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On The Eighth Day, in Every Generation: A Guide To Brit Milah (Ritual Circumcision)

January 1999

At the age of eight days, every male among you shall be circumcised throughout your generations.--Genesis 17:12

The Mitzvah of Brit Milah

The mitzvah (commandment) of brit milah (ritual circumcision) is the oldest continually practiced ritual in the world. For almost four thousand years, beginning with our Patriarch Abraham, every Jewish male has entered the covenant between God and the Jewish People through the mitzvah of brit milah. Even today, we link ourselves and our children to our Jewish heritage through this important mitzvah. Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people still thrives!

In giving this gift to your son, you provide membership in an eternal people, bestow the blessings of holiness and sanctity, respond to the will of God, and affirm your family's commitment to the lofty moral standards of the Torah and our Jewish traditions. You publicly assert that the repeated attempts to destroy our people will not succeed, that your family provides an ongoing link to our sacred past and our messianic future.

Because brit milah (ritual circumcision) is such an important mitzvah, it is also an occasion of great joy. We celebrate the arrival of a new Jewish baby through blessings, song, and a festive kosher meal after the ritual is complete.

Festive Occasion or Surgery?

Some Jewish parents feel tempted to have a hospital circumcision rather than brit milah (ritual circumcision). Some even consider abandoning circumcision altogether. Often their motive--however ill-advised--is the health and well-being of the child.

Circumcision is safe. The most recent stand of the American Academy of Pediatrics (1989) is that there are "potential medical benefits to circumcision." The California Medical Association overwhelmingly endorses newborn circumcision.

A mohel (person trained to do ritual circumcision) should do the circumcision. When a pediatrician does a circumcision in the hospital, it actually takes longer than when a mohel does it at home! It also loses the warmth and religious significance of brit milah.

To address both medical and religious concerns, the moheim trained by Conservative Judaism are pediatricians who have received additional training in the religious laws of brit milah. They are able to assure the safety of your son while also making the ceremony--strictly in accordance with halakha (Jewish law)--one you will remember for the rest of your life.

Brit milah (ritual circumcision) is not just a medical procedure. It is a sacred occasion, a moment of holiness for the Jewish people and a peak event in your family's life. Only a mohel can make this moment both safe and sacred.

The Ceremony

The ceremony takes place on the eighth day following birth, during daylight. It is generally held in the home, unless the eighth day falls on the Sabbath or a holy day, in which case our communal practice is to transfer the ritual to the synagogue. In either case, a minyan (ten adult Jews) should be present to symbolically represent the entire Jewish people.

A special chair is designated as the "chair of Elijah," the prophet who announces the coming of the Messiah. Since any Jewish baby might just be the Messiah, every brit milah becomes a messianic event, which we mark by inviting Elijah to join us.

Parents designate three honored participants: the sandak (traditionally one of the grandfathers) who sits with the baby during the brit milah, and the kvater and kvaterin (Godparents) who escort the baby into the room.

The obligation and privilege of circumcising the baby belongs to the parents, who recite a blessing before and after the actual circumcision. Since the responsibility is theirs, the parents also have the option of performing the final cut after the mohel has prepared and positioned the baby. Of course, the parents can decline this honor, choosing instead to let the mohel act as their agent. After the brit milah is complete, either the rabbi or the mohel blesses the child and bestows his name.

The event concludes with a festive meal. Since the meal itself is part of a religious celebration, it should be in accordance with kashrut , the Jewish dietary laws. This is easily accomplished by serving only dairy foods (no meat or poultry), fish (except for shellfish), breads and baked goods (that use only vegetable shortening).

The Meanings of Brit Milah (ritual circumcision)

  • The birth of a child is one of the most exhilarating experiences in the world: the most God-like act a couple can perform. The birth of a child is also one of the most terrifying experiences: a weighty, lifelong responsibility for the welfare of another person, the recognition that we are mortal, the end of our youth. Blood is a powerfully ambivalent symbol, a symbol of life and of death. What more appropriate medium can there be to dramatize the ambivalence of childbirth than by requiring the ritualized shedding of blood to express the parents' hopes, fears, joy, and panic?
  • Ours is an age that no longer hears the divine voice in standards of sexual morality. We no longer know how to sanctify our sexuality, and many dispute whether we should even try. Is our sexuality a mere drive, or is it a gift of God, to be used to enhance the divine image in our loving partner? Brit milah represents the Jewish conviction that sexuality can be, must be, sacred. Sex can strengthen responsibility and commitment, or it can destroy trust and self-worth. By cutting away the foreskin, we pledge to harness sexuality to sanctify, to enjoy the gift of sex in an affirmative, life-supporting way.
  • Ours is an age of shattered male identity and friendship. Brit milah establishes a powerful, non-verbal bond between fathers and sons that constitutes an eloquent reminder to look to Judaism for a new/old vision of what is truly masculine: men who are profoundly spiritual, who value life-long learning, who are not ashamed to dance, to cry, or to sing, men who love their families and their faith, men who can nurture other people.

We still need brit milah.

 

Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Yiddish for "godmother," often the individual who carries a baby in for his bris (circumcision). Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Yiddish for "godfather," often the individual who carries a baby in for his bris (circumcision). Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson serves as the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and is the author of The Bedside Torah.

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