Translated from the original by Costas Balomenos
In a few days we will celebrate the birth of Christ. A birth, which was the reason to be happy the people, where - finally - is opened again the way for meeting of people with God, which was closed by the sin of Adam.
But we must not forget that for our salvation, Christ chose to be born as a man in the country of Israel. So it is worth at this point to ask ourselves. What it meant to the Israelites the birth of a child, and what manners and customs were following this birth, which were applied to the infant Jesus?
In a Jewish family when a child is born, it was a great pleasure for parents, but also for their relatives and family friends. The village or the neighborhood was learning immediately the joyful event and knew that soon - according to the old custom – they would call their relatives, friends and neighbors to have fun...
Of course, for the Israelites, the joy that gushed from the birth was twofold, because it was likely that the newborn to become the cause of the fulfillment of messianic expectations, the waiting of which kept them since centuries. If namely the child was a boy, may have been, probably, the Messiah - as indeed happened with the son of Joseph and Maria – and if the child was a girl, may have been the woman who would give birth to the Messiah, as happened in the case of pair Joachim and Anna, who gave birth Maria.
For the Israelite, the children were always a blessing and riches: “Behold, inheritance of the Lord are children, salary of this, the fruit of the abdomen” Ps. 127 (126): 3, was saying a psalm, while another psalm was comparing the paterfamilias having many children, with a man, who has been around of his table “new plants of olive trees”.
The sterility was real disgrace to the country of Israel and much more for the woman, since she was considered by the couple as the cause of childlessness. Indeed, the hardness to her face not emanate only from men, but unfortunately much more than women. She was considered “cursed” by God, which meant the same time a kind of “contamination” and social exclusion, as e.g. she could not be filled the pitcher with water from the well when there were other women who had given birth and had to wait on the sidelines until they leave. This appears keenly in the Evangelical narrative describing the “capture” of John the Baptist by his mother, Elizabeth. It is indeed shocking, but yet so touching her words that reveal a “deposit of soul”, from a tormented woman: «After these days Elizabeth, his wife became pregnant and she was hiding herself for five months, saying “This my Lord did in the days which interested to remove me the disgrace among the people”» Luke 1:24 - 25.
But for men, things were no better, since - according to the rabbis - the childless man, should be considered as dead! As for the willful sterility, was one of the greatest sins. It was such a great desire to have children, so in the old days, they did something that today seems to us somewhat “unethical”. This same, the lawful wife, accepted their husbands to have children from their slaves, indeed his wife, urging them in this act, as in the case of Sarah the wife of Abraham and Rachel the wife of Jacob: "Sarah, Abraham's wife did not gave birth to children. In her service had an Egyptian slave, who was called Agar. So Sarah said to Abraham: «My Lord deprived me the ability to calve. Go, therefore, in my slave, and maybe I obtain a son through this woman»". Genesis 16:1 - 2.
Of course, behind this act, we must see and practical purposes, i.e. that absolutely had to be acquired successor, who will inherit the estate, otherwise the estate would go to the nearest relative. However, we do not know if this polygamous method was applicable at the time of Christ. Not also appears from Scripture, that the Israelites accepted the adoption. The obvious cases of adoption, referred to in the Bible, owned by foreign, such as for example the daughter of Pharaoh adopted Moses, which - as we know - found infant three months age within a basket in the river Nile.
The child thus was being born easily in most cases without any particular complications. The Israeli women even admired because were giving birth quickly and well. No, like the Egyptian women! “The midwives of Pharaoh responded: «The Jewish are not like the Egyptian women. They are robust and easy to give birth. Even before the midwife arrived, they have spawned»” Exodus 1:19. However, the midwives were helping them also, even from the time of the Patriarchs, as we see in the case of Rachel, wife of Jacob: “When the labor pains had reached its peak, the midwife said to her: «Do not worry, you did again boy»!” Genesis 35:17. These practices midwives used special “seats for litters”. However, there were not a few times, that the Jewish women could wonderful make ends meet alone without any help, as she did Maria, who gave birth to Jesus in the stable of the inn of Bethlehem.
It was such a great desire to see children be born, so the rabbis agreed to violated the sacred rule for the Sabbath rest, to help a recently given birth, to bear to her the midwife, to tie the umbilical cord of the newborn and even to cut him. If the mother was in danger, the contraceptive measures of that season not only were permitted but were imposed. Now, as regards the future father, not supposed in any case be present in childbirth, but he had to wait for announce to him. At least that it appears, from a phrase in the prophet Jeremiah: “Cursed be the man who brought to my father the good news and said, «you got a kid and is a boy» and «gave to him a lot of joy».” Jeremiah 20:15.
