Question: What happens at a Jewish birth ceremony?
Answer: There are no specific rituals associated with a Jewish birth. If you are interested in learning about Brit Milah (circumcision) or babynaming ceremonies, the best way to find information would be to go to a nearby synagogue library (if possible). If you could narrow down your questions somewhat, I can answer more specific questions either of these ceremonies.
Question: Why there was a distinction between a women’s purity in terms of the amount of time after giving birth to a boy vs. a girl?
Answer: The source for this is Leviticus 12:1-5. There is no good answer for why giving birth to a girl makes a woman tameh (ritually impure) for 14 days, rather than the seven days she is tameh after giving birth to a boy.
None of the traditional commentaries give satisfactory explanations. Ramban, for example, attempts to give a medical explanation, that a new mother sustained discharges for a longer period of time following the birth of a girl than following the birth of a boy. Baruch Levine, in the JPS commentary on Leviticus, writes that it “may have reflected apprehension and anticipation regarding the infant daughter’s potential fertility, the expectation that she herself would someday become a new mother” (pg. 250).
Basically, it is a mystery without a certain answer.
Question: How and when were the Jews instructed to circumcise before the Torah was given?
Answer: According to Genesis (17:14), Abraham and his descendants were commanded by God to circumcise their sons at the age of 8 days. In other words, God communicated with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before the Torah was given.
1) Does a mohel have to be a rabbi?
2) what is the significance of having an ob/gyn perform the circumcision vs. a mohel.
3) Are there certain credentials or training that an MD must have to perform a Jewish circumcision?
4) how would I know if an ob/gyn in my synagogue is “recognized” by the appropriate organizations for a circumcision to be considered “kosher” or Jewish? (this particular ob/gyn is performing circumcisions for some members and other members are flying in a mohel)
1) A Mohel does not have to be a Rabbi. In fact, I would guess that most mohalim are not Rabbis. The two mohalim who commonly serve my area, for example, are Cantors.
2) A Ob/Gyn can be a mohel, although he or she should be trained in the proper procedure and steps of a kosher Brit Milah. There are certain ways of doing a circumcision which would not be kosher for a Brit Milah, and of course there are berakhot and other prayers necessary for a Brit Milah.
3) There are courses which have been offered by the Conservative movement for training mohalim, but most mohalim learn through apprenticeship. There are no specific credentials akin to a Rabbi’s ordination certificate.
4) In order to find out whether a particular mohel or Ob/Gyn is kosher, check with your rabbi.
Question: The Torah commands that male infants be circumcised on the eighth day. Why the eighth day as opposed to the third day, seventh day, or any other number? What makes the eighth day especially appropriate for circumcision? I was able to find only one Mishna reference to this; it said that this allowed the infant to gain strength. It did not, however, give any further information on how or why the eighth day was selected.
Answer: Understand that the Torah gives not a hint of why Abraham circumcised Isaac on the eighth day. It is simply God’s command to do so. Any significance we give to the number eight is simply speculation on our part.
The reference in the Mishnah of fixing the Brit Milah on the eighth day for health reasons is indeed the only Talmudic explanation. It does not, however, provide a satisfactory explanation against delaying until the ninth, tenth, or eleventh day, or later – if the infant is strong enough on the eighth day, certainly he is stronger on subsequent days. Perhaps the response would be that we want to do the mitzvah at the first possible opportunity, and the eighth day is the first safe possible opportunity. I think, however, that medical explanations miss the point of the significance of the eighth day.
The number eight is significant in the Tanakh as 7 + 1. The number seven signifies creation and Shabbat – an act which is complete, perfect, and holy. Eight might symbolize an act which is one step above perfection – a special, covenanted relationship. There are very few eight’s in the Tanakh:
At Pesah, we begin counting the Omer. We count 7 x 7 weeks, and on the day after this series of seven’s (a kind of eight), we celebrate Shavuot, the time of receiving God’s ultimate covenant, the Torah.
We celebrate Sukkot for seven days. On each day of Sukkot, in the days of the Temple, there was a series of sacrifices offered on each day of Sukkot, the total of which added up to 70 over the course of 7 days. In the classical rabbinic mind the number 70 symbolizes the number of non-Jewish nations in the world (another example of the number 7 used as wholeness – the wholeness of the population of the world); therefore, they interpreted these offerings to be made on behalf of the entire world. The day after Sukkot, the eighth day, is a festival known as Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of assembly. On that day, only one offering is made. The rabbis therefore understood Shemini Atzeret as being a private festival for the Jews alone – after we have taken care of the whole world, we now can spend one day enjoying our special covenantal relationship with God. Though Simchat Torah is a late Medieval festival, the fact that Jews in Israel celebrate Simchat Torah on this eighth day adds a nice parallel element to Shavuot (in the Diaspora, of course, we celebrate Shemini Atzeret for two days, so Simchat Torah is pushed to the ninth day).
