Jewish Perspectives

The Jewish People and Synagogue

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am Almighty God; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly." Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: "As for me, behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." And God said to Abraham: "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you:

Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (Genesis 17:1-14)

When we think about the life of the Jewish people, the obvious place to start is the matter of circumcision, the brit milah. It is the first ceremony that the Jewish boy will experience when he is formally initiated into the covenant and we read the order of that in Genesis 17. The chapter commences with the word to Abram "Walk before me [that is, in my view, or, under my supervision] and be blameless." The basic condition on which God’s covenant with Abram was made was the call to a holy walk.

There are two other factors that we should note very carefully in the original ordering of that institution. First of all, the institution was prior to the birth of Isaac but it had particular regard to his birth and, secondly, it was related to the promise of numerous posterity. In other words, the sign of the covenant had to do with propagation and referred to the sinfulness of human nature. One great lesson that should be learned from the institution of circumcision is that natural descent does not entitle one to the grace of God and that is a message the Jewish people need to learn. The rabbinic writings they make very clear that circumcision is extremely important.

In The Jewish People and the Tanakh we emphasise the importance of the Talmud in Judaism and the Jewish contention that God has spoken in two ways. First of all, say the rabbis, God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai the tables of commandments written on tablets of stone. But also, the rabbis teach that Moses gave a law on Mount Sinai which was not written down, a kind of secret law, an Oral law that was passed down by word of mouth from teacher to disciple through the centuries. In the New Testament it is referred to as "the tradition of the elders", and in the year 200 AD, or thereabouts, Rabbi Judah the Prince gathered that law together and put it into writing. There was a fear at that time that with the dispersing of the Jewish people, the oral Law might be lost.

The rabbinic schools sifted and analysed every sentence and every word of the traditions and added their own commentary to it. This written Oral Law became known as the Mishnah, or "repetition" and the commentary that was added to it is Gemara, Together, Mishnah and Gemara comprise what we call Talmud, which consists of 63 tractates in seven great volumes.

In the Mishnah, in the tractate Nedarim, there is a statement concerning the greatness of circumcision:

It was taught: Rabbi said, Great is circumcision, for none so ardently busied himself with [God’s] precepts as our Father Abraham, yet he was called perfect only in virtue of circumcision, as it is written, Walk before me and be thou perfect, and it is written, And I will make my covenant between me and thee. Another version [of Rabbi’s teaching] is this: Great is circumcision, for it counterbalances all the other precepts of the Torah, as it is written, For after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. (Nedarim 32a)

Circumcision overrides even the Sabbath laws and is one of the 36 transgressions for which one can be cut off from Israel and takes place on the eighth day unless the health of the child warrants a postponement. The ceremony used to be conducted in the synagogue but today it more generally conducted in the home. If you ever have the privilege of being at a circumcision you will see that there are three chairs arranged with one chair facing the other two. One chair is for the mohel, who has the responsibility in the community for circumcision, the second chair is for the godfather who will hold the child and the third is for Elijah (Passover is another occasion when a chair set for Elijah. the forerunner of the Messiah). The child is brought in beautifully dressed for the occasion and the people stand up and give the usual traditional greeting to welcome the child, Baruch ha ba b’shem Adonai – "Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord – and the father responds with the word Hineneh – "Here am I".

After the circumcision the people respond with these words: "Even as this child has entered into the covenant so may he enter into Torah [the law] into chuppah [the wedding canopy] and into mitzvot [good deeds]. Inevitably there’s a glass of wine (on the occasion we attended a circumcision a ball of cotton wool was dipped into the wine and put into the baby’s mouth, which seemed to have an anaesthetic effect in preparation for the circumcision. The mother isn’t in the room but the glass, called "the cup of blessing", is sent to her that she might partake of it too.

Redemption of the firstborn

A division exists among the Jewish people. Jews are either a Cohen – a priest or Levite – or an Israelite. They do not know the other tribes but they at least know that division and the redemption of the firstborn takes place only if the father of the firstborn son is neither a Cohen nor a Levite and the mother is neither the daughter of a Cohen or Levite.

