Brit Bat: Why Wait?
by Rebecca Wand Ben-Gideon
This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Women’s League Outlook magazine.
“I have a surprise for you,” said the doctor in the ultrasound clinic. “You’re having twins!”
I laughed, like Sarah, in disbelief.
After our initial shock, we were overjoyed. We also realized that we had a lot of decisions ahead of us. Should we use a front-to-back double stroller or a side-by-side model? Where could we fit two babies in a New York apartment? And what about the bris? If we had two boys, our path was clear. But what if we were blessed with one child of each gender? What about two girls? How would we welcome them into the world and into their Jewish heritage?
Jewish law, halachah, has no requirements about when or how a Jewish girl should be named and brought into the covenant of her ancestors. The birth of a girl is a joyous event, but one that is surrounded not by laws and fixed customs, but by questions and possibilities.
As we waited to meet our babies, and as I grew progressively larger and rounder, we considered our options, ultimately designing a brit ceremony that reflected our values as we looked forward to beginning a Jewish family.
“Don’t tell us the gender,” we reminded the ultrasound technicians each month, as they monitored the babies’ growth. The first question we tackled was one of timing: boys are named on the eighth day—would we do the same for girls?
Because there are no halachic requirements about naming girls—and no requirement at all to do a ritual welcoming them into the covenant—ceremonies for girls are often scheduled as a matter of convenience. Some families pick the first opportune Sunday, or a time when relatives and friends will find it easy to attend. Other parents hold a ceremony on Rosh Hodesh, a day traditionally associated with women. A few parents name daughters on the fifteenth day after birth, because biblically, a mother emerges from her state of ritual impurity fifteen days after giving birth to a girl (and eight days for a boy). (Lev. 12:5).
We chose the eighth day to name our babies. We came to feel very strongly about this choice, both for theological reasons and for the effect it would have on the experience of the ceremony itself.
Brit milah is held on the eighth day because in Genesis, Abraham circumcised Isaac eight days after birth. (Gen. 21:4) God commands Abraham that as a sign of the covenant, his offspring must be circumcised on the eighth day: “Throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days…thus shall my covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact.” (Gen 17:9-14) The day for making a sign of entry into the covenant—here specifically milah—is Biblically the eighth day— not the fourteenth, new moon, or first convenient Sunday.
The importance of performing a brit milah as soon as possible is also emphasized in the cryptic story of Moses and Zipporah. (Ex. 4: 24-26) On the way to Egypt to redeem the Israelites, God threatens Moses’ life, and Zipporah saves him by immediately circumcising their son. We are left to assume that Moses, perhaps influenced by Egyptian practices of his childhood, had not circumcised his son on the eighth day. Delaying the covenental ritual seems to have put Moses’ life in danger.
Further, it is a Jewish value to hurry to do a mitzvah at the first appropriate moment. Abraham himself is said to have risen early in the morning, “vayashkem Avraham baboker,” to fulfill God’s commandments. (Gen. 22:3) So it seemed to us that theologically, one would want to enter one’s child into the covenant at the first possible time—the eighth day.
The timing of a brit ceremony is also important in shaping the experience of the event. The set time of a brit milah adds to the energy and anticipation surrounding the day. When a baby boy is born, friends and relatives know that it’s time to book a flight, call the caterer, contact the rabbi and mohel—there will be a brit milah in eight days. For a girl’s birth, we felt there should be an equal amount of urgency, excitement and anticipation, energy that could only be generated by fixing the brit as close to the birth as possible, on the eighth day.
In our special situation, we might have been carrying one child of each gender. Even if relatives and friends were willing to return for a second ceremony a week or a month later for a daughter, this arrangement would send the theological message that a baby boy’s entry into covenant is more urgent than a girl’s: the boy has to be entered into the covenant on the eighth day, but the girl…she can wait. Or it might send the message that the celebration of a male birth is more important than that of a female. We clearly needed to choose one day for both babies, regardless of gender.
Finally, in our experience, one factor adding to the thrill of brit ceremonies for either gender is the mystery of the naming, the crowd holding its breath awaiting the moment of announcement. We felt it would be realistic to keep our families in suspense for a week, calling the infants Baby A and Baby B—but any longer than seven days would be impractical, not to mention torturous for our parents!
