Brit milah

Brit milah
Halakhic texts relating to this article
Torah: Genesis 17:1-14
Leviticus 12:3

The brit milah (Hebrew: בְּרִית מִילָה‎, pronounced ; Ashkenazi pronunciation: , "covenant of circumcision"; Yiddish pronunciation: bris ) is a Jewish religious male circumcision ceremony performed by a mohel on the eighth day of a male infant's life. The brit milah is followed by a celebratory meal (seudat mitzvah).


  • Biblical references 1
  • Ceremony 2
    • Mohel 2.1
    • Time and place 2.2
      • Postponement for health reasons 2.2.1
      • Adult circumcision 2.2.2
    • Anesthetic 2.3
    • Kvater 2.4
    • Seudat mitzvah 2.5
  • Ritual components 3
    • Uncovering, priah 3.1
    • Metzitzah 3.2
      • Metzitzah B'Peh 3.2.1
      • Barriers 3.2.2
    • Hatafat dam brit 3.3
  • Milah l'shem giur 4
  • Reasons for circumcision 5
  • Reform Judaism 6
  • The anti-circumcision movement and brit shalom 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Biblical references

"Isaac's Circumcision", Regensburg Pentateuch, c1300

According to the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 17:10-14) God commanded the Biblical patriarch Abraham to be circumcised, an act to be followed by his descendants:

10 This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. 12 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 thy seed. 13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.

Also, Leviticus 12:3 provides: "And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised."

According to the Hebrew Bible, it was "a reproach" for an Israelite to be uncircumcised (Joshua 5:9.) The term arelim ("uncircumcised" [plural]) is used opprobriously, denoting the Philistines and other non-Israelites (I Samuel 14:6, 31:4; II Samuel 1:20) and used in conjunction with tameh (unpure) for heathen (Isaiah 52:1). The word arel ("uncircumcised" [singular]) is also employed for "impermeable" (Leviticus 26:41, "their uncircumcised hearts"; compare Jeremiah 9:25; Ezekiel 44:7,9); it is also applied to the first three years' fruit of a tree, which is forbidden (Leviticus 19:23).

However, the Israelites born in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt were not circumcised. Joshua 5:2-9, explains, "all the people that came out" of Egypt were circumcised, but those "born in the wilderness" were not. Therefore Joshua, before the celebration of the Passover, had them circumcised at Gilgal specifically before they entered Canaan. Abraham, too, was circumcised when he moved into Canaan.

The prophetic tradition emphasizes that God expects people to be good as well as pious, and that non-Jews will be judged based on their ethical behavior, see Noahide Law. Thus, Jeremiah 9:25-26 says that circumcised and uncircumcised will be punished alike by the Lord; for "all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart."

The penalty of non-observance is kareth (spiritual excision from the Jewish nation), as noted in Genesis 17:1-14. Conversion to Judaism for non-Israelites in Biblical times necessitated circumcision, otherwise one could not partake in the Passover offering (Exodus 12:48). Today, as in the time of Abraham, it is required of converts in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism. (Genesis 34:14-16).

As found in Genesis 17:1-14, brit milah is considered to be so important that should the eighth day fall on the Sabbath, actions that would normally be forbidden because of the sanctity of the day are permitted in order to fulfill the requirement to circumcise. The Talmud, when discussing the importance of Milah, compares it to being equal to all other mitzvot (commandments) based on the gematria for brit of 612 (Tractate Nedarim 32a).

