Liturgy, Ritual, and Custom for Babies
Reprinted from Embracing Judaism, by Simcha Kling, edited by Carl Perkins, copyright by the Rabbinical Assembly, 1999.
The most basic ceremony for infant Jewish males has become such a common contemporary practice that many may have forgotten its religious purpose. The circumcision ceremony is known in Hebrew as a brit, which means covenant. Technically, it is called brit milah, "covenant of circumcision." Many people know it as a "bris." Through this ritual act, each infant boy becomes linked to the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
As a religious ceremony, the brit must be carried out by a Jew trained in religious law, who performs the act as the conscious fulfillment of a religious commandment (mitzvah). This person, called a mohel (feminine: "mohelet"), is often certified by medical authorities as well. In some communities, Jewish physicians serve as mohalim.
Circumcision must take place on the eighth day after birth. We read in the Book of Genesis that Isaac was circumcised on the eighth day. So must it be with all the [male] children of Abraham. In the event of illness or other disability, the child is circumcised when the physician declares him to be physically ready. If the baby is born without a foreskin or for some reason has been circumcised prior to the eighth day, the ritual of circumcision is completed by drawing a drop of blood from the corona of skin that surrounds the head (or glans) of the penis. This ceremony (called hatafat dam brit) is also required for an adult male convert who was circumcised prior to his conversion.
At the brit milah ceremony, certain individuals are honored. (Although the English term "godparents" is sometimes used for these people, they are not godparents in the Christian sense of the term.) The kvatterin (a woman) brings the infant forward and hands him to the kvatter (a man). The kvatter places the infant on the knees of the sandek who is already seated. The sandek holds the infant while the mohel performs the circumcision.