C. EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES
Naming [Sections 1 – 6]
How Many Names? [Section 3]
Father Moses [Sections 4,6]
Covenanting [Sections 9 – 11]
Choosing Circumcision [Section 9]
Elijah’s Chair [Section 11]
What of the Girls? [Section 13]
Elaborating [Section 14]
That Wonderful Wimple [Section 14]
We bring here a number of ideas for educational activities on some of the issues addressed in this chapter. We do not suggest using all of the activities together, but choosing those most relevant for your group or class. Next to each activity is the name of the relevant section from the background file for this chapter, i.e. the section that discusses the issue examined in the activity.
(One and a quarter - one and three quarter hours.) [
Sections 1– 6
The aim of this exercise is to think about the question of a birth name, the factors that go into choosing a birth name and the role of a chosen name in developing the future identity of a child.
• The group members/students should come to the activity having researched their first names. This research should include discussing with parents the factors that went into the choice of their vernacular names, the meaning and associations of the vernacular name, and the factors that went into the choice of their Jewish (Hebrew) name, if they have one.
• Introduce the idea of names with the two Biblical readings from Bereishit (
readings 2 and 3 in text section
). Use them to suggest that the issue of naming is taken very seriously in Judaism: with G-d and Adam as models, how could it be otherwise?
You can amplify this with the wonderful poem by Susan Donnelly (from D. Curzon (ed.)
Modern Poems on the Bible
), in which Eve protests that Adam in his heavy-handed way knows nothing about naming and has saddled her with an entirely unsuitable name.
• In small groups of three or four, the members of the group should discuss what they know about their own vernacular names and the factors that went into those names. If their vernacular and Jewish names are the same, then they should naturally talk about those names and the reasons for the names being the same, adding these reasons as factors to the list.
• The group should be brought together and the lists shared to create one large list. Each factor on the list should be examined to see how many people in the group had at least one of their names chosen for that particular reason.
• The question of having separate vernacular and Jewish names should now be discussed:
Why are people given two kinds of names?
What does it mean when parents give a child a vernacular name that is the same (even in anglicized form) as the Hebrew name?
What do these choices say about the way that parents want their children to develop their identity within the wider society?
Do the members of the group think it a good idea or a bad idea to have different Jewish (Hebrew) and vernacular names?
Would they choose to do that for their children, or not? Why?
• Now introduce the story
by Aharon Megged (see
). Either bring the whole story and allow a good half hour to read it, or choose part of the story to read together.
Discuss the dilemma in the story and the reactions of the different characters to the issue.
Is it fair to give the baby the name that the grandfather wishes to give it in order to remember a dead relative? With whose position do the group members sympathize?
In their original small groups they should talk about whether they like or don’t like the names that they have and what they think of the reasons that they were given their names.
• Finally, the group should be given
the excerpt by Franz Rosenzweig.
What is he saying?
What do the group members think of his point of view?
• Review with the group:
What were the main factors in choosing a name in our experience and in these stories?
What were the exceptional factors?
What have we learned about naming?
2. HOW MANY NAMES?
(An hour to an hour and a half.) [
The aim of this activity is to examine the question of the multiple meanings of the idea of a name to an individual.
• Each person sits alone and writes their name in large letters on a piece of paper. Around the name, they should write as many associations as they can. (An association in this context is anything that they think of when they think about themselves, e.g. smart, funny, short, dark, serious, chess-player, soccer-player, good friend, lonely, shy etc.) They are writing only for themselves, no one else will see what they write. They then put the sheet of paper away.
• Now divide the group into pairs. Each person writes down the name of their partner on a piece of paper in large letters. Underneath that, they should write down up to half a dozen associations that they think of when they think about their partner. Explain to participants that none of the associations should be insulting or negative. They can be neutral or positive. That sheet of paper should also be put away.
• Bring two sets of pairs together to create small groups and give each group the
midrash on the different names that a person develops
• Each group reads the text and tries to work out the difference between the three names.
