Brit Milah (Bris): Some Laws and Customs

Ten things to know about--and think about--when planning a brit milah ceremony.

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Reprinted with permission from the Second Jewish Catalog, published by the Jewish Publication Society.  

1.      There is a custom to make a feast of fruits and beverages on the erev shabbat [the Sabbath evening] before the day that the brit takes place. This is seen as a feast held in honor of performing a mitzvah […] and is called a shalom zakhar. Similarly, there is a custom to stay awake studying all night before the circumcision, to protect the child from demons, etc. It is obviously the last chance for the demons to get the child before circumci­sion makes him safe. This is called leil shimmurim--the night of watching.

2.      One should not circumcise an infant who is weak, sick, or premature when medical opinion indicates that the circumcision might be dangerous. The brit, in this case, is postponed until a later date.

3.      Although a brit may normally be held on Shabbat or a festival (even on Yom Kippur), if the brit has been postponed because of the health of the child, it should not take place on any of those days.

4.      It is customary to light candles in the room where the brit is to take place.

baby feet5.      Another custom is to set aside a chair for the prophet Elijah (who is called the angel of covenant and is reputed to be the protector of little children).

6.      It is also a custom to put the infant on the chair before the actual circumcision.

7.      Whenever possible, the brit should take place with a minyan (a ­quorum of 10 people [in traditional communities, 10 men]).

8.      It is customary for everyone but the godfather [the sandek] who is holding the baby to remain standing during the ceremony.

9.      The father (or both parents [when the mother wishes to do so and the mohel is agreeable]) should hand the knife to the mohel and stand by him while he performs the milah, to indicate that the mohel is the agent of the parent(s). [If the child's father is not Jewish then traditionally the mohel simply acts on behalf of the community.]

10.  [In addition to] the basic elements of the brit milah ceremony […], there is great historical precedent for adding meaningful readings, songs, state­ments, etc.--whatever the parents are into. While psalms, poetry, music, and group readings are appropriate within the context of the traditional brit milah, you should check nonetheless with the mohel you'll be using. He'll also be sharing in the ceremony and deserves consideration.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.

Sharon M. Strassfeld is co-author of the Jewish Catalog series.