The Covenant of Circumcision
And G-d said unto Avroham: And as for you, you shall keep My
covenant, you, and your seed after you throughout their generations.
This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and
your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And
you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a
token of a covenant between Me and you. And he that is eight days old
shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your
generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any
foreigner, that is not of your seed…and My covenant shall be in your
flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male who is
not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off
from his people; he has broken My covenant.
Within the Jewish community, the topic of bris milah, ritual
circumcision, has never been more controversial. Many liberal Jews are now
rethinking its function in Jewish life, some even choosing not to perform it on
their sons. They argue that circumcision is no longer of value now that the
spread of infection can be halted by good hygiene and modern medicine.
Some fear that the removal of the healthy part of an organ is a purely
arbitrary act which may cause permanent psychological and physical
damage. It is true that circumcision alone is neither medically necessary nor
emotionally beneficial. Still, the bris milah is an essential ceremony
intended to formally usher the Jewish male into a covenant with G-d.
Although the removal of the foreskin has been practiced by Jews since
Avroham, the actual ceremony as it is today developed some time around the
middle-ages. Thus, communities in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle-East
all evolved unique customs for welcoming new baby boys. There are still
certain elements that are typical of all ceremonies. The following description
of a German bris is typical of the milah ritual and lacks many of the details
that would distinguish it from ceremonies originating in other regions.
The mohel, ritual circumcisor, calls in the kvater (from German “for
father”, or G-dfather), the man who “delivers” the baby into the sanctuary.
The mother, who will not witness the ceremony, hands her eight-day-old son
into the care of his grandmothers who pass him over to the kvater. The
kvater carries the baby into the next room and lays him into a beautiful chair
which the mohel will declare as the Throne of Elijah before reciting a few
biblical verses. The kvterin, G-dmother, lifts the baby from the Throne of
Elijah and places him into the lap of the Sandak, the man (usually the father,
grandfather, close friend, or well respected Torah scholar) in whose lap the
ceremony will take place. The mohel asks the fathers permission to act as
proxy for the mitzvah, commandment, of circumcision. The father
relinquishes his right to perform the circumcision and appoints the mohel,
who is more familiar with the religious law as well as the medical and
hygienic requirements of circumcision, to do the mitzvah instead. The mohel
recites the benediction, “Blessed are You haShem our G-d, Master of the
universe who sanctifies us with the mitzvot and commands us to perform
circumcision,” before removing the babys foreskin. When the actual cutting
has been complete, the father also makes a benediction: “Blessed are You
haShem our G-d, Master of the universe who has sanctified us with His
commandments and has commanded us to bring him the baby into the
covenant of Avroham, our Father.” Everyone in the audience then declares,
“Just as he has been brought into the covenant, so too he should enter Torah
study, the wedding canopy, and the doing of good deeds (Klein 426). It is
during this ceremony that the boys name is publicly announced for the first
Bris Milah literally means “covenant circumcision.” Ashkenazic,
Northern- and Eastern-European Jewish, communities refer to the entire
ceremony as a “Bris” which means simply “the covenant”. Rabbi Moshe
Schapiro emphasizes that “the circumcision must be coupled with the
intention to forge a blood pact between G-d and the Jewish people.” That
bris milah is frequently translated only as “circumcision” is unfortunate
because it leads people to believe that the removal of the foreskin is the
most important element of the mitzvah. This is in conflict with Jewish
thinking. Indeed, someone who is circumcised without the intent of fulfilling
this specific commandment must undergo a subsequent, relatively painless,
procedure in which a drop of blood is drawn from the reproductive organ in
the name of the bris. This procedure is most commonly performed on male
converts to Judaism who underwent medical circumcisions as children.
The commandment is often seen as barbaric in the modern day. As
Rabbi Shraga Simmons points out, “there is no logical argument for cutting
a piece of flesh off a helpless baby.” Three years ago Israeli courts held
hearings to discuss the famous case number 5780/98 which would outlaw
circumcision as a form of genital mutilation. Indeed, to remove a healthy
part of an organ is ridiculous in a secular context, and yet it has been
practiced on Jewish males for nearly 4,000 years. The great question is why.
One must first realize that Judaism is not a “practical” guide to living
but a theological guide to spirituality. Many people have claimed over the
years that circumcision was practiced by the Jews for hygienic reasons
however, this explanation is foreign to Jewish thinking and is absent from the
earliest commentaries and oral laws of torah. The Jews were never regarded
as healthier than their non-Jewish, uncircumcised neighbors. They did not
perform milah on their sons because they hoped to prevent infection, but
because they felt that it was a religious obligation. The Jews do not conform
to religious obligations because they believe it is physically healthy to do so
(if there are any medical benefits, these are considered secondary) but
because they believe it is spiritually healthy to do so. To disobey the Laws of
haShem, G-d, is looked upon as spiritual mutilation.