What do the Rabbis mean by the three names?
Does the group agree that each individual has three such names?
Is there any sense in which an individual gains additional names?
If they were trying to put over the general idea that the Rabbis are conveying in the midrash, how would they state it?
• Revert to the earlier pairs and each person should pass to the other one the sheet of paper with the associations that they wrote about the other. They should examine the papers and then comment on them to the other.
Do they agree with the associations?
Do they think that this is a fair representation of themselves?
Is it very different from the page that they wrote for themselves?
If it is different, why do they think that there is such a large difference between the way that they see themselves and the way that they are seen by the other?
Is such a difference inevitable?
They can choose two items from their own list that they wish to add to the other list, in order that the other list should reflect them more accurately.
• At this point, on an individual level, they should look at the poem
Every Person has a Name
– written by the poet Zelda and found in many anthologies of Jewish and Hebrew verse (incl. the
Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse
, ed. T. Carmi p558). They should try and understand the poem, which talks of the many things that influence a person’s name and identity. They should consider which images are strongest for them.
• The entire group should come together and share their thoughts regarding the strength of the images in Zelda’s poem.
• Finally, ask the following review questions:
How important is the name that a person receives from their parents in the overall name (i.e. identity) that they develop during their lifetime?
How much is your birth-name an important part of your identity?
3. FATHER MOSES
(An hour to an hour and a half.) [Sections
The aim of this activity is to examine the role of names in transmitting cultural identity down the generations.
• Explain to the group that the subject of the activity is the power of names to affect identity. Bring the excerpt from Shemot in which
Moses decided to name his son Gershom
(reading 21 in the text section). Go through the text and examine the reasons that would have caused Moses to give his son such a strange name. (Follow the textual analysis in the
• The group should be divided into pairs. Each pair should try and come up with a list of pros and cons for Moses’ final decision to name his son Gershom. The list should be as detailed and exhaustive as possible.
• The group should be brought together and a full list should be compiled representing the thoughts of the entire group.
• At this point, one of the group should be chosen as Moses and another as Gershom. There should be a role play of a confrontation between father and son, in which Gershom asks for the first time why on earth his father has given him this strange and conspicuous name which all the children talk about, causing him embarrassment and social difficulties. Moses’ first line of response should be: “I’ve been waiting for years for you to ask that question…” (This can be done either in a number of groups in parallel, or as one group).
• At the end, the group should revert to its original pairs and make a list of pros and cons, but this time for Gershom’s state of mind after he hears Moses’ explanations. This should be followed by each participant sitting and writing a first person piece in which, as Gershom, s/he puts her or his state of mind down on paper in the form of a letter to Moses.
• Bring the group together and read some of the letters and discuss them. The central questions to be raised are:
Has Moses been fair to Gershom?
Is cultural continuity and group identity a good enough reason to give different and potentially embarrassing names?
• Finally, bring the midrash on the role of names keeping the identity of the Jews in Egypt (reading four in the text section).
Can names in fact preserve identity?
If the midrash were a true story, would it have justified entire generations of parents in Egypt giving Jewish names to their children, creating difficulties and embarrassment for them every time they tried to mix in Egyptian society?
(Two hours to two and a half hours. For older groups.) [
sections 9 – 11
The aim of this activity is to examine the concept of Covenant and to introduce the participants to the deep symbolism of the Brit ceremony.
• Ask the group whether any of them has ever declared or promised loyalty to a friend or a group of friends.
If there are those present who have done so, ask for volunteers to relate the experience, if they are willing. Ask whether there was any kind of a ceremony and did they do anything to swear loyalty to each other (either by some kind of an oath, or by a written letter or by the drawing of blood, or some other kind of physical mark).
• Ask the group why people create ceremonies with spoken or written formulae or physical expressions.
Is it not enough simply to promise friendship or to agree to a particular line of action?
What does a formal ceremony add, if anything?
• Bring the Brit agreement from Bereishit (Reading
8c in the text section
). Explain the concept of Covenant to the group.
