According to traditional Jewish practice, on the eighth day after a boy is born, he is circumcised, that is, the foreskin is removed from the tip of his penis, and several blessings are recited. This ritual, called brit milah (commonly known as a bris), was first mentioned in the Torah, when God says, "Every male among you shall be circumcised… it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you" (Genesis 17:11). The brit milah may be postponed, however, if the child is not healthy enough to undergo the procedure.
According to traditional Judaism, there is a difference between circumcision and a brit milah. A brit milah must be performed by an observant Jew who follows a prescribed procedure. A brit milah is typically performed by a mohel, who is a Jew trained in religious law and surgical techniques. For many years there were only Orthodox mohels, but now there are a growing number of progressive mohels who are receptive to the needs of interfaith families. The Reform movement maintains an online database of mohels. Often, parents will ask their rabbi, if they have one, to co-officiate at the brit milah.
The brit milah may occur in any location that will allow it, and usually occurs in the parents' home or a synagogue, although it is certainly permissible to perform the ceremony in the hospital.
The basic order of the ceremony is as follows:
- An honored woman (the kvatterin) brings the infant forward and hands him to an honored man (the kvatter).
- The kvatter places the infant on the knees of the already-seated sandek (another honored person, usually the grandfather).
- The sandek holds the infant while the mohel performs the circumcision.
- As the circumcision is performed, the mohel recites a blessing declaring that this act fulfills a holy commandment.
- The parents recite a blessing acknowledging that their son has entered into a covenant, or contract, between God and the Jewish people.
- The boy's Hebrew name is formally bestowed over a cup of wine.
Many parents and mohels add additional readings, songs and rituals to the basic ceremony.
Mohels are typically very accommodating to a family's needs and will use anesthetic if desired and will help the parents find ways to add additional elements to ceremony. It is customary for mohels to charge a fee of several hundred dollars for their services, and if you need to bring in a mohel from out-of-town, you are expected to pay for their transportation and lodging. The mohel will provide precise instructions on what you need if you are hosting a brit milah as well as instructions on how to care for the baby in the days following the circumcision.
It is also typical to have a festival meal following the brit milah.
Portions excerpted and adapted from Ceremonies for Newborns: The Brit Milah Ceremony. Reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.com.
The Guide to Birth Ceremonies for Interfaith Families is also available in PDF or Word formats.