Birchas Hachamah — The Blessing of the Sun

We are used to thinking of the Creation of the Universe as a one-time event that took
place 5769 years ago. And while it is true that Hashem created this universe 5769 years
ago, that was only the first time. In point of fact, Hashem recreates the universe every
second. Creation is a continuous process.

As we say each morning in Shacharis (the Morning Prayers), “Who renews, in His
goodness, each day, constantly, the work of creation.”

The world continues to exist only because of that constant renewal. Hashem did not
merely create the world and leave it at that. Hashem constantly re-creates and maintains the world, actively and with intent and close scrutiny. It is, in fact, the very first of the Thirteen Principles of Belief obligatory to all Jews: that Hashem creates and maintains the universe and all creations, and that Hashem is the only One Who has ever made, Who makes, or Who will ever make, everything.

We are required to say Ashrai (Psalm 145) three times a day, in order to impress upon
ourselves and to declare our understanding that Hashem is Master of nature and that He alone does all things.

Thus, it is fitting, that when we declare Hashem blessed because of an act of Creation, we bless Him in the present tense. The blessing that we will (Hashem willing) make this year over the sun is “Who makes the work of Creation.”

Hashem placed the sun in the cosmos on the fourth day of Creation, on what we would
today call a Wednesday.. Every twenty-eight years, on a specific and carefully calculated
Wednesday, the sun rises in the very same place that it rose on that first Wednesday.

At that time, we say the blessing “Blessed are You Hashem, our G-d, King of the
universe, Who makes the work of Creation.”

The Purpose of the Blessing

The Sefer Sho’el Umaishiv (from the illustrious Rabbi Joseph Sha’ul Nathan son, Rabbi
in Lvov / Lemberg until around 1875, author of a number of highly respected works)
explains Birchas Hachamah this way:

In Koheles (Ecclesiastes 3:1) it says “There is a season for everything, and a time for
everything under the sun.”

King Solomon then goes on to list 28 examples:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck plants;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break, and a time to build;

A time to cry, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to discard;

A time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

All these are matters that are UNDER the sun, that is, creations of THIS world. All are
things we do as part of our finite lives. All are things that have beginnings and ends.
Everything that begins in this world, will have an ending in this world. (Our souls were
created before the universe was created, and even still, Hashem can destroy an unworthy
soul, if He would ever want to, though I don’t know if such a thing actually happens.)

Entropy is a law of nature. Hashem created the physical universe that way.

But the important thing is that whatever can end, must have been created. It must all
follow Hashem’s rule and guidance.

The purpose of Birchas Hachamah is to declare that belief in the sun as an independent
power or deity is false. It is HASHEM Who makes the acts of Creation, now and always.

The very fact that there is a cycle to the sun means that Someone set such a law in motion. The sun follows a law that it cannot violate. The sun is directed, and it is held in check and controlled by that Director. Hashem forces the sun to return to its original spot, to the place it began its cycle, to the place where Hashem created it in the first place, to declare to the world, “I am not master – Hashem is Master!” The sun, like everything else, is subject to time, and therefore was created by Hashem.

The Talmud tells us that each day, when the kings of the world awaken and bow to the
sun, this angers Hashem. Therefore, we wake up in the morning and declare Hashem to
be King.

What time do the kings do this? The Talmud says that kings who sleep late wake up no
later than the end of the third hour after the beginning of the day.

So anywhere from sunrise to three hours later is the time designated by pagan kings as the time to worship the sun. Therefore, says the Sho’el Umaishiv, that is the time for us to say Birchas Hachamah, since its very purpose is to negate paganism.

Nevertheless, the Rabbis rule that this is the optimum time to say Birchas Hachamah. If
you have not said it before the end of three hours, you may say it until Halachic mid-day.

About Saying the Blessing

This is the only time that we may say this brachah (blessing). We say it on the morning of April 8, when we see the sun.

Some say the brachah as early as possible in the morning, but I believe the most
widespread custom is to say it after the Morning Prayers, which should be said, on that day, as early as is permissible. Make sure you know what your synagogue/community is planning on doing.

This should preferably done with as many Jewish men together as possible, because of the dictum that the greater the crowd the greater the honor shown to the King. However, if you are alone, you may nevertheless say the brachah (blessing).

Some people wear tallis and tefillin while saying the brachah.

It is customary to say various other psalms and prayers before and after, but these are not mandatory.

The brachah should be said while standing.

Unlike Kiddush Livanah (the Blessing On the Moon, which we say each month), Birchas
Hachamah may be said while standing under a roof, or inside a building while seeing the sun through a window.

When to Say the Blessing

Birchas Hachamah may not be recited all day. There is a specific range of time during
which it may be said.

We may not say Birchas Hachamah before sunrise. While some Rabbinic opinions hold
that this means from when the top of the sun becomes visible over the horizon, others
hold that we should see the entre sun overt he horizon when we make the brachah. It is
best to follow the practice of your community. The difference is only about two and a half minutes.

It is preferable to say the Brachah before three Halachic hours after surnise. However, it
is generally held that we may say it until Halachic noon.

Of course, like all Mitzvos, we are supposed to try to do it as early as possible. As the
Torah teaches us, “Zrizin makdimin limitzvos,” those who wish to do mitzvos with the
proper zeal and honor that Hashem requests, in order to honor Hashem, do mitzvos as
early as possible.

We must actually see the sun before saying the Brachah. If the sun is hidden by clouds,
and we cannot even see the outline of the sun, then we may not say the brachah. However, if the outline of the sun, or a part of the sun is visible, we may say the brachah.

We must see the sun itself, and not a reflection of the sun. (Remember, though, that it is
not safe to gaze at the sun, so just one look should suffice.) We may also see the sun
through eyeglasses, or other lenses, even binoculars (though that is probably a bad idea).

It is important to remember that the purpose and meaning of this brachah is to praise
Hashem over the greatness of His creation. That is the essence of this brachah.

Who Should Say the Blessing

Women may say this brachah. It is not an “obligation based on time,” because it isn’t
really an obligation at all, not even for men. The Talmud says “Whoever sees the sun [at
this time] should say this brachah…” It does not say that we are required to get up early
and see the sun at that time. Furthermore, the brachah does not say “Who commanded us to…” So it is not a Commandment or absolute obligation to go and see it so you can say the brachah. But doing so is meritorious for anyone who does so.

However, there is, as always, the concern that men and women may mix in the crowd.
Separate sections must be arranged for the occasion. One should not go to a place where men and women mix freely in public.

Bear in mind that you may say this brachah anywhere that you can see the sun when you say it. It is merely BETTER to say it with the community, but you don’t HAVE to.

I am told that several of the leading Rabbis in Israel have instructed their communities to make special sections for the women, so that they too may say the brachah with the entire community.

An onen (a mourner during the period after his relative’s passing but before the burial)
may not say the brachah before the burial.

A mourner during the shivah (first seven days of mourning) should say the brachah, but
should not go to the synagogue or other gathering place for it. And he or she should say
only the brachah itself, and not the other psalms and passages of Talmud that many
people say with the brachah.

A blind person should not say the brachah. He should ask someone else to say it for him, and he should answer amain.

Children who are old enough to be taught these sort of things (in most children from
around six or seven years old) should be taught the meaning of the brachah and should be brought along to say it.

After Birchas Hachamah we say Alainu, the final prayer after all three of the Daily
Prayers, even though we already said it when we finished the Morning Prayers earlier.
When bowing to Hashem in Alainu, you must turn to another direction, so that it doesn’t look like you are bowing to the sun.

May Hashem bring back to us the light of Creation that He hid away for the World to Come, and remove all the evil and bring all that is good to the world.

Connections Are Never Lost

There can be no question that anyone who has lived as a good person in this world will be happy in the Afterlife. And no one who has been worthy of having friends in this world could possibly be without friends in the Next World.

And if the dear departed person leaves family or friends in this world, he or she is doubly fortunate. Even though he has passed on, his friends and family here in this world can still do a great deal for him.

The renowned Rabbi Akiva (first and second centuries C.E.) was once walking in a cemetery, when he encountered a hideous-looking man. Rabbi Akiva was startled by his appearance, and asked him to stop his work so he could talk to him. The man stopped for a moment to talk with Rabbi Akiva, and he told him, “I am a dead person. Because of the unspeakable sins I did when I was alive, I have been condemned to terrible punishment, and that is why I look like this.”

“Is there no way you can be redeemed?” asked Rabbi Akiva.

“If someone would say Kaddish for me, or lead the congregation in prayer and praise Hashem, then I would be rescued from this situation,” answered the dead man.

“Do you have a son?”

“I don’t know. When I died, my wife was expecting a child, but I have not merited being told whether it was a boy or a girl, or even whether or not the child lived.”

Rabbi Akiva immediately went to the man’s hometown and searched for his wife and son. Whenever Rabbi Akiva mentioned the man’s name to anyone in that area, they responded, “May he be cursed for all the evil he did when he was alive.”

Eventually, though, Rabbi Akiva found the son. Unfortunately, the son was unlearned and a troublesome child. Rabbi Akiva spoke gently to him, and convinced him to study Torah with him. He taught the child to say Kaddish for his father.

The night after the child said Kaddish for the first time, the departed father came to Rabbi Akiva in a dream, and blessed and thanked him for having saved him from further anguish.

The son later grew up to become a great Rabbi, by the name of Rabbi Nachum HaPekuli, and because of his Torah study his father merited a great reward in the Next World.

This story tells us that there is a great deal we can do, because the connections are never lost. Whatever relationship anyone has with you is not severed when he dies. And whatever we do in this world on behalf of the departed in the Next World, affects the departed deeply.

Of course, some connections are closer than others. A son has the greatest ability to bring merit to his parents, as does a daughter. This is particularly true if the departed parent taught the son or daughter to keep the Torah’s Mitzvos. But even if the parent was not observant, and never instructed the children to be observant, their children’s performance of Mitzvos automatically reflects on the parents, and thus brings them merit.

Some of the things that can have a positive effect on the souls of the departed are: the study of Torah and giving charity, particularly if done expressly in their name.

I don’t know why, but lighting a candle in their name, even at home, is also beneficial to them.

But the truth is that any Mitzvah the living do on behalf of the departed, especially when done by the offspring of the departed, elevates the souls of the departed in Heaven. And of course, it also has a beneficial effect on the souls of the people who do the Mitzvah, and to some degree, to all Jews everywhere and to the entire world.

There are several Mitzvos that are especially assigned for the purpose of honoring and elevating the souls of the departed. One of them involves praising Hashem and asking Him to bring the Messianic Era and the Resurrection of Souls so that the whole world knows the greatness of Hashem’s Name. This is the saying of Kaddish.

