"G-d said to Abraham, 'And as for you, you shall keep My covenant - you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. At the age of eight days every male among you shall be circumcised, throughout your generations - he that is born in the household or purchased with money from any stranger who is not of your offspring. He that is born in your household or purchased with your money shall surely be circumcised. Thus, My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. An uncircumcised male who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin - that soul shall be cut off from its people; he has invalidated My covenant.'" Bereishit (Genesis) 17:9-14
Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision, was commanded by G-d to Abraham over 3,700 years ago. It has been carried out faithfully from generation to generation, even during times of religious and ethnic persecution when Jews were forced to practice their rituals in secret. In fact, the only time the Jewish people willingly desisted from this practice was during the 40 years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness. Before entering Canaan, every male was circumcised by Joshua.
The acceptance of this commandment, or Mitzvah, established an eternal bond between G-d and the Children of Israel. Its observance today is testimony to the continuity and strength of that relationship, which requires us to perform the Mitzvah with adherence to the laws and customs prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by our sages.
G-d appeared to Abraham when he was 99 years old and commanded him to circumcise himself, his son, Ishmael, all the males of his household and all his slaves. It is said that Abraham accomplished this on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei, later designated as Yom Kippur, when the sins of the Jewish people were forgiven. The following year, when Isaac was born, he was circumcised on the eighth day. In return for his faithfulness, G-d promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation and inherit the land of Canaan for eternity.
Day & Time
It is a Mitzvah in itself to make Brit Milah as beautiful and meaningful as possible. This is accomplished, in part, by careful attention to the details of carrying out the commandment, such as determining the day and choosing the time.
Because the Torah tells us that Abraham circumcised Isaac on the eighth day, we understand this literally to mean day. A Brit can be scheduled any time between sunrise and sunset. Since it is preferable to perform mitzvot eagerly and with readiness, it is customary to schedule a Brit as early in the day as possible. Brit Milah cannot be performed at night and is considered invalid if done so. If a baby is born bain hashemashot, during the period of twilight prior to nightfall, specific laws apply, especially preceding Shabbat or a festival. In such cases, the mohel will determine the day, with rabbinic input, if necessary.
Various explanations are offered for the Torah's specification of the eighth day. There is a Midrash that G-d had pity on the child and waited until he had the physical strength to undergo the rite. (Devarim Rabbah 6:1) Also suggested is the fact that one Shabbat must pass between birth and the eighth day, providing the child with spiritual strength from his first Sabbath experience. Finally, classical medical studies have found coagulating factors to be at peak around this time of life.
The day of birth counts as the first day. In Jewish tradition, the day begins with the preceding nightfall. Therefore, the child must be born before sundown for that day to be counted as the first. For example, if a baby is born on Monday during daylight hours, the Brit takes place on the following Monday. However, if the baby is born on Monday night, the Brit takes place the following Tuesday. A Brit performed before the eighth day is considered invalid.
An act that causes bleeding is forbidden on Shabbat. However, because the Torah declares the day of milah as the eighth, the Talmud interprets that the act in its proper time takes precedence. Provided the laws of Shabbat are upheld by the mohel as well as by those in the locale where the Brit occurs, the ritual performed on Shabbat is valid. There are rabbinic opinions that in instances where this cannot be guaranteed, it is preferable to postpone the ceremony to the following day. Should the mohel live within walking distance of the family, he must drop off his tools on Friday, prior to sundown, walk to and from the home and accept no payment until Shabbat has ended.
A Brit may not be performed on an ill child and must be postponed until he has fully recovered. The general rule is to schedule a Brit immediately upon recovery from a local disorder (one which affects a specific part of the body) but to wait seven 24-hour periods after recovery from a systemic disorder (one which affects the entire body). The mohel makes the proper determination in consultation with the child's pediatrician or neonatologist. A Brit delayed for any reason, a Brit for the purpose of conversion or a Brit for a baby born by Caesarean section may not take place on the Sabbath or a festival.
The mohel places the child on a waist high table where he rests on a pillow and is held firmly at the knees by the sandak. The mohel uses a probe to lift the priah, underlying membrane, into the orlah, foreskin. He determines the amount to be removed and fixes a shield in the correct place. The priah and orlah are cut with one sweep along the shield. A special knife called an izmail is used. Traditionally, the knife is sharp on both edges to eliminate the possibility of causing the child pain. Lastly, blood is drawn, metzitzah, a therapeutic prescription from the Talmudic period. A sterile dressing with topical anesthetic is applied. When performed by a competent mohel the entire procedure, which flows as one continuous motion, takes less than a minute. The excised foreskin is buried in the earth.
The parents recite the blessing: "...who has sanctified us by Thy commandments and commanded us to enter our sons into the covenant of Abraham, our father." The mohel responds: "...even as this child has entered into the covenant, so may he enter into a life of Torah, the marriage canopy and good deeds."
The mohel, sandak or another honored guest then holds the child. With Kiddush cup in hand, the mohel recites the blessing for wine, giving a drop to the child. A second blessing praising G-d, "who established a covenant with His people, Israel," is said. Finally, the mohel offers a prayer for the welfare of the child during which his Hebrew name is formally announced. The child is given another taste of wine.
"Every Mitzvah that they accepted upon themselves with joy... they still perform with joy." (Talmud, Shabbat 130a) Rashi interpreted this to mean that a festive meal should be prepared. Included in this meal should be challah and kosher wine. It is customary not to issue a direct invitation to the circumcision meal, for one may not refuse to attend. To do so would be equal to turning down the opportunity do perform a Mitzvah. At the conclusion of the meal, Birkat Hamazon is recited with special blessings for the child, parents, sandak and mohel.
Hatafat Dam Brit: When a child is born as if circumcised, or has been circumcised before the eighth day in a hospital, a ritual called hatafat dam Brit is required. This symbolic circumcision involves drawing a drop of blood from the shaft of the penis. The child is also named at this time.
Conversion/Adoption: When both parents are Jewish, the child is Jewish. If only one parent is Jewish, the child's religion is determined by that of the birth mother. If the birth mother is not Jewish, the child must be converted. For a boy, the first step in this process is Brit Milah, followed by immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), usually at the age of one year. If a male child born of a non-Jewish mother is adopted by Jewish parents, he also must undergo conversion. The process is as described above. The adoptive parents assume responsibility for circumcision and mikveh as well as for the many other educational obligations that lead to the child's understanding and acceptance of Torah and mitzvot. An older child or adult male who wishes to convert to Judaism also must undergo circumcision, or hatafat dam, and mikveh.
The three main participants, the father, mohel and sandak, wear talitot.
On the first Friday night after a boy is born, it is customary to celebrate by gathering in the home of the newborn to welcome him This is known as Ben Zakhor (also Shalom Zakhor). G-d finished the creation of the world with the Sabbath and introduced peace and rest. Thus Shabbat surrounds the newborn with an aura of holiness and enhances his entry into the Covenant of Abraham, our father.
The redemption of the first born son of a Jewish mother requires a pidyon haben. If the father or mother is a kohen or levi, the child is exempt. The ceremony takes place on the 31st day of the child's life. If this day falls on Shabbat or a Yom Tov, the ceremony is postponed until the first following weekday. A religiously observant kohen is needed.