Brit Milah: Rabbinic Interpretations

Covenant, conversion, custom, and circumcision.

The requirement for brit milah, or circumcision, is fairly straightforward in the Torah. God commands Abraham that “every male among you shall be circumcised…it shall be a sign of a the convenient between Me and you. Whoever is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations” (Genesis 17:11-12). However, during the era of Hellenistic cultural and political domination of the land of Israel, brit milah became a source of considerable friction between Jews and non-Jews in the second and first centuries B.C.E.

Jews who wanted to participate in Greek games in the local gymnasia either neglected brit milah or chose to undergo painful surgical operations to remove (that is, to undo) the signs of circumcision. During the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian Hellenistic ruler who provoked the war of the Maccabees against the forces of Hellenization, brit milah was among the various Jewish commandments specifically prohibited. Scores of Jews chose martyrdom rather than abandon circumcision. The same prohibition also lead to the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Roman empire centuries later.

As a result of these historical maelstroms, circumcision took on special importance in rabbinic culture and law. Emphasizing the biblical commandment of brit milah, which states that anyone who “fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:14), the ancient rabbis noted that the failure to observe brit milah was one of the very few positive commandments in the entire Torah for which the specified punishment was to be “cut of” from one’s people. While it is unclear what this punishment means in the biblical context, it is clear that both the Torah and the rabbis took brit milah very seriously. Some scholars claim that the modern current practice of brit milah, which physically removes all traces of the foreskin (called p’riah, or uncovering), was instituted in later rabbinic times precisely in order to circumvent surgery to obliterate the signs of circumcision.

When gentiles converted to Judaism, the rabbis declared that the significance of brit milah was so great that already circumcised non-Jews still needed to undergo a symbolic brit milah called hatafat dam brit, or the drawing of a “covenantal” drop of blood. In the blessing recited before this act, the rabbis declared, drawing on the words of the prophets from the Hebrew Bible, that “were it not for the blood of the covenant, day and night, heaven and earth, would not have been created” (Jeremiah 33:25).

Although there is no corresponding physical sign of the covenant mandated for women, the Torah in Deuteronomy 29:10-11 clearly articulates the notion that women, like men, were part of the Jewish people’s covenant with God–a notion shared by subsequent Jewish thinkers. However, despite their sometimes–for their time–more progressive laws and rulings regarding the role and status of women, the rabbis ultimately relegated women to lesser legal standing than men in Jewish law–and for some thinkers, to a secondary status within the covenant. Rabbinic sources and other early Jewish writings discussed issues such as to what extent Jewish women are equal members of this covenant (their membership itself is not in question); whether the lack of (possibility of) brit milah confers a lesser status on women; and whether women have a parallel covenantal sign (e.g. menstrual blood, sanctified–for married women–in the traditional practice of monthly immersion in a ritual bath).

Brit milah was thought to be so significant that it also influenced the spiritual fate of people even after their deaths. According to a midrash, or rabbinic folktale, “In the World to Come, Abraham will sit at the entrance to Gehinom [the Jewish equivalent to hell] and not allow any circumcised Israelite to descend into it. As for those [Jews] who sinned [and deserve the punishments of Gehinom], what does he do to them? He removes the foreskin from children who had died before circumcision and places it upon them and sends them down to Gehinom!” (Genesis Rabbah 48:8). Another similarly strange tale states that the heretics and sinners of the Jewish people think to themselves, “Because we are circumcised, we will not go down to Gehinom. So what does the Holy One, blessed be God, do? God sends an angel who extends their foreskins and they descend to Gehinom” (Exodus Rabbah 19:4). Although these are somewhat bizarre examples of rabbinic imagination, they reveal the significance of brit milah for the ancient rabbis–even into the afterlife.

Because of the singular importance of brit milah, the rabbis established numerous and detailed requirements and customs to be observed in the performance of ritual circumcision. It is traditionally the religious responsibility of the father to have his sons circumcised on the eighth day after birth. However, due to the fact that this is a specialized and potentially hazardous procedure, medically and ritually competent Jewish specialists, mohelim (related to the word milah) arose to take the father’s place in performing brit milah Today, mohelim train for several years in both practical surgical techniques of circumcision as well as the laws and lore of this commandment.

Even in modern times, when medical controversy still surrounds the putative health benefits of circumcision, brit milah is a remarkably enduring and near-universal Jewish practice, not subject to the vagaries of medical science. Its benefit to the Jewish people is not in the area of health, but in the realm of the spirit.

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