Another customary method is that of studying Mishnayos (an essential part of Torah Study) for the departed. The Hebrew word “Mishnah,” which refers to a paragraph of Mishnayos, has the same letters as the word “nishamah,” soul. Therefore, we study Mishnah to elevate the soul.

It is customary that a woman study the first five chapters of Pirkai Avos, the Ethics of Our Fathers, which is a tractate of Mishnah.

The Custom – when possible – is to study the entire Six Orders of the Mishnah in time to make a commemoration thirty days after the person has passed away. This is called the “Shloshim,” which means “thirty.” Not everyone can do that alone, so in most cases they are divided among numerous people, each person taking one (or more) Tractate(s). Some Tractates are rather large, and so they are divided between several people.

A sign is usually hung up at the house where the mourners are staying so that the people who come to comfort the mourners can choose a Tractate they feel comfortable studying. They will study, perhaps, a few mishnayos every day, finishing the entire Tractate before the Shloshim.

People who accept upon themselves this task should be informed of the exact date of the Shloshim, so that they know to finish their studies of Mishnayos before then. They should expressly study it in honor of the departed, and mention the name of the departed and his/her mother’s name. They should say, before and after studying,“For the elevation of the soul of Avrohom ben Sarah,” or “Rachel bat Sarah” (substituting the actual names, of course).

If possible, one of the sons should study the first tractate (Berachos) of the Talmud, and another son should study the last Tractate (Uktzin).

In any case, on the night of the “Shloshim” — that is, on the thirtieth day after the passing — the departed’s family and their close friends gather for a meal. During the meal, whoever studied Uktzin should finish out loud the final Mishnah of the Tractate, and all the sons should then say Kaddish together. There are a few prayers they should say first, if possible. Those are printed in many copies of Mishnayos.

If the sons cannot do this, or if there are no sons, you should hire someone to say Kaddish and to study Mishnayos for the soul of the departed. The purpose of hiring such a person is because then two Mitzvos are accomplished for the honor of the departed: the study of Torah, and offering livelihood to someone who studies Torah, which is a very great form of charity. Below is a link to an someone who can help with this.

It is also customary to study one Tractate of Talmud for the yartzeit, the yearly anniversary of the day the departed passed away. It is best to do this every year, finishing on the day of the yartzeit. Again, not everyone can do this. See below for a link.

Probably the most important and beneficial method of bringing reward to the departed is to search your own life for ways to improve it. When you improve yourself, you elevate your soul in this world and the soul of the departed in the Next World. This is particularly true when someone’s parent has passed away, but it is true for all souls.

I want to say a word in passing about daughters and wives of a dearly departed, since this is often a misunderstood subject. While women don’t say Kaddish, there are many things that they can do. Certainly, they should give charity in the name of the deceased, and light the yartzeit candle. They should pray, say additional psalms, learn Mishnah from Pirkei Avos, and above all, say Yizkor (the Remembrance Prayer) on Holidays. They should also try to arrange for a gathering and small meal for friends and/or family of the departed. If this is not possible, they should pay for a meal for yeshivah students, or for poor people. Acts of kindness, such as helping someone (in a non-monetary fashion), are also of the greatest excellence.

Donations in the name of the deceased are very beneficial to the soul of the departed. If in some way this helps people, a great deal of merit goes to the departed, as well as to you for being the agent that did it in this world. The donations can be any of many different types. You can support a scholar, or even just partly support him. You can donate money so that students can have Books of Torah, Talmud, etc. This way, all their Torah study adds reward to the soul of the departed and to you, which elevates both his soul and yours to higher levels whenever they study Torah from those Books. Or you can donate to a senior citizens’ home, which enhances their lifestyle and takes pain away from them, which, again, brings reward to you and the departed in whose name you are doing this.

There are many types of charity, and many ways to increase holiness in this world. As long as any soul is part of doing such holy work, everyone will benefit.

For those interested in hiring a Torah Scholar to say Kaddish or to study Torah for a loved one,
call 206-279-8422.

The Shivah Call: Comforting the Mourner. What do I do? What do I say?

«After Abraham died, Hashem blessed Isaac, his son».(1) How is Abraham’s death relevant to Hashem’s blessing Isaac? The Talmud says that when Isaac was sitting shivah, the seven-day period of mourning, Hashem came and comforted him, and blessed him.(2)

We see from this how great it is to comfort mourners, and that by doing so we are emulating Hashem.

The Mitzvah of comforting a mourner is so important, that it takes precedence even over the Mitzvah of visiting the sick, if it is impossible for you to do both. This is because comforting a mourner is an act of kindness to both the living and the departed.(3)

Our requirement is not, of course, to do the same as Hashem does, and we are not capable of doing things exactly as Hashem does them. I will try, with Hashem’s help, to explain our requirements in comforting mourners, as well as some do’s and don’t’s.

Incidentally, I do not know where the term «making a shivah call» comes from. The traditional Jewish term is to be «me-NA-chem UH-vail,» to comfort a mourner.

Many people worry, before going to comfort a mourner, «What should I say?» The answer is: very little. A person in pain needs to talk, and he needs someone to listen to him talk. He doesn’t need you to say very much. Your job, in comforting the mourner, is to listen to the mourner, responding when necessary and appropriate. Always let the mourner take the lead in the conversation.

Our basic requirement is to make the mourner feel better.(4) The idea is not that we should try to take his mind away from his pain. A mourner has to come to grips with his loss, to learn to accept it, and not ignore it. He has to pour out his feelings and express his sorrow. You can show your empathy and caring by listening to him. Even just entering and not speaking gives comfort, and honors the mourners.(5)

Most of all, the mourner needs to know that he is not facing the world alone, that he has friends.

When is the best time to visit a mourner? One may visit and comfort a mourner at any time during the shivah. However, the first three days of the shivah, when the pain is greatest, it is best if only close friends and family visit.(6) During the first three days, a mourner cannot truly be comforted, because the pain is still too fresh. However, if it is difficult for you to visit later, you are technically permitted to visit even during the first three days.(7)

It is not customary or necessary to bring food, unless you know that the mourner has no food to eat. If possible, someone should assume the responsibility of arranging (cooking or bringing) meals for the mourners.

A man should not visit a mourning woman, or mourning women, if there are no other men present. It is proper to take along another man.(8)

Following are Laws that we must follow when at the house of a mourner:

It is forbidden for a mourner to be joyful during the shivah.(9) This is no time for telling jokes or for being light-hearted.

A mourner is forbidden to say hello or goodbye; likewise we do not say hello or goodbye to a mourner. We do not say «shalom,» or any other greeting.(10)

The visiting comforters may not begin speaking until the mourner has spoken to them first.(11)

Once the mourner has nodded his head in farewell (since he is forbidden to say «goodbye»), the comforter may no longer sit there, but must leave.(12) The reason for this is because overstaying your visit could cause the mourner discomfort.(13) Since these days nodding the head is not a standard method of communication, make sure you keep very attuned to the mourner’s feelings so you will know when to leave.(14)

Before leaving a mourner you say, in any language you prefer, «Hamakom yinachem eschem b’soch sha’ar availay Tzion v’Yerushalayim.» Which means: «May Hashem, Who is everywhere, comfort you amongst the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.»(15) The mourners should answer «Amen.»(16)

If the mourner does not speak at all to the comforter, the comforter may still say «Hamakom Yinachem…» when he leaves.(17)

Never tell a mourner to sit down. Since the first seven days of mourning are referred to as «sitting shivah,» it sounds as if you are telling him to stay in mourning, G-d forbid.(18)

If one has not comforted a mourner during the shivah, one should do so during the first thirty days after the funeral, by saying «Hamakom yinachem, etc.» If thirty days have passed, one should not recite that, but should say «May you be comforted,» or «May you never know any more pain.»(19)

May Hashem’s promise to us soon come to pass, that «I will overturn their mourning to joy, I will comfort them, and I will give them joy that will be greater than their former pain.»(20)

A good book to read on this and all such matters is «The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,» by Maurice Lamm, published by Jonathan David Publishers. It is a well-known book, and most good Jewish book stores will have it or can get it. You can also order it from Tiferes Stam Judaica.


1. Genesis 25:18
2. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a
3. Maimonides, Laws of Mourners, 14:7
4. Shelah, 144:1
5. Prishah, YD 393, #3
6. Gesher Hachayim, 20:5:5; Daas Torah, §376
7. Gesher Hachayim, ibid
8. Gesher Hachayim, 20:5:1
9. Shulchan Aruch, YD 391:1; Gesher Hachayim, 21:8:2
10. Shulchan Aruch, YD 385:1
11. Shulchan Aruch, YD 376:1
12. Shulchan Aruch, YD 376:1
13. Maimonides, Laws of Mourners, 13:3
14. Aruch Hashulchan, YD 376:3
15. Prishah, YD 393: #3
16. Pnai Baruch, 11:5, quoting Rabbi Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach, obm
17. Pnai Baruch, 11:4, footnote 5, quoting Rabbi Auerbach.
18. Shulchan Aruch, YD 376:2
19. Shulchan Aruch, YD 385:2
20. Jeremiah 31:12

About the Jewish Marital Laws

Question: My husband and I have had trouble conceiving a child. We know that keeping the Laws of Marital Relationships often help people conceive a child. Can you explain to me what these Laws are?

It is true that these Laws have often given people the merit they needed to conceive children. In this small article, I can give you some of the basics that you need to know. When you feel ready, you can move on to more details of the Laws.

Please remember that this article is intended for beginners, and therefore does not include everything there is to know about this subject.

Let me begin with some philosophical background.

The Laws of Niddah are Laws of Holiness. The Laws of Niddah, like all the Laws of Judaism, elevate the physical to the highest spiritual level a person can reach. It allows us to rise above ourselves — not by ignoring the physical, but by using it for spiritual gain.

According to the Laws of the Torah, it is also the responsibility of a husband to keep his wife satisfied to the best of his ability, just as it works the other way as well. To the Jewish way of thinking, marital relations is one of the greatest physical gifts that Hashem has given mankind. Therefore, do not shun it, and do not avoid it. But on the other hand, do not debase it.

As with all things in life, we learn to use it in such a way that elevates us. The fact that we arrange ourselves according to the schedule of one of the partners in the marriage, in accordance with the Torah’s Laws, allows us to develop the self-control and discipline that can lead us to holiness.

Niddah is one of the sets of Laws that also has beneficial side effects. We do not know the reasons for any of the Commandments, but we can understand some of the benefits and some of the beauty in many of the Commandments that affect us daily.

