Bar mitzvah portrait of Yossel Fischer, Poland, early twentieth century. On the backdrop hangs a portrait of London Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore (1784–1885). (Gift of Mrs. Joseph Lempel, 1989.69. Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)

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Life Cycle

The notion of life cycle may appear to reflect a natural human category, but is conditioned by social and cultural circumstances. Cultural elaboration of the special characteristics of “childhood” is associated with early modernity, and the idea of “adolescence” is connected with the Industrial Revolution, expansion of the middle class, extended education of young people, and their dependence on the family. Demographers claim that declining rates of infant mortality are followed by a reduction in birth rates and new images of family formation.

Jewish Wedding. A. Trankowsky, late nineteenth century. Oil on canvas. (The Judah L. Magnes Museum, Berkeley, California)

When rabbinic literature considered ritual milestones of Jewish life—circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage, and death—the discussions were scattered in different sections of halakhic works whose topical structure had been established in medieval times and maintained in the Shulḥan ‘arukh containing both the Sephardic code of Yosef Karo and the glosses of Mosheh Isserles. The rabbinic conceptual ordering of life progression was male-centered.

East European Jewry’s understandings of life-cycle notions were embedded in domestic and communal ritual and can be seen in the way Yiddish terms codify birth order and gender. A first son was referred to as his parents’ kaddish—the prayer he was eventually expected to recite on memorial occasions after their deaths, and the youngest daughter was called in Yiddish mizinke (pinkie)—a term also linked to a special ceremonial dance when she was “finally” married. The centrality of community was seen when young boys from the heder came with their teacher to the homes of postpartum, convalescing mothers, or to funerals, in order to recite krishme (Shema‘ Yisra’el), psalms, or other appropriate prayers.

During birth, only a midwife and female relatives or friends were in the room with the mother. Kabbalistic books could be placed under her pillow, or amulets on the wall to protect her and the newborn from harm. In some Hasidic areas, these amulets contained pictures of prominent rebbes. The special value attached to sons was expressed in a sholem-zokher celebration in the home of the parents at the Friday night meal before the bris (Heb., berit milah; circumcision). The latter event provided the opportunity for parents to assign ritual roles to members of the family and the community, honoring them while signaling their own status. Often the man holding the baby on his knees—the sandek—was a grandfather, but also could be a learned relative or acquaintance. A childless couple might be asked to convey the baby from the mother located in another room to the moyel (Heb., mohel; circumciser) performing the operation, hoping this would bring luck. The part of the operation that involved sucking blood from the wound—metsitse—might be done by a venerable pious man. Some sought to circumvent this detail, while leaders of Orthodoxy in Hungary insisted the practice be maintained, opposing reformers who wanted to eliminate it.

Rosh Hashanah card depicting a circumcision ceremony (Yid., bris; Heb., berit milah). The fruits on the “tree of life” are labeled (left to right), “luck,” “life,” and “joy,” and the Yiddish verse reads: “A child, boy is born / May he have happiness and live long! / A child, a joy, sugar-sweet / Today was his bris.” Published by Verlag Central, Warsaw. (YIVO)

Circumcision was the occasion at which names were publicly given to boys, while girls received names when their fathers were called to recite blessings over the Torah in the synagogue, soon after the child’s birth. It was common to name a child after a deceased grandparent or ancestor. Fathers remembered the exact birth dates of boys, so a bris would take place after eight days and a bar mitzvah at 13 years. The birthdays of girls were often remembered approximately, and were linked to specific holidays. A moyel might record the names and dates of boys he had circumcised.

The cultural emphasis on education made entering the world of Torah (Yid., Toyre) a life milestone. There were biological sides to this transition. Heder study started as early as three years, but a boy had to be toilet trained in order to attend. Beginning instruction involved moving away from the world of the mother and embarking upon a male-gendered course. From the middle ages, Ashkenazic practice marked the occasion when fathers brought boys to the melamed (teacher), who would give the children something sweet associated with words of the Torah.

