Ask the Expert: Post-Mortem Bris

Do we circumcise a baby who died before he was eight days old?

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Question: I recently read this New York Times article about a circumcision for a dead baby boy, and it seemed strange to me. Is there really a custom of circumcising babies that are no longer living? Is there any liturgy for such a circumcision?

--Marsha, New Jersey

Answer: I read the same article, Marsha, and I had a few questions myself, so I did some digging to find out the history of this practice.

First, I consulted with my go-to mohel, Cantor Philip Sherman, who has been called "the busiest mohel in New York," and asked what he knows about all this. He said, "From a traditional halakhic (Jewish legal) perspective, this is a very problematic issue and there are many who disagree with it. To answer your question (if it is done), there is usually nothing recited other than giving the child a Jewish name. I have never heard of anyone reciting the verse that this doctor recited but there may be many customs and/or superstitions surrounding this practice."

That was a good starting point, but I wanted to know more about what made this such a problematic issue. I turned to a book called Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism by Shaye J.D. Cohen, a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University. In his book, Cohen examines the history of circumcision after death. He cites a midrash that claims that all circumcised men make it into the World to Come, and escape Gehenna. But what of infants who die before they can be circumcised? The midrash explains that God removes the foreskin of these baby boys, which seems to imply that there is no need for circumcising a baby who has died before he could have his brit milah, because God will do it for him.

Later, in the 9th century, R. Nahshon Gaon of Babylon wrote that it was the practice of his community to circumcise boys who had died before their eighth day at the graveside, without any blessing. These boys were given Hebrew names, "so that when mercy is shown on him in heaven, and the dead are resurrected, there will be knowledge in that child and he will discern his father."

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