Back to Brit Milah: For seven days, the child is developing, being created, as it were. On the eighth day then, we celebrate the child’s participation in God’s covenant.
The above represents my speculation. I make no claims to know the definitive reason for Brit Milah on the eighth day, but it is fun to wonder . . .
Question: Is it acceptable to use a local anesthetic when performing a circumcision on an infant (or an adult, for that matter)? It is medically possible to use an injection of a novacain-like drug, similar to the ones used in dentistry?
Answer: I have been doing a bit of reading on this particular issue, so while I am not a mohel and have no direct experience, I can summarize for you what I have read and heard.
Using a topical anesthetic is permitted, though the effectiveness of such an agent is not complete. The babies cry for two reasons; first, because of exposure to the cold air; and second, because of the pain of the circumcision. The anesthesia dulls the second pain, but not the first, so it does not prevent the babies from feeling discomfort. With a professional mohel working quickly the pain is very brief, and the baby is generally easily comforted by a pacifier and being placed the parent’s arms.
I would stay away from anesthetics administered by injection. First of all, the pain of administering the anesthetic by needle is greater than the pain of the circumcision. Second, it takes about 45 minutes before the agent becomes effective. Third, most mohalim are not licensed to administer anesthetics in this way, and it would require a physician who, frankly, is not as practiced in circumcisions as most mohalim. Fourth, the injection itself carries some measure of additional hazard. This brings up issues of liability, and immensely complicates a brit milah with very little – or no – benefit for the child.
Question: We are adopting a newborn child in Virginia. The child is expected to be a boy, and the birth mother is not Jewish. We are from New York, and interstate adoption can take from 3 days up to about 2 weeks. Final custody may not be granted for up to 45 days.
We have a few questions:
1) If the procedure takes longer than 8 days for us to establish initial custody, can the Bris be delayed until we do? Alternatively, should we arrange a ceremony in Virginia on the 8th day?
2) When do we perform the Pidyan Ha-Ben? Once again, do we wait until we have final custody (which may be as much as 45 days) or do we do so when we do the circumcision?
3) Same basic question as to the conversion of the child. At what point in time do we immerse him both literally and figuratively into Judaism?
1) Ideally, the baby would be circumcised by a mohel on the 8th day, but since the child is not yet Jewish at that point, it is not a hard and fast mitzvah to do it on exactly that day (the circumcision liturgy is slightly different than a regular circumcision, since it is done for the sake of conversion). If it cannot be done in NY until the 14th day or so, then you can certainly delay. I would check with a pediatrician and/or mohel, however, about delaying the brit milah too much, because I imagine that the more well developed the nervous system is, the more painful the circumcision would be.
2) Since the birth-mother is not Jewish, there is no pidyon haben.
3) As far as immersion in a mikvah, check with your pediatrician for the final word. My understanding is that babies have a reflex in which they close their eyes and mouth and stop breathing momentarily if you blow in their face. They lose this reflex at about 6-9 months of age. Therefore, you can take an infant, 2-6 months of age, safely to the mikvah to complete the conversion process. Just blow in his face right before immersing him. Again, however, double check with your pediatrician.
Question: My son was adopted at 3 days old. His bris was performed by a mohel and was converted by 3 orthodox rabbis using the ocean as a mikvah. I have been told that even though I am a Levite, my son is an Israelite. Is this true?
Answer: According to a teshuvah adopted the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 1988, an adopted child is not a kohen or levi by virtue of adoption into such a family, should not receive any honors reserved for kohanim or levi’im, and should leave out of his/her name reference to his/her father as “hakohen” or “halevi.”
Question: I have read the questions posted regarding circumcision and they seem to be about tradition and law. I’m pregnant now and would like to know what the MEDICAL BENEFITS of this procedure are and apart from religious beliefs why should I do this to my baby if it’s a boy?
Answer: There is convincing evidence that circumcision eliminates the occurance of penile cancer in men, and greatly reduces the occurance of cervical cancer in women who are married to circumcised men.