The biblical ground for this is Exodus 13:2. The first words that God spoke to the people after bringing them out of Egypt: "Sanctify to me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and animal; it is mine." As the firstborn was the representative of the people in the deliverance from Egypt, so the firstborn is to be their representative in separation unto God. Exodus 13:1-10 is the first section that is put in the tefillin, or phylacteries, that Jewish men wear on their heads and left arms. The next section is Exodus 13:11-16, and these two passages centre on the concept of belonging to God: "You are mine", "You are separated unto me".

In Numbers 3:39ff God orders that the Levites are to take the place of the firstborn children so the Levites have to be counted and the firstborn are counted. Those firstborn over and above the number of the Levites are to be redeemed with five shekels. The redemption ceremony today takes place on the 31st day of the child’s life and the father must present the child not to a rabbi but to a Cohen, a priest.

"This my firstborn son is the firstborn of his mother", begins his prayer. The father gives the child over to the Cohen and then the father places before the Cohen silver to the amount of five shekels. The Cohen asks the question, "Which wouldst thou rather have: the silver or the child?" The father answers, "I desire to redeem my son." And so the child is given back to the father.

The Cohen then holds the silver over the head of the child and says, "This in place of that, and this in commutation for that." He then places his hand upon the head of the child and pronounces the priestly benediction:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.

No rabbi is allowed to do that, only the Cohen, and the whole emphasis in the redemption ceremony is that the child belongs to God.


In Mishnah in the tractate Aboth 5:21 there is an interesting statement from Judah ben Tema:

He used to say: five years [is the age] for [the study of] Scripture, ten—for [the study of] Mishnah, thirteen—for [becoming subject to] Commandments, fifteen—for [the study of] Talmud, eighteen—for the [Bridal] canopy, twenty—for pursuing [a calling], thirty—for [full] strength [or authority], forty—for understanding, fifty—for [ability to give] counsel, sixty—for mature age [or, to be an elder], seventy—for a hoary head, eighty [is a sign of superadded] strength, ninety [is the age] for [a] bending [figure] at a hundred one is as one that is dead, having passed and ceased from the world.

The rabbis have interesting ways of putting these things still there’s a custom in some communities to bring the child into the synagogue at his first year and to introduce him as it were to the study of Torah. Leo Trepp in A History of the Jewish Experience (pp. 221,2) points to a former custom that at one year the child was brought into the synagogue and the swaddling cloth that had been used to wrap him at his circumcision, now embroidered with his name and his date of birth, was wrapped round the Torah scroll a binding of him to the study of the Torah. I’ve asked very widely among the Jewish people and can find no evidence that this custom is carried on at all today.

Certainly a very great stress has been laid on the education of the child. The Old Testament speaks of the importance of educating the child but nowhere in the Old Testament do we have any indication of any communal means for the education of children. Very early in the Christian era the high priest Joshua Ben Gamma introduced the principal that every community should have a school for boys from five years. The elementary school was known as the Beth Sefer (the House of the Book) where the child would gain instruction in Torah, or in the actual Scriptures. For the more able there was the Beth Hamidrash (the House of Research, or Enquiry) where they would move on to the rabbinic writings. The Beth Sefer became known as the Cheder, that is, a room where the teacher met with his children; and Beth Hamidrash became known as Yeshiva, meaning "sitting". Today the Yeshiva is for the study of Talmud and Mishnah and other rabbinic writings.

The basic education then of the child is in Cheder and is usually connected with a local synagogue. The children attend perhaps three times a week after normal day school, and again on Sunday morning. Some communities have a Talmud Torah, which is another name for Cheder but the building is maintained and controlled by the community. In Jewish areas the rabbi will attend the normal day school and conduct R E classes for Jewish children. In Glasgow there is a school which takes children from five to twelve years and, along with normal studies, gives the children an intensive preparation in Jewish matters. There is also a branch of the Lubavitch organisation which offers a Cheder for children as part of their missionary endeavour to win Jewish people back to a more Orthodox position.

