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.
Jews living among Muslims did not meet with the same hostility to circumcision as those living among Christians, because Islam recommends removal of the foreskin, although Islamic circumcision is not a covenant and does not have the religious significance that it has in Judaism. In Babylonia, in gaonic [post-rabbinic] times, Jews introduced the custom of circumcising an infant who died before he was eight days old, at the grave before burial, so the infant's soul would not go to Gehenna.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, rabbis compiled a new chapter of halakhah [Jewish law] headed "The Laws of Circumcision," sometimes still under the heading of the Laws of Shabbat, but increasingly as a legal topic in its own right. Here they collected all the laws pertaining to circumcision from earlier sources, discussed questions that had arisen in the practice of the ritual, and documented medieval customs for performing the ritual.
At that time, new ideas emerged about circumcision. Maimonides pointed out that everyone who was circumcised bore the same sign that he believed in the unity of God. He also said that the ritual was not performed merely to achieve bodily perfection, but also to perfect man's moral shortcomings, because removal of the foreskin counteracted excessive lust, weakened the libido, and sometimes also reduced the pleasure of sexual relations. In the 13th century, a rabbi developed this idea to counter an anti-Semitic, Christian accusation that Jews were guilty of immoderate sexual behavior, enabled by their circumcision. The rabbi emphasized that the removal of the foreskin lessened a man's sexual desire and enabled him to concentrate on the Torah.
At this time, Jews began to think of the ritual as a sacrifice, and the father who circumcises his son as a high priest. And mystics taught that circumcision enables one to find holiness in the Shekhinah, the divine presence.
From the 15th to the 19th centuries, during the Inquisition of the Roman Catholics to stamp out heresy on the Iberian peninsula and colonies (Goa in India, Central and South American colonies, the Philippine Islands, and the Canary Islands), many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, yet some continued to practice Judaism secretly—and any Jewish man from a converted family who had himself or his son circumcised was condemned to death. Many of these "New Christians," known as Marranos, or Conversos, eventually found refuge in safe havens in the Ottoman Empire, in the Netherlands, and England, where adult men would have themselves and their sons circumcised.
Reflecting on the Importance
For Jews threatened with the Inquisition to continue to practice circumcision, and for an adult to undergo this ritual voluntarily, required a conscious awareness of its significance in Judaism. Thus, from the 15th to the 18th centuries, some of these Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin reflected upon the importance of this ritual; their thinking reflected the society in which they lived and their familiarity with contemporary Christian views.
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