During the time that a man and woman are forbidden to have relations they are forced to relate to each other in non-physical ways. They must see each other in other terms, and develop their relationship with each other on a spiritual and emotional footing.

And this is not optional. The Torah commands a husband and wife to follow this cycle, and thus make certain that their relationship has depth. The Torah is very concerned about the well-being of all Jews.

We should not assume, however, that this is the reason that the Torah gave this Commandment. Nevertheless, understanding this intended side-effect of these Laws can spur us on to greater joy in their observance.

Before I begin, take note of this: A vital factor of the Laws of Family Relations is something we call «tzniusTznius involves proper attitude, and is a primary means to holiness. For example, we do not make jokes about private bedroom matters. Even in a serious vein, a woman’s personal matters are nobody’s business but hers, her husband’s when he needs to know, her doctor’s, and her Rabbi’s when and if he needs to know. We generally do not discuss with others about which day a woman has gone or is expected to go to the mikvah, and unless there is some overriding need, she will not mention it even to another woman.

Tznius involves, among other things, knowing what should be only between husband and wife, and what is public. Discussing the Marital Laws, of course, must also be done in the most respectful manner, and not in public, and certainly not with unmarried men or boys.

Let us now begin to discuss some of the Laws of Niddah.

The Torah teaches us, «Do not draw close to a woman when she is a niddah; relations are forbidden [at that time].» (Leviticus 17:18)

Notice the Torah’s wording here: «Do not draw close.» The Torah does not specify any particular type of drawing close, but ties it in with marital relations. In other words, any act of physically drawing close is forbidden. And certainly, any act that could lead a person to marital relations is forbidden. A husband and wife are very accustomed to being physically intimate with each other, and therefore they must take great care in these matters.

When a woman is a niddah, she and her husband must relate completely on a non-physical level. Certainly, they do not hug or kiss each other, for that would be «drawing close,» in a manner which is associated with relations.

When does a woman become a niddah? When blood comes from her womb. She might see the flow, or she might see a stain on her clothing.

It is necessary for me to point out that for a woman to become a niddah the blood must come from her womb. If she cuts her finger, for example, she does not become a niddah. If she finds blood on her underclothing, and she does not know if it is from a cut or from her womb, she should call a Rabbi and ask.

When blood exits a woman’s womb, she becomes a niddah. This should not be looked at as a time of negativity. Her body is renewing itself, getting ready to produce fresh ova so that she will be able to fulfill the Commandment of procreation. And it is a time of freedom, in a sense.

A woman is a niddah until she undergoes what we call «taharah.» The taharah process
involves a minimum of twelve days, most often thirteen. These are divided into two sets of time, the first five days, and seven days of taharah, after which she must immerse properly in a mikvah.

It is important to note that a woman who does not go through this process cannot become tahor. It does not matter if she not seen blood in ten years. No matter how long ago she last had her period, if she has not immersed properly in the mikvah, she is still a niddah. We will discuss those Laws below, with Hashem’s help.

The first five days begin when she first sees the flow. She counts from the beginning of the flow, and continues until the flow stops. If it takes less than five days for her flow to stop, she still has to wait until five days are over. Even if she saw blood for only one day, she must wait five days until she can begin the seven-day taharah process.

The five days need not be complete five days. The first day might start in the middle of the day, if she first saw her flow in the afternoon. But whenever they began, they end on the night after the fifth day, as we will discuss below.

For example, if she first saw blood on Sunday, whether it was Sunday morning, or Sunday afternoon, or even Sunday evening ten minutes before sunset begins, Thursday is the fifth day. It is therefore the final day of the five days, even though that actually adds up to only four-and-a-half days. 

If she sees blood on a Saturday night, Sunday is still the first day of the five days, and
therefore Thursday is still the last day of the five days. Remember, our days begin when night begins. Gentile days go from midnight to midnight, but Jewish days go from nightfall to nightfall.

If she sees for more than five days, the «five» days end when she has definitely stopped
seeing. (It is quite normal to see for six days.)

Once she has stopped seeing blood, she can begin the count of the Seven White Days. When I say «stopped seeing blood,» I mean either a flow of blood or stains on her clothing. It means that she has completely stopped seeing blood.

The Seven White Days begin when the woman, before sunset, takes a shower or bath, and cleans herself thoroughly, everywhere, or at the very least in that area. She then waits a few minutes, and inserts a cloth (as explained a few paragraphs below) and checks herself. If it comes out clean, then the next day is the first day of the Seven White Days.

The Seven White Days are not simply days of waiting. The woman must check herself twice a day, once when she gets up in the morning, and once just before sunset.

The checking is done with a white, absolutely clean piece of cloth (about three or four inches square). Specially made cloths for this purpose are sold in various places. You can usually buy them at your local mikvah.

First, the woman checks the cloth very carefully to make sure it is clean of any marks.

When satisfied that it is absolutely white and clean, she places her finger in the center of the cloth, and allows the cloth to wrap around her fingers. When she inserts her finger, she pushes the cloth in so that every surface inside her is touched by the cloth.

She removes the cloth, and checks it again, very carefully. If it comes out free of any mark, no problem. She can begin the Seven White Days. If the cloth has a mark, no matter how small, then it depends on the color.

A red color mark is obviously no good, and means she has to begin the count again. It means she is still seeing some discharge of blood.

A black mark means she must begin again, because blood can become black.

White or pale yellow are not a problem, and she can continue the Seven White Days.

Sometimes other enzymes and secretions can mix with the discharge, so colors may come out strange.

Colors like brown, dark yellow, gold, and pink, are very problematic. What we do is we bring them to a competent local Orthodox Rabbi who looks at the cloth and is able to determine whether it is Niddah blood or not.

One of the more intense series of lessons that many Rabbis undertake in their training is the study of Niddah checking cloths. A Rabbi who studies this field is trained to recognize the many possible colors that can appear on a checking cloth, and to know what they are. Therefore, Rabbis are very experienced in these matters, and you should not hesitate to bring a cloth with a questionable color to the Rabbi.

During the Seven White Days the woman should wear white underclothes, and use white linen on her bed. If she sees on them a stain of a questionable color, at any point during the Seven White Days, she must ask a Rabbi, because each case is different. She might even have to start the count of Seven White Days from the beginning.

So the sequence is as follows: The woman has her period, or as the Orthodox phrase it: the woman sees blood. She waits five days, or until the blood stops, whichever comes LAST.

Just before nightfall, she cleans herself, and checks internally. This checking is called the
Hefsek Taharah — the break for Taharah. If the cloth comes out clean, she can begin the Seven White Days.

Let’s go back to the original example, and assume that she saw blood Sunday morning. Let’s say the blood stopped Wednesday, and she didn’t see even a stain. She should do her Hefsek Taharah on Thursday evening just before sunset. If it comes out clean, Friday then becomes the first day of her Seven White Days.

Friday, the first of her Seven White Days, she does another check when she wakes up in the morning. Friday evening, just before sunset, she checks again. Saturday morning she checks again, and Saturday evening just before sunset she checks again. And so on. She does this for seven days: every morning, and every evening just before sunset, until the following Thursday evening.

I mentioned above that the five days don’t have to be complete. But the Seven White Days must be complete. Therefore, the woman goes to the mikvah the night the Seven White Days are over. This is the same day of the week that they began. In other words, if she began the Seven White Days on Thursday night, then she will be going to the mikvah on Thursday night, unless something goes wrong, and she has to start again from the beginning of the Seven Days again. This does not usually happen, but it can.

Thursday evening, just before sunset, she checks again, and if everything is still okay, which by then it usually is, she begins the preparations for the mikvah. This involves a luxurious and relaxing hour of preparations, including a bath, followed by a shower, and other careful preparations. She cleans and cuts all her nails, both finger and toe, as well as making sure there is no food between her teeth. She must clean her ears, and every body cavity. She must remove all makeup. She must comb out all her hair completely. This means all hair she has everywhere on her body. Many women take the bath at home, and do the follow-up shower at the mikvah.

When going to the mikvah, she may not have anything between her and the water at any part of her body. Therefore she must remove all jewelry, makeup, etc. This is why she should not get a haircut too close to going to the mikvah, because sometimes small hairs are hard to get rid of after a haircut. There is supposed to be a woman attendant at the mikvah to help you check that you are ready for the mikvah. You may have to call the mikvah in advance to make sure she is there that night.

Immersing in the mikvah must take place after the Seven White Days are completely over, so you will generally be attending the mikvah after the stars come out in the sky, when we know that it is already definitely night.

When you immerse, you must make sure that all of you is immersed and is touching water. Even your hair must be under the water. One of the purposes of the mikvah lady is to make sure that you and all your hair have been completely and properly submersed.

When you immerse in the mikvah, you will make a blessing. The custom among many is to immerse once, then make the blessing, and then immerse two or three more times. The woman there should help you with the blessing. The blessing means «Blessed are You Hashem, Ruler of the universe, Who has made us holy through His Commandments, and has commanded us about immersion.»

When you immerse the subsequent times, it is a good time to silently pray for special things, like that Hashem grant you children.

When you return home, the first thing you should say to your husband is «I am tahora.» This means he is now allowed to touch you, which was forbidden all the time of your niddah.

The night a woman returns from the mikvah she and her husband are required to have relations. Any other nights are really up to the desires and needs of the two. Biologically speaking, the best night to conceive is usually mikvah night.

If you need to find a mikvah, see the links at the bottom of my wife’s article «The Jewish Facts of Life» (the link for it is at the bottom of this article).

There is one more aspect of these Laws that we must mention. The Torah also forbids relations on the day that a woman expects her period. This is called «veset,» which means, more or less, «cycle.» The day of her veset she and her husband must refrain from relations, because on that day she should expect her period. We call that «keeping her veset

How does she know when to expect her period? This is done by keeping a careful record of when each of her periods start. A woman should have a private calendar on which she marks the time of the month that she first sees blood. Most importantly, to make life easier, she should also mark whether she saw it by day or by night. Thirty days later, she should keep her veset.

If for example she sees blood on the morning of April 1st, she counts thirty days. On April 30th she must keep her veset, and refrain from relations that day. She does an internal check with an examination cloth and looks for any drop of blood. If the cloth comes out clean, then that night (the following night — i.e., the night of April 30th that becomes May 1st) she may have relations with her husband.

She should also calculate how much time has passed between her last two periods. For example, if she saw April 1st, and then saw on April 28th, then she has what we call a veset of a twenty-eight-day interval (counting both the first day she saw and the day that she saw the second). She should count twenty-eight more days, which would bring her to May 25th, and on that day she should refrain from relations. That day is her «Interval Veset.» The next time, she counts the interval between her last two periods.

