Traditional Jewish Circumcision
Last updated: 05 April 2014, 10:08 UTC
Guest contribution from Rabbi Sholom H. Adler of Toronto
The Origin of Bris Milah
Times change. Styles change. But some things never change: Bris Milah is one of them. It is a bond between God and the Jewish nation for all time. It is a bond that can never be broken.
|MAZEL TOV! IT'S A BOY!
When our forefather Abraham reached the ripe old age of 99 years (Genesis 17) the Almighty promised him that his descendants would have a special relationship with their Creator. This would forever be symbolized by the Bris Milah (Covenant of Circumcision). “This will be a sign of the covenant between Me and you”.
Abraham circumcised himself as well as all the men of his household. When his son Isaac was born, he too, underwent Bris Milah on the eighth day, as Divinely specified.
Heroism Throughout the Ages
Throughout the generations the Jewish people have been unyielding in performing this mitzvah [commandment]. Bris Milah was often performed in secret, defying innumerable despots and hostile régimes. Spain during the Inquisition, Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, ancient Greece and Rome all tried to ban Bris Milah. They understood correctly that this distinctive rite is the cornerstone of the Jewish faith, and that proscribing it would be the first step towards eliminating our nation.
The Jewish people, non-observant as well as observant, are uncompromising on this issue. They recognize that in order for their children to survive as Jews, they must induct them into the Divine covenant of Bris Milah.
A Mohel performs the circumcision with spiritual intent. A Bris by a Mohel is more than a simple medical procedure; it is a connection with the Divine.
At a Bris Milah blessings are said and prayers are recited as the child takes his place as a member of the Jewish people. Carried out according to Jewish tradition, Bris Milah is a profoundly moving experience for all in attendance. A medical circmcision does not meet all the requirements of Jewish law.
The Mohel’s Training
The Mohel undergoes a prolonged, intensive apprenticeship under the watchful eye of an experienced senior Mohel before being allowed to practise. He must also have broad knowledge of Jewish law, be of good character and committed to observing the Torah commandments.
The technique of the contemporary Mohel combines both surgical skill and spirituality. The expert Mohel is a specialist who has advanced the procedure to the highest level. Adherence to rigorous medical standards has always been the rule. In the case of prematurity, low birth weight or illness, the Bris is postponed until the baby is healthy.
The Mohel performs the Bris swiftly, with utmost care and minimum discomfort to the infant. Immediately afterwards the baby is returned to his mother to be comforted.
After the Bris Milah
The surgery usually heals uneventfully within a short period of time. The Mohel advises the parents on how to care for and comfort the child during this period and a certificate
Highlight of the Jewish Life Cycle
To attend a Bris Milah is to participate in a veritable highlight of the Jewish life cycle. It brings to all present a spiritual feeling that words cannot describe. It’s the Jewish thing to do. The celebration of a new life, a new beginning, is an unparalleled joy - not only for family and friends, but for the entire Jewish nation. At the Bris the baby is given a Hebrew name which further binds him to our glorious tradition. Now he is a full-fledged member of our people.
Rabbi Sholom H. Adler, Certified Mohel.
Beth Tzedec Congregation of Toronto
Origins of the three Abrahamic Religions
First, let’s be clear what is meant by the three Abrahamic Religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a common root; all include stories of the wanderings of the Tribes of Abraham not only in their accounts of early Middle Eastern history but also in many of their religious beliefs deriving from the supposed historical record.
It is necessary to bear in mind that the biblical record is unproven both as regards accuracy and completeness, especially in respect of events many thousands of years ago. For example it is impossible to date the Exodus
from Egypt with certainty. From the entire time when the Egyptians kept written records but the Jews did not, nothing survives showing that the Jews ever were in Egypt. By the time that the Jewish account was written down, it had suffered the inevitable distortions of many generations of oral recitation. Accurate record, fable and baseless belief had become hopelessly mixed.
