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 kväterin, 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 father's 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 ha'Shem our G-d, Master of the universe who sanctifies us with the mitzvot and commands us to perform circumcision," before removing the baby's foreskin. When the actual cutting has been complete, the father also makes a benediction: "Blessed are You ha'Shem 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 boy's name is publicly announced for the first time (Robinson132).
Bris Milah literally means "covenant circumcision."...
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