Most women wind up keeping their veset on both the thirtieth and thirty-first days. If your cycle is more erratic than that, see if your doctor can help. With your Rabbi’s guidance, it may be possible to correct it without violating Jewish Law.

Keeping the Laws of Niddah properly are very likely to help you get that extra merit from Hashem that will help you conceive a child. And best of all, you will then know that he or she was conceived in the best of situations.

It is also good to say each Friday evening, as you light Shabbos candles, the special prayer that women say when they light the Shabbos candles. It includes a prayer for children. Giving charity is also a good thing, and especially just before praying.

May Hashem help you, and grant you healthy children in the best possible way, and may they all grow up to light the world with Torah and good deeds, and give you many years of joy.

Some books for more advanced reading on this subject:

* Hedge of Roses, by Norman Lamm

* The Secret of Jewish Femininity by Tehilla Abramov, published by Targum / Feldheim Publishers.

You can get these and other great books at Tiferes Stam Judaica

How to Dress and Act at an Orthodox-Jewish Festive Occasion or Gathering

A Jewish festive occasion is called a “simchah,” which is the Hebrew word for “joy.” In this article, I will try, with Hashem’s help, to answer the questions I have received about what is expected of the guests at a Jewish simchah.

One young man asked me if he was expected to bring a date. The answer is no. We don’t even have such a concept, in fact. If your boy/girlfriend were expected to attend the simchah, he or she would have received a separate invitation. And since Orthodox-Jewish weddings have separate sections for the genders, you would in any case not be sitting together with your date.

When two people are married to each other, and both are invited to the wedding (which is usually what is done), the invitation is addressed to both members of the couple.

Is it okay to bring a friend who has not been invited?

Generally, if the presence of your friend will not cost the couple or their parents anything, it’s okay. This is a fairly good yardstick by which to decide whether it is okay to “crash” a simchah. At weddings, someone generally pays for each meal eaten.

Now, how to dress.

The human body is a lofty medium, a gift from G-d that allows us to use this world in our pursuit of the spiritual. Jewish Law therefore requires that we honor our bodies, that is, ourselves, in recognizing our own holiness, and to dress ourselves with the dignity we and our bodies deserve.

The following is always appropriate, even when not dressing formally.

Clothing must reach up to the collar bone in the front, and to just below the nape of the neck in the back, and it must extend below the knees. Clothing should not be tight or revealing in any way.

Women’s legs should be covered with stockings, not necessarily opaque. Taupe or beige are accepted in some communities, others suggest darker colors. Flashy colors, especially of stockings, are not good. The more glaring shades of red are forbidden in any sort of clothing. Men should not wear short pants.

Long sleeves that cover the elbows are also required. This is usually appropriate for both men and women, though it is mandatory only for women. Nevertheless, at a formal occasion mens’ sleeves would normally be covered by a jacket. Women should wear dresses or skirts (without slits), but not pants. The dress or skirt should reach below the knees, and stockings should cover the legs until above the knee. Makeup is permitted for women.

The neck does not have to be covered.

Men, single or married, should wear a yarmulka (kippa) that covers a large portion of the head. Married and formerly married women should cover their hair entirely. Women and girls who have never been married may leave their hair uncovered.

You will notice that the men and women are separated. As I explain in my article about visiting a synagogue, this is not meant as an insult or a slight. There is a prohibition in Judaism against men gazing at women. Besides being a sin in and of itself, gazing at women leads to other sins. A man may not look at a woman (except his wife) with intent to gain pleasure from looking, even if he does not plan to do any more than look.

If the woman is married, the sin is worse. It is in a sense also a trespass against her marriage. It may also be an aspect of coveting another man’s wife. (If she is married, it is forbidden to gaze at her even if she is ugly, that’s how severe the sin is.)

This concept is very ingrained into our culture. It also affects how we talk as well. In writing this article, I have been trying to express all the issues with tznius (decorum and modesty), so please try and understand if I’m not direct or if I am not completely descriptive about something.

Charedi (what is incorrectly called the “Ultra-Orthodox”) men (that is, those who are behaving properly) do not gaze at women, or compare women, or make comments about their looks. A man should not compliment (or remark about at all) another man’s wife’s looks to anyone, not even to her own husband. Boys (and men) are not supposed to talk about girls (or women), in any context. Decorum and respect are always demanded. (Incidentally, Judaism forbids such improper behavior to all Jewish men, no matter what they call themselves. But I speak only of what Jewish Law says, not what people actually do.) A woman is not as heavily restricted by Jewish Law as a man is, but respect for human dignity is of course obligatory. As the case with men, this means not speaking demeaningly of another human, and not objectifying anyone.

Among the Ultra-Orthodox, men and women not closely related to each other will usually not carry on extended conversations witheach other — though socially speaking, there are some “soft” exceptions to this rule. For example, if someone is at the home of a good friend and both the husband and wife are present, everyone might be involved in the same conversation. At a simchah, however, where a lot of people are present, the exceptions will usually not apply.

In case you’re wondeirng (and if you’re American you are surely wondering): a man while on a date is advised by Jewish Law to make sure she looks pleasing to him. (And it probably goes without saying that she will and should do the same to him.) This is not a dispensation to gaze at her for a long time. If this or similar matters are unclear to you, you should discuss the subject with your Rabbi before dating.

Jewish Weddings

When G-d created Adam, says the Talmud, he had two faces: one in each direction. G-d split him in two, and one half became Eve. That which was one, became two. Thus, when G-d brought Eve to Adam they were reunited as originally intended. Therefore, the union of man and woman is the reunification of a sundered soul. This is why a husband and wife are special to each other, for they can belong only to each other.

To reunite these two souls is not an easy task. A soul is not a piece of matter, to be smelted and molded by the toil of physical labor. The soul can be manipulated only by means of spiritual labor. And this is the purpose of the Jewish wedding.

The day of the wedding the chosson (groom) and kallah (bride) fast and repent their sins, and they are guaranteed that if they do so, all their sins are forgiven. Thus, they start out their new life together with a clean slate.

As the eventful day approaches, we find the bride and groom each receiving their guests separately; the bride holds court at her own reception, and the groom sits at the head of his own reception — in different rooms.

As part of their spiritual preparation, the bride and groom have neither met, nor spoken directly to each other for a week before the wedding. And until the actual wedding ceremony, the Chupah, they will not be together.

Kabbolas Panim — the Reception

At the reception, the guests honor the bride and groom by visiting them and blessing them and their families. The hosts honor their guests by serving them cake and drinks, and blessing them in return. A chosson and kallah are considered royalty, and Jewish Law demands they be treated with the respect due royalty.

Take a good look at the chosson and kallah. This is the opportunity to look at the faces of truly righteous people, since on the day of their wedding they are forgiven all their sins.

A number of ceremonies will take place during this Kabbolas Panim: the marriage contract will be written, and the kallah will be veiled. They will probably pray the evening services as well.

Kesubah — The Marriage Contract

The Kesubah lists the responsibilities the husband will be obligated on behalf of his wife
throughout their marriage and in certain other situations. The Kesubah is essentially for the woman’s protection and her concerns. The chosson agrees to these obligations by making a legal acquisition of the Kesubah responsibilities, and the witnesses sign that they have observed the chosson accepting and assuming these obligations. Without this Kesubah, a man is forbidden to live with his wife.

Bedeken — The Veiling

The bridal veil is a custom as old as all other Jewish customs. We find that even the Matriarchs wore veils at their weddings, as we see in Genesis 24:65

And she (Rebecca) said to the servant, «Who is that man in the field, walking toward us?» And the servant said, «He is my master (Isaac),» and she took the veil and covered herself.

These days, however, it is the chosson himself who places the veil on the kallah, to prevent the sort of switch that Laban perpetrated against our Patriarch Jacob, in Genesis, Chapter 29. And so, the chosson, along with his entourage, will enter the women’s section, and the chosson will place the veil on his kallah.

Hachanah — Preparation

The chosson and kallah are now taken under the wing of their family for their separate

At this time, the chosson is dressed in the long white kittel he will wear on Yom Kippur and at the Passover Seder. White is reminiscent of shrouds, and reminds the chosson of the cycle of life, prompting him to repent, if he hasn’t already.

Ashes are placed on the chosson’s head, to fulfill the verse «If I forget you, O Jerusalem… if I do not place Jerusalem above the crown of my joy…» (Psalms 137:5) At all joyous times, we must remember that our joy cannot be complete until G-d’s kingdom is complete, until all of Israel is brought back from exile and the Holy Temple is rebuilt.

Chupah — The Wedding Canopy

The wedding ceremony has a number of components. The canopy itself symbolizes the
home, into which the chosson now brings his kallah. The chosson and kallah are each
escorted to the chupah by two escorts, just as Adam and Eve were escorted by angels to their

The escorts of the chosson loop an arm with the chosson, and hold a candle in the other hand. The escorts of the kallah do the same: each loops an arm with the kallah, and hold a candle in the other hand.

The escorts carry candles, since Jewish custom associates light with joy: «The Jews had light, gladness, joy and honor» (Esther 8:16).

The escorts should be a married couple, neither of whom have ever been divorced or
widowed. It is also customary that no escort be visibly pregnant (I have no idea why).

In most circles, the kallah is escorted by her mother and mother-in-law (or by the two women escorts), and the chosson is escorted by his father and father-in-law (or the two males of the escort couples). In some circles, each is led by his or her two parents.

The chosson is brought to the chupah first, and the kallah is brought to him, just as Eve was brought to Adam (Genesis 2:22). Eve, who was created later, was shown thereby to be the higher life form of the two, because the potential of future life lies with her. Therefore, Adam was not complete until Eve was brought to him.

As the chosson is escorted to the Chupah, a cantor (or anyone with a nice voice) sings:

«Blessed be he who is arriving. He Who is mighty over all, He Who is blessed over all, He Who is great over all, He Who is supreme over all, may He bless the groom and the bride.»

The chosson is brought to the Chupah, and his two escorts step away from him.

The Kallah is then escorted to the Chupah, and is led seven times around the chosson. One escort leads the kallah, and the other follows the kallah. The cantor sings:

«Blessed be she who is arriving. He Who understands the speech of the rose among thorns, the love of a bride, who is the joy if the beloved ones, may He bless the groom and bride.»

Why is the Kallah led seven times around the chosson? There are many reasons for this. I’ll mention only one here. Kabbalah (the Jewish Tradition of mysticism) teaches us that the woman, representing the earth, re-enacts the seven revolutions that the earth made during the seven days of Creation, reminding us that every marriage is an integral part of the creative process.