However, there is an anti-circumcision movement afoot which is publishing information that medically, circumcision is not desireable — that the benefits, however, real they may be, do not cancel out the fact that one is performing surgery on a patient against his will. Because of this, there are Canadian and American Pediatric associations that no longer recommend routine circumcision.
Therefore, I urge you not to make your decision of whether or not to circumcise based solely on the medical benefits of the procedure. Regardless of any medical benefits, I believe that the primary reason to circumcise a Jewish baby boy is religious. Remember, we call the circumcision a Brit Milah, which means a covenantal circumcision. It is more than a medical procedure — it is a sign of a 3500 year old covenant between Jews and God. Imagine, for about 3500 years Jewish parents have been circumcising their sons, just as Abraham circumcised himself and then his sons; just as Tziporah, the wife of Moses, circumcised their two sons on their way back to Egypt; just as Jews during the persecutions that led to the miracle of Hanukkah risked and even gave up their lives to defy the Syrian order forbidding circumcision.
Question: Thanks for the info. Ironically I just found out yesterday that I’m having twins so there may possibly be two boys to consider. My husband is totally in favor of circumcision and he’s not jewish, I am jewish and I’m on the fence. If I decide to do it I will definitely have it done by a mohel in a religious context, that way it will have more meaning than just having it done in the hospital.
Answer: Mazal Tov, Mazal Tov! My wife and I have two surviving triplets boys, and a set of boy girl twins. There is nothing better . . .
If you have a set of boy girl twins, make sure that you incorporate a babynaming ceremony for the girl into the brit milah ceremony for the boy.
Question: WOW that is amazing, if you don’t mind me asking, did your wife take fertility drugs or have in-vitro fertilization? I’ve never heard of so many multiples! Talk about a blessing!
A very curious thing happened in my pregnancy, maybe you’ve heard of this … when I went for my sonogram we saw the two fetuses and my doc said I was having twins and we were delighted, we have twins on my father’s side of the family and it didn’t seem very unusual, but then she noticed a dark area on the sonogram and after taking a closer look she realized it was a third sack that was being “absorbed.” In other words there were triplets but one didn’t make it. she told me this was normal and happens quite frequently without women ever knowing it. It seemed a little odd to me as I didn’t take fertility drugs or have in-vitro. I’m not worried just confused, have you ever heard of such a thing? Yes I will definitely be having a baby naming ceremony for the twins, my hebrew name is Channah and I love it.
Answer: Our pregnancies were the result of fertility treatments, a subject for a different AskARabbi question!
It is common for a woman to become pregnant and never know it. If there is a fatal genetic problem with the early pregnancy, the egg will stop dividing after some number of divisions, and the pregnancy will either be reabsorbed or miscarried, usually between 5 and 8 weeks. If that third sac had been your only one, you would either never have known you were pregnant, or you would have experienced it as a miscarriage.
My understanding on the hereditary transmission of twins is that it is only transmitted through the mother’s genes, not the father’s. However, I might be wrong.
Question: I have horrible news. I had a miscarriage this morning and I lost the babies. I’m so sad, maybe there is a prayer I can say for the babies?
Answer: I am so very sorry. Ha-Makom y’nahem etchem, may God comfort you. Our older two children are surviving triplets, born at 26 weeks gestation.
There are two books which should be available at your local synagogue library or bookstore:
Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones, by Rabbi Debra Orenstein; and
Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss, by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin.
They are both published by Jewish Lights Publishing, 800-962-4544.
If you are unable to find the books locally, I would be happy to fax/mail you a copy of a couple short prayers found in these books.
Again, please accept my condolences.
Question: I hope you don’t mind me writing to you but I am having a very difficult time accepting the fact that I lost the twins. I know there is nothing I can do to bring them back but I am so sad about it and I’m finding it hard to enjoy life.
I was so looking forward to chanukah this year and my 39th birthday is tomorrow, now all I seem to be able to do is cry. I know I shouldn’t feel so sorry for myself, that alot of people suffer much worse than this but it’s killing me emotionally and spiritually. I have lost faith in God and the universe, do you think this is a sign that I’m not meant to have children? I’m scared to try and have another baby, what if I have another miscarriage? I need something to believe in.
Answer: Andrea, may God bless you as God blessed our ancestors, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, with descendants more numerous as the stars above or the grains of sand on a beach.
