Circumcision, a Symbol of the Jews' Covenant With God

Abraham was commanded to undergo circumcision (brit milah) at age 99; a majority of Jewish males since then have been circumcised at eight days old.

A Jewish baby during his circumcision ceremony
A Jewish baby during his circumcision ceremony Limor Edrey

The major Jewish ceremony associated with the birth of a boy is circumcision (brit milah, or bris), which usually takes place when the infant is eight days old (though it may be postponed for medical reasons).

In the Torah, God commands Abraham to undergo circumcision at age 99, as part of a covenant between Him and generations of Jews to come. "This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and thy descendants after thee, every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised on the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations" (Genesis 17:10-12).

The circumcision ceremony inducting the newborn into the fold of the Jewish people is a short one and often takes place at a synagogue, but any place will do. Family and friends assemble, and the ceremony begins with singing psalms and other liturgical songs as the child is brought into the room.

The Shema prayer is recited and more psalms are chanted. The father recites a benediction on circumcision, and then the child is placed on the lap of the sandak, the godfather.

If the ceremony is taking place in a synagogue, there may be a special ornate chair designated for this purpose, called Elijah’s Chair.

While not strictly part of the circumcision ceremony, the mother will usually recite a benediction of thanksgiving called Birkat Hagomel before the circumcision. This is a prayer observant Jews recite after surviving mortal danger.

The circumcision itself involves the surgical removal of the foreskin. Traditionally, the father appoints a mohel to conduct the operation in his stead, reciting:  “I hereby appoint you to take my place in the mitzvah of circumcising my son” (in Hebrew).

In Ashkenazi communities the mohel then recites a benediction on the circumcision (among Sephardic Jews, the same benediction is recited before the operation is carried out). 

Circumcision
Daniel Bar-On

After the baby has calmed down (by use of pacifier, a drop of wine and/or juice), the father recites the Shehechianu, a benediction thanking God for allowing him to live to experience this joyous day.

The mohel or someone else recites benedictions on a glass of wine, on spices, and on the covenant with God. Then the name of the child is announced. After a few more benedictions and psalms, the ceremony is over and usually, a festive meal takes place.

In modern times, meaning starting in the 19th century, a small minority of Jews have chosen not to circumcise their sons, holding a ceremony instead that is called brit shalom ("the covenant of peace") to welcome the newborns into Judaism. One argument opponents use is that Moses didn't circumcise his son.

Other opponents of circumcision have chosen not to perform the ritual, claiming it is cruel and unnecessary. It is important to note that an uncircumcised male born to a Jewish mother is still considered Jewish, according to Jewish law.

Another controversial aspect of circumcision has been the practice of oral suction (metzizah b'peh) on the newborn, in which the mohel draws blood away from the circumcision cut using his mouth. The practice, which is common among some ultra-Orthodox communities, has resulted in newborns contracting herpes and at least one death from the virus.