A History of Brit Milah
A comprehensive look at the history of the Jewish practice of circumcising baby boys on the eighth day of life--and of various attempts to end this rite.
Reprinted with permission from A Time To Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).
Abraham and his Israelite descendants were likely not unique in circumcising their sons: Others in the ancient Near East probably did so, too. The Bible refers several times to mass circumcision of adult men, hardly an individual confirmation of a divine covenant but more likely a result of social coercion to remove the disgrace of the foreskin--the Israelites clearly considered the foreskin contemptuously. Even though the generation of the desert was uncircumcised, and the operation was sometimes neglected during the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Genesis 17:10-14 elevated circumcision into a religious rite with individual religious significance.
Prohibitions Against Circumcision
When the Greeks, and later the Romans, issued prohibitions against circumcision, the religious ritual gained renewed importance in defining who was a Jew. Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c. 215-c. 163 BCE) prohibited the rite, and mothers who had their sons circumcised were thrown off the city walls after being paraded demeaningly around the city with their infants tied to their breasts. The Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) similarly prohibited the rite and decapitated Jews who performed it on their sons. The early Christians in Jerusalem also rejected circumcision, a step that had profound repercussions in later centuries.
The Mishnah [one of the major documents of early rabbinic Judaism, compiled c. 200 CE] explains how and when to perform the operation. In the many volumes of Jewish law formulated during the first few centuries of the Christian Era, however, no tractate is devoted to circumcision. Circumcision was discussed frequently at that time, but in the context of other Jewish laws, especially those pertaining to the Sabbath. In addition, during the talmudic period, the sages told many stories about the merits of circumcision, to stress its importance. They said that were it not for circumcision, heaven and earth would not exist. They taught that performance of this duty is proof of a Jew's acceptance of God, enables him to enter the Promised Land, and prevents him from entering Gehenna [the Jewish equivalent of hell]. At that time, non-Jews in Palestine and in Babylon viewed circumcision as a mutilation and forbade it. In response, rabbis stressed that circumcision removes a blemish (the foreskin) and enables a man to achieve bodily perfection by fulfilling a divine commandment.
The Middle Ages
The animosity toward circumcision of non-Jews continued into the Middle Ages, reinforced by the seventh-century Catholic Visigothic Code in Spain, which forced Jews to renounce the rite and further strengthened its importance for the Jewish people. This Code influenced Spanish anti-semitism for centuries.