Question: Thanks for your letter and it was nice to talk to you the other day. I forgot to mention something to you when i spoke to you:
About a week before the miscarriage a very close friend of my husband and I died, he was only 37 and he was Jewish and we both went to the funeral and the cemetery because it felt like the right thing to do and we wanted to be with his friends and family for this occasion but I had heard about a Jewish superstition that a pregnant woman should not go into a cemetery because it can be bad for the unborn baby, so we went anyway but we left as soon as the rabbi let the family leave but I am very superstitious and now I fear that going into the cemetery may have caused me to lose the twins, have you heard about anything like this?
Answer: There are all kinds of Jewish superstitions, none of which adequately describe the way God works in the world. Imagine — God taking away the life of your twins because you did the mitzvah of comforting mourners? I can’t believe it.
Question: We spoke after I miscarried twins last winter, I am now 6 months pregnant with one baby who is do on or around April 11th. We don’t know the sex but my husband wants it circumcised if it’s a boy, I’m wondering who I should have do it, a doctor in the hospital or a mohel?
Answer: I am so happy that you were able to get pregnant again, and that you have decided for circumcision. The best way to find a mohel (who are much better, more experienced, than doctors, and who also know the blessings and rituals surrounding a brit milah) is to call a nearby synagogue (you may be more comfortable with a non-Orthodox synagogue). Let me know how things turn out.
Question: What is the significance of nahit (chick peas) at a bris? Also, is there any other food that “must” be served at a bris?
Answer: I have done a bit of research on Nahit, and although I do not have a definitive answer, I have a pretty good guess. First of all, Nahit probably represents fertility, as in “may your children be as numerous as chickpeas.” It is also possible that they are eaten because they are round, and are a symbol of the eternal cycle of life. Nahit (along with eggs) is also traditional at a seudat havra’ah, the meal of consolation after a funeral.
However, although nahit is “traditional,” it by no means is mandatory (although if grandmother says it is, I wouldn’t argue with her!). There are no mandatory foods at a se’udat mitzvah after a brit milah.
Question: I am have a baby and the father is Jewish and I am Catholic and I was wondering how I would go about having godparents for my child. Do I have to have her one religion and does the people we pick have to be a Catholic or Jewish or does it not matter?
Answer: Most interfaith couples, when they marry, have already discussed the issue of religion, and have decided to raise their child in one faith or the other. I strongly urge you to choose one religion to pass along to your child. If you try to give your child a conflation of both Jewish and Catholic traditions, you will do justice to neither, and your child will likely reject both. After you choose a religion, the issue of choosing a godparent will resolve itself.
Question: I am 7 months pregnant and my husband and I are starting to think about godparents for our child. Could you please tell us about Jewish law and/or customs regarding this?
Answer: The Godparents of a child are known as the k’vatter (Godfather) and k’vatterin (Godmother). From the point of view of a brit milah, the person appointed as k’vatter and k’vatterin are being appointed as the moral guardians of your child, in case of the death or disability of both parents. They would be responsible for raising the child with a life of Torah and Jewish values.
This is not a legal appointment from the point of view of American law. You and your husband should draw up a will (if you have not done so already) formally appointing guardians for your children if – God forbid – need be. The guardians may be the same ones who are appointed as k’vatter/k’vatterin, or may be different. In any case, the k’vatter/k’vatterin do have a significant responsibility to support the religious upbringing of your children. Therefore, the very serious decision of whom to appoint should be made with careful thought and discussion, keeping Jewish values foremost in your mind.
Question: My husband and I are expecting our first child in June. In case this child is a boy we’re already trying to figure out a way to divide up the honor of being Sandek among our respective fathers. Of course we both can make strong cases why this honor should go to our own fathers. Is there a way to share this honor? Any solutions will spare us a lot of arguing and hurt feelings among two families who really do not get along at present.
Answer: My wife and I solved the problem by having twin boys! 🙂
If this solution does not work for you, then I can suggest another solution; but first, I have a philosophical point to make.
You and your husband are going to have to compromise and make a decision. Whatever you do, remember that this is your child, not your family’s child. Whatever you decide, it is possible that the father who gets the “lesser” honor will be upset. But since you have to make a decision, one can only hope that both sets of your parents will be adult enough to accept that the decision is yours, not theirs.
One Solomonic solution:
You can have one father hold the child before the milah, and the other hold him after the milah. You can even call both of them Sandeks, if you want. This may not solve the problem entirely, since there may be a perception that holding him before the milah is more important. Nonetheless, it seems fair to me!
You might also decide that the father left out of the more important role in this celebration will get the more important role when the next baby (God willing) is born.