In Cheder children learn Hebrew, the Prayer Book, some Torah and the prophets and the rudiments of the Talmud; the basic requirements for a Jewish boy’s religious life. Hebrew is necessary because everything the Jewish boy will handle in the way of liturgy in the synagogue or in the home is in Hebrew and it is essential, therefore, that he be able to read Hebrew, though not necessarily to a standard where he can understand the language.

When I was in college we had the privilege of being taught Hebrew by the local Orthodox rabbi. He introduced us to Hebrew by taking us through the books used by the children at Cheder. When we reached the point where we could read fairly quickly a page of Hebrew he told us that we had attained the standard to which they tried to bring the boys in Cheder so they could recite the prayers.

It is necessary that the boy should study Torah and have some background knowledge of God’s dealing with his people and what God requires of him now. He will learn the pattern of the festivals and fasts with the particular rules that must be kept in relation to them.

And then there is Talmud. I’m not suggesting that in Cheder the child makes a study of Talmud but all his biblical learning point of view will be coloured by Talmudic teaching. Take, for instance, the phylacteries which Jewish men still wear for their daily prayers. According to Talmud they must be made from the skin of a clean animal and sewn with twelve stitches, the straps have to be of a certain length and they mustn’t be wider than a piece of barley. The knots made in them are in the shapes of Hebrew letters, the one for the head is the letter Daleth and the one bound on the arm has the letter Yod. On the box itself is the letter Shin which, together with the Daleth and the Yod makes up the name of God: Shaddai. There is a particular order for the putting on of the Tefillin when you begin to pray. The first is bound upon the biceps near to the heart and is bound with seven twists around the forearm. The phylactery upon your head is bound so that the box rests at the point where the hair begins. If it protrudes onto the forehead you are not fulfilling the law and the precept will not be accepted.

Take another example: the matter of dietary law. In the Orthodox Jewish there will be two different sets of crockery – usually in different cupboards – one for milk dishes and one for meat dishes. Milk and meat dishes cannot be served at the same time, you can’t put milk in your tea for at least four hours after you’ve eaten meat at your lunch, and you should have two sinks – one for washing the milk dishes, one for washing the meat dishes. You will have two tea towels, one for the milk dishes one for the meat dishes. If you ask the rabbis why they have added all these rules, they will tell you that they strengthen God’s law by their additions. The Jewish people, they reason, may break the man-made laws but they’ll not reach God’s law to break that!

Son of the Commandment

All this education in the traditions is leading up to the time of the Bar Mitzvah when the boy is 13 years old. There is a misconception that Bar Mitzvah occurs at twelve years old and I take it that this is because Luke chapter 2 where Jesus taken up to the temple at twelve years old. Tractate Aboth in the Mishnah (see above) states that at thirteen a boy is ready for becoming subject to the Commandments. In the Talmud a boy had to be brought to the temple one or two years before his thirteenth birthday so that he would become acquainted with the ritual of the temple and the festival rites. One would think that Jesus being taken up to the temple at that time was more in keeping with that tradition.

The Bar Mitzvah ritual, as we know it now, is fairly recent; Jewish scholars tell us that it came into its own about the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Therefore there are no special laws relating to Bar Mitzvah and in different communities one finds different customs. There were basically three parts to that service of Bar Mitzvah as it was originally kept:

The father would express his gratitude to God that the boy had reached this particular age and in effect he made a public pronouncement that he yielded responsibility for the religious life of his son to himself.

The boy delivered a discourse on some learned part of the rabbinic writings to prove that he’d been trained and was ready to take his place among the men.

The parents arranged a festive meal.

There is only one real difference in the pattern as we have it today, and that is that the boy is called in the synagogue to read from the scrolls. What he reads really depends upon his ability; he may only read from the Haftorah, the portion from the prophets. He may read the whole of the Sidra, the synagogue reading, from the law. That would be unusual but not unknown and therefore the most important part of his preparation for Bar Mitzvah will be learning in Hebrew the passage that has to be sung from the law.

