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Ask the Rabbi: Jewish Godparents?

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Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain responds to the question: I am pregnant and I want to appoint godparents for the child. Is this something that is done or can be done in Judaism ?

Godparents tend to be associated with church baptisms and so the term is often assumed to be Christian. Yet it has long been traditional for there to be kvatter at a circumcision. He is the person who goes to fetch the baby from the mother (assuming she is in a different room to that in which the circumcision takes place) and brings the child into the room and then hands him to the sandek (the person who holds the baby during the ceremony).

The usual translation of kvatter is godparent. On the one hand, this shows that it is part of Jewish life; on the other hand, being a Yiddish term, it means it comes from the Middle Ages rather than being a biblical or rabbinic institution. It is possible that the term kvatter may even have been imitated or borrrowed from the Christian tradition of godparents during  the Middle Ages when Jews lived alongside Christian neighbours (ghettos
did not arise till 1516, although there were voluntary Jewish quarters before then). But whatever their origins, a kvatter or godparent has been
part of Jewish life for some centuries.

As well as choosing whom to ask to be the godparents, you also need to be clear with them what role you are expecting them to fulfil. Is it a  purely honorific title and a way of showing them how much you value them, or are there expectations attached ? The kvatter was expected to provide a tallit and tefillin for the boy’s barmitzvah. Some godparents are asked to be guardians if anything untoward was to happen to the  child’s parents. Others are expected to take an interest in the child’s  religious direction or hobbies. Once their role is settled, you should invite them to the brit milah and or synagogue blessing for your child and get them involved with him or her right from the beginning.

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