The Covenant of Circumcision
While there are no formalities governing how a child's name is determined, specific ceremonies do exist for naming children. They differ depending on the gender of a child. Male children must undergo the circumcision ceremony known as the bris (or brit, as it is pronounced in Israel). The Covenant of Circumcision (Berit Milah) occupies a principal place in Judaism.
Jewish circumcision is unique because it takes place so early — on the eighth day of the male child's life. In some cultures, circumcision is not performed until the boy is four or five years old. In other societies, circumcision does not take place until puberty or marriage.
History of Circumcision
The Jews were not the first people to practice circumcision. It was a custom among the ancient Egyptians, Ethiopians, Syrians, and Phoenicians, and appeared in parts of Africa, India, Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. On closer shores, most Eskimos and Native Americans also circumcised their male children.
Meaning of Circumcision
Berit milah is probably the most observed commandment in Judaism. It is the first mitzvah from God that applies specifically to the Jewish people. In Genesis 17:10–12, God said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant…. Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.”
Who circumcised Abraham?
The covenant between God and the Jews was made with Abraham. Since until that time his people did not practice circumcision, Abraham was uncircumcised. It is written in the Torah (Genesis 17:24) that Abraham circumcised himself — at ninety-nine years of age!
While there may be health benefits to circumcision, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the practice in Judaism that is carried out to satisfy this mitzvah, which marks an outward sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. God's command couldn't be clearer. Since it specifies that the rite be performed on the eighth day from birth, this is when the berit milah is scheduled.
Questions about Circumcision
Until recently, the medical community believed that circumcision had many health benefits. Although some recent studies have called the validity of these beliefs into question, there is no strong evidence to indicate any harmful side effects of circumcision.
Those Jews who choose to circumcise their child also need to decide whether a mohel or a physician should perform the operation. The mohel is a specialist trained both in the medical and the religious aspects of the berit milah. However, the mohel is usually not a physician. In recent years, more circumcisions have been performed in the hospital rather than in the home by a mohel or in the synagogue, as is the custom of Sephardic Jews. However, a medical circumcision does not fulfill the mitzvah. More traditional and observant Jews consider the removal of the foreskin to be a religious ritual. Therefore, it must be performed by a mohel.
The mohel uses a double-edged knife to make certain the cut is swift and clean. If the knife were not double-edged and the blunt side was used by mistake, the baby would endure unnecessary pain. And just to be sure, the mohel usually comes prepared with two knives — in case one is dull!
Today, there are three alternatives to having a mohel perform the circumcision. You can have a doctor carry out the medical procedure with a rabbi conducting the religious component. You may find a physician who has been trained in the religious aspects of circumcision. Or, after a physician performs the circumcision, arrange for a mohel to conduct the berit milah anew. In such a case, the mohel will only take a symbolic drop of blood to satisfy the physical requirement (a ritual known as Hatafat Dam Berit).
The Berit Milah Ceremony
Custom has it that you do not actually invite your friends and family to the bris. Instead, inform everyone when the event is scheduled with the understanding they may come if they wish.
As the ceremony begins, the parents bring the baby into the room and carefully place it on the special chair set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is said to watch over all circumcisions. The baby is then picked up and laid on the lap of the sandek or godfather (often the grandfather) who is seated on another chair.
Several blessings and prayers are made before, during, and after the circumcision. Following the circumcision, a blessing is made over the wine and a drop is placed on the baby's lips. At this time the baby boy is given his formal Hebrew name.
As with all joyous events, a festive meal follows. In some circles it is traditional to include wine and sponge cake on the menu. The baby boy now has a name and has fulfilled the mitzvah to mark the covenant of the Jewish People with God.