The mitzvah of Brit Mila (Ritual Circumcision) is one of the most fundamental, meaningful, and poignant commandments in the Torah. By circumcising our sons, we enter our son in the covenant between G-d and our forefather, Avraham and ultimately a part of the everlasting people who valiantly withstood many physical and spiritual tribulations.
The first person that was commanded by G-d to perform brit mila (circumcision) on himself and future sons was our forefather Avraham. The source of this mitzvah is in Genesis (17; 10-12): “This shall be the covenant that you shall keep between Me and you. And at eight days old you shall circumcise all males for all generations…” Avraham avinu circumcised himself at age 99. He circumcised his son, Yitzchak (Isaac) eight days after he was born, in accordance with G-d’s commandment of brit mila. One may ask, “Why didn’t Hashem create man circumcised?” The Book of Sefer Hachinuch answers that G-d wanted men to learn that just like one is able to complete and perfect his physical body by himself he is also capable and responsible to perfect himself spiritually. Hashem promised Avraham that his offspring will never completely vanish from the world. The continuity of the Jewish people to this day defies the laws of nature. By circumcising our sons, we become a part of Hashem’s promise to Avraham and our existence becomes eternal. Circumcision also connects Jews of all backgrounds together, and creates a unique sense of unity among them.
Why the eighth day?
A healthy baby must be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Even if the eighth day falls on Shabbat, Yom Kippur, or any other Jewish festival, we still perform circumcision. However, if the baby was born by Caesarean section, brit mila is not performed on Shabbat or Yom tov, but on the day following weekday. There are many explanations regarding the eighth day. One explanation is the following: Hashem created the world in seven days. The number seven represents nature like the seven days of the week. The number eight transcends nature and represents the idea of rising above nature. Circumcising our sons gives them the power to connect with the G-dly light that transcends nature, thus, enabling them to overcome their natural tendencies and overcome their challenges. Another idea is that by performing brit mila on the eighth day, which transcends nature, also makes the Jewish people and their existence a supernatural phenomenon. By performing the mitzvah of brit mila, we enter a special nation that has merited to survive physically and spiritually in miraculous and unnatural ways.
Traditionally, the parents ask a certified and experienced mohel to perform the brit mila. A mohel must be knowledgeable in the laws pertaining to brit mila. He must also be fully trained in the medical and surgical techniques of circumcision. A doctor’s circumcision in the hospital does not fulfill the mitzvah of circumcision and is not valid. The person performing the brit must be a Jewish person who practices the tenets of the Jewish religion and is specially trained to be a mohel. Specifically, the mohel must be fluent in the latest standards of aseptic techniques and use the same methods of sterilization on his instruments as are used in the hospitals. He also must have served as an apprentice to his teacher, or teachers in hospitals, homes, or other settings.
The brit ceremony is a very special and meaningful occasion and is accompanied by much happiness and rejoicing. The brit ceremony usually takes place at home, in a synagogue, or at a catering hall. There are several honors during the ceremony that are usually bestowed upon the relatives and close friends of the baby’s family. A brief chronological order of the brit is at follows:
- Kvater: Usually a woman hands the baby to a man, holding the baby on a beautifully designed pillow. He then places the baby on a chair known as the Chair of Elyahu (Elijah).
- Sandek: The baby is then placed upon the lap of the Sandek who holds the baby during the circumcision procedure (usually a grandfather).
- Several blessings are recited by the baby’s father and the mohel, after which the circumcision takes place. Some of the honors may be bestowed upon some relatives and friends by asking one person to hold the baby while another person makes the blessing.
- As soon as the mohel completes the procedure, a blessing is recited over a cup of wine and the baby receives his official Hebrew name.
- The ceremony ends with heartfelt wishes of “Mazel Tov” and is followed by refreshments or a meal.
Medical advantages of circumcision
As a principle of Jewish life, we do not perform mitzvot because of the practical benefits that they have. However, it is noteworthy to say that although we perform the mitzvot because they are given to us by Hashem, the mitzvot also have observable benefits and advantages for us.
There is a vast amount of research on the medical benefits of circumcision for men. Some of the findings are as follows:
The American Academy of Pediatrics said that there are medical advantages to circumcision, the most commonly performed operation on males in the United States. Removal of the foreskin from the penis in circumcision protects against infections of the kidneys and urinary system, the pediatrics academy said, citing studies done by military physicians on babies born in Army hospitals from 1975-1984. In addition, circumcision protects against bacterial, fungal, parasitic infections and a variety of other conditions related to hygiene. Research also shows that chances of circumcised men in the U.S. to develop penile cancer are “essentially zero ”. In a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the period of 1999 to 2004, 79 percent of men reported that they were circumcised. Circumcision is widely believed to prevent diseases, such as HIV. Three studies published in 2009 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews revealed that circumcised men were 54 percent less likely to get HIV than uncircumcised men.
As a result of studies like these and many more, many medical organizations have recognized the benefits of circumcision, and the California Medical Association has endorsed circumcision as an “effective public health measure”.