Table of contents
- Similarities & Differences
Human life begins at birth and religions commemorate significant milestones throughout the journey of one’s life such as birth. Judaism and Islam, one of the world’s dominant religions, share many common features in their birth rituals such as circumcision, naming of a child and the first haircut. Thus, the focus of this essay is to discuss the similarities and differences related to the birth rituals among Jews and Islam.
In Judaism, there are various rituals that are performed to celebrate the birth of a child. The first ritual is performed one week after birth, known as circumcision and it only applies for the birth of a Jewish boy (Gwynne, 2017). Its purpose includes hygienic aids, sign of social status, enhance or suppress sexual desire and a passage to adulthood. For the Jews, circumcision is an act of trusting obedience to the divine command, according to the God’s will mentioned in the 613 commandments of the Torah (Gwynne, 2017). Circumcision is also known as b’rit milah in Hebrew, meaning covenant of circumcision. At night, before the actual day, family and friends recite prayers to ward off evil spirits. Moreover, religious books like Tanach may be left under the mattress or pillow to symbolise the parent’s hope for the baby to grow with wisdom and faith. The mohel (circumciser), possessing official certification to validate his capability to determine the physical state of the baby and perform physical operations, examine the baby to determine whether there are any health risks (Rich, 1997-2011). It is believed by Jews that circumcision is a religious event, rather than a medical procedure. The ritual commences as kvatter and kvatterin, a couple selected for the event, carry the baby into the room. The baby is placed on the Chair of Elijah, a highly ornate seat, and then placed on the lap of the sandek (godparent). Then, the baby is given a formal Hebrew name such as those from prominent biblical or historical figures and a prayer that conveys the community’s hope for the baby’s future is offered. The ceremony reaches its climax as the mohel performs the circumcision. After that, drops of wine are placed on the baby’s lips in which would originally have assisted as anaesthetic. The circumcision ends as the blood is removed and baby is returned to the mother. The lasting mark on the body symbolise the identity of the child while expressing concepts of belonging and membership. Family and friends celebrate the ritual with seudat mitzvah, a festive meal (Gwynne, 2017).
As female babies cannot take part in the circumcision ritual, circumcision is not the ritual that makes the baby Jewish (Gwynne, 2017). When a baby is born from a Jewish woman, the newborn baby is considered Jewish. As a result, Jewish girls receive their Hebrew names on their first day of Torah reading at synagogues. The father of the female child is called to the front for Torah reading, mother and female child is blessed by the cantor and one’s Hebrew name is declared (Gwynne, 2017). Subsequently, the mother offers a thanksgiving prayer.
Another ritual celebrated by the Orthodox and Conservative Jews after the 30th day after birth is the pidyon ha ben, meaning redemption of the firstborn (Gwynne, 2017). This ceremony originated from the tenth plague of the Exodus. The lives of all the firstborn males in Egypt were claimed, except for the Israelites. The Tanach mentions that they were set aside as priests, however, they worshiped the golden calf, thus, were replaced by Levites. Furthermore, series of biblical passages portray God as laying claim to the firstborn (Syme, 2020). This command is observable in the following verse from Exodus 22:28-29, “You shall give me the male first-born among your children. You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks.” As a result, all firstborn males require redemption and one can be redeemed through this ceremony where one’s father pays five silver shekels to a cohen, a descendant of the ancient priestly tribe of Israel. In addition to the ritual, the male child needs to fast on the eve of Passover for the rest of his life. This action is to commemorate the death of Egyptian firstborn males in the plague (Gwynne, 2017).
Upshernish, meaning cutting off, is celebrated by Orthodox Jews at the age of 3, when the child is beginning to read. This ritual consists of cutting the child’s hair (Wineberg, 2018). This is weighed and the corresponding value is donated to those in need and the charity. Moreover, the child licks the Torah letters made of honey which symbolise the sweetness of God’s words as well as the commencement of Jewish learning (Gwynne, 2017).
Despite Qur’an lacking instructions on birth rituals of newborn babies, the hadith (official collections of Muhammad’s teachings and actions) specify the foundation to Islamic birth ceremonies (Gwynne, 2017). The first ritual takes place immediately after birth. According to the Islamic tradition, the first and last sounds that should be heard by every person is the adhan, “the brief call to prayer that is broadcast from minarets five times each day which conveys the idea that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet” (Gwynne, 2017, p. 107). This ceremony was also performed by Muhammad himself, where at the birth of his grandsons, Hussain and Husan, he recited the adhan to them. Today, the adhan is recited by the baby’s parents or a respected community member where the words are gently whispered and it is also accompanied by some Qur’an verse recitation (Gatrad and Sheikh, 2001). Usually, it is spoken once in the right ear but some Muslims recite the iqamah, a similar phrase, to the left ear (Gwynne, 2017).
