Circumcision is called by the Hebrew name “Brit Milah” (the Covenant of Circumcision) This name is based on the Biblical account of the Covenant which G-d made with Abraham, that all newborn sons in the future generations would be circumcised on the eighth day (never sooner) as a sign of their entry into the Jewish fold. (A Brit has no meaning when performed before the eighth day. When the baby’s health demands it, a postponement may be authorized). Circumcision is, therefore, a religious act. It symbolizes the linking of the new son to his past, and dedicates him to Jewish loyalty in his future. At the ritual circumcision, prayers are recited, expressing the gratitude of the parents, invoking the blessing of G-d upon the child, and announcing his given Hebrew name.
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, a man has no place in the “World to Come” if he is uncircumcised.
Circumcision is performed when the child is eight days old. 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 the Sabbath. The Bible does not specify a reason for the choice of the eighth day; however, 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. Although some cultures have a similar circumcision ritual for females, circumcision in Judaism applies only to males. The circumcision is performed by a mohel, an 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.
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 (godfather). 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. It is not necessary to have a minyan (prayer) for a bris, but it is desirable if feasible. As with most Jewish life events, the ritual is followed by refreshments or a festive meal.
Circumcision mentioned in the Bible:
- God first established circumcision as the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, Gen. 17:10-14.
- Abraham (and his entire male household) was circumcised when he was 99 years old.
- From that day forward all Jewish male children were to be circumcised on the 8th day after birth, Gen.17:12.
- It was commanded as a part of the Mosaic Covenant, Lev.12:3.
- Non-Jews could not participate in the feast of Passover unless they were first circumcised, Ex.12:43,48.
- Moses’ failure to circumcise his son almost cost him his life, Ex.4:24-26.
- Failure to be circumcised resulted in excommunication from Jewish society, Gen.17:14.
- The reversionistic Exodus Generation failed to have their sons circumcised in Egypt, Josh.5:37.
- Jesus Christ was circumcised on the 8th day in compliance with the Law, Lk.2:21.