Covenants in ancient times were sometimes sealed by severing an animal, with the implication that the party who breaks the covenant will suffer a similar fate. In Hebrew, the verb meaning "to seal a covenant" translates literally as "to cut". It is presumed by Jewish scholars that the removal of the foreskin symbolically represents such a sealing of the covenant.[1]

Memory of this tradition has been preserved in traditional Christian churches according to the Gospel of Luke.[2][3] The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ is kept as a feast eight days after Nativity in a number of churches including the Eastern Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, Lutheran and some Anglican Communion churches.[4] In Orthodox Christian tradition, children are officially named on the eighth day after birth with special naming prayers.[5][6]

Significantly, the tradition of baptism universally replaced circumcision amongst Christians as the primary rite of passage as found in Paul's Epistle to the Colossians and in Acts of the Apostles.[7]


Jewish circumcision in Venice around 1780 Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme


A mohel is a Jewish person trained in the practice of brit milah, the "covenant of circumcision." According to traditional Jewish law, in the absence of a grown free Jewish male expert, a woman, a slave, or a child, that has the required skills, is also authorized to perform the circumcision, provided that she or he is Jewish.[8] However, most streams of non-Orthodox Judaism allow female mohels, called mohalot (Hebrew: מוֹהֲלוֹת‎, plural of מוֹהֶלֶת mohelet, feminine of mohel), without restriction. In 1984, Dr. Deborah Cohen became the first certified Reform mohelet; she was certified by the Berit Mila program of Reform Judaism.[9]

Time and place

Chair of Elijah used during the brit milah ceremony - Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme

It is customary for the brit to be held in a synagogue, but it can also be held at home or any other suitable location. The brit is performed on the eighth day from the baby's birth, taking into consideration that according to the Jewish calendar, the day begins at the sunset of the day before. If the baby is born on Sunday before sunset, the Brit will be held the following Sunday. However, if the baby is born on Sunday night after sunset, the Brit is on the following Monday. The brit takes place on the eighth day following birth even if that day is Shabbat or a holiday. A brit is traditionally performed in the morning, but it may be performed any time during daylight hours. [10]

Postponement for health reasons

Family circumcision set and trunk, ca. eighteenth century Wooden box covered in cow hide with silver implements: silver trays, clip, pointer, silver flask, spice vessel.

The Talmud explicitly instructs that a boy must not be circumcised if he had two brothers who died due to complications arising from their circumcisions;[11] this may be due to a concern about haemophilia.[11]

An Israeli study found a high rate of urinary tract infections if the bandage is left on too long.[12]

If the child is born prematurely or has other serious medical problems, the brit milah will be postponed until the doctors and mohel deem the child strong enough.

Adult circumcision

In recent years, the circumcision of adult Jews who were not circumcised as infants has become more common than previously.[13] In such cases, the brit milah will be done at the earliest date that can be arranged. The actual circumcision will be private, and other elements of the ceremony (e.g. the celebratory meal) may be modified to accommodate the desires of the one being circumcised.


Most prominent acharonim rule that the mitzvah of brit milah lies in the pain it causes, and anesthetic, sedation, or ointment should generally not be used.[14] Eliezer Waldenberg, Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, Shmuel Wosner, Moshe Feinstein and others agree that the child should not be sedated, although pain relieving ointment may be used under certain conditions; Shmuel Wosner particularly asserts that the act ought to be painful, as per Psalms 44:23.[14] Regarding an adult circumcision, pain is ideal, but not mandatory. In a letter-to-the-editor published in the January 3, 1998, NY Times, Moshe David Tendler disagrees with the above and writes "It is a biblical prohibition to cause anyone unnecessary pain". He recommends the use of an analgesic cream such as Lidocaine,[15] even though it has been implicated in several pediatric near-death episodes.[16][17]


The title of kvater (male) or kvaterin (female) among Ashkenazi Jews is for the person who carries the baby from the mother to the father, who in turn carries him to the mohel. This honor is usually given to a couple without children, as a merit or segula (efficacious remedy) that they should have children of their own. The origin of the term may simply be "Gevatter", an archaic German word for godfather,[18] but it is also said to be a Yiddish erroneous combination of the words kavod ("honor" in Hebrew) and tor ("door" in Yiddish), meaning "The person honored by bringing the baby". Another source is a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish meaning 'like the father'.

