The laws of milah are the same for all Jews; some customs, however, vary between countries and communities. A sampling of Sephardic customs is presented below. These customs have been compiled from various sources.
Prior To the Brit
In most communities, on the night before the brit, the men of the family and their friends gather to recite portions of Zohar related to milah. The gathering itself is called Zohar or Brit Yitzchak (Covenant of Isaac). Cakes and various sweets are served and the Chacham (Rabbi) delivers a Torah lecture. Some celebrate this evening instead of the Shalom Zachar that Ashkenazic Jews celebrate on the Friday night following the birth Moroccan Jews celebrate both the Shalom Zachar land Zohar.
Many hang Kabbalistic charts on the walls and door of the child’s room as a protection against the “evil spirits” (Satan and his cohort). These signs bear many protective Biblical quotations. Some also place the milah knife under the pillow of the child as an added protection. (Both of these customs are also practiced in some Ashkenazic circles.)
Day of Brit
At Syrian circumcisions, a large tiered tray is filled with flowers and candles. Guests place contributions on the tray and, following the Brit, the tray is sold to the highest bidder. The money bid, along with that on the tray, is then donated to charity. Some use this “money of blessing” to begin a new financial endeavor (e.g., to start a business, to buy a home), as an omen for success.
At Persian circumcisions, a large tray of apples is placed on a table and young couples are encouraged to partake. Assumedly this custom is based on the Midrash that when Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill all newborn Jewish males, the Jewish women hid in the apple orchards. There, Heavenly emissaries assisted them with the birth and subsequent care of the baby. This is alluded to in the verse; Under the apple tree I begot you (Song of Songs 8:5; Rashi to Sotah 11b). Thus, apples are propitious for easy labor and delivery.
In many communities, the father bestows upon his son the blessings: May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:20). Some add: May it be His will that you be a brother to seven and also to eight. This latter blessing is a play on Ecclesiastes 11:2, and is an allusion to the princes of Menashe and Ephraim who were the seventh and eighth tribal leaders to bring their offerings at the inauguration of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] in the Wilderness (see Numbers 7:48, 54). This custom is based upon Targum Yonasan to Genesis 48:20 who pharaphrases: This blessing will be conferred by a father on the day of his son’s circumcision (R’ Yaakov HaCozer).
Moroccan Jews place a dish of sand near the mohel to signify that the child should be as fruitful as the grains of sand, as it is written: And the count of the Children of Israel will be like the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured nor counted (Hosea 2:1). This sand is also used to cover the excised foreskin.
Throne of Elijah
At Syrian circumcisions a special ornate curtain bearing the name of Elijah the Prophet is draped over the chair designated as the Throne of Elijah.
In Moroccan families, on the night prior to the brit, the Throne of Elijah is brought from the synagogue to the home of the infant where it is decorated with many colorful fabrics. During the brit, the sandak sits on the Throne of Elijah as he holds the infant.
In sefrou, Morocco, the Throne of Elijah was placed near a mezuzah in the home of the child. This was considered auspicious for long life for the child, as alluded to by the juxtaposition of On the doorposts of your house,.. In order to prolong your days (Deuteronomy 11 :20-21). Unlike other parts of Morocco, in sefrou the sandak did not sit on the Throne of Elijah but on a separate chair next to it.
Spanish Jews drape the chair set aside for Elijah with purple and gold braided material to give it the appearance of a throne. It is placed next to the sandak and a Chumash or Siddur is placed on it as a reminder that it represents Elijah’s presence and is not to be used by anyone else.
At the Brit
In many communities an infant is brought to the synagogue where his brit is to take place, accompanied by musical instruments. The women ululate in high staccato sounds that sound like “Ielelelelelelele,” a chant of joy in many Middle Eastern countries. (Zichron. Brit LaRishonim, p. 178).
It is customary to bring the baby in on a large pillow draped with colorful scarves and shawls of exquisite lace and embroidery.
Among some sephardim the family name is included in the naming of the child (e.g., if the family name is Haddad, the child is given the name Moshe ben Gavriel Haddad).
It is customary to smell fragrant spices following the blessing over the wine. At Moroccan circumcisions dried rose petals are traditionally used for this purpose. Some explain the custom for smelling spices as an allusion to the verse in Genesis 2:7, regarding the creation of Adam: And God blew into his nostrils the soul of life and man became a living soul. Zohar (Shelach) writes that a Jewish male attains his soul [connection of the soul] at his brit. Therefore the sense of smell is used, which is reminiscent of the original infusion of the soul into man (see Ohel David III, Psalms 44:23).
Others see the use of fragrances as an allusion to the Midrash, which relates that when Abraham circumcised the members of his household, he piled their foreskins into a heap. The odor of the foreskins rose to heaven and was as appreciated by God as the fragrance of the incense burned on the Altar at the Temple (See Midrash Shir HaShirim 4:6 a,ld Yalkut Shimoni, Lech Lecha 82).