Ask what the Brit ceremony is meant to add to the relationship between Abraham and G-d.
Ask them to comment on the text in which the consequences of non-circumcision are spelled out.
• Explain that there are some Jewish men and women who are unhappy about their circumcision and are taking measures to reverse the process. Bring the Jerusalem Report piece on the RECAP organization (
reading 9 in the text section).
Draw attention to the quote saying that many Jewish rituals have changed and that circumcision should be dropped too.
Divide the group up into pairs and ask each pair to write a response to the RECAP organization from the vantage-point of an editorial article in a Jewish newspaper.
Come together and share some of the responses.
• Bring the group a copy of the
and give each pair some twenty minutes to half an hour to go over the ceremony, learn it and try and spot any values and ideas that the ceremony is trying to suggest. You will need first to explain terms such as Elijah’s chair, sandak and kvatter.
• As a group, list the values that they have found, asking them to show where they think they have found the values in the particular details of the ceremony. Then go through the ceremony from beginning to end, concentrating on the elements that we have brought above in the main part of the section.
• Following this, each individual should write a personal response to RECAP responding to the ideas presented in the article. At this point they represent themselves and they should explain their reactions and the reasons they are putting forward their position. They are free to accept the RECAP position, or to reject it.
• Coming together, the responses should be shared and discussed, and the final question asked:
For those who think that circumcision is an important commandment/ tradition that should not be laid aside, how important do they see it in the hierarchy of commandments/traditions. Why?
• Finally, if possible, bring the extraordinary true story “Circumcision” (from the book
Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust
by Yaffa Eliach pp. 175-7), which tells of the determination of a woman to circumcize her new born baby in the hell of a Nazi slave labor camp. It provides good closure to the activity.
5. CHOOSING CIRCUMCISION
(An hour to an hour and a half. Also for older groups.) [
The aim of this activity is to examine the issue whether circumcision as an irreversible mark of identity should be chosen, rather than imposed at birth. This activity is recommended for older participants, including students and adults.
• Ask the participants whether circumcision is important.
What does it represent?
Why is it seen as so central?
In explanation raise the issue of Covenant, of membership, of a physical sign of belonging, of identity.
• Ask the participants why circumcision takes place on the eighth day. (Answer: it is mandated by G-d in his command to Abraham). Ask who was the first Jew to be circumcised and how old he was when it took place. (Abraham at ninety nine).
Now read the
relevant passage from Bereishit
(reading #8c in the text section).
• Ask whether Abraham had a choice in the matter: begin with this question and lead the discussion using the guidelines below to launch a structured, formal debate:
Could he have said no - and had he done so, what would have been the consequences?
Presumably he was free to reject the demand, but that would have been the end of his relationship with G-d and the end of the chance to fulfil all the Divine promises that had been promised previously. The passage is very explicit:
Any uncircumcized male will be regarded as having broken the Covenant agreement.
He will be cut off from his people.
It is clear from the story that Abraham had already thrown in his lot with G-d. He was not about to renounce the Covenant with all of its benefits, both material and spiritual, by refusing to pay the price of joining the club.
But the fact is that he had a choice:
Possibly, the penalty for so doing would have been worse than being cut off from the Covenant: it might have been death – but he still had a choice. He was a mature person; he could refuse to honor an agreement; he could refuse to pay the price.
The question naturally arises: if circumcision is an irreversible membership sign within the Jewish collective, should we, too, not have choice? This is the issue to be examined and we suggest doing so through a formal debate on the subject of:
This house believes that circumcision should be a meaningful conscious act undertaken by a mature individual. the age of circumcision should be postponed until an age when a person can make a conscious decision.
• The debate should be prepared ahead of time (or during a recess) with two proposers, two opposers and a moderator. The debate can be held with Abraham as the opposer, or it can be held without named characters. Rules should be agreed upon and the debate held.
• At the end, a vote should be taken and then a proper, open discussion should be held, examining the various points that the two sides have brought up.