During the nineteenth century, additional customs initiating boys into study coalesced among some Hasidic groups, who adopted the practices from Sephardic traditions in Palestine. These customs involved a first haircut, clearly distinguishing boys from girls, which might take place just before beginning heder or on Lag ba-‘Omer, 33 days after Passover. A Yiddish term, opshern, replaced the Arabic term common in Palestine.

Bar mitzvah was an occasion that entailed both obligations—donning tefillin (phylacteries) daily, and opportunities for the family—demonstrating the learning accomplishments of a growing boy. Community was central in both regards. A boy could be counted in a minyan (prayer quorum), but his father might have to contribute to a synagogue to earn the privilege of his son being called to recited the maftir portion of the Sabbath Torah reading to demonstrate his skill.

Bride and guests under the wedding canopy, Raguva, Lithuania, 1926. (YIVO)

Traditionally, if girls received Torah education it was at home, typically in Yiddish rather than Hebrew. Pressures for change in this regard appeared in the late nineteenth century. Some urban Jews adopted practices that were emerging in Western Europe. A bat mitzvah celebration for a girl in Lemberg in 1902 led to demonstrations and debates in the press.

There were few links between public textual culture and women’s milestones until marriage. A girl reporting the onset of menarche was sometimes slapped on the cheeks by her mother, who explained that this action would make her beautiful. For women who read Yiddish there were sets of prayers—tkhines—that could be said privately on occasions such as weddings, going to the mikve (ritual bath), petitioning for children, or visiting the graves of parents.

Marriage during teenage years was widespread for women and men, but in the nineteenth century the practice became more common at about age 20. The changed circumstances entailed more individual choice in selecting partners, while perhaps it was the wealthy and prestigious families, with the ability to make dowry demands and meet expectations, who exercised more of a say in marrying off their children. Where yeshiva culture was strong, the arrangements for students to dine at the homes of householders could lead to marriages. Contemporary forms of courtship developed in urban settings in the twentieth century, while wedding celebrations and customs such as badekn—the groom placing a veil over the bride before approaching the khupe (Heb., ḥupah; wedding canopy)—continued to express traditional values. The married status of a young man might be shown by his wearing a tallis (prayer shawl) in the synagogue.

Illustration from the Ḥevrah kadisha’ Gold Book, a cycle of pictures created by the burial society in Nagykanizsa, Hungary, 1792–1793. The Hebrew inscriptions read (over the body) “May you lie in peace and sleep in peace until the coming of the Messiah, who will proclaim peace” (Shulḥan ‘arukh 128:13); (over the candle) “The lifebread of man is the lamp of the Lord” (Prv. 20:27); and (bottom) “Illustration of resting on the surface of the ground.” (Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives/ Photograph courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv)

A burial society (ḥevrah kadisha’) was first established in Prague in 1564. Such societies existed in every community of sufficient size. It continued as the main framework for dealing with illness, deathbed rituals such as confession, preparing corpses, and carrying out burial. A ḥevrah kadisha’ also could serve other charitable functions, such as bringing about the marriage of poor orphaned young people. Customs surrounding death were closely linked to kabbalistic notions about the soul and the afterlife, though many of those practicing them in the twentieth century were unaware of their conceptual basis.

The nineteenth century saw the development of new patterns of education, including preparation for work and yeshiva study, which moved adolescents from their families and communities and set the stage for recognizable generation gaps. In the twentieth century, the dislocations of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution were additional factors that dislodged traditional families, creating new life trajectories for individuals.

Suggested Reading

Harvey E. Goldberg, Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life (Berkeley, 2003); Sylvie-Anne Goldberg, Crossing the Jabbok: Illness and Death in Ashkenazi Judaism in Sixteenth-through-Nineteenth-Century Prague, trans. Carol Cosman (Berkeley, 1996); Ghitta Sternberg, Stefanesti: Portrait of a Romanian Shtetl (Oxford, 1984); Chava Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women (Boston, 1998); Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl (New York, 1995).