The basic idea behind all this is, of course, that the boy is ready to fulfil the commandments, and in the prayers that are uttered in the synagogue there is the idea of this responsibility being passed from father to son. The father says, "Blessed be He who hath freed me from the responsibility of this child", and the son responds, "O my God, God of my fathers, on this solemn sacred day which marks my passage from boyhood to manhood I humbly raise my eyes to Thee and declare with sincerity and truth that henceforth I will keep thy commandments."

There is an idea among the Jewish people that until this moment the father is responsible even for the sins of the child and that at this point the boy is taking upon himself the responsibility for everything including his sin.


The word for marriage is chuppah, the ornate canopy which is supported by four poles under which the ceremony takes place, usually in the synagogue. Among the very Orthodox the wedding is held in the open-air, according to the Talmudic injunction which says that chuppah should be made under the open skies because the Scripture says, "Thus shall thy children be like the stars of heaven."

The word chuppah comes from a root word meaning, "to cover" but it is interesting to note Joel 2:16 the expression, "Let … the bride [go out] from her dressing room [chuppah]". In Psalm 19:5 we read, "Like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber [chuppah].

This seems to suggest that the chuppah originally was the name for the bridal chamber and thus it seems the idea expressed in the Talmud when it states that the most important requisite of chuppah is privacy, and goes on to describe the bridal pair led to a private room to eat alone. But obviously the chuppah early became a portable canopy as we have it today.

Now both the New Testament and the Mishnah make it clear that originally there was a betrothal that preceded the marriage by one year. Today the two ceremonies are combined under the chuppah. The two fathers escort the bridegroom to the chuppah and then the two mothers escort the bride. Once again there is the familiar greeting: Baruch ha ba b’Shem Adonai, and the singing of Psalm 100. The rabbi takes a glass of wine, questions their intention with regard to marriage and the couple drink of the wine. The betrothal is then complete and the marriage proceeds under the chuppah.

In Mishnah Kiddushin 2a we have the statement that there are three means by which the woman can be acquired, and it appears that all three are included in the chuppah ceremony: The first is by living together, and that is achieved symbolically as they enter together before witnesses into the privacy of the chuppah. The second is by money, and the ring achieves this. The Talmudic statement is, "Be betrothed to me by this money", but in the Prayer Book it is, "Thou are consecrated to me by this ring." And, thirdly, by a writ or contract called a Ketubbah, and this is achieved by the rabbi actually reading this contact and, basically, it says, "Be betrothed to me." There follows the reciting of seven benedictions which is calling for God’s blessing upon this transaction and before the final benediction and the singing of Psalm 150 there is the breaking of a glass. A glass is put on the floor under a cloth and the man puts his foot on it and breaks it.

Why the breaking of the glass? There are many explanations. It is associated with sorrow and loss for the destruction of the temple and the dispersion of the Jewish people, which must never be forgotten even during times of greatest happiness. Another suggestion is that it is a custom copied from numerous nations who sought to propitiate their gods by destroying some valuable possession. A third and final explanation seems ac far more attractive possibility, and that is that it follows the ancient custom of breaking a vessel to ratify a covenant or a contract similar to cutting the covenant which involved the dividing of the sacrifice which was symbolic of what would be the desert of the party breaking that covenant. So the couple is saying, in effect, "May I be as this glass if I do not keep the marriage covenant."

Death & Mourning

Death for the Jew, as for the Christian, is a devastating experience and yet we are very much aware that at such a time as this Jewish sorrowing lacks the positive hope and assurance of the Christian faith. Not that the Talmud is silent on the matter of life after death, but the teaching seems to be somewhat vague and speculative. I remember the rabbi coming to our college and speaking to the student body and after he had spoken being asked questions and this was one of the ones about life after death and the rabbi answered, "We do not know. We hope."