Boys or girls, our babies would be entered into the covenant and receive their names on the eighth day, for theological, practical and experiential reasons. We told all of our friends to expect if the babies were—God willing—healthy, there would be a brit ceremony on the eighth day following birth.
“Be holy to your God”—Ritual
Having established that we would hold our brit on the eighth day, we set out to design our ceremony.
A brit ceremony has two parts, the ritual sign of the covenant and the naming ceremony. In contrast to a brit bat, some ceremonies, often known as simhat bat or “celebration of the daughter,” leave out this second element, the ritual of covenant because no such ritual is required by Jewish law. This is unfortunate—after all, if women are also part of the Jewish covenant, why would we want to celebrate our sons’ covenantal relationship with Judaism and not our daughters’? A brit milah is a thrilling event where we celebrate a new member of the Jewish community and reaffirm our commitments to teaching that child the ways of Torah. The daughters of Israel deserve not just a naming celebration, but a true brit ceremony as well, joyously beginning their Jewish journeys.
Today we are fortunate to have several models for the ritual of “brit bat,” covenant of the daughter. Included in the Rabbinical Assembly’s rabbi’s manual are three models, ceremonies that utilize symbols of candles, Torah, and tallit in ritual acts that symbolically welcome daughters into the covenant, as brit milah does for boys.
We decided that we would enter our children into the covenant with a milah ceremony for boys, and a tallit-wrapping ceremony for girls.
The tallit is a covenantal symbol extraordinaire. As we read in the Shema, seeing the fringes on a tallit each day, a Jew is reminded of the covenantal relationship with God and is reminded to do God’s mitzvot:
The Lord spoke to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them so you do not stray after your hearts and eyes and act disloyally. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God. (Num. 15: 37-41)
Jews, as they see their tallit fringes each morning, are reminded of their covenantal relationship with God, their identity as Jews and their deepest aspirations towards living life in a holy way.
The four corners of the tallit also contain a second meaning—as we gather the fringes in one hand to recite the Shema, we are gathering the Jewish people from the four corners of their earth. The fringes symbolize communal inclusion and unity. We would wrap our daughter(s) in the embrace of her people, her community.
The richness of the symbolism of the tallit is also used at weddings, where a tallit is often used as a chuppah. The tallit as a chuppah symbolizes shelter, home, and God’s protection.
We divided the third paragraph of the Shema, quoted above, into four parts. Family members would read a selection in Hebrew and English, and then take one corner of the tallit and wrap it around the baby. Through this ritual, our daughter(s) would symbolically be entered into the covenant, embraced by the shelter of God and the love of her community.
In the end, on July 3 at 11 pm we were blessed with two beautiful baby girls. On the eighth day of our babies’ lives, we held a brit bat celebration in my parents’ back yard.
After shacharit, the morning prayer service, we blasted the Shofar to announce the babies’ arrival and the brit they were about to enter, like the Israelites sounded the Shofar before receiving the Torah. The sound of the shofar brought the crowd to attention, focusing them on the spiritual task of the day, just as it calls us to attention on the High Holidays. The call of the shofar was spine-tingling, adding some of the primal excitement felt at a brit milah into our brit bat.
We performed the tallit-wrapping brit ritual with a special tallit bought for me by our families and friends in Israel. My husband’s tallit was used in our wedding as our chuppah; now each day as I put on my tallit, I remember the joy of introducing our babies to Judaism.
We did a lot of things to prepare for the arrival of our girls. There were doctor’s appointments and ultrasounds, birthing classes and many books to read. We decided that we also wanted to do something that would symbolize the kind of spiritual home that we wanted to create for them. So, we decided to study a unit of Jewish text. We could have studied a book of the Bible, or a section of the Mishnah; but being rabbinical students, we decided to study a perek (chapter) of Talmud. Just before the naming ceremony, we each taught some of what we had learned during the past nine months, and spoke about how learning in honor of our children helped us to think through what it would mean to raise our children as Jews.
Finally, we named our girls Lena Mayan and Vered Shulamit, and family members spoke about the babies’ namesakes, the babies’ maternal and paternal great-grandmothers.
When I think back on that day, I remember the brit bat as a joyous and peaceful time, an oasis in time in the middle of all of the craziness that was our first week home with newborns. I remember seeing our girls’ tiny faces peek out from the fabric as they were swaddled in my tallit, and all of the faces of loved ones smiling down at them, welcoming them into our covenant and into our community.