• After the debate, suggest that the circumcision is really about parental identity and the determination to start off life as part of the collective. This way, a person has to make a more conscious decision to move out of the group rather than to move in.
Is cultural and religious continuity a reason to allow parents to make this decision for their children?
6. ELIJAH’S CHAIR
(An hour to an hour and a quarter.) [
The aim of this activity is to introduce the multi-faceted figure of Elijah, and to discuss the “faithfulness” of the Jewish People to their traditions and commandments.
• Open with the following questions:
What is the role of Elijah’s chair?
What is Elijah doing at the Brit ceremony?
• Around the answers received, explain three of the four reasons that brought earlier (in the background file to this chapter and the source texts) to explain Elijah’s presence.
As an intermediary between people and G-D.
As a symbol of the messianic hope.
(Both of these are drawn from reading
in the text section.)
As a faithful guarantor of the covenant who is a valuable enforcer of G-D’s law
(This is drawn from reading
in the text section.)
• At this point “Elijah” should enter, played by one of the better actors among the group, or by a teacher or youth leader, if there is more than one working with the group. (The part needs to have been well prepared ahead of time and, if possible, should incorporate costume.The Elijah figure needs to prepare a full list of questions beforehand and should try and fit the specific questions to the specific characters in the group.)
"Elijah" explains that he has come to assess the faithfulness of the Jews to G-d’s commandments. He should challenge the individuals of the group to see how faithful each of them are to G-d’s laws. They need to answer him, explaining what they do and why they don’t do the things that perhaps they should do, according to Elijah.
(He should be firm, but not aggressive, and should encourage the members of the group to explain why they do what they do and why they don’t do other things. Having probed, he should accept the answers of each individual and then move on. He should not mention circumcision!)
• Having asked each individual, "Elijah" should then start to sum up, concentrating on the balance between the things that they do and the things that they do not do.
• He should then move on to the situation of the community (the particular community, or the Jewish People as a whole, if the group has enough knowledge to answer on that level).
(N.B. If there is a chance that any boys in the group are not circumcized, on no account use this stage:)
Finally, "Elijah" should go return to the topic of the group and exclaim that he has forgotten the most important thing of all. He should explain that he has a particular responsibility to check that a most important commandment is carried out.
He should ask the group about circumcision.
Hearing that the boys are indeed circumcized, he should express pleasure.
He should then comment that even if other things are not in as good a state as he would have liked to have seen, this essential aspect of G-d’s Covenant with the Jews is being carried out in this group at least.
He can ask why they are so careful about this particular custom.
• If "Elijah" skips the above section, he should then ask about circumcision in the Jewish community generally; this question can be asked of all groups. If the RECAP article, (
reading #9 in the text section
), has not been used in a previous activity, he can pull the article out and ask the group what they think about it.
• Finally, "Elijah" should announce that he has heard what he came for and that now he must leave. He should explain that he came as the chief inspector of G-d’s commandments and that he must go off to give his report.
• As he is about to leave, the teacher/youth leader should stop him and say that he is at least partly an imposter. S/he should explain that there are very good authorities in Judaism that say that there is a very different reason why Elijah has to be present at a Brit: The reason he has to come and quiz Jews on the commandments and check that the Covenant is still being observed is because G-d was angry with him for slandering the Jewish People, by maintaining that they were not carrying out the Covenant (
# 10b in the text section
). As a result, he is condemned to be present at every Covenant ceremony in order to see that after, three thousand years, on the whole, the Jewish People are still holding on to this central tradition, at least with regard to the ultimate Covenant ceremony, the Brit milah.
• Elijah should admit the charge and sum up the situation as he sees it today: there are many areas where the Jews are slipping away from their traditions, but in relation to the Brit milah, with only a few exceptions, he has to admit that he was wrong. Jews on the whole take care to keep the commandment/tradition.
• If you have not previously used the true story “Circumcision,” (from the book
Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust
, by Yaffa Eliach, pp. 175-7), "Elijah" can bring the story as an example of Jewish faithfulness and determination in the keeping of the Brit milah.
