What does Brit Milah mean? Brit Milah means “Covenant of Circumcision.” It refers to the religious ritual whereby the foreskin of the penis is surgically removed. In doing so, a male is formally welcomed into the community of the Jewish people. It is commonly referred to using the Ashkenazic pronunciation, Bris.
What is its origin? Circumcision goes back to the days of Abraham (Genesis 17). Abraham was commanded by God to circumcise himself, his son, Ismael, and all the males in his household as a sign of a covenant with God.
When does the Brit Milah take place? It must be performed on the eighth day of the child’s life even if that day falls on Shabbat, Yom Kippur, or a festival, providing that the baby is healthy. In the case of illness, it is postponed until medical permission is given. The Brit Milah can be performed seven days after a physician pronounces the child fit. A postponed ceremony cannot be performed on Shabbat or on a festival. In the case of cesarean section, if the eighth day falls on Shabbat or on a festival, the Brit Milah is delayed until the next weekday.
Who performs the Brit Milah? The responsibility falls on the father who (almost always) delegates it to a mohel. The mohel performs both the circumcision and the religious ceremony. A mohel receives specialized training and is required to be licensed. Some parents prefer to use a physician. However, the doctor must be Jewish and be specially trained in the religious rules so that he or she can be licensed as a mohel, too. A rabbi or a cantor (although not required) can also assist with the religious ceremony.
When is the mohel contacted, and by whom? The mohel should be contacted by a family member as soon as possible after the birth.
Where may the Brit Milah be performed? It may take place in a home, temple, or hospital.
Where does one find a mohel? You can contact the Rabbi for assistance. Inquiries can be made of your obstetrician and/or pediatrician. Networking with family and friends is also helpful.
Is a minyan required? No, it is not necessary.
What are the essentials of the service at a Brit Milah? Besides the ritual circumcision, the following are essential: the blessings recited by the mohel and by the father, the blessing over the wine, the prayer for the welfare of the child and family, and the giving of the Hebrew name. The service is followed by a religiously commanded meal called a se’udat mitzvah. Traditionally, it is a dairy meal with bagels and lox.
Who is honored at the ceremony? There are three honors to be bestowed upon close relatives or friends: kvatterin, kvatter, and sandek. The kvatterin (godmother) takes the child from his mother and hands him to the kvatter (godfather) who then gives the child to the sandek. The sandek (derived from the Greek word suntekos meaning “companion of child”) assists the mohel by holding the child on his lap or on a table during the circumcision. Sandek, the highest honor, is given to a person of great significance.
Why is a medical circumcision not considered a true Brit Milah? Brit Milah is more than just a surgical procedure. It is a religious ritual, marking the acceptance and entry of a child as a member of the people with whom God made the covenant.
What if the child was medically circumcised before the eighth day? In addition to the aforementioned prayers, blessings, and naming of the baby, a Hatafat Dam Brit is performed. This is a symbolic circumcision involving a drop of blood drawn from the shaft of the penis. This ritual is not performed on Shabbat or on a festival.
What if the mother is not Jewish? If the birth mother is not Jewish, the child must be converted. For a boy, the first step in the process is Brit Milah, followed by immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath) at approximately one year of age.
Please do not hesitate to contact the Rabbi for further questions or details.