The brining of a boy into the Covenant of the Jewish people through the rite of circumcision, or bris, is ancient. Our early Israelite ancestors probably didn’t even originate it. The Egyptians and other ancient people practiced this rite for various reasons that are lost to us. Jewish Tradition, however, attributes the Brit Milah to Abraham, who was commanded by God to circumcise himself and his son Ishmael. When Isaac was born, according to the Hebrew Bible, God commanded Abraham to circumcise his son on the eighth day of his life. And this timing of the eighth day has remained intact over the millennia.
Notwithstanding some of the objections of Jews who believe that a child should make his own decision about circumcision when he is old enough to do so, this rite of passage has endured the ages as a testament of loyalty to the Covenant between God and the Jewish people. And as it happens, regardless of their beliefs, Jewish parents have introduced their son to this rite as a matter of identification with the Jewish people and its historical experiences.
I can tell you unequivocally that circumcision in the Jewish tradition is not performed for health reasons, although it may have some health benefits. Brit Milah is done as a rite of passage, as a matter of Jewish identity—an affirmative way for Jewish parents to bring their son to the Jewish people.
Performing the Circumcision
Although my hand is very steady, I am not the one who performs the circumcision. It is usually performed by a Mohel or Mohelet, men traditionally and now also by women, who are trained in the Tradition, in a hospital in this very specialized surgery. There are some medical doctors who have also trained to perform this rite according to Jewish tradition and I have co-officiated with them as well.
So how does this all work, that is, the Rabbi and Mohel/Mohelet, co-officiating at a Brit Milah? There are some variations on this on how this goes depending on family situations. Usually, I am the one who explains the background and traditions of the ceremony, including the fact that the boy will be given his Hebrew name during the ceremony. The Mohel/Mohelet recites the appropriate blessings that precede his/her performance of the circumcision and, depending on the situation, may also make the blessing after the circumcision is completed. Typically when the circumcision is completed, I explain the child’s Hebrew name and then make a blessing for the child and his family.
Preparing for the Brit Milah Ceremony
Usually the ceremony takes place in the child’s home. As the rabbi, I explain to the parents, a few days before the Brit Milah takes place, that they should designate Godparents for their child. Ideally these two individuals will become lifetime confidants and trusted friends of the boy. The Godparents have the honor of carrying the child into the room where he will be circumcised.
I encourage parents to also appoint a Sandaak (the one who escorts the boy—the term is Greek); this is the person who puts small amounts of wine on the baby’s lips while the circumcision takes place—the wine does calm the baby. Godparents and the Sandaak are honorary roles, which are usually reserved for members of the family or close friends. I make suggestions about who should be honored based on family history and the state of relationships. Mine are suggestions and not demands.
The Brit Milah Celebration
The day of the Brit Milah is a festive day, when family and friends are invited to feast after the ceremony is completed. To all who are present I begin by striking the theme of celebration and I give a brief explanation of why and what is going to happen. I remind the male guests that they probably don’t remember what happened at their circumcision, so for them not to worry about what the baby will remember.
After injecting a bit of levity into the situation, I arrange family members in a line where they will receive the boy and hold him for a moment, before he is handed to the Sandaak and then the ritual proper begins. The circumcision takes place very quickly as the boy is already prepared for the circumcision by the Mohel/Mohelet, just before he is brought into the room for the ceremony.
To everyone’s relief all goes well, mom takes the baby for a feeding and family and guests partake of the food prepared for them. Mazal Tov! Congratulations to the family and to the child who has been welcomed into the community of the Jewish people.