithful to those you love as our patriarch Isaac. 
May you exhibit patience and hard work to achieve your dream, as did our ancestor Jacob.
May you overcome temptation, as did Joseph.
May you be strong enough to admit when you are wrong, as was Judah. 
May you look to the future with hope, as did Amram.
May your words and actions bring freedom for the enslaved, as did Moses.  
May you be known for your desire for peace, as was Aaron. 
May you be bold in moving forward amid uncertainty, like Nachshon. 
May you see beyond people’s pedigree and into their hearts as did Joshua.
May you feel God’s presence with you in dark times, as did Gideon.  
May you be firm in your determination to serve God, as was Samson.
May you become a righteous leader who pursues justice, as did Samuel.  
May your countenance be as radiant as that of King Saul.
May you be a beloved friend to others, as was Jonathan. 
May your words and the music of your soul bring you and others to God like David.
May you be as wise as Solomon. 
May you always do what is pleasing to God, like Yehoash. 
May your devotion to Judaism be as intense as that of Mattathias.
May you fight for what you believe in, as did Judah the Maccabee.
May you be blessed to know you are always young enough to learn new things like Hillel.
May you always think of new ways to approach God’s teachings, like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. 
May you become a man of many talents, like Maimonides. 
May you possess a love of the people of Israel and the state of Israel, like Herzl and Ben Gurion. 
May you teach others about the brotherhood of humanity as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did.

May you know and feel pride daily that you are a link in the chain of great Jewish men, going back thousands of years and continuing with you. 

Prayer written by Rabbi Michelle “Mina” Goldsmith 2018

Simchat Bat – Rejoicing in the Birth of a Daughter

The birth of every single child is a miracle that should be celebrated. It behooves us to take the time to acknowledge the miracle of life and the gift of being a parent. In Jewish tradition, while baby boys are welcomed into the covenant and given their Hebrew names at a brit milah, baby girls traditionally have a naming ceremony. In the Sephardic tradition, this home ceremony was called a zeved ha-bat (which means “the gift of a daughter.”) In Ashkenazic communities; baby girls often received their Hebrew names as part of a Shabbat morning service or any other service where the Torah is read. This ceremony is called a Baby Naming or Simchat Bat, which means “The Joy of a Daughter.” This naming ritual consists of an aliyah to the Torah by the (Jewish) parent(s), followed by a misheberach blessing by the rabbi, and the formal announcement of the baby girl’s Hebrew name(s). Just as with a bris, after the name is revealed, the parents are asked to say some words about the name chosen, the people the baby is named after, etc. Some families are invited to participate in the service by reading from the Torah, leading a section, etc. Many families choose to enhance the special event by helping to sponsor the congregation Kiddush luncheon after the service.

In addition to the service at synagogue for baby naming, over the past couple of decades, many families have chosen to hold Simchat Bat ceremonies in their homes on Sundays or other weekdays. These ceremonies, which often include wrapping the baby in a tallit, lighting a candle, drinking wine, holding a miniature Torah, etc., and naming the child, can be personalized to include many family members in the festivities. Following the ritual, there is a seudat mitzvah (a meal celebrating the mitzvah of naming one’s daughter) similar to that following a brit milah. Rabbi Warner can help parents who wish to create their ceremony.

Unlike a brit milah, a baby naming or Simchat Bat does not have to occur on a particular day. However, some customs can help serve as a guide in your planning. Before the advent of the Simchat Bat home ceremony, it was customary for the father to receive an aliyah as soon as possible after the birth of a daughter, even within a day or two following the birth. At that time, the baby’s name would be given during a special misheberach ­– whether the baby or mother was present. This leads to the idea that just as a baby boy receives his Hebrew name reasonably quickly, we shouldn’t delay with our daughters either. Thus, we encourage you to plan the Simchat Bat as early as possible: the eighth day, the first Rosh Chodesh (new moon), the Jewish holiday after birth, or the thirty-first day. Sometimes, families wait until the next large family gathering or national holiday. Whenever you decide to hold the ceremony, Interim Rabbi Bruce Aft would be delighted to help you create a meaningful ritual for your family to officiate at CBE or the venue of your choice. Our former Rabbi, Michelle "Mina" Goldsmith, has written an original prayer that you may want to include in your Simcha, shown below. Don't hesitate to contact Rabbi Warner at rabbiwarner@bethemeth.org with any questions or to schedule your big event!

