Ask the Expert: Post-Mortem Bris

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

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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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