7. WHAT OF THE GIRLS?
(An hour and a half to two hours.) [
The aim of this activity is to raise the question of ceremonies for girls and to suggest alternative ways of celebrating the births of girls. This activity should be held after activities relating to the Brit milah.
• Ask the group what the name is for an uncircumcised Jewish baby of more than eight days old. The answer – a girl!
• Explain the accepted traditional ritual for a girl: a naming ceremony at the synagogue the Shabbat after birth, in which the father and the mother are called up to the Torah and the name of the daughter is announced, a ceremony traditionally followed by a Kiddush – a celebration after the end of the service with food and drink for the congregants.
• Ask the group which elements mentioned in connection with the Brit milah ceremony are missing here. The answer, of course, is: almost all the ritual elements of the Brit milah ceremony. Not only the “cut” itself, but any of the many elements connected to the idea of Brit are all totally absent.
• Divide the group up into small gender-mixed groups. Let them discuss the issue and see if they have any suggestions.
• Bring the group back together. Ask the group what they think about the situation.
Is there a difference between the responses of the boys and the girls?
Were there any suggestions for changing the situation?
• Raise the question: Should Judaism develop a parallel ritual for the acceptance of baby girls?
This is a good opportunity to raise in discussion the rationale for ritual, asking the group whether or not it makes any difference, since the child will never remember the ceremony anyway.
• Explain that the group is going to examine different ideas for developing a ritual for girls.
As a first step, take out the Brit milah ceremony and go over the different elements with the group. (Hopefully, they will already be familiar with the ritual and the ideas behind the different elements from a previous activity).
• Divide up into working groups: the aim is to create the basis of a parallel ceremony and to explain the rationale behind the suggestions. The groups should work on a detailed basis and at the end they should come together and present their suggestions to the entire group. If there are many subgroups, this feedback could be processed in two parallel groups. The various suggestions should be compressed into a list of suggested different elements, with each element being discussed.
• If they do not appear on the list, suggest the additional two ideas that were explained in the main text above – the use of water and immersion and the incorporation of the welcoming of the new moon into the ceremony. Get reactions to the ideas.
• Finally, talk about a name for a ceremony. The traditional name for the welcoming ceremony for a girl is
Is that a good name, or should it be called by a different name which incorporates an element of Brit?
Some call it
(Covenant of a daughter or daughters); some call it a Brita (an attempt to feminize the word for a Covenant).
• (Optional) Raise the question of some kind of a physical cut for the girl to parallel the circumcision element. This might, or might not, have been raised by the group in one or more of their suggestions. Explain the fact that a suggestion was made in the mid-1970’s and read the excerpt from E.M. Broner’s novel
A Weave of Women
(from the chapter called “The Birth”), in which a hymendectomy is part of a welcoming ceremony.
Ask the group for responses.
Is this a suitable element or not? Why?
Is there a difference between the responses of the boys and the girls?
(An hour to an hour and a quarter.) [
The aim of this short exercise is to examine the possibilities of adding elements to the basic birth ceremony and to encourage creative thinking around ritual moments.
• Ask the group whether there is anything that is missing in the traditional ceremony.
Here we are really talking about the Brit for a boy, since there is no proper ceremony for a girl - and, therefore, if one is to be created for a girl, (as we saw in the last activity), it must be developed creatively from start to finish.
• Are there any elements that would enrich a ceremony and make it more meaningful as a ceremony?
In order to do this, you must review with the group what a birth/Brit ceremony is trying to achieve.
• Present them with the idea of tree planting around the source from the Talmud (reading 29 in the text section).
Ask if this could be a meaningful addition as some have suggested.
Why? Why not?
• Explain the idea of elaboration and personalization of the ceremony. Explain that the group is going to examine this process.
In the text section earlier, is an excerpt from the Talmud, in which the students of a great teacher gave a collective blessing to their teacher, Rav Ami, when they left his house after studying. We bring it again here.