Seudat mitzvah

After the ceremony, a celebratory meal takes place. At the birkat hamazon, additional introductory lines, known as Nodeh Leshimcha, are added. These lines praise God and request the permission of God, the Torah, Kohanim and distinguished people present to proceed with the grace. When the four main blessings are concluded, special ha-Rachaman prayers are recited. They request various blessings by God that include:

  1. the parents of the baby, to help them raise him wisely;
  2. the sandek (companion of child);
  3. the baby boy to have strength and grow up to trust in God and perceive Him three times a year;
  4. the mohel for unhesitatingly performing the ritual;
  5. to send the Jewish Messiah speedily in the merit of this mitzvah;
  6. to send Elijah the prophet, known as "The Righteous Kohen", so that God's covenant can be fulfilled with the re-establishment of the throne of King David.

Ritual components

Uncovering, priah

Infant after brit

At the neonatal stage, the inner preputial epithelium is still linked with the surface of the glans.[19] The mitzvah is executed only when this epithelium is either removed, or permanently peeled back to uncover the glans.[20] On medical circumcisions performed by surgeons, the epithelium is removed along with the foreskin,[21] to prevent post operative penile adhesion and its complications.[22] However, on ritual circumcisions performed by a mohel, the epithelium is most commonly peeled off only after the foreskin has been amputated. This procedure is called priah (Hebrew: פריעה‎), which means: 'uncovering'. The main goal of "priah" (also known as "bris periah"), is to remove as much inner layer of the foreskin as possible and prevent the movement of the shaft skin, what creates a final look of what is known as "low and tight" circumcision style.[23]

According to Rabbinic interpretation of traditional Jewish sources,[24] the 'priah' has been performed as part of the Jewish circumcision since the Israelites first inhabited the Land of Israel.[25] However, the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, argues that many Hellenistic Jews had an operation performed to conceal the fact of their circumcision, and that similar action was taken during the Hadrianic persecution, in which period a prohibition against circumcision was issued. Thus, hypothesize the editors, it was probably in order to prevent the possibility of obliterating the traces of circumcision that the rabbis added to the requirement of cutting the foreskin that of priah.[26] The frenulum may also be cut away at the same time, in a procedure called frenectomy.[27] According to Shaye J. D. Cohen, in Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism, pg 25, the Torah only commands circumcision (milah.)[28] David Gollaher has written that the rabbis added the procedure of priah to discourage men from trying to restore their foreskins: ‘Once established, priah was deemed essential to circumcision; if the mohel failed to cut away enough tissue, the operation was deemed insufficient to comply with God's covenant’ and ‘Depending on the strictness of individual rabbis, boys (or men thought to have been inadequately cut) were subjected to additional operations.’[29]


The guard (top center) is slid over the foreskin as close to the glans as possible to allow for maximum removal of the former without any injury to the latter. The scalpel is used to detach the foreskin, and the underlying blue bag is a sterilization pouch for the metal tools. The tube (center left) was used for metzitzah In addition to milah (the actual circumcision) and p'riah, mentioned above, the Talmud (Mishnah Shabbat 19:2) mentions a third step, metzitzah, translated as suction, as one of the steps involved in the circumcision rite. The Talmud writes that a "Mohel (Circumciser) who does not suck, creates a danger and should be dismissed from practice".[30][31] Rashi on that Talmudic passage explains that this step is in order to draw some blood from deep inside the wound to prevent danger to the baby,[32] and current medical knowledge confirms the benefits of the practice.[33] There are other modern antiseptic and antibiotic techniques—all used as part of the brit milah today—which many say accomplish the intended purpose of metzitzah, however, since metzitzah is one of the four steps to fulfill Mitzvah, it continues to be practiced by many Orthodox and Hassidic Jews.[34]

Metzitzah B'Peh

The ancient method of performing metzitzahmetzitzah b'peh, or oral suction[35][36]—has become controversial. The process has the mohel place his mouth directly on the circumcision wound to draw blood away from the cut. The vast majority of Jewish circumcision ceremonies do not use metzitzah b'peh,[37] but some Hasidic Jews use it.[38][39][40] It has been documented that the practice poses a serious risk of spreading herpes to the infant.[41][42] Proponents maintain that there is no conclusive evidence that links herpes to Metzitza,[43] and that attempts to limit this practice infringe on religious freedom.[44][45][46]

