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Planning a Brit Milah: What To Do Besides Calling the Mohel

This article is reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit www.jta.org.

NEWTON, Mass., March 6 (JTA)--Congratulations, it's a boy! Now you have eight days to plan a brit milah, ritual circumcision. Actually, this is not as hard as it sounds.

The mohel, ritual circumciser, you choose will tell you almost everything you need to know. Today you can even find one over the Internet--indeed, you can learn enough about planning a brit from the Web sites of various mohalim that by the time your research is done you'll be ready to everything but the actual cutting.

The brit milah is held on the eighth day of the baby's life, and is frequently held in the morning. The Jewish day begins in the evening of the previous day. For example, if your son was born late Tuesday night, his brit will be scheduled for the Wednesday of the following week.

A brit milah is one of those rare Jewish life-cycle rituals that can, in fact, on occasion, must, be performed on a Shabbat, Sabbath, or festival, even Yom Kippur; eight days is eight days. However, if the brit milah needs to be postponed because of the baby's health, the rescheduled event cannot take place on a Shabbat or festival. If it cannot happen on the eighth day, the timing is no longer considered sufficiently imperative to risk the violations of traditional Shabbat practices that could potentially be involved.

The mohel will examine the baby to certify that he is healthy enough to undergo the procedure (unless a doctor has decided he is not). If he isn't, it will be postponed to a later date. As usual in matters of physical health, Judaism takes a cautious approach, and mohalim are generally more strict on this issue than doctors.

Perhaps the first decision you have to make is where to hold the ceremony. There is ample precedent for having a brit milah in the synagogue, in the context of daily morning services, if you so choose. The main argument against using the synagogue rather than your home is that it involves unnecessarily moving the baby around, which may be unsettling for a newborn (and more work for you!). If your home is large enough, you may choose to host it there. The mohel can even do the circumcision in the hospital on the eighth day, should there be health considerations that aren't serious enough to postpone the circumcision altogether but which would be helped by this setting.

Finding a mohel is both easier and more complicated than it was, say, a century ago. Back then, you would have used the local mohel without too much thought. Today, your options are considerably expanded, with mohalim available from all the major streams of Judaism, including an ever-growing number of doctors who are also trained as mohalim. Your local rabbi and Jewish friends who have had boys can recommend a mohel to you. The Internet can also jump-start your search with listings of mohalim in your area or nationally. The Reform movement has become much more active in promoting brit milah as a ritual observance and maintains a directory of both male and female mohels who can perform the circumcision.

Given this wealth of choices, it is important to know what questions to ask before you select a mohel. While you may simply choose a qualified and skilled mohel on the basis of recommendations (many people do), you may well want to ask him or her many of these questions for your own knowledge. Some of the issues are self-evident, but not all:

  • How many years have you been a mohel? Do you do this on a full- or part-time basis? How often do you perform brit milah? How many have you performed overall?
  • What is your background and training? In addition to being a mohel, are you a rabbi, physician, or nurse practitioner? Do you have a current medical license and board certification? In what medical specialty? Are you a member of a national body representing mohalim?
  • How do you sterilize your instruments? Do you use anesthesia? If so, what type do you recommend? What technique do you use to perform the circumcision? Do you do a "prep" on the baby? If so, what does it entail? Is the baby restrained on a board during the ceremony?
  • (If appropriate:) Can you integrate the needs of an interfaith couple? Are you comfortable with a role for both men and women in the ceremony? What part can non-Jews play in the event? Can you describe the ceremony briefly?
  • What is your fee structure? What is your usual territory? Would you consider traveling outside that area?
  • Do you have a list of references that I may contact?

Now that you've found a mohel, you also have someone who can answer many of your questions about preparing your house or synagogue for the brit milah. If you are planning to have many guests, the mohel may be able to suggest a caterer, a photographer, and even a Jewish calligrapher who can do a certificate commemorating the event.

Every mohel has his/her own requirements and guidelines for what happens during the ceremony and it would be wise to be guided by them, but certain elements are standard.

A minyan, quorum of ten adult Jews, is customary but is not necessary for a brit milah. The mohel can, if need be, perform the rite with only the presence of the father and the sandek, the person (usually a grandparent) who holds the baby while the circumcision is performed. You may want to have the loose Jewish counterpart to godparents, who carry the baby in.

Of course, you can invite as many or as few people as you want (although you won't have much time to contact them, so e-mail, phone calls, and word of mouth are usually the way to go). Traditionally, people are not technically "invited" to a bris, because attending is considered a mitzvah (commandment), but are simply notified of the event and encouraged to attend.

The brit milah is a cause for celebration and should be treated that way. You may want to decorate the house or synagogue with flowers or candles. While you will probably want to provide a festive table of food for your guests (the meal after a brit milah is considered a seudat mitzvah, a meal with sacred status), at a minimum you will need a loaf of challah or other bread (or two if it is Shabbat or a holiday), kosher wine, and a kiddush cup. You may want to provide kippot (head coverings) for those who wish to wear them.

Although the mohel will give you more precise instructions, the basics you will need are a washcloth and several disposable diapers, a sturdy waist-high table that won't wobble, another table for the mohel's instruments, a pillow, Vaseline or other petroleum jelly, Neosporin or other disinfectant ointment (as instructed by the mohel), and infant Tylenol or its generic equivalent. Make sure the room in which the brit is taking place is well lit.

The baby should be dressed in something that can be easily and completely pulled up above his waist and then lowered again. You should have a pacifier handy as well. Different mohalim have varying opinions on whether to feed the infant before the brit. It may help keep him calm, but it also means that he has a full stomach and may, rarely, vomit if upset by having his legs held apart.

The ceremony itself, without any additions, takes about 15 minutes, although the surgical procedure occupies only a small part of that time. After the procedure, a blessing over wine is recited and the baby is given his Hebrew name. Often the father and mother will offer a few words about the significance of the name they have chosen. Finally, as is the case with most joyous life-cycle events, everyone joins in the seudat mitzvah, celebratory meal. While guests may wish to admire the baby, in reality he will often be eating or sleeping after the ceremony. The mohel will give you instructions for caring for the baby in the days after the circumcision.

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." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. 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." A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. 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!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Plural of "kippah," Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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. Hebrew for ?godfather,? the word is specific to the role of holding the baby during a brit milah ceremony. Hebrew for "meal." 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. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."

George Robinson is the author of Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals. Reprinted from www.MyJewishLearning.com, a production of Hebrew College and Jewish Family & Life! with lead funding by Edgar M. Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman.

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