Prayer of our Matriarchs

As we gather today to welcome ...... into the Jewish people's covenant, our thoughts naturally turn to the many Jewish women who came before her.  We pray that she embodies the many beautiful attributes of these fine women. 

[name of child],

May you be as welcoming to strangers as our ancestress Sarah.
May you be as kind to animals as our matriarch, Rebekah.
May you elicit love from others as quickly as our ancestress Rachel.
May you possess the gift of gratitude, as did our matriarch, Leah.
May you remain firm in pursuing what rightly is yours, as was Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar.
May your voice soothe others, as did Jacob’s granddaughter Serach.
May your commitment to the Jewish people, even in times of great challenge, be like that of Yocheved and Esther.
May your instinct to protect others be like that of the midwives Shifrah and Puah.
May you be gifted with song, dance, and insight like Miriam.
May you be blessed with the ability to think quickly in moments of crisis and know when to take decisive action like Moses’ wife, Tzippora.
May you be bold enough to question authority like the daughters of Zelophehad.
May you be steadfast in your pursuit of justice like Judge Deborah.
May you be resolute in the face of anyone who would try to harm you like Yael.
May you evoke loyalty in others, as did Naomi.
May you be a devoted friend, as was Ruth. 
May you possess both inner and outer beauty, as did Abigail & Bath-Sheba.
May your mind be sharp and offer wisdom to others, as did Beruriah.
May you overcome all obstacles and achieve financial independence and success like Gluckel of Hameln.
May your fathers teach you the beauty of Judaism and Jewish observance, as Rashi did with his daughters.
May you possess a love of the people of Israel and the state of Israel, like Henrietta Szold and Golda Meir.

May you know and feel pride every day that you are a link in the chain of great Jewish women, going back thousands of years and continuing with you......Amen.

Prayer written by Rabbi Michelle “Mina” Goldsmith 2017

Gender Neutral Prayer for Brit Milah or Simchat Bat

May you be as welcoming to strangers as Abraham and Sarah were.  
May you be as kind to animals as Noah and our matriarch, Rebekah.
May you be as faithful to those you love as our patriarch Isaac.
May you elicit love from others as quickly as our ancestress Rachel.
May you exhibit patience and hard work to achieve your dream, as did our ancestor Jacob.
May you possess the gift of gratitude, as did our matriarch, Leah.
May you be strong enough to admit when you are wrong, as was Judah, and may you remain strong in pursuing what rightly is yours, as was his daughter-in-law Tamar.
May you look to the future with hope, as did Amram, and may your commitment to our people in times of great challenge be like that of Yocheved, his wife.
May your instinct to protect others be like that of the midwives Shifrah and Puah.
May you be known for your desire for peace, as was Aaron.  
May your words and actions bring freedom for the enslaved, as did Moses. 
May you be like Moses’ wife, Tzippora, able to think quickly and act decisively to help in moments of crisis.  
May you be bold in moving forward amid uncertainty, like Nachshon.  
May you be steadfast in your pursuit of justice like Deborah and Samuel.
May you be resolute in the face of any who would try to harm you or the Jewish people like Samson, Yael, Esther, and Judah the Maccabee.
May you be a devoted friend, as were Jonathan and Ruth.  
May you possess both inner and outer beauty, as did Joseph and Abigail.
May you be gifted with song, poetry, and dance like Miriam and King David.
May you be as wise as King Solomon and Beruriah.
May you be like Hillel, who knew you are never too old to learn new things.
May you find a life partner who supports you in your quest for personal fulfillment, as did Hillel’s wife, Rachel. 
May you overcome all obstacles and achieve financial independence and success like Gluckel of Hameln.
May you always think of new ways to approach God’s teachings, like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Nehama Leibowitz.
May you possess a love of the people of Israel and the state of Israel, like Theodor Herzl, Henrietta Szold, David Ben Gurion, and Golda         Meir.
May you know and feel pride daily that you are a link in the chain of great Jewish men and women, going back thousands of years and continuing with you... Amen

Prayer written by Rabbi Michelle “Mina” Goldsmith 2018

B’sha’ah Tovah and Mazel tov!

Tue, May 28 2024 20 Iyyar 5784