The origins of the Bris Milah ritual (as opposed to Jewish circumcision itself) long pre-date both Christianity and Islam and have been passed down the generations as follows:
At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched [Moses’] legs with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom to me!’ And when He let him alone, she added ‘A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision’ (Exodus 4:24-26, modern translation. Zipporah was the wife of Moses).
It is Moses, the father, who is symbolically circumcised here. Through the circumcision of his son he is touched in the place where his own fertility comes from, as the feet and legs are often euphemisms for genitals. Through the uncovering of the son the father has become uncovered too. The act of circumcision suggests a change of state. The ritual severing - the cut or milah that unites (b-rith) - is symbolic of a cut through the known to reveal the unknown. The knife inscribes a circle which is a symbol of unity. The B'rith Milah, or covenant with God, suggests that a cut into the flesh is a sign of human/divine wholeness. The act of circumcision is the removal of the orlah or foreskin. When used in scripture the word orlah refers to a barrier in the way of a beneficial result. Adam, the first man, was born circumcised which signified his closeness to God. Because Adam’s sin was the failure of mankind the foreskin, symbolizing his new separation from God, became a permanent part of the human body. Like a sheath holding a sword, the body is a vessel containing the soul. Just as the contours of a sheath tell much about the contours of the sword within, so the body can reveal much about the condition of the soul. When Adam retained his intimacy with God the human body mirrored this condition. When the body had no spiritual barrier it had no orlah, but when Adam’s sin caused a barrier between him and God the human body mirrored this state also. The foreskin represents Moses’ separation from God as Adam’s fig leaf did after he ate of the Tree of Knowledge. The fig leaf serves as Adam’s foreskin that he later passes on to his descendants. During the time of Abraham the human race still had the spiritual and physical foreskin, but then Abraham demonstrated that man could surmount this sin. God recognized this change in the human race’s spiritual essence through Abraham and so gave him the commandment of circumcision. In general, the word orlah has the connotation of something that is uncontrolled. The removal of the orlah then symbolizes the idea of control. Through the act of milah one indicates that they can control the pattern of their life. Circumcision is the removal of a defilement or barrier that could restrict spiritual development.
Circumcision can be seen as a form of ritual bloodletting. A metal knife, called an izmail is used to perform the circumcision. The traditional izmail is sharp on both sides. This helps to eliminate possibility of harming the child by using a blunt edge. Metzitzah, or drawing, is the act of extracting blood from the wound. The Talmud considers this act to be therapeutic which is reminiscent of other feeling about bloodletting acts such as venesection. There is some controversy over whether this should be done orally or if it can also be done in other ways. The Talmud is strongly opposed to omitting this part of the ceremony and says that any mohel who does not perform it should be removed from office. [The oral procedure is now discouraged on medical grounds, due to the risk of transfer of diseases such as Hepatitis - Ed.]
An act which causes bleeding is a violation of the Sabbath. However, since the Torah specifies exactly when the ceremony is to be performed, eight days after birth, the act of milah wins out over this prohibition. This is a case where an obligatory ceremony cancels out a blood taboo.
Rarely, a boy may be born with a very short foreskin, apparently already circumcised. According to Jewish law, such a boy has to have a drop of blood drawn ritually instead of a circumcision; the same also applies to any converts to Judaism who might already be circumcised. This shows that the blood is as integral a part of the ceremony as the removal of the foreskin. Blood is an integral part of many offerings and sacrifices and the act of circumcision is both an offering and a sacrifice to the covenant with God. The rabbinic notion of salvation is symbolized by the blood of circumcision and the foreskin is the offering with which the people of Israel seal the covenant with Yahweh.
The Duty of Circumcision
It is obligatory for every Jewish father to have his son circumcised. If the father neglects to have his son circumcised, this duty devolves on the Beth-Din (the Ecclesiastical Authorities). Should the child remain uncircumcised, the responsibility falls upon him, on reaching the age of thirteen, to have himself circumcised; and every day he permits to pass without being circumcised, he incurs a penalty.
