Brit Milah is Hebrew for "Covenant of Circumcision", and describes the ceremony of removing the foreskin of a Jewish male.
I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be perfect ... This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you; Every boy among you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise 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 boy in your generations ... and My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people.
Unlike nearly every other commandment, circumcision is given not to Moses but to Abraham, some 400 years (Bible time) earlier. The milah, the circumcision, is a sign of the brit, covenant between God and Abraham.
It seems that the Tanakh regarded circumcision as the badge of belonging for the Jews. Jacob's sons use this fact as a pretext to get the entire city of Shechem to circumcise themselves, and then attacked them while they were still recovering (Gen 34:13-18) and Joshua orders a mass circumcision before entering the Promised Land.
Brit Milah is seen as a completion of the work of creation. There is an idea in Judaism that humans have only to make the smallest effort, and God will do the rest. A willingness to complete creation is entering into a partnership with God. some sources also say that circumcision is a way of controlling sexual urges too.
When and Who?
The earliest a Jewish boy can have a brit milah (commonly called a brit, or bris), is on the eighth day after his birth, inclusive. This means that if he's born on a Wednesday, his brit will be the following Wednesday. Unlike blowing the Shofar or taking the Four Species, a brit is done on Shabbat and even Yom Kippur if that happens to be the eighth day. Any circumcision done before the eighth day is invalid as a brit milah.
A brit can be delayed, and often is, if the baby is ill in any way. Newborns are often jaundiced, and this is the most common cause for delaying a brit. More serious medical conditions can delay it for long period of time, and - if a brit was a danger to life - indefinitely.
Interestingly, it's through the laws of brit milah that we see the first records of haemophilia. The Mishna notes that if two sons of the same woman die during their brit, she shouldn't have the third one circumcised. That the maternal line of the child is the determining factor here, it is often taken as a reference to haemophilia. The point is clear, though that if there's good reason to believe that a brit is dangerous, it shouldn't be done.
A brit normally takes place in the morning, as one is supposed to be eager to fulfil the mitzvah as early as possible. It can be done at any time of the day, though not at night, and a night-time brit is invalid.
Male converts to Judaism also go through a brit milah, though the ceremony is somewhat different for them. See my writeup under Judaism for more details. Another special case is if a baby is born without a foreskin. In this case, a small amount of blood is drawn from the penis instead.
It is during the brit ceremony that a baby boy is named, A girl is named when her father (traditionally) is given an aliya to the Torah as soon as possible after her birth. There is a universal custom not to discuss the baby's name before the brit; it's seen as bad luck.
There are a few characters in a brit milah.
- The first and most important is the baby.
- Second is the mohel, the person who actually makes the snip. This is sometimes a Rabbi but doesn't have to be; my mohel was a dentist.
- The Sandek holds the baby during the snip itself, and acts as a spiritual guide for the child as he grows.
- The baby's father, who has a role in the ceremony
- The baby's mother, if she wants to. Many mothers don't want to be present during the brit itself, so it's not compulsory.
- A man and a woman to bring the baby into the room where the brit will take place.
- Elijah the prophet - traditionally, Elijah visits every brit. A seat is laid out for him as part of the ceremony
- Guests, ideally at least a minyan (quorum).
The ceremony starts when the baby is carried into the room, and everyone says "Baruch Ha'ba", "Blessed is the one who is coming".
A declaration of intent is made by the father (in Reform and Conservative communities, both parents). Then the baby is put on Elijah's chair and dome verses pertaining to salvation and blessing are recited.
Now, the parents are commanded to circumcise their son, but the mohel isn't. He has to ask for permission to act as their agent. This normally takes place at this point, right before the blessing. The blessing, which takes place immediately before the circumcision itself, is:
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha’olam, asheyr kidishanu be'mitzvotav, v'Tsivanu al ha'Milah
Blessed are you GOD, our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us through his commandments, and commanded us about the circumcision.
The actual circumcision itself is very quick. It rarely lasts as long as 5 minutes, and can be a lot faster. The mohel puts a metal clamp / shield between the foreskin and penis, and removes it with a surgical-sharp flint knife or scalpel. Then he cleans the wound by removing a small amount of blood through a glass tube, and dresses it. Some Halachic authorities allow the use of a local anaesthetic gel, which would be applied to the baby's genitals in advance.
The Ceremony II
As soon as the operation is over, the father (or both parents as above) recites the following blessing:
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha’olam, asheyr kidishanu be'mitzvotav, v'Tsivanu l'hachnisoh b'britoh shel Avraham Aviynu.
Blessed are you GOD, our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us through his commandments, and commanded us to bring him into the covenant of Abraham our father.
Reform communities, and others who make their prayers egalitarian, often add the words "and Sarah our mother" at the end of the blessing.While making prayers egalitarian has some rationale behind it, in this case it seems a little strange as the covenant of circumcision is Abraham's, personally.
Everybody present responds with (translated from Hebrew) "Just as he has entered the covenant, so may he enter Torah, marriage and good deeds."
The mohel then takes a cup of wine and recites prayers for the wellbeing of the child, and his future. It's during these prayers that the baby is named. The baby is also given a few drops of wine from the cup, dripped off the finger of the mohel. By the time he has the wine - just 3 or 4 minutes after the circumcision - the baby has normally stopped crying. After the official part of the ceremony, a meal is held as a festive feast.
Opponents of Brit Milah
There have been many opponents of brit milah over the centuries, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The Greeks regarded it as an assault on the beautiful human body, and during the Hellenistic period Jews attempted to reverse their brit to fit in. Romans saw it as a bizarre and barbaric custom.
More recently, opposition to brit milah has come from within Jewish circles. The early Reform movement was actively against brit milah. Nowadays the official line of American Reform Judaism - and most other strands with a wider reforming agenda - is that brit milah, while not compulsory, is very strongly recommended. There remain, however, anti-brit milah groups who are against it for much the same reasons that people oppose circumcision generally.
Conversation with The Debutante and Stuart A. regarding Roman and Greek (respectively) attitudes to brit milah.