The practice has become a controversy in both secular and Jewish medical ethics. The ritual of metzitzah is found in Mishnah Shabbat 19:2, which lists it as one of the four steps involved in the circumcision rite. Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762–1839) observed that the Talmud states that the rationale for this part of the ritual was hygienic — i.e., to protect the health of the child. The Chasam Sofer issued a leniency (Heter) that some consider to have been conditional to perform metzitzah with a sponge to be used instead of oral suction in a letter to his student, Rabbi Lazar Horowitz of Vienna. This letter was never published among Rabbi Sofer's responsa but rather in the secular journal Kochvei Yitzchok.[47] along with letters from Dr. Wertheimer, the chief doctor of the Viennese General Hospital. It relates the story that a mohel (who was suspected of transmitting herpes via metzizah to infants) was checked several times and never found to have signs of the disease and that a ban was requested because of the "possibility of future infections".[48] Moshe Schick (1807–1879), a student of Moses Sofer, states in his book of Responsa, She’eilos u’teshuvos Maharam Schick (Orach Chaim 152,) that Moses Sofer gave the ruling in that specific instance only because the mohel refused to step down and had secular Government connections that prevented his removal in favor of another mohel and the Heter may not be applied elsewhere. He also states (Yoreh Deah 244) that the practice is possibly a Sinaitic tradition, i.e., Halacha l'Moshe m'Sinai. Other sources contradict this claim, with copies of Moses Sofer's responsa making no mention of the legal case or of his ruling applying in only one situation. Rather, that responsa makes quite clear that "metzizah" was a health measure and should never be employed where there is a health risk to the infant.[49]

[52] Since then the RCA has issued an opinion that advocates methods that do not involve contact between the mohel's mouth and the open wound, such as the use of a sterile syringe, thereby eliminating the risk of infection.[38] According to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel[53] and the Edah HaChareidis[54] metzitzah b'peh should still be performed.

The practice of metzitzah b'peh was alleged to pose a serious risk in the transfer of herpes from mohelim to eight Israeli infants, one of whom suffered brain damage.[41][55] When three New York City infants contracted herpes after metzizah b'peh by one mohel and one of them died, New York authorities took out a restraining order against the mohel requiring use of a sterile glass tube, or pipette.[40][56] The mohel's attorney argued that the New York Department of Health had not supplied conclusive medical evidence linking his client with the disease.[56][57] In September 2005, the city withdrew the restraining order and turned the matter over to a rabbinical court.[58] Dr. Thomas Frieden, the Health Commissioner of New York City, wrote, "There exists no reasonable doubt that ‘metzitzah b'peh’ can and has caused neonatal herpes infection....The Health Department recommends that infants being circumcised not undergo metzitzah b'peh."[59] In May 2006, the Department of Health for New York State issued a protocol for the performance of metzitzah b'peh.[60] Dr. Antonia C. Novello, Commissioner of Health for New York State, together with a board of rabbis and doctors, worked, she said, to "allow the practice of metzizah b'peh to continue while still meeting the Department of Health's responsibility to protect the public health."[61]

In three medical papers done in Israel, Canada, and the USA, oral suction following circumcision was suggested as a cause in 11 cases of neonatal herpes.[41][62][63] Researchers noted that prior to 1997, neonatal herpes reports in Israel were rare, and that the late incidences were correlated with the mothers carrying the virus themselves.[41] Rabbi Doctor Mordechai Halperin implicates the "better hygiene and living conditions that prevail among the younger generation", which lowered to 60% the rate of young Israeli Chareidi mothers who carry the virus. He explains that an "absence of antibodies in the mothers’ blood means that their newborn sons received no such antibodies through the placenta, and therefore are vulnerable to infection by HSV-1."[33]