The Mohel must be an adult circumcised Jew, a believer in and an adherent to the tenets of Judaism and who is fully acquainted with the method and the laws of circumcision.
[Excerpt from SNOWMAN, Jacob, MD, MRCP, The Surgery of Ritual Circumcision, 3rd edition, London, 1961]
A Gentile attends a Bris - A personal account from Canada
[This item dates from the 1990s, before the more recent discovery of the medical benefits of circumcision. Although hostile to infant and child circumcision and factually inaccurate in a number of respects, we reproduce it here as an example of the way in which a member of one culture perceives the rituals of another culture.]
A friend and his Jewish partner hosted the Jewish circumcision and naming ceremony at their home. Their son was one week old. I was curious and wanted to support my friend, so I chose to go. They had clearly thought it through and decided to go ahead with the circumcision for cultural reasons, despite being aware of the genital mutilation point of view.
The Bris was basically a big, multi-generational celebration of the arrival of a new member in the community. Lots of food. Lots of gifts. Lots of people - friends, relatives, neighbours. The actual ceremony took only about 10 minutes, but the whole event lasted close to three hours.
The centrepiece was the circumcision and naming ceremony. People gathered in my friend’s dining room where a small table stood. On the table were laid out a folded blanket for the child to lie on, the doctor’s bag, a bottle of red wine and a silver goblet.
There was a chair positioned in front of the table (as opposed to behind the table where the doctor stood during the procedure). The chair remained unoccupied during the whole event. I never did catch the religious significance of this, but it symbolizes something or other. [The empty chair is for Elijah, in recognition of his honour to be present at each and every Bris - Ed.]
There were perhaps 40 people packed into this little room. Despite that, by good fortune I occupied a position right alongside the table, only a few feet from the fateful event. I was able to see almost everything. A close, gay, uncircumcised friend of mine stood beside me and we had a subdued chat about the ethics of circumcision while we waited.
I suspected that most of the younger Jewish people were at least aware that circumcision is up there with tonsils on the list of ridiculous western medical interventions once thought to be useful or necessary. But this was not a western medical intervention.
The doctor, whom I think was also a Rabbi - I never did find out for sure - came in and started unloading his wares. He poured some of the wine into the silver goblet and started chatting with folks, some of whom he had obviously provided this service for previously. His sense of humour was a real ice breaker and helped to ease the tension in the room.
The crowd parted and, in a ceremonious fashion, my friend, his partner, and his partner’s mother carrying the baby walked in. The woman handed the child to the doctor, who placed the boy on the table, face up, feet towards him. The doctor then dipped some surgical gauze in the wine and placed the wet end in the baby boy’s mouth, tickling under his chin to induce the swallow reflex.
The doctor performed the naming ceremony at this point, which consisted of some readings of scripture giving thanks, and a few words from the parents on the origins of the name, honouring the ancestors after whom the child was being named.
The naming complete, the doctor began the circumcision. First, he solicited the help of a man from the group and instructed him to hold the boy’s legs apart and down so they would be out of the way. Another man was asked to hold the boys arms still. The doctor then applied two surgical clamps to either side of the foreskin. It must have hurt a little, because the boy began to cry. From this point forward, they had difficulty keeping the wine-soaked guaze in the boy’s mouth and had to keep tucking it back in.
By pulling on the clamps the doctor was able to make various measurements of the length of the stretched foreskin and the location of the tip of the glans. The boy was not happy with all this pinching and pulling.
The doctor then produced a device clearly designed specifically for circumcisions. It consisted of two flat plates of stainless steel, approximately 3"×2" and ⅛" thick, hinged at one end so that when closed would create a 3"×4" flat plate. He stretched the foreskin again way out over the glans and locked the large flat clamp in place just beyond the point where the tip of the glans would be (as determined by the measurements taken previously). The clamp was applied on an incline, as viewed from the side sort of like this =\ only on a more pronounced angle.