According to Jewish mysticism, or kabbalah, “the foreskin symbolizes a
barrier which prevents growth” (Simmons). Deuteronomy 10:16 calls upon
us to “remove the foreskin of our hearts.” Orlah, the Hebrew term
translated as “foreskin” literally means “barrier”. The foreskin is seen as a
barrier to the spiritual growth of the uncircumcised individual. In another
kabbalistic example, we are taught that when Avram circumcised himself, at
age 99, G-d changed his name to Avroham. He added only one letter to his
name: heh. The letter heh is found twice in one of the most holy of
haShems names signifying that through the bris milah a dimension of
spirituality is brought to the physical body. So, why on the eighth day?
The answer is twofold. Schapiro believes that the number eight has a
special metaphysical significance. He notes that the number six alludes to
the physical world: there are six directions (north, south, east, west, up and
down); there are six days to the work week, and according to the Chumash
there were six “days” of creation. The number seven, he adds brings a sense
of spirituality to this physical world: the seventh day of the week, Shabbos, is
a Jewish holy day, and many Jewish festivals, including Sukkos last for seven
days. The number eight however, “transcends the physical altogether”. For
example, the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates a great miracle
lasts eight days.
The second reason is one that might be considered a “practical benefit”
which is supported by medical data. According to Simmons, prothrombin and
vitamin K, two blood clotting agents, are at peak levels on the eighth day of
life. Prothrombin levels are normal at birth but drop dramatically during the
next few days. However, at the end of the first week, levels of prothrombin
return to normal and are often at 110 percent of normal before stabilizing by
the ninth or tenth day. Still, the most “logical” reason to perform a ritual
circumcision is, in the religious context, simply to act as the sign of the
covenant G-d made with Avroham because this is the reason that we are
taught through Torah.
Aside from the de-emphasis of physical matters involved in the
procedure, traditional Jews avoid reference to health benefits because, for
the most part, “medicine doesnt appear to be on our side” (Fink). Writer
Mordechai Housman insists that there has never been a reported case of
health danger to a child circumcised by an Orthodox mohel, but mother, Lisa
Braver Moss claims that there are two known bris milah related deaths in
modern times: one in 1957 and another in 1978. Moss admits that “no
systematic data on deaths or serious complications from bris milah have ever
been compiled” but believes this may be due to the fact that “circumcision
death can occur from secondary causes such as liver failure, pneumonia, and
blood poisoning” which “health professionals may fail to link … to their
original cause.” Nonfatal complications are equally unlikely to be associated
Although the majority of modern Jews argue that the rite is harmless,
historically Jews were not so certain of the safety of the procedure. Talmudic
law exempts a Jewish male from infant circumcision if two of his older
brothers lost their lives to the ritual. Though, as the Orthodox will argue, this
case was hypothetical and not based on an actual incident, there are still two
Biblical examples of a parents failure to perform milah on his son due to
concerns over his health. Exodus 4: 24-26 relates the story of the
circumcision of Eliezar son of Moses. The Bibles rendering of the story is
short, cryptic and confusing:
It was on the way, in the lodging, that haShem encountered him and
sought to kill him. So Tzipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the
foreskin of her son and touched it to his feet; and she said, “You
caused my bridegrooms bloodshed!” So He released him; then she
said, “A bridegrooms bloodshed was because of circumcision.”
The great Torah commentator Rabbi Schlomo Yitzach (Rashi), says
that Mosess great sin was in delaying the milah of his son. Moses felt that
the trip he was about to embark upon would be dangerous for the newborn
who, he felt, should be allowed three days to recuperate after circumcision
before he embarked upon his journey (Shmos 24). In an earlier example,
Midrash tells us that Yitzach did not circumcise his son Esav because he
feared for his health. Esav, unlike his twin Yaakov, was born with bright red
skin. Yitzach worried that this was due to illness and that to perform milah
on him would be dangerous. Esav was given a second opportunity for bris
milah when he became bar mitzvah (the age of majority) but he refused it
These biblical examples provide us with some vital information about
the importance of bris milah. On the surface we can see quiet clearly that
the “conservatives” are wrong: circumcision is potentially dangerous, and
Torah recognizes this. More importantly though, we learn how vitally
necessary bris milah is to the Jews. Moses almost lost his life because he
delayed his sons circumcision too long. And Esav lost his status as a Jewish
patriarch because he refused to let anyone perform milah on him even after
it was clearly a safe endeavor. The ramifications of spiritual disobedience are
significant. And just as the punishment for neglecting the mitzvah is severe,
so the merit for properly attending to it is tremendous.