Tahnik is another ritual performed immediately after birth where the father or a respected community member places a date in the mouth of the baby (Gwynne, 2017). The date is sometimes substituted when not available by honey or other sweet food. Through this ritual, Muslims believe that virtue and goodness will be transferred from the adult to the baby. This ceremony was also performed by Muhammad himself where he chewed the date and put it in the mouth of the baby to deliver a special blessing (Gilʿadi, 1988).
Aqiqah, meaning to cut or break, is celebrated 7 days after birth (Gwynne, 2017), although the timing can be flexible. The first component of this ritual is to cut or shave the hair of a baby that has grown in the womb. Thus, it is of hygienic purpose while symbolising a new stage in life. The hair is weighed and the corresponding value is donated to those in need and the charity (Huda Academy, 2019). The ritual originated from Muhammad shaving the heads of Hussain and Husan, donating the amount to the poor (Gwynne, 2017). The second component is the formal naming of the baby. Traditionally, parents of the baby decide on a name, however, they may request another to offer a name. It is important that the name is chosen wisely as the hadith mentions that the name will be called on the day of resurrection (Gwynne, 2017). There are recommendations to religious names such as Abdullah, translated as God’s servant, and Muhammad which are popular names for Muslim boys today. The last component is the sacrifice of an animal such as a camel, sheep or goat (Huda Academy, 2019). The gender of the animal does not matter but it must be at least one years old and without any marks. After the sacrifice, the meat is distributed equally to the family, neighbours and the poor. The sacrifice is a form of redemption and an act of thanksgiving.
The final birth ritual is the circumcision of the male child (Gatrad and Sheikh, 2001). The timing of this ritual varies where some choose to circumcise soon after birth and others wait until the child is old enough to recite the Qur’an or until the child reaches adolescence (Gwynne, 2017). Therefore, circumcision is both a birth ritual and a rite of passage to adulthood. As circumcision is not mentioned in the Qur’an, there are numerous opinions between Islamic branches to its necessity and importance. It is an obligation for Shafi’i school while Maliki and Hanafi schools recommend the ritual, however, it is not an obligation. Shafi’i schools make this ritual obligatory as the hadith compares circumcision to personal grooming such as cutting the nails, trimming the moustache and cleaning the teeth (Gwynne, 2017). For Muslims, its purpose is for hygienic reasons, ensuring purity during daily prayer.
Many Islamic birth rituals follows the actions performed by the founder, Muhammad, rather than commemorating rituals obliged by law.
Similarities & Differences
There exists numerous similarities and differences between the two religions, Judaism and Islam, regarding their birth ceremonies.
Deciding on a name for a child is often approached with serious consideration and great sincerity in both religions (Van der Meulen, 1991). The ritual of official naming occurs in its own specified and celebrated occasion – b’rit milah for males and during the first congregation for females in Judaism, and the Aqiqah for Islams. Jewish names are often related to religious and biblical figures such as Paul and Jordan while the giving of a name is done with a prayer in the name of God. On the other hand, the formal naming of the child in Islam requires a family meeting which imitates the gathering of companions of the Prophet. However, like Judaism, it takes the classical religious names where Muhammad and Abdullah are widely used.
In Judaism (Upsherenish) and Islam (Aqiqah), cutting and weighing of the infant’s hair is performed as part of the birth rituals. The equivalent value is donated to the charity and the poor. It is completed for hygienic purposes and further symbolises the new state of life.
Circumcision is another ritual that is performed by Jews (B’rit milah) and Muslims. It serves as an aid to hygiene in both religions. Jews consider circumcision as an obligation as it is an act of trusting obedience to the divine command, mentioned in the 613 commandments of the Torah (Gwynne, 2017). Further, the infant must be circumcised on the 8th day after birth. In contrast, circumcision is one of the last birth rituals or a rite of passage to adulthood in Islam as the timing can vary. Also, in Maliki and Hanafi schools, the ritual is only recommended and not an obligation for the child. However, Shafi’i school, like Judaism, make it an obligation for the child.
Birth is considered a scared time for the family, thus, it is celebrated with numerous rituals according to one’s religion. These rituals may be based in explicit divine commandments like the Jewish circumcision while it may be imitations of the founder’s actions like Islam where hadith is more relevant in the context of birth rituals compared to the Qur’an. The child is acknowledged as a member of the faith community where religion is automatically conferred at birth in Judaism via the mother and in Islam via the father. Further, the name of the child is traditionally inspired by past religious and historical figures. Both religions use the child’s first haircut to symbolise purification and progression, although the time of performance varies. Muslims’ aqiqah is completed soon after birth whereas Jews’ upsherenish is completed at 3 years of age.
It is fascinating to observe how religions and cultures continually intersect where the intertwining of ideas and customs constantly diversifies our world. Despite the varying practices, the similarities are noteworthy as it accentuates the universal significance of bestowing religious identity, blessing the child and guiding them to lead spiritual lives as members of the religious community.