Although the inside edges of the clamp did not appear to be sharp, the device was so tight that as soon as it was locked in place the boy went from being upset to being hysterical. He turned bright red from head to toe, and the quality of his crying became impossible not to empathize with. Many people looked away, including the parents who both seemed a little faint. By the time the foreskin was removed, the baby was relaxing into an endorphin-bathed wailing that sounded much relieved compared to the screaming that had gone before. These people knew it would hurt like hell. There was no delusion here.
The two small clamps, no longer necessary now that the foreskin was locked in place by the large clamp, were removed. The doctor produced a scalpel. In one quick motion drawing it along the flat of the clamp where the flesh emerged, he sliced off about 1" of loose foreskin. The clamp was then unlocked and put aside.
I could see from where I stood that the tiny erect penis now had absolutely no foreskin. There was no bleeding to speak of, just a thin red line below the glans. Excellent job. Very clean cut.
The foreskin was disposed of, a piece of vaseline-coated gauze wrapped around the penis, and a clean diaper applied. The doctor, picked the exhausted little boy up, who immediately stopped crying to everyone’s relief, held him for a few seconds, then handed him to his mother who whisked him away - not to be seen again for the duration of the celebration. The whole operation took about 5 minutes.
Here are two of my reactions to the Bris I attended:
First, I’ll choose the natural look for any male children that might spring from my loins, thank you very much. This despite my own lack of foreskin. But, I think I would have made that decision even without seeing this. My second train of thought will require many lines of text...
Perhaps because of the contrast between my culture (white Canadian male) and the Jewish culture, of which I am quite ignorant, I saw something that I hadn’t expected. The Bris is not a surgical procedure for health reasons. It is a ritual. A little watered down by modern times, but a ritual nonetheless. A community celebration of new life, with a strong spiritual component, and an emphasis on catharthis through pain.
Everyone has heard of various African cultures that do some sort of genital mutilation. The Jews have been doing it their way since who knows when. Many in the West have been doing it to their kids for some time now. Moslems circumcise boys as part of a manhood rite, not before the age of 15, I believe. [More likely between the ages of 5 and 15 - Ed.] My facts are sketchy no doubt, but absolute accuracy is not important to my point, which is...
Whenever a phenomenon like this crosses so many divergent cultures, albeit with variation of procedure and purpose, it says to me that there is something fundamental here that transcends the explanation any one culture puts forward for doing it. Each culture has their reasons. But why do so many different cultures do it?
I’ve been strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, so I ask myself, what psycho-mythological purpose does it serve? I think the key lies in the fact that the recipient is subjected to pain. Some cultures require that a teenage boy withstand the pain without flinching. This is one instance of the circumcision ritual where the pain element plays a central and overt role. In other rituals, pain is present but not necessarily a focal point. But, even western medicine has found ‘excuses’ for allowing the pain to continue. I find it fascinating that at the same time that a topical anesthetic specific to infant circumcision is being developed, there is a growing rejection of the procedure within the culture. That raises the question: is it worth doing if it doesn’t hurt?
I see emotional pain and physical pain, and the fear of both, profoundly affecting myself and those around me. Pain IS an integral part of life. Philosophy, religion, the arts, even the sciences have tried to understand it and provide relief. We in the west seem to prefer to anesthetize ourselves to it with drugs and denial, much to our detriment and that of the world. Kind of crazy, is it not?
I came away from the Bris knowing that some day the boy would find out from his parents that his community stood witness to him in his pain, and they will do so again when he is a teenager, at his Bar Mitzva. In all of life’s changes, there is loss. In all loss, there is pain. His community, through their rituals, is there to help him through these changes by acknowledging his loss and celebrating what is to come.
