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Through the Eyes of a Mohelet: An Interfaith Bris, or Circumcision Ceremony

I am delighted that Chris and David decided to have a bris (ritual circumcision). They are making an important commitment to each other, to the community, to their families, and for their son, Paul. Chris and David had many long discussions about the importance of religion to each of them. Initially, they wanted to let their child decide what religion he would be when he was older. "Can't we have a bris and a baptism?" they asked.

"No," I answered. "Your child can not have a baptism and be Jewish. If you baptize your child, your child is Christian. If you have a bris, you are entering your child into the covenant between God and the Jewish people."

When Chris and Davis got married, they found a minister and a rabbi to co-officiate. They felt that they had a healthy respect for each other's customs. David celebrated Christmas with Chris' family and Chris celebrated Passover with David's family. Chris prided herself on making a terrific matzah-brei (matzah and egg combination eaten during the week of Passover.)

When I arrive for the bris, Chris leads me through the guests to her son, Paul. I examine the baby. Jewish law puts health and safety above all. I confirm that the pediatrician gave the okay for a circumcision.

David shows me to the table where I will be doing the brit milah, ritual circumcision. On the table is a pillow, two kiddush cups with kosher wine for the blessing over wine, A&D ointment, gauze, moist washcloths and a clean diaper. Next to the table are two symbolic chairs, one for the prophet Elijah and one for Moses's sister Miriam, to establish a connection with the messianic time.

I set up my equipment, put on my yarmulke (Jewish head covering worn as a sign of humility before God) and tallis (prayer shawl) and go to the kitchen to scrub my hands.

"Welcome," I begin. "We are here today to enter Paul into the Covenant. God commanded Abraham, the first Jew, to circumcise himself as a sign of the Covenant with God.

Several people have positions of honor. Chris's sisters will be the kvatterot, meaning they will carry Paul into the room. David's father, Saul, will be the sandek. The sandek, traditionally a grandparent, holds the baby for the bris."

I chant in Hebrew and in English, "These are the chairs of Elijah and Miriam whose spirits are with us. May their rememberance be for good, bearing the promise of God's redemption. Blessed is he who comes here in God's name."

The kvatterot, Chris's sisters, enter with Paul.

I quote the passages from Genesis (Chapter 17) which command the circumcision.

David and Chris read a blessing, thanking God for the Torah, for the warmth of family, and for the joy and privilege of parenthood.

After another blessing, I ask David for permission to perform the brit milah on his behalf. Not only is this a key time for comic relief, I am obligated to obtain his permission.

Chris asks if this is the point where she should leave if she doesn't want to see anything. I say yes and she slips away.

I place the baby gently on the pillow and instruct the sandek to place a wine-soaked gauze in the baby's mouth. When the baby sucks, I instruct Saul how to hold the legs. I swap with betadyne, then I place the first clamp. The baby screams. I continue, close the mogen clamp, and recite the blessing over circumcision.

David and Chris had to make a choice about which blessing I would say. One option is to simply bless the circumcision. The Reform movement of the United States of America recognizes the child of any Jewish parent, mother or father, to be a Jew as long as that child is raised as a Jew. Since Chris has not converted, they are also faced with a choice of doing a bris in the name of conversion. In that case, the bris would be followed by a visit to the ritual Jewish bath, witnessed by a jury of three rabbis. A bris with conversion would allow Paul to be recognized as a Jew by the world Reform and Conservative movements.

After the blessing, I complete the circumcision. There are a few spots of blood, which I dab with gauze for mezzizzah, a ritual drawing of blood. Today, most moyelim dab with gauze for this, although traditionally the blood was sucked off by mouth. (Some Orthodox moyelim still observe this custom).

David has a look of transformation. As a web site designer, his daily life is far removed from this type of religious experience. He feels the power of the brit milah.

David calls Chris back into the room. Paul snuggles into his mother's embrace.

Chris and David read a prayer together. Then, everyone repeats after me, in Hebrew, a prayer for Paul. "As he has entered the covenant, so may he enter the blessings of Torah, chuppah (the Jewish wedding canopy), and a life of maasim tovim, good deeds."

Hebrew for "good deeds." 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." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," 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 "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. 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.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for ?godfather,? the word is specific to the role of holding the baby during a brit milah ceremony. Yiddish for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. 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."
Lillian Schapiro

Lillian Schapiro is a board certified OB/GYN, a Fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and a mohelet. She currently practices medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, and is the mother of twin girls.

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