It is the eighth day following the birth of my baby. I sit upstairs in my home nursing my child in preparation for the vigors of the ceremony that welcomes newborns into the covenant of Israel. A few minutes later, I gently hand the baby to my father and join my mother and my husband, Dan, at the back of the living room downstairs. The baby emerges in my father’s arms to the sound of our guests greeting the child with the traditional Hebrew welcome. My father sits in the specially designated chair of Elijah, the prophet known for defending the covenant and protecting children. Our guests welcome Elijah with a prayer. The baby is then passed to my mother who has the honor of placing the child on Dan’s tallit that is spread out on the table in front of us.
The baby is remarkably silent as the ceremony proceeds. Rather than undergoing a surgical procedure, our daughter symbolically enters into the covenant when Dan and I lovingly swaddle her in the tallit. With her frilly pink dress obscured, our daughter lies there for a second, still wrapped up, until we pick her up to embrace her. Following this covenantal ritual, we recite a number of traditional blessings, one of which is that she enter into Torah, the marriage canopy, and good deeds. Our guests echo these hallowed wishes. I remember when we shared the same beautiful moment with our baby’s older brothers and sisters.
As we conduct this ritual (called a “brit bat” or “covenant of a daughter”), I think about how the covenant encapsulates the essence of Jewish existence and the eternal relationship between God and the Jewish people. I reflect on how the covenant embodies the Jewish people’s acceptance of God’s commandments and God’s promise to love the Jewish people in perpetuity, grant them a homeland, and multiply their numbers to match those of the stars.
My thoughts also turn to the countless other newborn Jewish girls and my hope that each one will likewise participate in this formative ceremony, the first step on a path to a lifetime of Torah. Circumcision is but one manifestation of the fundamental covenant, albeit a very important one. In the ebb and flow of Jewish history, however, circumcision came to be perceived erroneously as the essence of “Jewishness.” Circumcision even became known as “brit milah” (the covenant of circumcision) or simply as brit (covenant). By contrast, no one calls the seventh day of the week “brit Shabbat.” Even parents who disparage circumcision often circumcise their sons, mistakenly believing that their sons require this mark to be counted as Jews. In truth, however, all people born of a Jewish mother are Jewish, and all Jews — both male and female — are members of the covenant. All Jews, therefore, should commemorate the significance of this status.
This ceremony evokes for me the covenant’s chain of generations and reminds me how much I miss my grandparents and my husband’s grandfather. There is an unconditional, free-flowing love that only a grandparent can provide. Dan’s father is also in my heart; the tallit we used belonged to him before his untimely passing 30 years ago.
I contemplate the covenantal imagery of the tallit. My thoughts turn first to the tzitzit fringes attached to the tallit’s corners, which the Torah connects to the commandments and the exodus from Egypt, both integral covenantal components. The tallit’s function as a prayer shawl also makes me think about the potential for communication between God and each individual and how this mutuality enables the covenant. The tallit even brings to mind the State of Israel whose flag is modeled on the tallit’s stripes and blue fringes. I recall how the tallit fits seamlessly into Jewish lifecycle practices, each of which incorporates the tallit in some fashion.
I notice that the act of swaddling comes naturally to Dan and me. It is almost instinctual for Jews to wrap in a tallit items of extreme holiness such as Torah scrolls — and in this case, a precious baby. Our daughter is swaddled in the warm embrace of not only her family, but also the entire community of Israel.
In the final segment of the ceremony, Dan and I announce our daughter’s name for the first and only time. We deliberately decide to forego the standard Ashkenazi synagogue naming — a “Mi Shebairach” prayer recited typically in the absence of the baby and her mother. Instead, we reveal our daughter’s name at a moment of anticipation, the culmination of a week of waiting and wondering.
In the years to come, when Tamar Sarit asks us how we welcomed her into the Jewish community, we will be proud to tell her what happened on her special eighth day.
Sharon R. Siegel’s forthcoming book, “A Jewish Ceremony for Newborn Girls: The Torah’s Covenant Affirmed,” will be published by Brandeis University Press in late 2012. She lives with her husband and four children in Teaneck, N.J.