The English language has no word for this process, though some mistakenly call it betrothal. By kiddushin, a man and woman become consecrated to each other. The word kiddushin comes from the same root word as kodesh — holy. Just as kodesh (holy things) are forbidden to all but those for whom they are designated, so too does this woman become forbidden to all men but to whom she has now been designated. However, they are not yet married, and they are still forbidden to each other until the subsequent ceremony.

As with most mitzvos (Biblical Commandments), a blessing is recited first. This blessing is recited by a Rabbi, on behalf of the chosson.

The Rabbi is there to make sure that the wedding is done properly. The Rabbi also has the responsibility to ascertain that the bride and groom are permitted to marry each other in the first place. However, the Rabbi does not actually «marry» the couple, as a judge or priest does for other people. Technically, the couple are married if two proper witnesses observe them perform the ceremony together with complete consent.

The Rabbi holds a full goblet of wine and recites:

Blessed are You Hashem our G-d King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.

Blessed are You Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His Commandments, and commanded us regarding illicit relations, and has forbidden to us the betrothed, and has permitted to us those whom we have married through Chupah and Kiddushin; Blessed are You Hashem, Who makes His nation holy through Chupah and Kiddushin.

Many major blessings, especially at ceremonies, are said while holding a goblet of wine, so the first blessing is over the wine. So the betrothal actually has two blessings.

The Rabbi now drinks from the wine, the groom drinks from the wine, and the bride drinks from the wine. It is customary that one of the two mothers puts the cup to the bride’s lips so she can drink.

The chosson places the ring on the kallah’s finger, reciting «You are hereby sanctified to me with this ring according to the Law of Moses and Israel.» This is the act of kiddushin, betrothal. The chosson thereby accepts upon himself his various obligations to the kallah, and the kallah agrees to marry no one but this chosson (unless they get divorced, Heaven forbid).

The kallah may not give the chosson a ring. If she does so, especially in the front of witnesses, it appears as if she is rejecting his offer. That could cause grave questions to be raised about the validity of their ceremony, and call into question their marital status. Furthermore, doing so is imitating a non-Jewish custom, which the Torah expressly forbids. It also demonstrates a complete lack of understanding in the reason for the act, which in itself might invalidate the wedding.

At this point, the chosson and kallah are now betrothed. They are forbidden to marry anyone else, unless they perform a Jewish divorce. However, since they are not yet married either, they are also forbidden to each other.

Now, to differentiate between that ceremony and the next one, we read the marriage contract (kesubah / ketubah) out loud. Since this takes a few minutes, there is a definite separation between the two acts. (In ancient times there was often a year or several months’ time in-between the two ceremonies, so that the families would have time to set up and aprtment and so forth.) The marriage contract is essentially the same at most weddings, with minor differences in various situations I won’t get into now.

Basically, the marriage contract binds the man to support his wife, to feed her, clothe her, to give her all that a man is responsible to give his wife, which includes conjugal relations. It also sets forth the responsibilities should, Heaven forbid, they divorce or he die, that the value of 200 grams of silver (if I’m not mistaken) will be frozen and seized from the best of his assets to make sure she gets her due.

The reading of the Kesubah is also reminiscent of Moses’ reading of the Torah at the wedding of G-d and the Children of Israel, at Mount Sinai.

The actual marriage will soon take place.

Nesuin — Marriage

After that, they begin the Kiddushin, the actual wedding, the second part of the Chupah Ceremony. The Seven Blessings are recited. At most weddings, various Rabbis or relatives are called upon to recite the various blessings.

Again, it starts with the blessing said with a goblet of wine. That is the first of the seven blessings.

Blessed are You Hashem our G-d King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.

Blessed are You Hashem our G-d King of the universe, Who created everything for His glory.

Blessed are You Hashem our G-d King of the universe, Who forms mankind.

Blessed are You Hashem our G-d King of the universe, Who formed man in His spiritual image — and also in a physical form, from which He fashioned an eternal structure (i.e., marriage with a woman). Blessed are You Hashem, Who forms mankind.

Give the barren Jerusalem joy, and let her be glad with the ingathering of her children the Jews to her with joy. Blessed are You Hashem, Who gladdens Zion with her children.

Give joy to the beloved companions [bride and groom], just as your Creator gladdened you [Adam and Eve] in the Garden of Eden at the beginning. Blessed are You Hashem, who gladdens groom and bride.

Blessed are You Hashem our G-d King of the universe, Who created joy and gladness, groom and bride, happiness, glad song, glee, gaiety, love, affection, peace, and friendship. Quickly, Hashem our G-d, there soon be heard in the cities of Judea and in the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voive of grooms and the voice of brides, the sound of joyous wedding celebrations, the sound of young people feasting and singing. Blessed are You Hashem, Who gladdens the groom with his bride.

Then they drink from the wine. Again, the person who made the blessing over the wine drinks first, then the groom, and then (as some have the custom) the other mother gives the wine to the bride to drink.

Then the groom breaks a glass to remember that even during our most joyous occasions we must mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple, as it says in Psalms «…if I do not raise you [Zion] above the height of my joyous occasions…» As mentioned above, in the midst of our greatest `joy we must always remember that G-d’s kingdom is not complete until the Holy Temple is rebuilt.

The couple are escorted from the Chupah with joy and festivity, as the male guests dance with them to the Yichud Room.

Yichud — Privacy

The bride and groom go into a private room together. The groom has earlier taken temporary possession of the room, so that when he and the bride go there, he is bringing her into his own property, to seal the marriage. Two proper and kosher witnesses watch them enter and lock the door. The witnesses wait a short while, and then they may go away.

This is also reminiscent of the Patriarch Isaac’s bringing his bride, the Matriarch Rebecca, into his home. The couple will now eat their first meal of the day, and have their pictures taken. They’ll be out in a half hour or so.

You are no doubt wondering if they consummate the marriage in the yichud room. The answer is no, despite the common misconception. They do not, but the effect is to put them into a situation where they have the privacy and opportunity to do so. They must be together in the semblance of private, married life. Unmarried men and women are not allowed to be together in complete privacy. By this man and woman secluding themselves together, when witnesses see them enter into seclusion together, they demonstrate that they are married.

Grand Entrance

Some time during the meal the chosson and Kallah will rejoin the guests, and the dancing will commence. It is a very important mitzvah to gladden the heart of a chosson and kallah by making them happy by dancing, complimenting them, and blessing them with much good.

After the meal, and after all the dancing is over, everyone still there (it’s okay to leave early) sits down to eat dessert, and recite the Blessings After the Meals. One Rabbi, relative, or friend, will lead the responsive recitation that precedes the Blessings After the Meal, and everyone will recite the blessings quietly to themselves.

Afterwards, friends or relatives (or Rabbis) will be chosen to recite the Seven Blessings (which were also recited above, during the Nesuin part of the Chupah ceremony). Each one will hold the goblet of wine, and say one or more of the blessings, depending on what the two families decide to honor them with. After that, the wedding is over. they might dance a little more, and then wish the chosson and kallah many blessings, and go home.

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that Jewish marriage reunites two halves of one soul. This is just one of the many, many reasons that the Torah forbids intermarriages. It is impossible for a soul to be half Jewish and half Gentile. Therefore, a Jew cannot have a Gentile spouse. A convert, however, has or receives a Jewish soul.

If you are the one getting married, you will need to know a great deal more than is found in this article. You must get in close contact with a Rabbi who can help you. Both the bride and groom must attend classes both before and after the wedding, to learn the various Laws related to being married.

Also, get in touch with a good, reliable Jewish book store, like Tiferes Stam Judaica, and ask for some good books on marriage. A few suggestions are:

Made in Heaven, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, published by Moznaim Publishing;

Hedge of Roses, by Norman Lamm;

The Secret of Jewish Femininity, by Tehilla Abramov, published by Targum/Feldheim;

The Jew and His Home, by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, translated by Nathan Bulman, published by Shengold Publishers.

May we all merit to enjoy many happy occasions.

The Bar Mitzvah

A great many people are under the impression that one must have a ceremony to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It is true that there is a good reason for a ceremony or a festive meal, but the truth is that becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an automatic process.

There is no such thing as «having a bar Mitzvah.» At the start of the first day of the fourteenth year of a boy’s life — the day of his thirteenth birthday — he is a «bar Mitzvah,» a «son of the Commandment,» meaning he is required to keep the Mitzvos that all Jewish men are required to keep. A girl, on the day of the start of the thirteenth year of her life, becomes a bat Mitzvah, a «daughter of the Commandment,» in that now she is required to keep the Mitzvos that all Jewish women are required to keep. It is synonymous with being a Jewish adult, or Jewish young adult. Since boys mature more slowly, they take a year longer to be considered young adults. (Obviously not all boys mature at thirteen, and not all girls mature at twelve. However, that is the average date, and certainly at that age all healthy children should be expected to have begun adolescence.)

Therefore, as an adult, a Jewish person is a bar or bat Mitzvah. No Jew needs to do anything to become one. One does not need to «have a bar Mitzvah.» There is no real ceremony that changes anyone’s status in that regard, and the meal itself bears no real relation to becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The meal isn’t even necessary.

A convert, upon converting becomes a «bar Mitzvah,» a «son of the Commandment,» or a «bat Mitzvah,» a «daughter of the Commandment.»

If you’re older than twelve or thirteen years old, and you never «had a bar Mitzvah,» don’t worry about it, because there’s really no such thing as «getting bar Mitzvahed.» There is no actual ceremony. There is a Custom in many Orthodox communities (not all) to call up the bar Mitzvah to read from the Torah, or to say the Blessings over the Reading of the Torah, but this is also not necessary in order to «become bar Mitzvahed.» As I explained, being a bar Mitzvah means being at the age where you are required to do the Mitzvos, the Commandments of the Torah.

However, if you are a girl twelve or older, or a boy thirteen or older, what you should be concerned about is learning about the Commandments of the Torah and how to fulfill them joyfully. That’s what being bar Mitzvah or bat Mitzvah is all about.

Nevertheless, the Custom of making a Feast on the day a boy becomes a bar Mitzvah is very old. According to the Midrash, the Patriarch Abraham made a Bar Mitzvah Feast for his son Isaac. The Torah tells us, «And the child grew, and was weaned. Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned» (Genesis 21:8). What is meant by «weaned?» Rabbi Hoshaya taught, «It means when Isaac was weaned away from the Evil Inclination» (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 53:14). At age thirteen, we begin to develop the maturity and intelligence to make proper decisions, and thus we attain the ability to overcome our Evil Inclinations when we so choose. Thus, we are weaned from our Evil Inclination. And it is then that are able to accept the responsibility of the Commandments.

The Midrash continues, «What does it mean that Abraham made a ‘great’ feast? It means that great people attended. People such as the righteous Shem and Eber» (ibid). (The Midrash then proceeds to prove this by means of exegesis.)

