Brit Milah: The Biblical Origins

Print this page Print this page

Given the importance of brit milah, it is surprising that Moses does not perform it on his own son! In the biblical account, when Moses and his wife, Tzipporah, and young son, Gershom, are traveling to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the freedom of the enslaved Israelites, Tzipporah has to circumcise her son, apparently to allay God's wrath (see Exodus 4:25).

Even as the Israelites were leaving Egypt, God declared that only males who have been circumcised may participate in the paschal offering and the seder meal, celebrating and recounting God's deliverance of the Israelites from slavery. It is clear from this that brit milah is also a requirement for boys and men not just to be included in the divine promise to the heirs of the biblical patriarchs, but also in some sense to be fully included in the community's central activities.

Apparently the practice of brit milah was neglected during the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert, because one of the first things that Moses' successor, Joshua, attended to before initiating the conquest of Canaan was the circumcision of all of the males who had been born during the years of wandering. The Bible explains this neglect in the following way: "This is the reason why Joshua performed the circumcision: all of the people who had come out of Egypt, all of the males of military age, had died during the desert wanderings after leaving Egypt. Now, whereas all of the people who came out of Egypt had been circumcised, none of the people born after the exodus, during the desert wanderings, had been circumcised..." (Joshua 5:4-5). To remedy this, the entire male population was circumcised before beginning the conquest of the promised land.

In the time of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, the prophets used the term arel, or uncircumcised, to refer to people who acted rebelliously towards God and the practices of the Torah. The prophet Jeremiah accused the people of Israel of being uncircumcised in their heart, declaring, "all of these nations [non-Israelite peoples] are uncircumcised, but all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart" (Jeremiah 9:25).

Even today, the practice of brit milah remains one of the most enduring of all Jewish practices, indicating membership in the Jewish people.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.