Why Do Jews Circumcise?

“Intro” students ask terrific questions. They have what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” – that is, their minds are open to more possibilities than those of us who have been steeping in a subject for a long time.

Last week, when we were talking about Jewish death and mourning practices, I explained that we have great reverence for the body and try hard to maintain its integrity even after death (no embalming or unnecessary autopsies, etc.) One student asked me, “So then how do you account for circumcision?”

Brilliant question!

Brit milah, ritual circumcision, has been a key Jewish practice for millennia. The Biblical command appears in Genesis 17: 11-12:

Every male among you shall be circumcised…it shall be a sign of a the covenant between Me and you. Whoever is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations.

In Biblical terms, we perform brit milah because it is commanded, as a “sign of the covenant.” And indeed, it is called brit milah, “covenant of circumcision.” Like Passover, this is an observance that even minimally-observant Jews worldwide keep. Even Jews who do not believe in God frequently insist on brit milah for their sons out of a feeling that this is simply what Jews do.

On a religious level, this is a consecration of the male body to the covenant and to the behavior connected with the covenant. The penis is the locus of male sexuality and a symbol of male power; removing the foreskin in the context of the brit milah ritual is a way of saying that this child or man is dedicated to the behaviors associated with Torah. He is dedicated to a life that looks beyond self-gratification to a manly holiness of purpose.

The Jewish reverence for the body underlines the seriousness of this act. We don’t modify the body lightly or thoughtlessly. This outward sign of the covenant is not easy, but it is an expression by Jewish parents of seriousness about Jewish identity for themselves and their son.


Home Sweet Jewish Home

English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIX...
English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping a Jewish home is an important part of Jewish life.  Here are some reasons:

HOME RITUALS Many of Judaism’s key rituals take place in the home: Shabbat candle-lighting, Shabbat dinner, Passover seder, Chanukah candles.  Even one lifecycle event, the bris [ritual circumcision] is most often performed at home.

JEWISH IDENTITY Everywhere except in Israel, Judaism is a minority religion. Even in the United States, which has a number of large Jewish communities, we are only 2% of the population.  For Jews, home is the key place where Jewish identity is formed and nurtured, not only in children but in adults.

HOME MITZVOT – There are Jewish commandments that pertain specifically to the home.  We hang a mezuzah in the doorways of the home.  Cooking and meals have many different mitzvot [commandments] associated with them: blessings, dietary laws, even some rules for cooking. Those may occasionally be performed in a synagogue, but they most often are observed in the home. Even certain safety rules for the home are actually commandments from Torah.

MIKDASH ME’AT means “little sanctuary.” Ever since the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D., our sages have regarded the home as a primary worship environment for Jews. Torah is a set of instructions for living our daily lives, and those lives take place at home, not at synagogue.

If a visitor came to your home, would he or she recognize that it is a Jewish home? What would be the tipoff?

How many different ways is your home identifiable as a Jewish home?

Beginner’s Guide to Brit Milah (“Bris”)

English: A new born baby in his Godfather's ha...

You’ve been invited to a bris! If this is your first bris, there are some things that you should know.

1. WHAT’S A BRIS? A bris, or brit milah, is the ritual circumcision of a Jew. A bris is not merely a medical procedure, however. It is a symbol of the Jewish partnership with God, the covenant of Abraham. For the son of Jewish parents, a bris is usually on the 8th day after birth.

2. WHERE? A bris may take place in a home, in a doctor’s office, or in a synagogue. If you have been invited to attend as a guest, dress for the place: a bris at a home will be a bit more casual than one at a synagogue.  When in doubt about dress, ask!

3. TIME? A bris is often scheduled for the morning, usually on the eighth day after birth.  The actual bris takes only a few minutes, but there will be schmoozing before and schmoozing and a festive meal afterwards, so allow an hour or even two.

4. WHO PERFORMS THE BRISA bris is performed by a mohel (moyl),  a Jew who has been trained specifically for this ritual. Generally,  liberal (Reform or Conservative) mohelim (mo-heh-LEEM) are physicians who have received additional ritual training. Orthodox mohelim may be doctors, or they may have graduated from a program that trains mohelim in surgical techniques, aseptic techniques, and Jewish ritual and law.

5. DO I HAVE TO WATCH?  No. The mohel will tell everyone where to stand, but unless you are the sandak (the person who holds the baby and delivers him to the mohel) you are unlikely to see much anyway. If blood bothers you, don’t look.

6. DOES IT HURT THE BABY? At most of the brissim I have attended, if the baby cried, it was when his diaper was removed (cold air).  An experienced mohel will do the circumcision as painlessly as possible.

7. PRESENTS? It is not customary to give a present at a bris. However, if you wish to take a baby gift or something for the parents, it is OK to do so.  “Gag gifts” such as one might have at a baby shower  are in poor taste, however; this is a serious religious ritual.

8. GREETINGS “Mazal tov!”  A bris is one of the happiest occasions in Jewish life, when the covenant moves to the next generation.

9. NAMING A Jewish boy receives his name at the bris. Many parents do not call him by name until after the bris; before that he is simply “Baby Lastname.” If you ask about the name and they are cagey about it, that’s what’s going on – go to the bris and you will learn the name when everyone else does.