Because of the risk of infection, some rabbinical authorities have ruled that the traditional practice of direct contact should be replaced by using a glass tube between the wound and the mohel's mouth, so there is no direct oral contact. The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest group of Modern Orthodox rabbis, endorses this method.[64] The RCA paper states: "Rabbi Schachter even reports that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik reports that his father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, would not permit a mohel to perform metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact, and that his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, instructed mohelim in Brisk not to do metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact. However, although Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik also generally prohibited metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact, he did not ban it by those who insisted upon it,...". The sefer Mitzvas Hametzitzah[65] by Rabbi Sinai Schiffer of Baden, Germany, states that he is in possession of letters from 36 major Russian (Lithuanian) rabbis that categorically prohibit Metzitzah with a sponge and require it to be done orally. Among them is Rabbi Chaim Halevi Soloveitchik of Brisk.

In September 2012, the

  • CircCentral, an online museum of circumcision tools
  • Jewish Encyclopedia entry on circumcision
  • Circumcision, Jewish Virtual Library
  • Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, The Laws of “Brit Mila”.

External links

  1. ^ "Circumcision." Mark Popovsky. Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Ed. David A. Leeming, Kathryn Madden and Stanton Marlan. New York: Springer, 2010. pp.153-154.
  2. ^ Luke 2:21 (King James Version): "And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb."
  3. ^ In the northern European calculation, which abstracts from the day from which the count begins, the interval was of seven days.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Colossians 2:11-12 Acts 15
  8. ^ Talmud Avodah Zarah 26b; Menachot 42a; Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Milah, ii. 1; Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah, l.c.
  9. ^ Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism Retrieved 2 February 2015
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b Rabbi Yaakov Montrose. Halachic World - Volume 3: Contemporary Halachic topics based on the Parshah. "Lech Lecha - No Pain, No Bris?" Feldham Publishers 2011, pp. 29-32
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ [1] Archived September 29, 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^
  20. ^ The Jerusalem Talmud there adds: "and is punished kareth!"
  21. ^ Circumcision Policy Statement of The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that "There are three methods of circumcision that are commonly used in the newborn male," and that all three include "bluntly freeing the inner preputial epithelium from the epithelium of the glans," to be later amputated with the foreskin.
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ Talmud Bavli Tractate Yebamoth 71b: Rabbah b. Isaac stated in the name of Rab: The commandment of uncovering the corona at circumcision was not given to Abraham; for it is said, At that time the Lord said unto Joshua: 'Make thee knives of flint etc.' But is it not possible [that this applied to] those who were not previously circumcised; for it is written, For all the people that came out were circumcised, but all the people that were born etc.? — If so, why the expression. 'Again!' Consequently it must apply to the uncovering of the corona.
  26. ^ Werblowsky, R.J. Zwi & Wigoder, Geoffrey (1997) The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ Tractate Shabbos 133b
  31. ^ Rambam - Maimonides in his "book of laws" Laws of Milah Chapter 2, paragraph 2: "...and afterwards he sucks the circumcision until blood comes out from far places, in order not to come to danger, and anyone who does not suck, we remove him from practice."
  32. ^ Rashi and others on Tractate Shabbos 173a and 173b
  33. ^ a b
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^ a b
  39. ^
  40. ^ a b
  41. ^ a b c d
  42. ^ Staff (8 June 2012) Should extreme Orthodox Jewish circumcision be illegal? The Week, Retrieved 30 June 2012
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^
  49. ^
  50. ^ Sdei Chemed vol.8 page 238
  51. ^
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  54. ^
  55. ^
  56. ^ a b
  57. ^
  58. ^
  59. ^
  60. ^
  61. ^
  62. ^ Rubin LG, Lanzkowsky P. Cutaneous neonatal herpes simplex infection associated with ritual circumcision. Pediatric Infectious Diseases Journal. 2000. 19(3) 266-267.
  63. ^ Distel R, Hofer V, Bogger-Goren S, Shalit I, Garty BZ. Primary genital herpes simplex infection associated with Jewish ritual circumcision. Israel Medical Association Journal. 2003 Dec;5(12):893-4 Archived July 25, 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  64. ^
  65. ^ The book was originally published in German, Die Ausübung der Mezizo, Frankfurt a.M. 1906; It was subsequently translated into Hebrew, reprinted in Jerusalem in 1966 under the title "Mitzvas Hametzitzah" and appended to the back of Dvar Sinai, a book written by the author's grandson, Sinai Adler.
  66. ^ New York, NY - City Approves Metzitzah B’Peh Consent Form (full video NYC DOH debate),, Published September 13, 2012
  67. ^ New York - Rabbis Say They’ll Defy Law On Metzitzah B’peh,, Published September 2, 2012
  68. ^
  69. ^
  70. ^
  71. ^
  72. ^
  73. ^ Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah, 263:4
  74. ^ Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, Bris Milah Mesorah Publications Ltd, 1985, pp.103-105
  75. ^ Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, On the conversion of adoptive and patrilineal children, Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, 1988 Archived November 27, 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  76. ^
  77. ^
  78. ^
  79. ^
  80. ^
  81. ^ 2nd commandment
  82. ^ Boyarin, Daniel. "`This We Know to Be the Carnal Israel': Circumcision and the Erotic Life of God and Israel," Critical Inquiry. (Spring, 1992), 474-506.
  83. ^ a b Judith Bleich, "The Circumcision Controversy in Classical Reform in Historical Context" , KTAV Publishing House, 2007. p. 1-28.
  84. ^
  85. ^
  86. ^
  87. ^
  88. ^
  89. ^
  90. ^
  91. ^
  92. ^
  93. ^ Katz, Jacob (1998) Divine Law in Human Hands: Case Studies in Halakhic Flexibility. Jerusalem: Hebrew University ISBN 978-965-223-980-8
  94. ^ Meyer, Michael "Berit Mila within the History of the Reform Movement" in Barth, Lewis (1990) Berit Mila in the Reform Context. New York: Berit Milah Board of reform Judaism
  95. ^ Mark, Elizabeth Wyner (2003) The Covenant of Circumcision. Lebanon, NH: Brandeis ISBN 1-58465-307-8
  96. ^ Levenson, Jon (March 2000) "The New Enemies of Circumcision", Commentary
  97. ^ Stewart, Desmond (1974) Theodor Herzl. New York: Doubleday ISBN 978-0-385-08896-1
  98. ^ Hilary Leila Kreiger, A cut above the rest, Jerusalem Post, 21 November 2002
  99. ^


