Brit Milah: Circumcision

The commandment to circumcise is given in Gen. 17:10-14 and Lev. 12:3. The covenant was originally made with our patriarch Abraham.

Of all of the commandments in Judaism, the brit milah (literally, Covenant of Circumcision) is probably the one most universally observed. It is commonly referred to as a bris (covenant, using the Ashkenazic pronunciation). Even the most secular of Jews, who observe no other part of Judaism, almost always observe this law. Of course, until quite recently, the majority of males in the United States were routinely circumcised, so this doesn't seem very surprising that almost all Jewish male babies are circumcised, but keep in mind that there is more to the ritual of the brit milah than merely the process of physically removing the foreskin, and many otherwise non-observant Jews observe the entire ritual.

Circumcision is performed only on males. Although some cultures have a practice of removing all or part of the woman's clitoris, often erroneously referred to as "female circumcision," that ritual has most certainly never been a part of Judaism and is considered transgressing the biblical injunction against mutilation.

Many erroneously perceive brit milah to be a hygienic measure. However the biblical text states the reason for this commandment quite clearly: Circumcision is an outward physical sign of the eternal covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. The health benefits of this practice are merely incidental. It is worth noting, however, that circumcised males have a lower risk of certain cancers, and the sexual partners of circumcised males also have a lower risk of certain cancers.

The commandment is binding upon both the father of the child and the child himself. If a father does not have his son circumcised, the son is obligated to have himself circumcised as soon as he becomes an adult. A person who is uncircumcised suffers the penalty of kareit, spiritual excision. In other words, regardless of how good a Jew he is in all other ways, he has no place in the World to Come if he consciously denies himself circumcision.

Circumcision is performed on the eighth day of the child's life, during the day. The day the child is born counts as the first day, thus if the child is born on a Wednesday, he is circumcised on the following Wednesday. Keep in mind that Jewish days begin at sunset, so if the child is born on a Wednesday evening, he is circumcised the following Thursday. Circumcisions are performed on Shabbat, even though they involve the drawing of blood which is ordinarily forbidden on Shabbat. It is interesting to note that even though the Bible does not specify a reason for the choice of the eighth day, modern medicine has revealed that an infant's blood clotting mechanism stabilizes on the eighth day after birth. As with almost any commandment, circumcision can be postponed for health reasons. Jewish law provides that where the child's health is at issue, circumcision must wait until seven days after a doctor declares the child healthy enough to undergo the procedure.

Circumcision involves surgically removing the foreskin of the penis. The circumcision is performed by a mohel (lit. circumciser), a pious, observant Jew educated in the relevant Jewish law and in surgical techniques. Circumcision performed by a regular physician does not qualify as a valid brit milah, regardless of whether a rabbi says a blessing over it, because the removal of the foreskin is itself a religious ritual that must be performed by someone religiously qualified.

(For detail of laws regarding circumcision, please seeĀ this video by Rabbi Eliezer Krohn)

If the child is born without a foreskin (it happens occasionally), or if the child was previously circumcised without the appropriate religious intent or in a manner that rendered the circumcision religiously invalid, a symbolic circumcision may be performed by taking a pinprick of blood from the tip of the penis. This is referred to as hatafat dam brit.

While the circumcision is performed, the child is held by a person called a sandek. In English, this is often referred to as a godfather. It is an honor to be a sandek for a bris. The sandek is usually a grandparent or the family rabbi. Traditionally, a chair (often an ornate one) is set aside for Elijah, who is said to preside over all circumcisions. Various blessings are recited, including one over wine, and a drop of wine is placed in the child's mouth. The child is then given a formal Hebrew name.

As with most Jewish life events, the ritual is followed by refreshments or a festive meal.

Last updated on: 03/31/2020
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