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.
Greek and Roman 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.
Circumcision in the Talmud
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.
Medieval Attitudes, Teachings on Circumcision
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.
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 halacha [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.
15th-18th Century Views
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.
One example is Isaac Cardoso, who noted that circumcision differentiated God’s people from others. He repeated that circumcision enabled perfection of the body and the spirit, and the absence of a foreskin lessened a man’s sexual impulses; however, in contrast to the rabbinic view, he wrote that Abraham’s circumcision and sacrifice of Isaac took the place of crucifixion in compensating for Adam’s original sin and that, without circumcision, a Jew could not be redeemed. He also gave a kabbalistic interpretation of the Hebrew word for circumcision, milah, which in gematria [a system of equating letters with numeric value] is equivalent to a Hebrew appellation of God, Elohim. He also took a phrase in Deuteronomy 30:12 (“who among us can go up to the heavens … ?”) and pointed out that the first letter of each Hebrew word in this phrase spells milah, whereas the last letter of each word spells the tetragrammaton [the biblical four-letter name for God, whose original pronunciation is lost to us].
The Early Modern Period
In the early modern period, rabbis continued to answer practical questions that arose in the fulfillment of the duty and to document local customs. Differences evolved in details of the ritual according to the locality and ethnic origins of the community. For example, small differences were noted in the blessings, in the choice of readings, and in the songs sung in a Yemenite community, in a Sephardic community, and in an Ashkenazi community. For this reason, each community had its own preferred publication of the Order of Circumcision.
Note: While the Reform movement has dropped its opposition to circumcision, a small number of liberal Jews avoid circumcising their sons out of concern that the practice is cruel. For one such perspective, click here.
Also in the early modern period, emancipation began to affect attitudes to circumcision within the Jewish community. Emancipation led directly to a movement of Reform Judaism away from ceremony and ritual, although reformists maintained Jewish ethics and morals. In 1843, leaders of Reform Jewry in Frankfurt proposed abandoning circumcision, on the grounds that Mosaic law mentions only once the command to circumcise one’s sons, and this command is not repeated in Deuteronomy. This proposal sparked an emotional controversy between reformists and traditionalists.
The chief rabbis of Frankfurt and Hamburg each kept a notebook for a few years in which they blacklisted wayward parents who had not circumcised their newborn sons. The dispute raged for many years, but it had no lasting effect on the continuing practice of circumcision among Jews.
Circumcision Views Today
In recent years, Reform Jews have returned to celebrating this and other religious rituals, maintaining certain major differences from the Orthodox. (One is the inclusion of women in the performance of the ritual and another is the recognition of patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent. Thus, Reform rabbis accept that the son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother can be considered Jewish if both parents are committed to raising him as a Jew, just like the son of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father.) The Reform movement now recognizes the importance of circumcision to Jewish identity in a mixed society.
Reprinted with permission from A Time To Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society 1998).
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: guh-MAH-tree-yuh, Origin: Greek, a numerological system by which Hebrew letters correspond to numbers, used in Jewish mysticism as a way of interpreting Jewish texts.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.