Judaism is full of ceremonies, prayers, milestones, and other opportunities to fulfill Torah commandments and connect to G‑d, our souls, and our Jewish identities.

Some of these mitzvahs are done daily, weekly, or annually. But there are some that happen so seldom that many of us are lucky if we experience them even once or twice over the course of our lives. We’ve collected some of them in the following list of once-in-a-generation Jewish rituals.

1. Birkat Hachamah: Blessing the Sun

Every 28 years, on a Wednesday in the spring, the sun returns (theoretically) to the same position it occupied at creation. This mitzvah was last performed on April 8, 2009. Its next occurrence will be, G‑d willing, April 8, 2037. A special blessing—called Birkat Hachamah, “the sun blessing”—is recited to mark the occasion.

Due to the rarity of this event, the blessing is customarily recited amid large public gatherings of men, women and children.

Explore: What Is Birkat Hachamah?

2. Pidyon Haben: Redeeming the Firstborn Son

As per Biblical command, an Israelite father must “redeem” his firstborn son, on the 30th day of life, by giving five silver coins to a Kohen. In order for this to take place, the following conditions must apply: Neither the father nor mother can be a Kohen or Levite, and the firstborn must be a boy, who was born vaginally, not following certain miscarriages.

The actual ceremony is typically followed by a sit-down meal, replete with Torah teachings, food, and singing.

Explore: The Pidyon Haben Site

3. Petter Chamor: Exchanging the Firstborn Donkey

Redeeming the firstborn donkey, joyously carried out in Moshav Ahi'ezer near Lod on June 26, 2018. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90
Redeeming the firstborn donkey, joyously carried out in Moshav Ahi'ezer near Lod on June 26, 2018. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90

Just as the firstborn boy is holy, so are certain animals. The firstborn among kosher domesticated mammals (cows, sheep, goats, etc.) are sacred, to be given to a Kohen, who would eat it as a sacrifice in the Holy Temple. Unique among non-kosher animals is the donkey, which is exchanged for a lamb in a ceremony called pidyon petter chamor (redeeming the firstborn donkey).

Since very few Jews raise donkeys, this mitzvah is exceedingly rare. When it is done in Israel, it usually attracts large crowds who are eager to see this unusual sight.

Read: Why the Donkey of All Animals?

4. Chalitzah: The Alternative to Levirate Marriage

The Torah mandates that when a man passes away without leaving children, one of his brothers should marry his widow. If he (or she) does not want to do so, they perform a ceremony called chalitzah (shoe removal), which involves the widow removing the brother’s shoe, spitting on the ground before him, and deriding him for refusing to perpetuate his late brother’s legacy.

Nowadays, levirate marriage (yibum) is almost never done, and chalitzah is done instead. Since (thank G‑d) advanced healthcare has made it rare for young, childless husbands to die, most people have never seen a chalitzah ceremony.

Read: Why Is Chalitzah So Humiliating?

5. Hachnasat Sefer Torah: New Torah Parade

This ritual is fairly common in large centers of Jewish life but happens only rarely elsewhere in the world. Known as a Hachnasat Sefer Torah, it is the celebration that centers around the welcoming of a new scroll to the synagogue. Akin to a wedding, it is considered a personal milestone for the entire community.

The program may include writing the final letters of the Torah scroll, torch-lit parading, and ceremonial dancing in the synagogue.

Read: What to Expect at a Hachnasat Sefer Torah

6. Consecrating a Cemetery: Circling Seven Times

Arranging a burial ground is often one of the first tasks undertaken by new Jewish communities. When purchasing land for a Jewish cemetery, whether it is a new cemetery or an annex to an existing one, it is specified that this is being done conditionally, as we hope and pray for the day when “death will be forever swallowed up.”1

Among Ashkenazim, the new land is consecrated by members of the chevra kadisha (burial society) chanting certain texts and circling the property seven times.2

Read: The Chevra Kadisha

7. Adding a Name

A person’s name is a conduit for Divine blessing and energy. On rare occasions, most commonly during life-threatening illness, a person’s name may be added to or modified.

The procedure for changing a name varies, and may include a prayer for health using the new name in the presence of a Torah scroll, or it may involve saying certain Psalms and prayers for recovery.3

Read: Changing a Name

8. Hatarat Nedarim: Releasing Vows

Did you ever promise to do something and then regret your commitment? In Judaism, there is a process whereby a person can explain their predicament to the members of a rabbinical court who will then declare that he or she is released from their vow.

Many make a generic releasing of vows every year before Rosh Hashanah. However, if one makes a specific vow (or even habit) which they then feel they cannot live up to, they have the recourse to undergo hatarat nedarim.

Listen: The Mitzvah of Keeping One’s Vows