So which is better? The Bris with it’s spirituality, community, gift giving, pain and loss inflicted by older men? Or western circumcision in a sterile operating room, with no community present, no spirituality, denial of the pain, all preceded by a highly commercialized and feminised baby shower? Or, no circumcision, no community, no spirituality, no men helping boys?
I think the species NEEDS overt recognition of life’s pain, (especially western men). It is an essential part of good mental health. Circumcisions are a cross-cultural manifestation of this need. Saying no to circumcision is one thing. Saying no to pain is something completely different. If, in our enlightenment, we are choosing to toss away the ritualized recognition of pain, what are we replacing it with?
The Jewish community acknowledges the pain element
Sometimes it’s hard being Jewish... You know those free postcards sporting advertising and offered in dispensers in stores and cafés? Here’s one depicting a circumcision. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge:
Russian Immigrant Jews Get Circumcised - personal testimony
Some years ago I was volunteering at a support group for recent immigrants in Hollywood CA. At that time just after Glasnost there were a large number of newly arrived Russian Jewish immigrants, none of whom had been circumcised back in the USSR. Some were reluctant, as adults, to consider circumcision, others as very observant Jews were very keen to get circumcised as soon as possible. Still others said they would do it “eventually”.
I managed to help several arrange to be circumcised by linking them up with good Jewish doctors who would circumcise them according to Jewish ritual, yet with the appropriate anesthetics. Most, even as moderately observant Jews back in Russia, had never seen a circumcised penis and few had any real idea what circumcision really did. I did my best to show them, using pictures in Playgirl and similar magazines.
Some of them showed me what they looked like after surgery and told me how grateful they were to me (a Christian) for helping them fulfil their Jewish law.
German Family Converts to Judaism - Father and Sons Get Bris
“The Unassuming German Who Moved to Israel to Become a Jew”
Reuven Firebrook, his wife Gudren and their two sons Noah and Yonah. Rueven and Gudren were not born Jews, but chose to convert to Judaism along with their two sons. Reuven, Yonah and Noah were circumcised at a private clinic in Haifa to complete the long road to their conversion.
Reuven arrived at the clinic, with his two sons, so that all three could be circumcised on the same day. Gudren came along to provide moral support.
They were fortunate that the mohel, Dr Cyril Fine, is a family doctor who has dedicated many years to performing britot (plural of bris) for those jews who for whatever reason were not circumcised shortly after birth, such as many Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Each day in Haifa Dr Fine will typically perform 20 circumcisions. The children receive a mild general anaesthetic, whilst the adults will need only a 'local' injection. Despite the fact that the circumcision is being performed in the sterile condtions of a hospital operating theatre, the religious significance and ritual is not forgotten. In the case of a convert, two witnesses testify to the circumcision being carried out according to Jewish law.
When all 20 circumcisions are complete, those who have undergone the procedure are invited with their familes to participate in a ceremony where Dr Fine announces the Jewish names of all who have been circumcised that morning.
"I'm very happy that now all our family are Jews," says Reuven as they all pose for a commemorative photo with Dr Fine.
[Original account published by a Jewish news source in London]
The difference between Bris Milah and Bris Periah
In pre-Christian times, Jewish circumcision rituals produced a very loose style of circumcision; the amount of foreskin removed is thought to have been insufficient to completely bare the glans when the adult penis was flaccid.
, a more radical style began to be used. Called Bris Periah, it was designed to frustrate techniques of foreskin restoration that had become popular with Jewish youth of the day. Explanations of the reason for these restoration attempts vary, but centre mainly on expedient denial of their racial, religious and cultural origins in the face of anti-semitism.
This rejection of one of the fundamental tenets of the faith upset the rabbis, who had the mohelim devise an ‘unrestorable’ circumcision akin to what we term the Low and Tight style. The ceremony
will still be referred to as Bris Milah, but the more radical style
of circumcision may separately be termed Bris Periah. There are consequent implications regarding instrumentation; a Gomco
clamp is more suited to a low and tight style than the traditional Jewish shield
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