A brit milah ceremony. (Eliel Joseph Schafler/Wikimedia Commons)

The Brit Milah (Bris) Ceremony

The basics of this ceremony for an eight-day-old Jewish boy

There are no special rules about the place in which the rite is to be carried out, although, if possible, pious Jews prefer it to be done in the synagogue during the morning service. The infant is taken into the room where the circumcision is to take place by a godmother who hands him to a godfather who, in turn, hands him to the sandek (a word of uncertain origin but meaning the man who holds the infant on his knees during the rite). In some communities the honor of acting as godfather and godmother is given to an engaged couple or to a childless married couple in the belief that their participation in the rite will provide a blessing for the couple themselves in the form of a child.

The function of the sandek is usually performed by a grandfather of the infant or by a man learned in the Torah. The sandek is instructed by the man who performs the rite, the mohel, to grasp the infant firmly so that the circumcision can more easily be performed. Only a man highly skilled in the performance of the rite is qualified to be a mohel. Nowadays, there are special organizations for the training of mohalim. A doctor, provided he is Jewish, can serve as a mohel, but many doctors admit that a trained mohel is best qualified to per­form the delicate operation.

Before carrying out the circumcision, the mohel recites the benediction: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy command­ments, and hast given us the command con­cerning circumcision.” As soon as the mohel begins the circumcision the father recites: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to make our sons enter the covenant of Abraham our father.”

All present then respond: “Even as this child has entered into the covenant, so may he enter into the Torah, the nuptial canopy, and into good deeds.”

The mohel then takes a cup of wine and recites over it a prayer for the infant in which he gives the infant his Hebrew name. (A girl is named in a special prayer in the synagogue on the Sabbath after her birth or at a ritual of contemporary innovation, often called a brit bat, a “covenant for a daughter.”)

A drop or two of the wine is placed in the infant’s mouth and the father drinks some of the wine, sending the rest to the mother who [traditionally] is not normally present in the room when the rite takes place. Afterwards there is a festive meal, and special prayers are recited in the grace after meals, blessing the parents, the infant, the mohel, and the sandek.

According to the Tal­mud, a circumcision consists of three separate acts: 1. milah, the actual removal of the foreskin with a knife reserved for the purpose; 2. periah, the tearing-off and folding-back of the mucous membrane to expose the glans; 3. metzitzah, the suction of the blood from the wound. With regard to the third stage, there has been con­siderable controversy in modern times. In the [era of the] Talmud, the suction was done by mouth, the mohel actually sucking the blood from the wound. But the Talmud does not advocate this third stage as belonging to the rite itself, but only as a hygienic measure.

In the present stage of medical knowledge, suction by mouth is the opposite of hygienic; germs can be transmitted from the mohel to the infant and from the infant to the mohel. Yet some Orthodox Jews still perform suction by mouth, arguing that the hygienic reason is not the only one and that suction is an integral part of the rite. Many Orthodox Jews, however, adopt the compro­mise of using an oral sucking tube where the mouth does not come into direct contact with the infant’s penis.

Excerpted with permission  from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press.

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