In any case, b’sha’ah tova (May the pregnancy and birth be healthy).
Question: When you name a baby:
(1) is it only named after the deceased?
(2) If you pick a name that is a name you liked and it starts with the same first initial as a living relative is that wrong?
(3) Is the jewish name letter the letter you are supposed to match?
(4) If the named person has already been named after in the family can you reuse it?
(5) does it matter if it is a first or middle name?
Answer: The Ashkenazi custom is not to name a child after a living relative. This custom is rooted in a superstition that the angel of death might confuse the two names, and take the wrong person; for example, a young child instead of the older grandparent of the same name.
I do know of cases in which cousins are named after the name person, and sometimes even share a name; for example, two brother may both name their sons Barukh after their father.
As long as you do not name after a living relative, you have not violated this custom; therefore, one may name a child Sarah after Grandma Sarah even if the Grandma on the other side is named Sally.
There are no other hard and fast rules for naming. It doesn’t matter whether it is a first name or a middle name; or whether you use the first letter of the English or the Hebrew name, or even use the meaning of the English or Hebrew name. For example, one of the meanings of the name “Madison” is “good,” and the Hebrew equivalent (for a girl) would be “Tova.”
For a good source for names and their meaning, I suggest The Complete Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names, by Alfred J. Kolatch.
Question: Where does the custom of Jew not naming a child after a living relative come from? Does the prohibition extend to middle names as well. If my middle name is David (My Hebrew name is Yitzhak), can I name my son David? Does it help if I legally change my middle name to something else?
Answer: The custom against naming after a living relative is rooted in a superstition that the angel of death might confuse the two names, and take the wrong person; for example, a young child instead of the older grandparent of the same name.
The custom is not to name a child after a living relative, either by the same first or middle name, or by using a related name that is meant to represent the living relative’s name – for example, naming a child Barry after Uncle Barukh (may he live and be well!) would go against the custom, as would naming your son David if that is your middle name.
I suppose it would help if you changed your middle name to something else – but I would advise against it. Your parents named you Jeffrey David (A great name, by the way – my name is David Jeffery!) for a reason, and I don’t think you should change it in order to name your son David. Better to choose a new name for your son.
Question: What is significance of a baby naming? I am married to a Greek-Orthodox female. We are considering Baptizing and a baby naming in a reform Jewish temple. Is it possible to do both?
We want to raise the child in both religions. Does a Jewish naming renounce Chistianity? Does a baptism mean she can not be named? Does being named mean you are Jewish, or is this just the first step? I believe you also must be consecrated. Please advise.
Answer: As I see it, the main issue in your question is in the sentence, “We want to raise the child in both religions.” I strongly encourage you to reconsider. Judaism and Christianity are not compatible. One cannot be both at the same time. To raise a child in both religions means to give your child so many conflicting messages that you are effectively giving her no religion.
To give but a few examples: Has the messiah come (and thus we celebrate his birthday on Christmas) or not (as Judaism believes)? Do we get into heaven purely based on our own behavior (and thus we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as days upon which we evaluate our behavior) or do we at least partly depend on Jesus’ death to assure our salvation (and thus we celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection on Easter)? Do we celebrate Shabbat on Friday night/Saturday, or do we celebrate the Lord’s Day Sabbath on Sunday? Does the Bible consist of about 25 books (depending on how you count them), the books of the Hebrew Bible; or does it also contain the gospels and other works of the Greek Scripture?
Please do not delude yourself that you are giving your child both religions so she may choose for herself when she gets older. There are at least two problems with this:
First, to choose one religion means to reject one religion, and this means rejecting one parent’s religion, which means rejecting the values set of one parent. Most children would rather choose neither than choose one parent over the other.
Second, you will not letting your child choose her own bedtime, whether she goes to school or not, whether she brushes her teach, whether she eats chocolate chip cookies for dinner, or whether she cleans her room and does other chores around the house. Why would you consider letting her choose something as important as her religion?
Because your wife is not Jewish, the traditional Jewish movements will not recognize your daughter as Jewish without conversion (immersion in a mikvah). The Reform movement will only recognize her Jewishness if you and your wife agree to raise her as a Jew. It seems to me that if you baptise her, then many Reform Temples may very well not recognize her Jewishness.
My suggestion is that you and your wife choose one religion for your daughter. Although I recommend Judaism, I would rather you choose Christianity then a meaningless blend of both, which is insulting to both traditions. I suggest that the two of you schedule meetings with the local Reform Rabbi and the local Orthodox Priest, and based on the two discussions, make a choice between them.
