Brit Milah Overview
The customs and laws pertaining to circumcision are derived from the Bible, Talmud, and Jewish tradition, all of which have been meticulously passed down from generation to generation.
G-d’s First Commandment to Abraham
Circumcision is the first commandment given by G-d to Abraham, the first Jew, and is central to Judaism. Abraham, the father of the Jewish People, had for many years served G-d righteously. Yet it was only after he circumcised himself by G-d’s command, at the age of ninety-nine years, that he was able to reach the ultimate level of “and you shall be perfect” (Genesis 17:1).
G-d desired that this “finishing touch,” the perfecting of our bodies, should be a distinctly human act. This teaches us that spiritual perfection must and can be accomplished by human effort.
In the Torah
It is written in the Torah: “This is My covenant that you shall observe between Me and you and your children after you, to circumcise your every male. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall become the sign of a covenant between Me and you” (ibid. 17:10-11). This is the only commandment that the Torah calls “the sign of a covenant” between G-d and the Jewish people. In fact, the Torah mentions the word brit (“covenant”) thirteen times in connection with circumcision, which is why the word brit (or bris) has become synonymous with circumcision. Our Sages say that it is considered the greatest of all the commandments.
The covenant between G-d and the Jewish people is so profound and significant that the circumcision is performed at the earliest possible time in a boy’s life. The Torah tells us that this is on the eighth day after birth.
As children mature and develop, they are trained to observe all the mitzvot according to their level, until they reach the age when they are able to appreciate their importance and perform them on their own. With circumcision, however, we do not wait until the boy is mature enough to comprehend its significance. This is because the bond and covenant between the Jew and G-d transcends intellect and is so vital that it is not delayed.
Another distinction is that other commandments are performed in conjunction with, but external to, the body. Tefillin (“phylacteries”), for instance, are worn on the arm and head; charity is given by the hand. Circumcision is unique for it is performed upon the body itself, leaving the mark of G-d’s eternal covenant upon it for life.
Once a boy is circumcised, his G-dly soul begins to enter his body, a process that is completed at his Bar Mitzvah, at the age of thirteen.
The primary obligation for a Jewish boy’s circumcision falls upon his father. In a case where the father is not present or fails to arrange for the circumcision, the obligation falls upon the Jewish community, and essentially every Jew, to arrange for the child’s circumcision. Once he himself reaches Bar Mitzvah age, he becomes personally obligated to see to his own circumcision.
The Sages of the Talmud (Shabbat 130a) observed that “every commandment of the Torah which the Jewish people of yore performed under the threat of death, during periods of governmental persecution, such as circumcision, is still being kept punctiliously.” The Sages also said: “Every commandment that the Jews have accepted upon themselves with joy, such as circumcision, is still being done joyfully [i.e., with a festive meal].”
Indeed, throughout the generations, even under the worst persecutions, the Jews have kept the mitzvah of Brit Milah with incredible devotion, self-sacrifice and joy.
A Qualified Mohel
The person who performs the Brit is called a mohel. He is a master surgeon with special expertise in Jewish ritual circumcision. To qualify as a mohel, one must be a G-d-fearing, Torah observant Jew, and trained in all of the myriad Jewish laws and medical knowledge pertaining to Brit Milah.
By having the brit performed by a qualified mohel, one is assured that the entire procedure meets halachic (Jewish legal) standards and is performed in a medically competent manner.
One should note that having a baby circumcised by a pediatrician surgeon at the hospital does not fulfill the Biblical requirements of a Jewish ritual circumcision. The obligation still remains to be circumcised ritually. In addition, many physicians utilize various methods and procedures, such as the Gomko clamp, that cause unnecessary pain to the child and are forbidden according to Jewish law.
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