THE BRIT MILAH
Every Jewish father is commanded to fulfill the Biblical precept (described in Genesis 17:10-14) to circumcise his son on the eighth day or to designate a qualified representative to do so on his behalf. This is accomplished through the Jewish ritual known as a Bris (Brit) and is performed by a mohel or professional ritual circumciser. The word Bris means covenant (agreement or promise). The word for cut and for circumcision is Mila. A Brit Mila, the full name for the ritual, means "the covenant of circumcision" and is considered the most important covenant in Judaism. The Brit Mila has been described as God's promise that the Jewish people will continue to exist. The ceremony, therefore, centers around the body part that helps to create future generations. An equivalent ceremony also exists for girls called a Brit Bat but obviously there is no medical procedure involved!
THE HISTORY OF BRIT MILAH:
"And God spoke to Abraham saying: ...This is my covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and thy seed after you - every male child among you shall be circumcised." (Gen. 17:12) For 3,500 years, since the time of our forefather Abraham, the Jewish people have observed the ritual of circumcision as the fundamental sign of the covenant between God and Israel. The Brit Milah is considered much more than a simple medical procedure. Brit Milah is considered the sign of a new-born child's entry into the Jewish tradition. For millennia, in every country where Jews have lived, they have always practiced this ritual, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Perhaps more than any other ritual, Brit Milah is the ultimate affirmation of Jewish identity.
A SIGN OF A COVENANT BETWEEN ME AND YOU
A covenant between God and Abraham, who at the time was ninety-nine years old, is easy to understand. But how are we to understand a covenant between God and a baby who is only eight days old? It is said that they are like lovers on their wedding night. Before each has a chance to know the other, they passionately make a vow (a covenant) to be as one until the end of time Of course, there will be times when he doesn't feel so connected with God, and times when God is not so enamored with him. Yet, until the end of time, they have vowed to be there for one another. We learn that, like a good marriage, the covenant is a binding partnership in this world and in the world to come.
ABRAHAM CIRCUMCISED HIS SON
Every Jewish father is obligated to circumcise his own son, just as Abraham circumcised his own son, Isaac. However, most fathers are not trained to circumcise. So we invite a mohel to serve as a shaliach, a stand-in for the father. A mohel is an observant Jew who has studied the texts and laws of bris milah; the anatomy, physiology, and pathology of the penis (and related organs); and the techniques of circumcision.
THE EIGHTH DAY
For many commandments the Torah makes only an allusion as to its practice - so we rely on oral tradition for clarification (e.g., how to circumcise). But the Torah is very clear on when a male child is to be circumcised. God said to Abraham: "...at the age of eight days every male among you shall be circumcised..." (4); and to Moses: "...on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised..." (8).
From this our sages taught that brit milah must take place on the eighth day even if it is the Sabbath or Yom Kippur. If a child is born on a Monday, the bris would fall on the following Monday. If, however, the child is born Monday night, the bris would occur the following Tuesday. That's because a new day begins at the onset of evening... not from midnight! The bris is traditionally conducted during daylight, usually in the morning. That is because the lighting is better for the mohel to see. Nothing, however, precludes an evening ceremony.
Why on the eighth day? Here are some rabbinic interpretations. Some rabbis believed that every baby must experience seven days of Creation so that he contains the whole world within him before the Bris. The baby will also know the sweetness of the Sabbath. Another interpretation is that seven days represents the whole world and the eighth day represents the world to come. There are some medical theories but none have been substantiated.
A bris of a baby delivered by caesarean section, although normally performed on the 8th day, may not be performed on the Sabbath or Jewish holiday. In this case, the bris is delayed until the next weekday.
ALL ARE WELCOME
For most parents, a bris is a great simchah to share with loved ones and community (and therefore, a minyan is preferred). All are welcome: male, female, Jew, non-Jew, young, old - everybody.
THE BRIT MILAH CEREMONY
Two chairs are prepared for the bris. The first is for the Sandek, the individual who holds the baby on their knees during the actual circumcision. The lap of the Sandek is considered analogous to the altar of the Temple itself. It is considered a great honour to be the Sandek because there is a Kabbalistic tradition that links the soul of the Sandek with the child. In this way, the Sandek is considered the spiritual mentor of the child. In many instances, one of the grandfathers serves as the Sandek.
The second chair is set aside for the spirit of Elijah the Prophet, the "Angel of the Covenant". According to Jewish tradition, Elijah comes to every circumcision to testify before the Almighty to the commitment of the Jewish people to this great mitzvah throughout the generations. During the ceremony, just prior to the Brit itself, the baby is placed on the chair of Elijah, and the Mohel recites a special prayer asking for the spirit of Elijah to stand over him as he performs the Brit. Elijah was a prophet who, according to Jewish tradition, will announce the coming of the messiah. Because the messiah could be any Jewish child, Elijah has to be at every bris so that he doesn't miss the baby who will grow up to lead the world to justice, mercy, peace, and plenty.
After the Mohel has performed the bris, a special blessing is recited upon a cup of wine, and the baby is given his Hebrew name.
Ideally, a minyan should be present for a brit, although this is not a pre-requisite.
In the Torah it says that God changed Abraham's name from Avram to Avraham at the time of his circumcision. In keeping with that tradition, a Jewish boy is given his Hebrew name at the time of his Brit Milah. Judaism places a great deal of significance on a child's Hebrew name. It is often customary to name the child after someone who led a righteous life so that the child will try to emulate that individual. Ashkenazic Jews often name their children after a dearly departed relative, while Sephardic Jews sometimes name their children in honour of living relatives. In the case of someone who died at a young age, another name refering to life, or the name of a person who lived a full life is added.
The bris ends with a Seudat Mitzvah, a religious feast. The Talmud says it is a commandment (just as much as the circumcision itself) to celebrate with a meal. Israeli, middle eastern or deli food is appropriate. The meal may be simple (just a nosh!) or elaborate. (P.S. - Deli is not necessarily Jewish food... just try to find a deli in Israel!!!) Guests are asked to dress appropriately for a bris by wearing respectful clothing such as a sport coat and/or suit. Ties are nice but not necessary. Kippot for the men are highly encouraged, although not absolutely required. Gifts are also not a part of Jewish custom for a Bris, but people do present gifts to the new baby simply as a matter of secular generosity. The duration of the ceremony is about 20 minutes, the circumcision occurs 80% into the ceremony and takes approximately 60 seconds. The baby may be fed immediately afterwards.
Walk Before Me and Be Perfect -
An inquisitor once ask Rabbi Akiva: If God had intended man to be circumcised, would he not be born circumcised - is man's handiwork superior to God's? Rabbi Akiva answered by holding in one hand raw grain, as God had given it, and in the other hand baked goods, as man had perfected it. We learn that God gives us the raw gift of form and spirit, and endows us with the capacity and the responsibility to perfect it.