So if the feast is unnecessary, why have it at all?

Jewish Law tells us to make a bar Mitzvah feast to celebrate the fact that the young man has now become required to observe all the Commandments of the Torah. Here are the words of one source of Jewish Law:

It is a Mitzvah (i.e., a good and obligatory deed) to make a meal on the day one’s son becomes a bar Mitzvah, just like the day of his wedding…. The reason for the meal is because he has now become an adult Jew who is now required to observe all the Mitzvos (Commandments) of the Torah. This has the status of a Feast of Mitzvah. If, however, the meal is not held on the day he becomes 13 years, but is held on some day later, then the bar Mitzvah should lecture on Torah teachings, and then the meal will have the status of a Feast of Mitzvah.

— Mishnah Brurah §225:6

This is the key point: he now becomes required to observe the Commandments. This is something to celebrate! Why? Because fulfilling the Comamndments joyfully is the very reason Hashem created us.

There’s an interesting comment about this in the Talmud. The Talmud teaches that a blind person is not required to keep the Positive Commandments of the Talmud. This is a general rule in the Talmud. (Not required means they are still allowed to, of course.)

The Talmud says that Rabbi Yosef, who was blind, taught that if blind people suddenly became required to keep the Commandments, he would make a feast to celebrate it. It is from there that we understand the full import of this concept.

The Bar Mitzvah Feast is to celebrate the good event. We must therefore use the feast to impress upon the young man the responsibilities he now assumes, to ingrain in him the importance of being an upright Jew and fulfilling the Commandments.

It is therefore not a time for partying. The very idea of a party is antithetical to the purpose. It is devoid of meaning, or at least of the original meaning and intention.

Instead, many bar Mitzvah celebrations have become stages for one-upmanship — and I wish I could say that this does not happen among the Orthodox.

My community was shocked over a bar Mitzvah feast that an Orthodox Jew made for his son. It was held in an expensive hall, but otherwise conformed to the proper decorum for a bar Mitzvah feast. Yet we all felt that the message conveyed to the bar Mitzvah was that enjoying wealth and luxury is more important than the spiritual.

I once worked for a man who wrote a number of columns for various periodicals, in various languages. I translated his ideas into English. His field of expertise was raising and teaching children. We once received a letter in which a woman wrote to ask what she should do about her son. «We made a fancy bar Mitzvah party for him, and he received a lot of presents, yet he has not matured. He still plays his video games, and does so many childish things.»

My boss, in his article, pointed out a number of things to the lady. He said, first of all, that maturity does not occur in one day. He also pointed out that the mother may be giving the boy the impression that the lavish party and the presents are the important aspect of the event. If so, how could she expect him to do anything but continue to be engrossed in physical things? She must make him understand that the important thing is that he is now mature, and must begin to focus on spiritual things, like his studies, for example.

Unfortunately, this attitude is too prevalent, at many different levels, and in all segments of Jewish society.

Here is how it should be done:

The typical Ultra-Orthodox bar Mitzvah feast includes a two or three course dinner (or, more rarely, a smaller breakfast or lunch), at some low-budget but tasteful hall. There are always several prestigious Rabbis in attendance, a few lectures on Torah discourses including some praises of the bar Mitzvah boy as well as exhortations to assume his responsibility and proper decorum. Some bar Mitzvah feasts will also have a one-man band (on a synthesizer), but many don’t.

Often the bar Mitzvah will give a Torah discourse discussing the Mitzvah of tefillin. Often the men and boys will dance together, showing their joy at welcoming the bar Mitzvah into the responsibility of Mitzvos. And most of the presents given are holy books that discuss the Torah, though often people give money. Someone very close to the family will probably give a kiddush cup.

All in all, the atmosphere is one of joyful respect and decorum.

Another thing found in plenty at most bar mitzvos: cake. The women «go to town» (so to speak) in baking cakes. Some of what they do is true artwork. I have seen sculpted cakes, and … well, words fail me. I have seen cakes in the shape of tefillin, or a Torah scroll, and all sorts of such things. These cakes are usually baked by friends or relatives. (They also seem to be offered mostly to the women, for some reason.) Are these cakes necessary? No. I don’t think they hurt, though.

This is in stark contrast to what many others do for their sons or daughters. Some time ago, my wife went to a bat Mitzvah party for her cousin (whose family is not Orthodox), which was held in the same hall their parents got married, Terrace on the Park, which happens to be one of the MOST expensive halls in New York State.

They had a disc jockey. The hall was set up as a disco. When people came in, the bat Mitzvah was on top of a two-foot high platform, with lights flashing around her, and she danced for everyone (which is in itself forbidden). From time to time, the disc jockey would call out dance instructions: «Everyone point to Erica!» (the bat Mitzvah), and «Erica, dance with your mom!» and that sort of thing. (Personally, this sickens me. Even some non-observant attendees called it gaudy.)

The cousin who paid for this … event (what else can I call it?) said to my mother-in-law that «Bar and bat Mitzvahs are in, sweet sixteens are out.»

No one there cared anything about the concept of Mitzvah, and consequently, this was not only a travesty, but also included numerous transgressions of Jewish Law.

This is the reason that the leading Rabbi in America of two decades ago (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory) once wrote that if it were permitted for a Rabbi to discontinue a time-honored custom or a Law, he would outlaw the bar Mitzvah feast altogether, since so many people have used the bar Mitzvah party as an opportunity to commit sins.

So keep these things in mind. A bar and bat Mitzvah is about the Mitzvah.

Now, a word about bat Mitzvah celebrations. While it has not existed as a traditional custom, there is nothing forbidden about making one, as long as all Jewish Laws are adhered to in the making and celebrating of the event. By all proper means, let the girl feel proud that she is assuming the preparation of adult Jewish life. In no way do I disparage or discourage women or girls, or their desire to elevate that same special time of their lives. But just as is expected of men and boys, let their intentions be for the sake of Heaven, not just to have a good time, or «to be equal.»

Pidyan Haben: How to Redeem Your Firstborn Son

This article should be read after my article

«An Exchange of Holiness: Redeeming the Firstborn Son«

One of the 613 Commandments in the Torah is for a father to «redeem» his Jewish wife’s firstborn son.

Let us explain what is meant by the word «redeem.» The child is never taken away, after all, and never has to be «bought» back. Nevertheless, the father of a firstborn child must give a kohain-priest of his choosing a specific amount of money (five sela’im—this will be explained later) to «redeem» his son.

It is important to note that the father may not give his son to the kohain, nor may the kohain take the child. The Torah commands the father to redeem his son from the kohain, and he has no choice in the matter. The father symbolically gives his son to the kohain, but only for the purposes of the Redemption. The Redemption must be performed. And like all the Commandments, a blessing is recited before it is performed.

In this article, I hope to discuss some of the basic Laws of the Redemption of the firstborn son, as well as the actual Ceremony performed.

Who Gets Redeemed?

First of all, the child’s mother must be Jewish. If the mother is not Jewish, this Commandment does not apply, because the child is not Jewish anyway. If the mother is Jewish and the father is not Jewish, then the mother must perform the redemption, and when the boy reaches age 13 and a day, he should perform the Redemption again himself (without saying the blessing). If the non-Jewish father performs the redemption, it is not valid and must be redone by the mother or another Jew.

Only a male child gets redeemed. If a woman’s firstborn child is a female, no redemption is performed for any child of that woman. This is because only the male firstborns were in danger of being killed, and therefore only the male firstborn were saved from danger.

Why weren’t the firstborn Israelite girls in any danger? Because the Exodus from Egypt came about through the merit of the women of that generation (1), who put themselves through tremendous self-sacrifices to bear children in Egypt, and because the women of that generation never worshipped idols in Egypt the way many of the men did. Thus, the women had special protection, and this extended to baby girls as well. Therefore, only boy children were in any danger at all from that particular Plague, and thus they were saved by the Redemption of the Firstborn that Hashem commanded their fathers to perform (2).

Why do we redeem only the firstborn son of the woman, and not that of the man? The Rabbis explain that it is because Hashem’s love for the Nation of Israel is like the love a mother has for her child, which is usually of greater intensity than even the love a father has for his child (3).

The kohain must also be a man, because it must be someone who is included in the Torah’s Commandment to serve in the Holy Temple. Only male kohanim served in the Holy Temple.

It is the status of the mother that determines whether or not a child is considered a firstborn. The Torah described the child as a firstborn that «opens the womb.» These words indicate a number of important factors. Some of them are:

  • The child must open the mother’s womb, meaning that it must be the first child born to this mother — even if the father has had other children from another woman. If this is not the mother’s first child, there is no Redemption performed, even if this is the father’s first child.
  • A caesarian-born child does not get redeemed. It must be the child that opens the mother’s womb, not a child for whom someone else opened the womb for him. (In a caesarian, someone else opens the womb to let the child out.) Nor does his younger brother get redeemed, even if born without a caesarian. The womb was already opened the first time for his older
    brother, and therefore no child opened the womb.

  • If the mother had (Heaven forbid) a stillborn or miscarriage earlier, no redemption is performed on that child, and any child born later is usually not considered a firstborn. In such cases, one should ask a competent Orthodox Rabbi.
  • If a woman has twins, the one born first is the firstborn, the second is not. Only the firstborn gets redeemed.

If a woman converts to Judaism, gets married, and gives birth to a son, the same Laws apply as to any other Jewish woman. In other words, if this child is the first child to which she ever gave birth, then he must be redeemed. But if she had a child before she converted, no redemption is performed on any of her children.

If she converted while pregnant, and she gives birth to a firstborn baby boy after she has converted, the boy must be redeemed. However, no blessing is recited, and the child should do it for himself again after he becomes an adult (also without a blessing), since there is some question as to his status.

If either the father or mother is a kohain or a Levite, their son does not need redemption. If the status of either parent is not certain, one should ask a competent Orthodox Rabbi if one should make a Redemption at all. Even if a Redemption is to be done, in some cases there might have to be one without a blessing.

When is the Redemption Performed?

The Redemption must be performed on the thirty-first day of the child’s life. If for some reason it was not performed then, it should be done as soon as possible.

It is forbidden to delay the redeeming of a firstborn baby boy. Even if a child is, G-d forbid, so sick that he has not been able to be circumcised yet, the Redemption is performed nevertheless.

Each day that the redemption is delayed is another instance of transgressing the Torah’s Commandment to redeem one’s firstborn son. Therefore, if for some reason the Redemption was delayed one day, do not continue to delay the performance of this Mitzvah.

