Lithuanian Jews - Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. The Jews of Lite followed the same traditions as other practicing Jews. In biblical times, kinship was traced patrilineally, but, since the days of the Roman Empire, custom dictated that one is Jewish if she or he has a Jewish mother, giving great importance to the female side of the family without diminishing that of the male. Thus, by the time Jews reached Poland and Lithuania, Jews had been following a bilateral kinship system for hundreds of years.

Marriage. In Orthodox Jewish homes in Lithuania and Poland, parents traditionally found companions for their children with the help of a marriage broker ( shadkhen ), whose job it was to negotiate the specific terms of the dowry and the signing of the marriage contract ( ketubah ), a document that protected (and still protects) wives who were divorced or widowed. The language of the contract dates back to the last century before the Common Era, before the destruction of the Second Temple. Practicing Jews never married (and still do not marry) on the Sabbath or on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Nor did they hold weddings during the forty days that separate Passover from Shavuot, except on the first day (Rosh khodesh) of the two intervening months of Nisan and Iyar.

According to the Talmud, a marriage has two main purposes: to rear a family and to sanctify the companionship of a man and a woman. The ceremony itself sets out the terms and expectations of this union within the faith, explaining explicitly the obligations and responsibilities of both the husband and wife. With a rabbi officiating, the wedding takes place under a canopy (khupah), which symbolizes the fact that the couple will be living together under the same roof. Beginning with the benediction over a cup of wine, a symbol of joy, the service ends with the groom crushing the wine glass with his foot, in memory of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. The custom also serves traditionally as a warning to the couple, to remind them that just as one step can crush a beautiful glass, so can one act of infidelity destroy the happiness of the home.

Once married, the couple is expected to fulfill the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." Even though the law forbids a man to sleep with his wife while she is menstruating and for the week following her period, Judaism recognizes openly the pleasures of sex and encourages the couple to take joy in matrimonial union. It is, in fact, a man's responsibility to have relations with his wife and to satisfy her (as it was hers to satisfy him).

The birth of a girl is a happy event in Jewish families, but one that is marked by little ritual activity. In contrast, eight days after the birth of a boy, parents invite friends and relatives to witness the circumcision of their son, renewing in this way the convenant God had made with Abraham (Gen. 17:12) to make the patriarch's descendants a great and holy nation. Since European Christians did not circumcise their sons, European Jews had great difficulty hiding the religion of their men during the years of the Nazi terror.

According to custom, a man is supposed to fulfill as many of the 613 commandments as possible, whereas a woman is expected to fulfill only three: (1) lighting the Sabbath candles; (2) baking the challah (braided white bread, eaten on holidays); (3) bathing in the mikveh, the ritual bath, the week after she has finished menstruating.

Many of the commandments involve the obligation of men to pray and study, an obligation the Jews of Lite took very seriously. As a result, the division of labor in Lithuanian Jewish families placed a far greater material burden on their women than was necessarily the case elsewhere in Europe. The Jews of Lite came to value study so highly that the fathers of gifted sons tried to marry their young scholars off to the daughters of rich people who would be able to support a son-in-law who did not earn a living. If this were impossible, they sought unions with women who were willing to assume the financial responsibility of the family so that their sons could devote themselves entirely to study. As a result, Jewish women in Lite frequently maintained the home and the store while their husbands, ideally, spent the day in the synagogue pouring over the Talmud and commentaries.

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