See also

In Israel, a small number of families who have chosen not to have their sons circumcised formed a support group in the year 2000. Over two and a half years, 200 couples have enlisted.[98] According to the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews, "circumcision is not required for Jewish identity."[99]

Many European Jewish fathers during the nineteenth century chose not to circumcise their sons, including Theodor Herzl.[97] However, unlike many other forms of religious observance, it remained one of the last rituals Jewish communities could enforce. In most Europe, both the government and the unlearned Jewish masses believed that circumcision was a rite akin to baptism, and the law allowed communities not to register uncircumcised children as Jewish. However, several debated were held on the question whether it is advisable, since many parents then chose to convert to Christianity. In early 20th-century Russia, Chaim Soloveitchik advised his colleagues not adopt this measure: he stated that the uncircumcised was as much Jewish as other transgressors.[83]

However, the connection of the Reform movement to an anti-circumcision, pro-symbolic stance is a historical one. From the early days of the movement in Germany, some classical Reformers hoped to replace ritual circumcision "with a symbolic act, as has been done for other bloody practices, such as the sacrifices."[93] In the US, an official Reform resolution in 1893 announced converts are no longer mandated to undergo the ritual,[94] and this ambivalence towards the practice has carried over to classical-minded Reform Jews today. In Elyse Wechterman's essay A Plea for Inclusion, she argues that, even in the absence of circumcision, committed Jews should never be turned away, especially by a movement "where no other ritual observance is mandated". She goes on to advocate an alternate covenant ceremony, brit atifah, for both boys and girls as a welcoming ritual into Judaism.[95] With a continuing negativity towards circumcision still present within a minority of modern-day Reform, Judaic scholar Jon Levenson has warned that if they "continue to judge brit milah to be not only medically unnecessary but also brutalizing and mutilating...the abhorrence of it expressed by some early Reform leaders will return with a vengeance", proclaiming that circumcision will be "the latest front in the battle over the Jewish future in America."[96]