If a firstborn son was never redeemed, it must be done even at a later time, no matter how old he is. If a seventy-year-old man, for example, realizes that he is a firstborn and was never properly redeemed, he must perform the Mitzvah immediately.

It is permitted to perform a Redemption at night. However, the general custom among Ashkenazic Jews is to do it during the day. Some Sefardic communities have the custom to perform it on the night after the thirtieth day. This is perfectly acceptable, because thirty days have passed, and the thirty-first day has already begun. Follow the custom of your local Orthodox community and the instructions of the Rabbi. Regardless of your Custom, if it will be impossible to perform the Mitzvah during the day, do it the night before and don’t be concerned, because it is not a legal problem at all, just a matter of differing valid Customs among Jews. The important thing is that thirty days must have passed.

If a Redemption was performed before thirty days have passed, the Redemption is invalid, and must be redone. Even if the Redemption was done on the thirtieth day, it is invalid and must be redone.

Redemption of the Firstborn is not performed on the Sabbath or Yom Tov (Biblical Holiday), because that is forbidden. That is the only time that this Mitzvah is intentionally delayed. If the thirty-first day occurs on a Sabbath or Holiday, the Redemption is performed at night after the Sabbath or Holiday (some do it on the following day). The Redemption may not be performed on the previous Friday (or Erev Yom Tov), since thirty days will not yet have passed.

Redemptions may be performed on Purim, Chanukah, and even on Tisha b’Av. (If on Tisha b’Av, none of the festive aspects of the Ceremony are performed, and no feast is given.)

If the firstborn was born around sunset time, write down the exact time he was born, and discuss it with the Rabbi. The Laws of when to begin counting the thirty-one days are complex, and if the baby was born when the night is just beginning, a Rabbi must be consulted so we know which day to begin the count. If your Rabbi lives in a different city, make sure to inform him of your exact location, since sunset takes place at different times in different areas.

The Amount of the Redemption

The Torah mandates an amount of five sela’im, or assets worth that much. This equals approximately 100 grams of silver. The calculations and measurements that are involved are much too complicated to be discussed here (nor am I expert enough in it to treat the subject properly).

Any amount less than five sela’im invalidates the Redemption, and it must be performed again with the proper amount. It is permissible to give the kohain more than the required amount, but not less. This is true even if the kohain is willing to take less. Neither the kohain nor the father, nor anyone else in the universe, has the right or authority to lesson or abrogate or change (even temporarily) the amount the Torah commands the father to give.

Nor may the kohain tell the father, «I am willing to forgo the Redemption money, and we will do it without any exchange of money or assets at all.» The Torah commands the father to pay the kohain the value of five sela’im, and he must do so to fulfill the Mitzvah.

The Custom is to use silver money for the Redemption. In many countries, the amount of silver in silver coins changes with almost every minting. Therefore it is important to ascertain precisely how much silver there is in the coins you choose to use, so that the coins you use will have at least 100 grams of silver. (For example, four American silver dollars dated 1996 contain, all together, about 113.4 grams of silver. But this is not true of every year.) A good coin collectors’ book should have that information.

It is also permissible, technically, to use assets (except real estate or I.O.U. notes, which are unacceptable) worth that much money, but the Custom today is to use silver coins if you can get them.

Experienced kohanim today often own the coins used for the Redemption of the Firstborn, and they are often willing to sell you some (you must own the coins you give the kohain) and accept them back again for the Redemption.

The giving of the money is an integral and necessary part of the Mitzvah. You must give the money with the intent that the kohain will truly own the money, and he must take it with that intent — even if he gave you or sold you those coins in the first place.

The kohain is permitted to return the silver coins to the father at some later time, if he freely chooses to do so. This Law is for the benefit of poor people.

You must choose one kohain to whom to give the money. You may not divide the money among more than one kohain.

If you ask or tell a kohain to perform with you the Redemption, and he agrees to do it, you may not change your mind and use a different kohain. However, if you did so, for whatever reason, the Redemption is valid, and need not be performed again.

Preparing for the Ceremony of the Redemption

If possible, the Redemption should be performed with at least ten Jewish adult males present. However, it is more important to do the Mitzvah on time, so don’t delay the Redemption to wait for the people to arrive.

The child should be there at the Redemption, but if that is not possible, the Redemption may be performed by the father and the kohain even without the child being there.

It is the custom to dress the child in nice clothing, and to adorn him with jewelry. Many women have the custom to loan a piece of their own jewelry for the occasion.

The parents should dress in their Sabbath clothing in honor of the Mitzvah.

First, all present should begin a Festive Meal by washing their hands for bread in the manner that Jewish Law commands. (If it is a fast day, no feast is given.)

Immediately after the breaking and the eating of the bread, before anything else is eaten, the Redemption is performed.

The child is placed on a large silver tray to be brought before the kohain. (Again, this is only if you can get such a tray. If not, never mind. There are also numerous free loan societies and individuals in many areas that will make all the items you need available to you. Ask your Rabbi.) The father then brings the child, on the silver tray, to the kohain. He should also prepare the money in advance, preferably also on a small silver tray, or at least on a nice, fancy tray, if possible.

The father, holding his son on the tray, stands before the kohain. The kohain may sit or stand, according to his Custom.

Much of the recitation that follows is entirely symbolic. Remember, the father has no choice in the matter. He is required to redeem this child regardless. The blessings, however, are mandatory. Nevertheless, if the Ceremony was performed, and the blessings were mistakenly ommitted, the Redemption is valid, and the blessings are not recited later, because then it is too late. The blessings must be recited immediately before the Mitzvah is performed.

The Ceremony of the Redemption
(According to the Most common Custom Among the Ashkenazim)

The father declares: «This is my firstborn son. He is the first out of his Jewish mother’s womb.»

(If the child is not present, the father says: «I have a firstborn son to redeem. He is the first out of his Jewish mother’s womb.»)

In some communities, the father adds: «The Holy One, Blessed is He, commanded us to redeem him, as it says, ‘His redemption, at age one month, shall be made with the value of the silver of five Sanctuary shekels, which is equal to twenty geirah.’ And it says, ‘Sanctify to Me every firstborn—the one that first opens the womb in birth — among the Israelites. Among both man and beast, it is Mine.’»

The father places the tray with his son on the table.

The kohain declares: «Which do you prefer? Do you wish to give me your son, your firstborn, who is the first out of his mother’s womb? Or do you wish to redeem him for the five sela’im as you are required to do by the Torah?»

The father responds: «I wish to redeem my son, and here is the money for his redemption, as I am required by the Torah.»

The father then recites: «I am hereby prepared and ready to fulfill the Commandment of Redeeming the Firstborn.»

The father picks up the money and recites the following two blessings, either in Hebrew or in English:

Boruch Attah A-donoy E-lohainoo Melech ha-olam, asher kidishanu bemitzvosav vitzeevanu al pidyan haben.

«Blessed are You Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy with His Commandments, and commanded us concerning the Redemption of the Firstborn.»

Boruch Attah A-donoy E-lohainoo Melech ha-olam, she’hecheyanu, vikiyimanu, vihigee’anu lazman hazeh.

«Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.»

The father then immediately hands over the money to the kohain’s hand.

(Among many Sefardim, the kohain recites certain blessings at this point.)

The kohain places his hand on the child and blesses him:

«May Hashem make you as great as Ephraim and Menasheh. May Hashem bless you and keep watch over you; May Hashem make His Presence enlighten you, and may He be kind to you; May Hashem bestow favor on you, and grant you peace. May Hashem guard you from all evil, and guard your soul. Let many days and years of life and peace be given to you.»

The kohain then lifts up a cup filled with wine and recites the blessing over wine:

Boruch attah A-donoy E-lohainoo Melech ha-olam, boray p’ri hagafen.

«Blessed are You Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.»

He drinks from the cup. The meal is resumed. If possible, the meal should include meat or chicken, and wine.

Many have the custom to distribute cloves of garlic during the meal. The reason for this seems to be that eating from the food distributed at the Redemption Meal of a firstborn is considered very praiseworthy, and garlic was very cheap. Besides which, one head of garlic can be divided up into many cloves, so it is possible to give many people one small piece very cheaply, and everyone has a small share in the Mitzvah Feast. (4). There are also Kabbalistic reasons as well, apparently (5).

This festive meal should not be treated as a mundane meal, and should include discussions of Torah. It is customary to invite Torah Scholars to enjoy the meal, and ask them to speak words of Torah and inspiration to those in attendance.

In Egypt, the night before the Israelites left Egypt, the Firstborn children of the Israelites were saved from death, as all the firstborn of Egypt were dying. While that was happening, the Israelites were sitting at the very first Passover Seder, and eating the Passover Lamb Sacrifice. They sat, spoke Torah, and sang praises to Hashem for His kindness to the Children of Israel. As you eat at the Festive Meal Celebrating the Redeeming of your (or your friend’s) Firstborn Son, remember to thank and praise Hashem, as we did when our firstborn children were saved back then.


1.  Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b

2.  Maaseh Roke’akh, Bechoros; Chidah, Zeroa Yemin, 6a

3.  Nachmanides, Exodus, Chapter 12-13

4.  Pidyan Haben Kihilchaso, Rabbi Gedalyah Oberlander, 1993, Jerusalem, page 267-268, footnote 137

5.  Ibid, page 298

An Exchange of Holiness: Redeeming the Firstborn Son

Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Sanctify to Me every firstborn — the one that first opens the womb in birth — among
the Israelites. Among both man and beast, it is Mine….

You will then bring to Hashem every firstborn. Whenever you have a young firstborn animal, the males belong to
Hashem….You must redeem every firstborn among your sons.(1)

This is one of the 613 Commandments of the Torah: to «sanctify» every firstborn male. If it is the firstborn of a kosher animal, then it is given to a kohain-priest. If it is the firstborn of a Jewish woman, then it is «redeemed» from a kohain-priest. That is a requirement that a father must fulfill, if his wife has a firstborn son.

By «redeem,» the Torah means that a certain amount of money must be given to a kohain in a sort of symbolic exchange for the firstborn boy.

The Special Status of Firsts

Why the firstborn? What is so special about being the first baby boy born to your mother?

The Sefer Hachinuch points out that in general, firsts have a special status. The Torah tells us to bring our first fruits to the kohanim-priests at the Holy Temple, and to do the same with our firstborn kosher animals. Our firstborn sons have a special status as well. Why is this?

It is because Hashem wants to purify us and give us merit by our performing a Commandment involving the first of all we produce, so that we know that everything in the universe belongs to Hashem. Anything a human being has, in any situation at any time, he has only because it has been allotted to him by the loving kindness of Hashem.

