In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Life Cycle Rituals

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Internet Resources
  • Ancient and Medieval Studies
  • Renaissance and Early Modern Studies
  • Ethnographies
  • Ethnographic Museums Catalogues
  • Childbirth and Circumcision
  • Weddings and Rituals of Married Life
  • Death, Mourning, and Memorialization
  • Contemporary North America and Other Diaspora Communities
  • Contemporary Israel

Jewish Studies Life Cycle Rituals
Harvey E. Goldberg, Shalom Sabar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0043


Life cycle events have been part of Jewish life since biblical times, but scholarly focus on them emerged only in the nineteenth century. This stemmed from the development of modern Jewish studies along with the new fields of anthropology and folklore. These disciplines only slowly gained legitimacy among Judaic scholars over the course of the twentieth century, while detailed attention to life cycle rituals at times appeared in other research disciplines: rabbinic law (halakha), often complemented by the attempt to elucidate accepted customs (minhag); social and more recently cultural history; and Kabbalah (mysticism). A milestone in the study of life cycle events in general was Arnold van Gennep’s 1909 formulation of the notion of rites de passage (rites of passage). Only in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have some Judaic scholars sought to engage theoretical concerns in the analysis of ritual, including those linked to life cycle developments.

General Overviews

The first comprehensive coverage of the life cycle among Jews was by Leopold Löw, who was a leader of the movement toward religious reform in Hungary. Löw 1875 is based largely on rabbinic literature viewed through the lens of historical scholarship and was not systematically linked to any emergent discipline like folklore. Schauss 1950 provided the first attempt of this nature in English, and Gutmann 1987 demonstrated the importance of material culture and art in life cycle rituals. With time studies of Jewish sources incorporated perspectives from anthropology and other socially oriented research paradigms. Vaux 1997 brings together texts and insights that yield a picture of biblical society. Rubin 1995 is the first of three books that comprehensively present Talmudic and later rabbinic material on life’s beginnings, marriage, and death. Zimmels 1996 provides a broad picture of rabbinic discourse demonstrating extensive variation regarding life cycle practices. Marcus 2004, building upon the author’s own earlier work on an entering-school ceremony in medieval Ashkenaz, demonstrates the value of anthropological modes of analysis across the time span of Jewish history. Goldberg 2003, more than previous overviews, puts an emphasis on Sephardic and Middle Eastern communities along with those in Europe, while Sabar, et al. 2006 focuses specifically on family life and rituals outside of Ashkenaz during the last several centuries.

  • Goldberg, Harvey E. Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

    This anthropological perspective links normative texts with knowledge deriving from ethnography and historical sources. It develops the subject of pilgrimage as a life cycle event and gives expression to feminist trends by considering new ritual forms while reexamining traditional male-centered rituals.

  • Gutmann, Joseph. The Jewish Life Cycle. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004666078

    Part of a series on the iconography of religions, this is a concise but detailed survey of Jewish life cycle rituals accompanied by visual materials, such as the ornamented paraphernalia used in rituals and artistic representations of life cycle events.

  • Löw, Leopold. Die Lebensalter in der Jüdischen Literatur. Szeged, Hungary:‎ ‪Druck von S. Burger, 1875.

    Utilizing traditional Jewish sources, this book begins with basic questions, such as how stages of life or notions surrounding birth were perceived at different phases of Jewish history. There is some comparative perspective through references to the classical world.

  • Marcus, Ivan G. The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.

    Introduced as an update of Schauss 1950, this comprehensive overview is informed by a sophisticated approach to how Jewish practices interact with Jews’ cultural environment. It indicates how external influences become Judaized, reflecting a process of “inward acculturation.” See also Marcus 1996, cited under Ancient and Medieval Studies.

  • Rubin, Nissan. Reshit ha-hayim: Tikse ledah, milah, u-fidyon ha-ben bi-mekorot hazal. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1995.

    A broadly conceived discussion of materials viewed together through the lens of sociological and anthropological understandings of ritual with attention to current historical research relating to the contexts of ritual activities. See also Rubin 1997, cited under Ancient and Medieval Studies.

  • Sabar, Shalom, Elah Arazi, Avri’el Bar-Levav, and Roni Weinstein. Ma’agal ha-hayim: Kehilot Yisra’el ba-mizrah ba-me’ot ha-tesha’ ‘esreh veha-‘esrim. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2006.

    A carefully documented and richly illustrated work that does not focus on a specific community but reveals the range of traditional and changing aspects of family life and rituals across the Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish worlds.

  • Schauss, Hayyim. The Lifetime of a Jew throughout the Ages of Jewish History. Cincinnati: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1950.

    Accepting a conceptual dichotomy between “spurious customs” and “the laws of the official Jewish religion,” this book is based on classic rabbinic sources along with some modern descriptions.

  • Vaux, Roland de. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. Translated by John McHugh. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.

    First published in French in 1958 by a major biblical scholar, it stresses institutional analysis of the materials in the Hebrew Bible. Part 1, on family institutions, discusses life cycle rituals.

  • Zimmels, H. J. Ashkenazim and Sephardim: Their Relations, Differences, and Problems as Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa. Rev. ed. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1996.

    A learned and in-depth comparison, based on rabbinic sources, of Ashkenazic and Sephardic laws and customs, including a chapter on life cycle events.

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