Once the happy event of the birth was reaching to the father, he was going and taking the newborn to his knees. It was an act of double importance: sample of formal gratitude and legitimacy. However, if was present a child's ancestor, it was correct to leave this prerogative to him, as had been done with the great-grandchildren of patriarch Joseph, who were born on his knees: “He saw sons of Ephraim, to the third generation. And the children of Mahir, son of Manasseh, were born on Joseph's knees”. Genesis 50:23. Having washed the newborn, as very graphically depicted in many images of the birth of Christ in the Eastern Orthodox Church, they rubbed the child with salt, because they believed that so will do tight skin, they wrap it in swaddling clothes, which was a long strip of cloth and now the infant was ready to show in their own. The congratulations were very warmly if the newborn was a boy. If it was a girl was more modestly, so much so, that looked like ... condolences! There was certainly some justification for this attitude, because the girls not increase at all the family's property, after when married was passing to other families. In this perception contributed and the oral religious tradition, the Talmud, which said: “Phony treasure these girls”, adding: “And then, someone is forced to ceaselessly them oversee!”. Other times, other manners from ours today.
At this point, however, we must be said and emphasized - and is in honor of Israel - that they was condemning the horrible pagan custom, that they had in Egypt, Greece and Rome, abandoning the children, “exposing” them, although this may not have been unknown to the Jews. Indeed, in Greece were so many the foundlings, who they were put and a protector god, Zeus. Even the wealthy abandoned children, as writes the comic poet Posidippos, in 3rd century BC: “The son, everyone nourishes him, and if you happen to be poor, while the daughter, exposes her and if is rich” Hermaphrodite, excerpt 11. An Egyptian father wrote to his wife, who was going to give birth: “If is a boy grew up it, if it's a girl, kill it!” Therefore, it may have not done great joys in Israel, when was being born a girl, but in any event, they was holding it and generally it was welcomed.
When the first child of the family was a boy, the joy was great and indescribable. In Hebrew language there was a special word, the word “bekor”, meaning "firstborn son". This word the evangelist Luke translates in Greek, using this, for Jesus, the son of the Virgin. Not necessarily meaning that the firstborn son will follow him and other boys, but that would be the future head of the family, with all the obligations and advantages. According to the then law of succession, the “birthrights” was transferring to the oldest son two thirds (2/3) of the paternal estate. The remaining third (1/3) was distributed to the other sons in equal shares. With this minimum heritage, these sons were difficult to make ends meet, so - most of the times - were forced to emigrate. The great importance of "firstborn" is clearly seen in the famous narration of the Bible, where Jacob by tricking his twin brother Esau, he takes all for “a dish of lentils”. The daughters usually not inherit anything.
In case you were born twins, was looking carefully to distinguish the child who came first from his mother's womb, sometimes by tying a red string, as in the case of Thamar: “When the time came, Thamar to give birth, were found twins in her womb. At the time of birth, one child pulled out his hand. The midwife caught it and she tied a red thread” Genesis 38:27 - 28. This, of course, was unfair, because the modern obstetrics admits that the child, who has been arrested first, comes second.
Boy or girl, firstborn or not, the child always was breastfed his mother, except in rare cases where a wealthy woman, had the luxury of a wet nurse. The breastfeeding was a debt that the rabbis always were reminding to mothers. Clutched long enough, almost two to three years and was a protection for the infant from various diseases due to climate, and above all the dysentery, which was frequent and often fatal. The moment of ablactation was celebrated with joyful meal that came with the sacrifice, in commemoration of the great banquet, given by Abraham the day that his son Isaac had ceased to suck from the breast of Sarah. Already, however, the child had been officially accepted in the religious community a long time, when they had marked with the “seal of God”, the circumcision.
At the time of Christ, the circumcision took place on the eighth day after birth. It was a minor surgical procedure in the male genital organ, from which were severing a small portion of skin from the front. It was so important that the rabbis permitted to become and during the day Saturday. Indeed, in the apocryphal “Book of Jubilee”, referred in all seriousness that even the angels were circumcised and especially the two upper classes the “angels of the face of God” and the “angels of holiness”! “And everyone who is born, whose the flesh of his foreskin shall not be circumcised on the eighth day, there will not included among the children of the covenant, which the Lord made with Abraham, but to the children of the loss. Nor there is in this, even more, the sign, that belongs to the Lord, so it will be eliminated and disappear from the earth, and he will eradicate from the earth, because it breached the covenant of the Lord our God. Because all the «angels of your face» all the «angels of holiness» created in this way on the day of their creation, before by «angels of the face» and «angels of holiness» sanctified Israel, to be with him and with his angels” Jubilee 15:26 - 27.