The devotion of the Jewish people to the rite of milah even during
times of difficulty is a testimony to its importance in Jewish life. When milah
was outlawed by the Greeks during the era of the Maccabean leadership,
many Jewish mothers risked their lives to circumcise their sons. Even in the
modern era Jews have undergone heroic acts for the preservation of the
mitzvah. Holocaust survivor Aviel Binyomin Colquette remembers the
They were rounding up the young children and mothers and they put
us onto a train car. There was one woman–she did not cover her
hair–who looked particularly distressed. She asked all of the
passengers in our car for a knife. But we were all women and children.
No knives. She then started to look around for any sharp object. She
wanted a shard of glass, or a sharp rock–anything you might cut with.
The other passengers tried to dissuade her. They scolded her for her
weakness and begged her not to kill herself. Finally a soldier came
through and she saw the outline of a knife in his pocket. She
demanded he hand it over to her. In shock he complied. Then, to our
astonishment, she pulled from her bag a small infant boy. She said
the blessings and performed the milah on him. She handed her child
over to the officer and spoke to G-d, “You gave me a healthy boy and
now I return him to You in purity and obedience to Torah.”
Similarly, many Jews in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) were not
circumcised due to secular laws and a general lack of interest in religious
practice. However, the desire for bris milah was never completely eradicated
and when Western Jews were finally allowed to enter the FSU they were
greeted by large numbers of adult males who wished to undergo bris milah.
Mohel Alexander Fink recalled his surprise at the large number of Jews who
came to see him at his arrival in the Ukraine:
I was sure theyd all come to see the rabbi. Theyd heard his tapes
before we came and had seemed really impressed. There were so
many of them. From age eleven to eighty. At least a hundred men.
And they were there to see me! I couldnt believe theyd be so excited
about milah. More interested in receiving milah than in seeing the
rabbi. They wanted to be circumcised more than they wanted to be
The idea of a covenant is a rather difficult concept for the outsider to
comprehend. The relationship between the Jews and haShem, their G-d, is
understood as a straightforward contract, “I will be your G-d, and you will be
My people.” The Jews will obey haShem and He will see that their needs are
met. The milah is the most visible sign of the covenant as it is inscribed on a
persons body and serves as a daily reminder to the Jewish male of his status
as a servant of haShem and mankind.
Until very recently, even the most liberal Jews felt that
circumcision–though not necessarily the bris–was essential to Jewish
practice. The status of an uncircumcised male in Jewish culture was
undefined. He was in a strange state of being both Jewish and non-Jewish.
A Jew trapped in a non-Jewish body. A bizarre spiritual circumstance that
could not be redeemed until the man took matters into his own hands and
underwent a circumcision. Indeed, Yeshiva student Joshua Konig, suggests
that the gates of heaven will not open up for an uncircumcised Jewish male.
“A Jews obligation is to serve HaShem and observe the Torah his entire life,
even under the most desperate circumstances (Scheinbaum 204).
Colquette, Aviel Binyomin. Personal interview. 18 Nov. 2001.
Fink, Alexander. Personal Interview. 10 Oct. 2001.
Housman, Mordechai. Circumcision and Your Childs Health. 5 Nov. 2001.
Klein, Isaac. A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. New York: The Jewish Theological
Semianry of America, 1979.
Konig, Joshua. Personal interview. 28 Nov. 2001.
Moss, Lisa Braver.Circumcision: A Jewish Inquiry. Midstream magazine. 5 Nov.
Robinson, George. Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to the Beliefes, Customs, and
Rituals. Ch. 3. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.
Schapiro, Rabbi Moshe. What is Circumcision? Aish HaTorah. 15 Oct. 2001.
Scheinbaum, Rabbi A. Leib. Peninim On The Torah. Cleveland, Ohio: Kisvei
Simmons, Rabbi Shraga. Bris Milah: Beautiful or Barbaric? Aish HaTorah. 15 Oct.
Weissman, Rabbi Moshe. The Little Midrash Says: The Book of Beraishis. Brooklyn,
New York: Bnay Yaakov Publications, 1986.
Weissman, Rabbi Moshe. The Little Midrash Says: The Book of Shmos. Brooklyn,
New York: Bnay Yaakov Publications, 1987.Words
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