After putting in so much effort, and doing so many different things in order to reach this point and to produce this
result, when he finally sees that result he cherishes that end product more than anything else. Yet what does he do with
it? He immediately gives it away to Hashem!(2)

It’s sort of like your first paycheck, the one you received for the very first week of your very first job. You want the money, of course, but you also want to save the check. Some people make a copy of it and save it. Years ago, shopkeepers used to take the first few dollar bills they made and paste them to the wall behind the counter. Those were the first «fruits» of their labor in their new business, and they wanted to memorialize them.

We cherish our first fruits, and we always remember them fondly.

What then do we Jews do with our first fruits? We offer them, our most beloved fruits, to Hashem. We acknowledge that everything we can ever have comes from Hashem. No matter how much work we put into it, we have it only out of Hashem’s goodness. And we wish to thank Hashem for the boundless good He has offered us.

In ancient times, it was the practice of many Gentile cultures to sacrifice their children to their idols. The Torah does not ask this of us (and in fact forbids it). The Torah asks us to send our adult firstborn sons to work in the Holy Temple for a few months of every year. They were also expected to be religious leaders.

The Torah is also the first of Hashem’s creations, as it says, «G-d made me at the beginning of His doing things, the first of His works of long ago. In the distant past I was chosen, I was of the first, of those who preceded the earth.»(3) The Torah is
therefore very beloved to Hashem.

And it says, «Thus says Hashem: Israel is My son, My firstborn,»(4) and therefore we are very beloved to Hashem. We, the
Jews, are set aside for the special Torah Service that we must do. It is for that Service that we have been Chosen.

The Children of Israel are also called «the first of all nations.»(5) We are therefore taught, «Israel is holy to Hashem’s, the first
fruits of His harvest: whoever tries to destroy her will be held guilty, and evil will befall him, says Hashem.»(6)

Therefore, we, the firstborn of all nations, who are set aside to do Holy Service to Hashem, do ourselves set aside the firstborn of our families, and dedicate them to serving Hashem.

Our Forefathers knew of the special holy status of the firstborn. This is why Jacob negotiated with his brother Esau for the birthright. Esau, says the Torah, by selling the birthright to Jacob, «denigrated the birthright of the firstborn.»(7)

Another Reason

The Sefer Hachinuch(8) tells us that in addition to «firsts» being special to us, dedicating our firstborn sons has another reason. It is to commemorate and thank Hashem for the great miracle that He performed for us in Egypt. Hashem had repeatedly warned the Egyptians, and had already sent them nine plagues, but they refused to release the Children of Israel from slavery. Whereupon Hashem forced the Egyptians to release us, by killing their firstborn sons and firstborn animals, and by saving our firstborn sons and animals. And when Hashem performed the Plague of the firstborn against the Egyptians, He passed over our houses and saved our firstborn from dying.

In gratitude and recognition of Hashem’s taking care of us through all this, everything that is firstborn has a certain special status. Hashem has commanded that we devote our firstborn sons to serving Hashem in the Holy Temple. Our firstborn animals are also holy, and we offer them up to Hashem by giving them to the people who do the work at the Holy Temple.

And this is why only a male child or animal gets redeemed. Only the male firstborn of Egypt were killed, and therefore only the male firstborn of Israel were saved from danger.

So the firstborn have two reasons for having a special status. As firstborn, it is a greater gift than any other. In addition, they were spared from death in Egypt more so than all other Jews were spared. While all Jews thank Hashem for His saving them from death in Egypt, the firstborn sons have an additional reason to thank Hashem.

The Import of this Special Status

Therefore, the firstborn sons of Israel had a very high and holy status. They were the original kohanim-priests. They performed all priestly tasks during the first few months after the Israelites left Egypt. They officiated when any sacrifice was brought.

It’s important to understand what «holy» means in Judaism. «Holy» means special, and set aside from other things. If someone or something is «holy to Hashem,» then it is dedicated to Hashem, and may not be used for anything else. That is what the Torah means by «sanctify»— set it aside for holiness.

The Children of Israel are holy to Hashem, and therefore are granted the special status of performing various holy functions, and, conversely, may not commit many acts that are permitted to non-Jews. Similarly, the firstborn had yet a higher level of holiness, and were set aside for the Holy Service in the Holy Temple.

There are numerous levels of holiness. The status of the firstborn was so holy, that they were not allowed to do any tasks that were not holy. Everything they did had to be holy. If they built a house, it would become holy, and would automatically belong to the Holy Temple.

Hashem therefore instituted the Redeeming of the Firstborn. When a firstborn son is thirty days old, the father would give five sela’im, or the value of five sela’im, to the firstborn who were working as priests, doing the Holy Service. Then the firstborn son was allowed to do mundane, secular work, but he was still privileged to do the Holy Service.

Now we can understand what the Torah tells us in Exodus:

Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Sanctify to Me every firstborn — the one that first opens the womb in birth — among the Israelites. Among both man and beast, it is Mine….

You will then bring to Hashem every firstborn. Whenever you have a young firstborn animal, the males belong to Hashem….You must redeem every firstborn among your sons.

Your child may later ask you, «What is this?»

You must answer him, «With a show of power , Hashem brought us out of Egypt, the place of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us leave, Hashem killed all the firstborn in Egypt, man and beast alike. I therefore sacrifice to Hashem all male firstborn animals, and redeem all the firstborn of my sons.»(9)

Firstborn kosher animals were given to any kohain-priest you chose, which means another firstborn. The kohain then had it ritually slaughtered at the Holy Temple. Most of the animal was eaten by the Kohain and his family, and parts of it had to be burned on the Holy Altar at the Holy Temple.

That was the status as of the time of the Exodus. But since then, a number of things have changed.

Replaced, But Still Holy

Not very long after we left Egypt, some of the Gentiles who had left Egypt with the Children of Israel tricked many of the Israelites into worshiping an idol, the golden calf. The firstborn were also involved in that sin, as well as many other men. Therefore, the firstborn lost their lofty positions as kohanim, and no longer were allowed to officiate with sacrifices or other priestly duties, and they therefore no longer received the Priestly Gifts (such as the Firstborn animal, the tithes, and all the other things given to kohanim). The firstborn still have a special status, but not as kohanim.

However, the entire Tribe of Levi did not sin. They remained completely loyal to Hashem, and never worshiped the golden calf. Because of that, Hashem awarded to them the job of serving Hashem at the Holy Temple. Most of them did service as Levites. Aaron the Levite became the High Priest, and his descendants became the kohanim.

But what about the firstborn? How do we commemorate the fact that Hashem saved them from death in Egypt?

Since the Torah commanded that each firstborn son still be considered holy, we perform a ceremony in which we acknowledge the miracle that Hashem did for all the firstborn. Now, when a firstborn son is redeemed, it is because he is no longer a kohain. He has certain advantages as a firstborn, but he may no longer do the Holy Service at the Holy Temple.

Therefore the Torah says:

Hashem spoke to Moses, instructing him, I have separated the Tribe of Levi from the other Israelites so that they may take the place of all the firstborn among the Israelites, and the Levites shall be Mine.(10)

How is this replacement to be done? By means of the Pidyan Haben, the Redemption Ceremony of the firstborn. When a firstborn boy is thirty days old, his father recites the relevant blessing, and gives the value of five sela’im to a proper kohain-priest of his own choosing.

Even though the firstborn sons were no longer allowed to perform the Holy Service at the Holy Temple, and even though each firstborn son must be redeemed at the age of thirty days, the firstborn sons of Israel will always retain a measure of holiness.

For the Laws and Customs of the Redemption of the firstborn, please read my article: Pidyan Haben: How to Redeem Your firstborn Son.


1. Exodus 13:1, 12-13

2. Book of Jewish Education, by HaRav Reb Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona, around the year 1350, Mitzvah #18

3. Proverbs 8:22-23

4. Exodus 4:22

5. Amos 6:1

6. Jeremiah 2:3

7. Genesis 25:34

8. Loc cit

9. Exodus 13:1-16

10. Numbers 3:11

Circumcision and Your Child’s Health

Question: I am concerned about the safety issues in circumcision. Isn’t it safer to have it done by a doctor in the hospital?

Every Orthodox mohel (Rabbi who performs circumcisions) undergoes extremely rigid
medical training in addition to their Rabbinic training in milah. There is no danger
whatsoever, if you use a trained Orthodox mohel.

Furthermore, if you do a study on the procedure, you will find an interesting fact: Rabbis are better trained in the procedure than doctors! A mohel is a specialist. And remember, we have been doing this for over three thousand years. We DO know what we are doing. In all of Jewish history, there is not one single reported case of any health danger at all to a child circumcised by a licensed, professional Orthodox mohel.

When an Orthodox mohel performs a milah, the entire medical part of the procedure takes about two minutes. When a doctor does it, it takes about twenty minutes, according to my research. (If you doubt this, don’t tell the doctor about this article, and simply ask him how long it will take him to perform the procedure. If you do this, please let me know what he answered, for the sake of my ongoing research in this matter.)

A proper mohel gets the job done quickly, efficiently, and with a minimum of pain. They are up to date on all relevant medical procedures and standard safety measures. In fact, they have to be, according to American law. These days every mohel practices in a hospital.

There is something else you need to realize. Jewish Law does not simply believe that «men should be circumcised.» The medical procedure alone is not the entire purpose. A bris milah brings the young boy into the Covenant that Hashem made with Abraham. This is why it is called a «Bris Milah,» the «Covenant of Circumcision.» There must be the milah, the actual circumcision part, but there must also be the bris part, the covenant part.

So, you see, Bris Milah is not simply a medical procedure. It is a religious ceremony, and the medical procedure is only a part of the ceremony. A doctor can do the milah part, but usually he cannot the bris (covenant) part. He must also be a proper mohel for the ceremony to be valid.

If the child’s doctor is also a proper mohel, which, by the way, does exist, then a proper ceremony can take place, and there is no problem.

But if a doctor does it, and no proper ceremony takes place, the child will not have fully entered the Jewish Covenant. The entire procedure will be meaningless in the religious sense. To make it meaningful, another ceremony will have to be performed, in which all the blessings and prayers are recited, and this will also need a symbolic medical procedure in which a tiny drop of blood is taken from his member. (A convert to Judaism who is already circumcised also does it this way — it’s the same as a Bris Milah but the medical procedure involves only taking a drop of blood.) Why put him through that a second time? Get it all done in one ceremony already, and make things easier for everyone, especially the child.

The Ceremony of Circumcision is a very happy occasion. It brings the child into the Covenant of Abraham, and it is the very first Mitzvah directly associated with a young boy. As a result, that is when he first begins to receive some of the higher spiritual elements that all Jews should have in their souls.

Think of that, and rejoice.