This ceremony of brit shalom is not officially approved of by the Reform or Reconstructionist rabbinical organizations, who make the recommendation that male infants should be circumcised, though the issue of converts remains controversial[90][91] and circumcision of converts is not mandatory in either movement.[92]

Some contemporary Jews choose not to circumcise their sons.[87] They are assisted by a small number of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, and have developed a welcoming ceremony that they call the brit shalom ("Covenant [of] Peace") for such children, also accepted by Humanistic Judaism.[88][89]

The anti-circumcision movement and brit shalom

The radical, lay Reform societies established in Frankfurt and Berlin regarded circumcision as barbaric and wished to abolish it. However, while prominent rabbis such as Abraham Geiger believed the ritual to be barbaric and outdated, they refrained from instituting any change in this matter. In 1843, when a father in Frankfurt refused to circumcise his son, rabbis of all shades in Germany stated it was mandated by Jewish law; even Samuel Holdheim affirmed this.[83] By 1871, Reform rabbinic leadership in Germany reasserted "the supreme importance of circumcision in Judaism", while affirming the traditional viewpoint that non-circumcised are Jews nonetheless. Although the issue of circumcision of converts continues to be debated, the necessity of Brit Milah for Jewish infant boys has been stressed in every subsequent Reform rabbis manual or guide.[84] Since 1984 Reform Judaism has trained and certified over 300 of their own practicing mohalim in this ritual.[85][86]

Reform Judaism

Talmud professor Daniel Boyarin offered two explanations for circumcision. One is that it is a literal inscription on the Jewish body of the name of God in the form of the letter "yud" (from "yesod"). The second is that the act of bleeding represents a feminization of Jewish men, significant in the sense that the covenant represents a marriage between Jews and (a symbolically male) God.[82]

  1. To complete the form of man, by removing what he claims to be a redundant organ;
  2. To mark the chosen people, so that their bodies will be different as their souls are. The organ chosen for the mark is the one responsible for the sustenance of the species.
  3. The completion effected by circumcision is not congenital, but left to the man. This implies that as he completes the form of his body, so can he complete the form of his soul.

The author of Sefer ha-Chinuch[81] provides three reasons for the practice of circumcision:

Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon "Rambam", CE 1135-1204), who apart from being a great Torah scholar was also a physician and philosopher, argued that circumcision serves as a common bodily sign to members of the same faith. He also asserted that the main purpose of the act is to repress sexual pleasure, with the strongest reason being that it is difficult for a woman to separate from an uncircumcised man with whom she has had sex.[80]


  1. "signified figuratively the excision of all superfluous and excessive pleasure" and
  2. "is a symbol of a man's knowing himself".

To these, Philo added two of his own reasons, including the idea that circumcision

  1. protects against disease,
  2. secures cleanliness "in a way that is suited to the people consecrated to God",
  3. causes the circumcised portion of the penis to resemble a heart, thereby representing a physical connection between the "breath contained within the heart [that] is generative of thoughts, and the generative organ itself [that] is productive of living beings", and
  4. promotes prolificness by removing impediments to the flow of semen.

In Of the Special Laws, Book 1, the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BCE - CE 50) gives six reasons for the practice of circumcision.[78] He attributes four of the reasons to "men of divine spirit and wisdom". These include the idea that circumcision:

Reasons for circumcision

Where the procedure was performed but not followed by immersion or other requirements of the conversion procedure (e.g., in Conservative Judaism, where the mother has not converted), if the boy chooses to complete the conversion at Bar Mitzvah, a Milah l'shem giur performed when the boy was an infant removes the obligation to undergo either a full brit milah or hatafat dam brit.