Although and other peoples were following the custom, such as for example Egyptians, Madianites, Canaanites, etc., for the Jews was the sign of the covenant (agreement) with God, who made them the most “chosen people”, i.e. the exceptional people of the earth. The circumcision in Christianity has been replaced by baptism: “In Him (i.e. Christ) you have circumcised, not with a circumcision mellowed by human hands, but by the miscarriage of fleshly body, i.e. with the circumcision of Christ, and you have interred with him in baptism, in which and you have resurrected with him through faith ...” Colossians 2:11 - 12.
Old, the father made the circumcision. Only in severe cases assumed the mother, as in the case of Gersom - son of Moses and Zipporah - whom the Lord will exterminate, because he was uncircumcised, or the season of the Maccabees: “Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut the tip of the skin of the genital molecule of her son” Exodus 4:25. At the time of Jesus, there was one “Mochel” in every city, with extensive experience in this delicate surgery. However, the custom of circumcision was so important for the Israelites who they wanted it more than anything else in the world. The Jews mothers had preferred to kill themselves at the era of Maccabees, despite not circumcised their sons. The most severe insult was to call someone “uncircumcised”.
Religious ceremony was done for the mother, the recently given birth, which - according to the Mosaic Law - was considered "impure" (contaminated). The period of “contamination” lasted forty days if she had give birth a boy and eighty days if she had given birth a girl and she was remaining at home. Once she was complemented this time, ought to offer to the priest a yearling lamb for the holocaust and a pigeon or turtledove for the “sin”. If she was poor, could offer two turtledoves or pigeons instead of lamb. The priest offering the sacrifice to God, “was cleaning” the woman through prayer. The Christian tradition it has retained the remembrance of this custom in the ceremony of “forty days”, better known in Greeks as “sarantisma”.
The first few weeks, usually on the day of circumcision were giving the name to the child. Like all ancient peoples so and the Jews was believed that the name contains a kind of untold power and that affects the character and destiny of someone. Usually, the fathers were giving the names, but several times and women. To the election of the name (likely) was - most often - an agreement between the parents. The names always have meant something. For example the name given to the Christ "Jesus" in hebrew "Giechosoua" means "Jah (God) saves." There were other names, not so pleasantly. t refers the case of a mother who because gave birth only girls, in her anger she named the fourth daughter “Zauli” and the eighth “Tamam”, which mean respectively “disturbing” and “enough for me!” Many meant and the characteristics of someone. For example the name “Esau” means “shaggy”, because he was ruddy and hairy. There were names taken from animals or plants: “Rachel” = ewe “Yona” = dove, “Tamar” = palm tree, etc.
At the time of the Greek conquest, it began slowly-slowly the Hellenization of names of Jews or they were taking Greek names. In the time of Christ the habit had spread so much that half of the people of the New Testament to have Greek names: Andrew, Philip etc.
The edification of children and their education was basically religious. Every Israelite father had a sacred duty to teach his son, until it becomes twelve (1) The “Hear Israel ...” something like our own “I believe” or the "Our Father" (2) The Ten Commandments (3) basic elements of religious law. In schools of synagogues taught basic truths of Jewish faith. The girls were learning the above from their mother. The synagogues are not cared for this. Most girls were staying home. Minimally had potential for more studies and - is meant - those of wealthy families. The opinions of rabbis differed for the education of girls. One of them - probably misogynist - he said that “to educate a girl is like to teaching her the shamelessness!” But another was saying, “Every man must teach the Torah (Law) to his daughter”. If we judge, however, from the impromptu hymn that recited the Virgin Mary, when he met with her relative, Elizabeth, containing more than thirty biblical references, we can assume that many girls knew the Bible.
When the little Israelite reached the age of thirteen years considered that he had come of age. On this day, who was called Bar mitzvah, was declared “son of the Law” and was becoming a religious ceremony, in which had to read – public - a truncation of the Law. After feasting ensued. The young child had entered now to the community. It was a correct Israelite.
1. Daniel Rops: “The daily life
in Palestine in the time of Jesus”
2. Savvas Ch. Agouridis: “The apocryphal texts of the Old Testament” Volume I, Edition Concept.
3. School handbook for Religious of the Second Class Gymnasium 2007
4. Archbishop Christodoulos “Hellenism proselyte”
5. Bible of the Greek Bible Society
6. New Testament, Apostolic Diakonia of the Church of Greece
Writer Christos Pa