Question: What does the ceremony of Pidyon Haben entail? How is it celebrated?
Answer: A pidyon Haben, redemption of the first born, is a somewhat uncommon ceremony done 30 days after birth, i.e., on the 31st day, based on a verse from Numbers, 18:16. If the 31st day falls on a Shabbat or festival, it is postponed until the next day. It generally takes place during the day, and is usually a home-based ceremony, though it could take place anywhere.
It is somewhat uncommon because it is only done for if the firstborn child is a boy. The child must be an “issue of the womb,” meaning that if the child is born by Caesarean section, there is no Pidyon Haben. Also, the child needs to be the very first “issue of the womb.” Therefore, if a woman has had miscarriage, a subsequent male child would not have a Pidyon Haben.
For the ceremony, you need:
1) a Kohen
2) a bottle of wine
3) 5 coins. Silver dollars are often used today, though you can buy specially minted Pidyon Haben coins, produced by the Bank of Israel.
The ceremony is very simple. Basically, it consists of five steps:
1) The father hands the child to the Kohen, and recites a statement of the mitzvah of pidyon haben;
2) He places the five coins before the Kohen, and states that he wants to redeem the child from Temple service;
3) He takes the child back and recite the blessing of pidyon haben, and mother and father recite shehecheyanu;
4) The Kohen takes the coins, reciting another exchange formula, and blesses the child;
5) Conclude with a festive meal.
The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (Conservative) has put out a Pidyon Haben booklet with the traditional Hebrew and Aramaic service along with a good translation and a modern commentary and explanation of the procedure. It also provides two certificates that can be given to the family as a keepsake of the occasion.
Question: Your response to the question of Pidyon Haben really troubles me. It is certainly not all that uncommon a ceremony/happening here in Minneapolis, nor I suspect in other major cities. We had a Pidyon Haben for our first son. I delivered normally nor did not have a previous miscarriage. That is not as unusual as you seem to think. Besides, many, many families are choosing, with their Rabbi’s support, to have the ceremony despite a previously lost pregnancy or c-section delivery. Incidentally, I am a conservative Jew and president of my synagogue’s Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. I strongly urge you to restate your answer so as not to dissuade couples interested in carrying on a beautiful tradition.
Answer: There is nothing in my responses to the questions about Pidyon Haben to discourage people from doing the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben. During the course of my explanation, I outlined the circumstances under which it is a mitzvah to redeem a first born – and it is indeed a somewhat uncommon occurrence.
Let’s assume 50% of first births are boys. Subtract from that families in which the delivery was c-section. Subtract from that families in which mother or father is a Kohen or Levi. Subtract from that families in which there was a previous miscarriage. Thus, significantly less than 1/2 of all male births are in fact bekhorim, require a Pidyon Haben, causing it to be, in my opinion, somewhat uncommon.
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement recently discussed the idea of doing a Pidyon Haben for children who are not bekhorim, as halakha has traditionally defined them. Their conclusion: Since it involves a berakha, and to do it when it is not strictly necessary would be a berakha l’vatala – a blessing in vain (taking God’s name in vain), one should not have a Pidyon Haben for a child unless he is truly a bekhor.
Certainly there are rabbis who would do a Pidyon Haben anyway – and that is their right as mara d’atra, local authorities. I would not do so, thus I answered the question according to my understanding of Halacha.
Question: I have recently learned that I should have redeemed my son. As he is now 21 years old, I am confused about how to do this. I have written to him asking him if he wanted to do it himself, but he hasn’t done it. Should I go ahead or is it required that, as he is an adult in both the secular and Jewish law, that he must do it himself?
Answer: The mitzvah of Pidyon Haben, redemption of a first born male child, is incumbant upon the father. If the father does not do it, when the child reaches the age of Bar Mitzvah, the mitzvah shifts from the father to the son himself. Your son is now obligated to do it for himself. It is a wonderful ceremony – perhaps you can encourage your son to speak to his Hillel rabbi, and arrange to redeem himself.
Question: Is there a religious basis for not cutting a baby’s hair until baby is 1 yr old ? Is this superstition?
Answer: I know of no tradition of giving a child their first haircut at the age of one. There is a tradition, called an upshernish, of waiting until the age of three for the first haircut. It is not exactly based in superstition; rather, it is based on a mystical approach to a midrash which compares a child to a tree whose fruit, according to halakha, may not be harvested until the third year.