The Brit Milah (Bris): What You Need to Know

Questions and answers about the circumcision ceremony for Jewish baby boys.

A brit milah, also known as a bris, is the Jewish ceremony in which a baby boy is circumcised. Circumcision dates back to the Book of Genesis, when God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and his offspring as a sign of the covenant between Jews and God. Throughout history, rabbis and thinkers have offered additional arguments in favor of circumcision, and many modern Jews see it as an important tradition that connects the generations.

When does a brit milah occur?

Traditionally, the brit milah takes place on the baby’s eighth day of life, even if it falls on Shabbat or a Jewish holiday. However, if medical problems interfere, the bris is postponed until the baby is deemed healthy enough. In this case, the bris is scheduled for a time not on Shabbat or a holiday. Our partner site Kveller has more about bris timing here.

Where does a brit milah occur?

There are no rules governing the location, but traditionally Jews hold it in a synagogue during the morning services. However, the bris is often held at the home of the baby’s parents or grandparents.

Who performs this ritual?

A mohel — usually pronounced so it rhymes with boil — is the man or woman who performs the circumcision. (A female mohel is called a mohelet ; Orthodox Jews do not permit women to serve in this role.) Some mohels work full time in this profession, but many are also physicians, rabbis, cantors or nurse-midwives. A mohel is trained in the Jewish laws concerning circumcision, as well as in modern surgical hygiene.

Kveller has articles on what to look for in a mohel and how to find a mohel in your area.

What exactly happens at a brit milah?

Someone, often the baby’s godmother or godfather, carries the baby into the room and hands him to the sandek, the person who holds the baby during the circumcision. The sandek is often a grandparent. Before circumcising the baby, the mohel recites the blessing:

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy command­ments, and hast given us the command con­cerning circumcision.

As soon as the mohel begins the circumcision the father (or, in some cases, both parents) recites:

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to make our sons enter the covenant of Abraham our father.

All present then respond: “Even as this child has entered into the covenant, so may he enter into the Torah, the nuptial canopy, and into good deeds.” Sefaria has the Hebrew text of all the circumcision blessings.

The mohel then takes a cup of wine and recites over it a prayer for the infant in which the mohel gives the infant his Hebrew name. A drop or two of the wine is placed in the infant’s mouth and, traditionally, the father drinks some of the wine and saves the rest for the mother. Historically, the mother was not in the room for the circumcision; today, many mothers opt to witness the entire ceremony.

Many brit milah ceremonies include other readings and blessings as well, and parents often speak about the reason they chose the boy’s Hebrew name. The ceremony is generally followed by a festive meal, and special prayers are recited in the grace after meals, blessing the parents, the infant, the mohel and the sandek.

Are there other traditions for the bris?

Yes, there are many bris customs, including the Shalom Zakhar, a festive meal the Friday night before the bris, having a minyan (a quorum of 10 adult Jews) present and setting aside a chair for the prophet Elijah.

Is there an equivalent ceremony for girls?

There is no physical procedure comparable to circumcision. However, a parallel ceremony for girls (often called a simchat bat, “celebration of a daughter,” or brit banot, “daughters’ covenant”) is a contemporary development with historical and cultural predecessors, inspired by Jewish feminism, and practiced in most liberal and some traditional communities. Families and communities have also acknowledged and celebrated the arrival of baby girls in many other ways throughout Jewish history, and in different Jewish traditions throughout the world, with a variety of home and synagogue rituals of celebration and naming.

I heard that mohels sometimes orally suction the blood from the baby’s penis. Is that true?

Yes, this practice is called metzitzah b’peh, and it happens only in some segments of the ultra-Orthodox community, where many believe the Talmud requires that the circumcision wound be cleaned through oral suction. (Others say the Talmud’s mention of this practice was a recommendation based on limited medical information available at the time.) This uncommon practice has been linked to transmission of herpes and other illnesses; some mohels continue to use oral suction, but use a sterilized tube so that their mouth will not come into direct contact with the baby. Many others consider the use of gauze as an adequate means for the Talmud’s suction requirement.

Is the bris painful for the baby?

There are different opinions on this issue: Some people are convinced the procedure is very painful, whereas others insist that any pain is brief and minimal. Some mohels take steps to reduce the pain either by giving anesthesia or using a shield that functions like a clamp. Mohels who do not use anesthetic often give the baby sugar water or wine as a mild form of sedation. It’s important after the bris to keep the wound clean, in order to avoid infection or other complications. Learn more about post-circumision care here.

What kind of food is served at a bris?

The only requirement is that the meal include wine or grape juice, so a Kiddush can be recited, and bread, so that the Hamotzi can be recited. Bagels and lox are popular choices, and there are numerous Ashkenazi and Sephardic customary foods that are symbolic or are meant to bring good luck.

Do I need to bring a gift to a bris?

Gifts for the baby, such as clothing or a toy, are not required, but are often welcome.

Help! I’m planning a brit milah. What do I need to know?

We recommend you read the following articles on our partner site, Kveller. (And you’ll want to bookmark it for regular use, now that you’re a parent!)
Everything You Need To Know About Planning A Bris
Do’s and Don’ts for Your Son’s Bris
Bris Tips for Moms
What Should My Baby Wear To His Bris?
Who Should I Invite to a Bris?
What Food Should I Serve at a Bris?

Do all Jewish boys have a brit milah?

No, some parents opt to have their son circumcised in the hospital or to have the procedure done privately, with only close family present. In addition, a small but growing number of Jewish parents object to circumcision itself and are skipping the procedure altogether.

Exactly where in the Bible does God command Abraham to circumcise himself?

This happens in Genesis 17:10-14, which is in Parashat Lech Lecha, the third portion in the annual Torah-reading cycle. Find which other sacred texts discuss circumcision.

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