May you live to see your world fulfilled,
May your destiny be for worlds still to come,
And may you trust in generations past and yet to be.
May your heart be filled with intuition
And your words be filled with insight.
May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue
And your vision be on a straight path before you.
May your eyes shine with the light of holy words
And your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.
May your lips speak wisdom
And your fulfillment be in righteousness
Even as you ever yearn to hear the words of the Holy G-d.
Bab. Talmud, Brachot 17a
Distribute it to the group; analyze and discuss it.
How do they think Rav Ami felt when he heard his students blessing him in this way?
Was it a good thing for them to do?
Why?/ Why not?
• This blessing should now be made the basis of an activity in which the group has to construct their own collective group blessing for a newly arrived baby.
This can be done in a number of ways:
One suggestion is to bring a series of traditional texts for inspiration and allow the members of the group time to sort through the materials in order to take ready made elements or to inspire them creatively to develop their own.
The traditional elements can include parts of Biblical books such as
Song of Songs
, or a rabbinic compendium like
Ethics of the Fathers
Small groups can work on a whole prayer, or sections which can then be brought together.
• Bring the group together to examine the final product or products.
Ask the group what they think the family will feel when they hear this blessing being given to the baby.
Is it a successful addition to the traditional ceremony?
• Finally, discuss the question whether it is good to make additions and, if so, what kind of additions can and should be made. Examine and discuss any extra ideas that the group might have.
9. THAT WONDERFUL WIMPLE
(Up to one and a half hours.) [
The aim of this activity is to provide an interesting and creative approach to the Brit and to life cycle ideas.
• Explain to the group that there is an old Jewish custom that goes by the name of the “Wimple.”
According to the custom, the cloth that was used to swaddle the child at a Brit (for a boy) or for a naming ceremony (for a girl), would be washed and cut up into strips, prior to the next stage of the process. The strips would then be sewn together to form one long piece of cloth, perhaps two or three feet long. This would then be decorated with pictures, blessings and verses from the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) that were felt to be suitable to the child and conveyed the hopes and wishes of the family towards the child. It would then be put away and used at different Jewish ritual events and ceremonies during the child’s life.
• Divide the group up into pairs and get each pair to choose up to two texts that they like from a selection that they should be given. We suggest using traditional sources, such as:
The morning blessings that can be found at the beginning of the regular daily service in any Siddur (prayer book);
A selection of some of the proverbs found in the Biblical book of
A few selections from
Ethics of the Fathers
, the section of the Mishnah that can be found in most
Not more than fifteen or twenty options should be given.
They should also be asked to compose one blessing that they themselves would wish for a child newly arrived in the world, starting a journey through life.
• In the group, each pair should explain their choices and be asked to explain what each choice signifies for them.
• They should then be given strips of white cloth about two feet long, with art materials and be asked to decorate their strip with the utmost care. For those who can write in Hebrew it is certainly worth encouraging them to do so: (they should be given the choice of texts in both English and Hebrew, even if they do not know the Hebrew language).
• Having decorated them, they should return to the group and a discussion should be held regarding the suggested uses for the piece of cloth at different Jewish ceremonial times during a person’s life.
The traditional uses were as a Torah wrapper, when the child was taken to the synagogue as a youngster, but old enough to understand what was going on, (or one could suggest a bar or bat mitzvah), and as part of a wedding canopy.
One could also suggest the piece of cloth becoming part of a tallit, or being woven into, or hung up in the sukkah, or even being made into part of a shroud at death.
Discuss which would be the most suitable uses for the wimple.
What does it add to the connection between birth and other stages of life? OR:
• Optional: Conclude by telling a fictitious story, in a round, of a person’s life, starting at birth and carrying on through the different stages of life, where the wimple has to be brought in, say, five times at different points in the life story. The story should be told with participants taking over the telling from each other, in order to create a collective group story of one person’s life (or perhaps two persons – one boy and one girl).
What does the wimple add to the connection between birth and other stages of life?