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."

Cohen then cites Rashi, an eleventh century rabbi and commentator from France, who wrote a letter to some elders in Rome asking whether or not it was appropriate to circumcise infants who died before they could have their brit milah. The response he received seems to contradict itself, saying both that it doesn't accomplish anything, but is alright, and that it's prohibited. Cohen believes that the prohibition was added by a later redactor.

Ibn Ezra, another eleventh century rabbi and commentator, opposed the custom of circumcising the dead, and wrote that there was no concern that someone who was buried with their foreskin would be prohibited from entering the World to Come. But apparently the custom was prevalent enough, that in the 16th century Rabbi Joseph Caro included it in his legal code the Shulhan Arukh, writing decisively that an infant who dies before his eighth day should be circumcised without a blessing at the graveside, and given a name. (Yoreh Deah 263)

In the article you and I both read, the mohel writes that his rabbi told him to say "Ani hu haElohim" seven times in order to make the ceremony kosher, and that "Ani hu haElohim" is loosely translated as "Above all else, there is God." All of that seems suspect to me. I wasn't able to find anything about liturgy for a post-mortem circumcision, but the words Ani hu HaElohim mean "I is God" and appear nowhere else in the Bible or in any liturgy that I've found (which isn’t surprising since “I is God” is grammatically problematic). I suspect that he was actually told to say "Adonai hu HaElohim" which means "Adonai is God." This phrase is said seven times at the very end of Yom Kippur, right before we blow the shofar to end the holiday. It makes a lot more sense for that to be the phrase said at a post-mortem bris, but Cantor Sherman had never heard of any liturgy at all for this ritual, so it's hard to know for sure.

So it seems that yes, there is a legal precedent for circumcising a baby boy who dies before he can have his brit milah, but it might be helpful to know that there has been a fair amount of back-and-forth about this in Jewish legal literature.

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