Circumcision in Judaism



What does Judaism teach about circumcision?

In the Jewish religion, the rite of circumcision (brit milah) is performed on the eighth day of a boy's life. The ritual usually takes place in the morning at the family's home. There is no parallel practice for girls, and "female circumcision" has nothing to do with Judaism.

Circumcision is commanded in Genesis 17:10-14, which is in the narrative arc of Abraham, as an outward sign of a man's participation in Israel's covenant with the God of Israel, as well as a sign that the Jewish people will perpetuate through him.

According to Jewish beliefs, the commandment is incumbent upon both father and child - fathers must see that their sons are circumcised, and uncircumcised grown men are obligated to perform the rite. Those who are not circumcised suffer the penalty of kareit, no matter how otherwise observant they may be. Perhaps in part for this reason, circumcision is the mitzvah most likely to be observed by otherwise non-observant Jews.





The Practice of Circumcision

Circumcision is so important that it may be performed on the Sabbath or another of the Jewish holidays, despite prohibitions of drawing blood on those days. Yet the ceremony may be postponed for health reasons, and then it cannot be performed until seven days after a physician has declared the child healthy. If this occurs, the rite cannot be performed on the Sabbath or holiday, because there is no longer sufficient reason to violate the general law of the holy days.

Circumcision is performed by a mohel, an observant Jew who has been trained in the relevant Jewish law and surgical techniques. In most traditions, circumcision performed by a physician is not valid even if a rabbi is present, although the Reform movement has begun to accept them. It is a preferable to have a minyan present for the ritual, but it is not necessary. Only the father and the mohel must be present, but the mother and the godparents (kwater and kwaterin) are usually present as well.

The preparation

During the ceremony the child is held by a person designated as the sandek, who is usually a grandparent or family rabbi. An empty chair is set aside to symbolize the presence of the prophet Elijah, who rebuked those who had forsaken the ritual. He now presides over all circumcision ceremonies to ensure the continuation of the ritual.

The infant may be given a couple of drops of wine or some local anaesthetic to ease any pain. The mohel recites benedictions of circumcision, then the father offers the blessing:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to bring him into the covenant of Abraham, our father.

Any guests present say, "Amen," and then give the blessing:

As he entered the covenant, may he enter into the study of Torah, into marriage and into the doing of good deeds.

The procedure

The procedure itself, which is very brief, then takes place with the sandek holding the infant in his lap. Afterwards, the child is bandaged, dressed, and given a name. The mother and father will often say a few words about the significance of the name. The event will usually be celebrated by a festive meal hosted by the family.

If a child was previously circumcised in a religiously invalid way, or born with no foreskin, the same ceremony is held but with only a symbolic pinprick of the tip of the penis. This ceremony is called the hatafat dam brit.

In recent years, circumcision has become something of a controversy, with some people denouncing the practice as unnecessary or harmful. {1} However, this is a medical issue, not a religious one. Very few Jews are convinced by those who believe circumcision to be mentally or physically damaging, and as far as it being medically unnecessary, it was never practiced for that reason. Like many mitzvot, circumcision is performed simply because God has commanded it and any practical benefits are secondary.

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Notes

1. Opponents: Circumcision Resource Center and Mothers Against Circumcision. Supporters: International Circumcision Resource Centre. For a lighter perspective, see "Ode to the Circumcised Male," by a Jewish pediatrician.