Reprinted from Embracing Judaism, by Simcha Kling, edited by Carl Perkins, copyright by the Rabbinical Assembly, 1999.
The most basic ceremony for infant Jewish males has become such a common contemporary practice that many may have forgotten its religious purpose. The circumcision ceremony is known in Hebrew as a brit, which means covenant. Technically, it is called brit milah, “covenant of circumcision.” Many people know it as a “bris.” Through this ritual act, each infant boy becomes linked to the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
As a religious ceremony, the brit must be carried out by a Jew trained in religious law, who performs the act as the conscious fulfillment of a religious commandment (mitzvah). This person, called a mohel (feminine: “mohelet“), is often certified by medical authorities as well. In some communities, Jewish physicians serve as mohalim.
Circumcision must take place on the eighth day after birth. We read in the Book of Genesis that Isaac was circumcised on the eighth day. So must it be with all the [male] children of Abraham. In the event of illness or other disability, the child is circumcised when the physician declares him to be physically ready. If the baby is born without a foreskin or for some reason has been circumcised prior to the eighth day, the ritual of circumcision is completed by drawing a drop of blood from the corona of skin that surrounds the head (or glans) of the penis. This ceremony (called hatafat dam brit) is also required for an adult male convert who was circumcised prior to his conversion.
At the brit milah ceremony, certain individuals are honored. (Although the English term “godparents” is sometimes used for these people, they are not godparents in the Christian sense of the term.) The kvatterin (a woman) brings the infant forward and hands him to the kvatter (a man). The kvatter places the infant on the knees of the sandek who is already seated. The sandek holds the infant while the mohel performs the circumcision.
Getting a Name
As the circumcision is performed, the mohel recites a berakhah (blessing) declaring that his act is in fulfillment of a mitzvah. The parents then recite a berakhah acknowledging that their son has thereby entered into the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The child’s Hebrew name is then formally bestowed.
There are no laws regarding names. Parents often spend many hours in choosing a name for their child. The general practice among Ashkenazi families (Jews of Central or Eastern European background) is to give the child Hebrew and English names that bear some relationship to the name of a deceased relative whom members of the family wish to remember. Sephardim (Jews who trace their ancestry to Spain, Portugal, or North Africa) may name children for living relatives. Sometimes, the Hebrew name declared at the ceremony is identical to that of the relative; sometimes it is related by sound or meaning. Sometimes the child’s Hebrew name is simply the Hebrew form of his English name (for example, Yosef for Joseph, or Shmuel for Samuel); at other times parents choose a Hebrew name with the same first initial as the English name. Many people choose their children’s Hebrew names from the Bible, from rabbinic literature, or from the growing collection of modern Israeli names.
The birth of a daughter is marked in another fashion. Traditionally, there was no ceremony for a girl parallel to a brit. Girls were named soon after birth in the synagogue at a service at which the Torah was read. Neither the child nor her mother needed to be present at the naming ceremony in the synagogue. The father would be honored by being called to the Torah, a prayer would be recited conveying the child’s Hebrew name and wishing her a long and healthy life of fulfillment, and all present would wish the father and his family mazal tov. This modest ceremony for girls is still practiced in many communities today.
Some Jews today, not satisfied with this practice, have been developing additional ceremonies to celebrate the birth of a daughter. These ceremonies go by several names, one of which is “simhat bat” (“a celebration of [the birth of] a daughter”). Usually, the simhah (celebration) is held at a convenient time (not necessarily on the eighth day after birth) when both parents and other relatives can be present. Often, the baby formally receives her Hebrew name, and parents and other relatives participate by reading selections from the liturgy or sharing reflections. Sometimes, families arrange for their child to be named in synagogue as well, so that she can be welcomed by the entire community.
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: breet mee-LAH, Origin: Hebrew, literally “covenant of circumcision,” the Jewish circumcision ceremony for an 8-day-old boy, marking the covenant between God and the Jews. Also known as a bris.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.