  • The ceremony, when performed l'Shem giur, does not have to be performed on a particular day, and does not override Shabbat and Jewish Holidays.[76][77]
  • In Orthodox Judaism, there is a split of authorities on whether the child receives a Hebrew name at the Brit ceremony or upon immersion in the Mikvah. According to Zichron Brit LeRishonim, naming occurs at the Brit with a different formula than the standard Brit Milah. The more common practice among Ashkenazic Jews follows Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, with naming occurring at immersion.

In Conservative Judaism, the Milah l'Shem giur procedure is also performed for a boy whose mother has not converted, but with the intention that the child be raised Jewish. This conversion of a child to Judaism without the conversion of the mother is allowed by Conservative interpretations of halakha. Conservative Rabbis will authorize it only under the condition that the child be raised as a Jew in a single-faith household. Should the mother convert, and if the boy has not yet reached his third birthday, the child may be immersed in the mikveh with the mother, after the mother has already immersed, to become Jewish. If the mother does not convert, the child may be immersed in a mikveh, or body of natural waters, to complete the child's conversion to Judaism. This can be done before the child is even one year old. If the child did not immerse in the mikveh, or the boy was too old, then the child may choose of their own accord to become Jewish at age 13 as a Bar Mitzvah, and complete the conversion then.[75]

The laws of conversion and conversion-related circumcision in Orthodox Judaism have numerous complications, and authorities recommend that a rabbi be consulted well in advance.

A Milah L'shem giur is a "Circumcision for the purpose of conversion". In Orthodox Judaism, this procedure is usually done by adoptive parents for adopted boys who are being converted as part of the adoption or by families with young children converting together. It is also required for adult converts who were not previously circumcised, e.g. those born in countries where circumcision at birth is not common. The conversion of a minor is valid in both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism until a child reaches the age of majority (13 for a boy, 12 for a girl); at that time the child has the option of renouncing his conversion and Judaism, and the conversion will then be considered retroactively invalid. He must be informed of his right to renounce his conversion if he wishes. If he does not make such a statement, it is accepted that the boy is halakhically Jewish. Orthodox rabbis will generally not convert a non-Jewish child raised by a mother who has not converted to Judaism.[74]

Set of brit milah implements, Göttingen city museum

Milah l'shem giur

A brit milah is more than circumcision, it is a sacred ritual in Judaism, as distinguished from its non-ritual requirement in Islam. One ramification is that the brit is not considered complete unless a drop of blood is actually drawn. The standard medical methods of circumcision through constriction do not meet the requirements of the halakhah for brit milah, because they cause hemostasis, i.e., they stop the flow of blood. Morever, circumcision alone, in the absence of the brit milah ceremony, does not fulfill the requirements of the mitzvah. Therefore, in cases where a Jew who was circumcised outside of a brit milah, an already-circumcised convert, or an aposthetic (born without a foreskin) individual, the mohel draws a symbolic drop of blood (Hebrew: הטפת דם‎, hatafat-dam)from the penis at the point where the foreskin would have been or was attached.[73]

Hatafat dam brit

On September 9 2015 after coming to an agreement with the community The New York City Board of Health voted to repeal the informed consent regulation. [72]

The ruling was appealed to the Court of Appeals. On august 15 2014 the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision by the lower court, and ruled that the regulation does have to be reviewed under strict scrutiny to determine whether it infringes on Orthodox Jews freedom of religion. [71]

The “informed consent” regulation was challenged in court. In January 2013 the U.S. District court ruled that the law did not specifically target religion and therefore must not pass strict scrutiny.

In a Motion for preliminary injunction with intend to sue, filed against New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, affidavits by Doctors Awi Federgruen Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business.[68] Brenda Breuer, Director of Epidemiologic Research at the Department of Pain Medicine and Palliative Care at the Beth Israel Medical Center, and an Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.[69] Daniel S. Berman, Chief of Infectious-Disease at New York Westchester Square Hospital,[70] argues that the study on which the department passed its conclusions is flawed.


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