The Talmud sees death as an atonement for sin, indeed a final atonement for sin. In Yoma 86 you have the statement: "But if he has been guilty of the profanation of the Name [of God], then penitence has no power to suspend punishment, nor the Day of Atonement to procure atonement, nor suffering to finish it [and all these are considered as possible means of atonement] but all of them together suspend the punishment and only death finishes it, as it is said: And the Lord of hosts revealed Himself in my ears; surely this iniquity shall not be expiated by you till ye die."

Further, death is understood as the consequence of sin. In Shabbat 55 there is no death without sin, which leads to the suggestion that the person who does not sin would automatically be immortal and certain people in the Old Testament scriptures are pointed to as examples. It is claimed that there are 903 varieties of death. That comes from Psalm 68:20 which speaks of the "issues" of death and Hebrew word translated "issues" has a numerical value of 903. The lightest form of death is what they call "the kiss of death". They claim Aaron and Moses experienced that; they died at the "command" of the Lord or, literally, at the "mouth" of the Lord. It was the kiss of death.

The Angel of Death occupies a very important place in rabbinic writings. At the time of a death Jewish people today will often cover the mirrors in their homes because of a superstition that one can see the Angel of Death in a mirror. One of the strange descriptions coming from the Talmud is that the soul is like a large vein and that the Angel of Death takes hold of that vein and extracts it from the body: "From the body of a righteous man he extracts it gently as though drawing a hair from milk. From the body of a wicked man it is like the whirling of waters at the entrance to a canal."

One is discouraged from touching a dying person for fear that "the flickering flame will be extinguished". But there is no law, as is commonly supposed, that forbids the touching of a body after death. The body should in fact be lifted to the ground which is symbolic of returning to the dust and watchers should then remain with the body until the burial. There’s a service in a small building for that purpose, whilst in an adjoining room the body is prepared for burial according to complex laws of purification. The deceased is dressed in special robes and wrapped in his own tallit, or prayer shawl. The Prayer Book that is used on that occasion is in part divided into sections under a letter of the Hebrew alphabet and those sections are chosen and read which make up the Hebrew name of the deceased.

When the coffin is brought into the mourning hall the chief mourners move to the coffin and there is the ceremony of the rending of the garment. The person is to rend the garment one hand’s breadth on the left side for the father or mother, and on the right side for any other relative. At the graveside the mourner says Kaddish for the first time and thereafter he will say it daily at the synagogue for a period of eleven months. Kaddish is a prayer, which literally means "sanctification". In the home, services are held every evening for the following seven days and this is called sitting shiva. In the Orthodox home no outdoor shoes will be worn and the mourners will sit on low stools.

After one year there is a stone laying ceremony called Yahrzeit. Thereafter, on the anniversary of the death of the person a candle is lit in the home and kept burning for 24 hours. The mourner will attend synagogue to say Kaddish and on the Sabbath following that anniversary he will be called up to read in the synagogue. The content of the prayers associated with mourning indicate how far Judaism has moved from the principle of Scripture as we know it, for though Kaddish has no mention of the dead, in fact it is often emphasised that other prayers are clearly prayers for the dead. For example in the Siddur, the Prayer Book, we have the memorial prayer which goes:

O Lord and King, who art full of compassion God of the spirits of all who are flesh, in whose hand are the souls of the living and the dead, receive, we beseech thee in thy great loving kindness the soul of [the name is put in at that point] who hath been gathered unto his people Have mercy upon him, pardon all his transgressions…


In some measure we have followed the course of Jewish life and I believe we have seen something of the unmistakable marks of a privileged people and, equally clearly, the indications of their stumbling. And as we leave the Jew wrapped in his tallit again we are constrained to think of the daily prayer he makes when putting on his tallit: "As I am here enwrapping myself in this fringed robe, so may I in the life to come enwrap myself in that glorious robe of righteousness."

However, it is a robe he cannot have unless he has it in Messiah. Should not such facts move us again to prayer that the veil might be removed and that the enemy’s subtle and multitudinous additions will be revealed for what they are and that the God-given form and pattern which remains among them might be filled afresh with life from heaven.

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