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By Rabbi Pinny and Chani Lew
Bris  Milah  -  Circumcision

Introduction:

A Jew is commanded to circumcise his son on the eighth day after his birth, when his faculty of reason is not yet developed. This aspect signifies that a Jew is bound and committed to G-d at the earliest opportunity, in an absolute and all comprehensive way that transcends his reason and perception.

By bringing a child into the covenant in the proper way, we are giving him an excellent start. Circumcision is the eternal symbol of the Jew's willingness to overcome the desires of his physical body to the will of G-d. It is meant to elevate him to the level of a G-d loving, G-d fearing human being - one who places morality above the yearnings of the flesh. Through Bris Milah, a boy identifies as a Jew at the source of life, forever linked to the source of all life.

The Mitzvah:

The second mitzvah in the Torah is: "...every male among you shall be circumcised...it shall be sign of the covenant between Me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised". (Genesis 17:10-12).

The performance of Bris Milah is one of the most sacred rituals in Jewish life. Bris Milah is the tie that forever binds a Jewish boy to his Creator. This special sign has distinguished the Jew from among the nations ever since our father Abraham circumcised himself and his household - at G-d's command - when he was ninety nine years old. (Ibid. 17:24).

When Ishmael, Abraham's son, entered the covenant, he has already reached the age of thirteen (ibid. 17:25) - fully capable of understanding the divine command. He was proud of his decision to submit rationally to G-d's command. Therefore, his acceptance of Bris Milah was limited to his own reason. Isaac, on the other hand, was born later and was circumcised when he was eight days old (ibid. 21:14), an infant with no understanding whatsoever.

Postponing a Bris:

The Mohel (trained person performing the circumcision) should determine that the child is in perfect health. Extreme care must be taken not to circumcise a child if there is even a remote possibility that the child is not strong enough, for danger to human life overrides all other considerations. Moreoever, circumcision can be performed later, but it is impossible to restore life.

We know the ruling of the Tzemach Tzedek (third Rebbe in the Chabad dynasty) regarding a child whose skin is too red - even when in doubt, we must wait until seven days after he returns to his normal color. The Rebbe instructed that when a child is jaundiced, we must wait until seven days after he returns to his normal skin complexion. He added: "It is possible to postpone a Bris; it is not possible to bring even one Jewish soul back to life."

If the infant is in good health, it is forbidden to defer the mitzvah for any consideration, even to have the Bris on a more auspicious day and the like.

In the case of twins, the Bris must be done for even one child as soon as he reaches full health and for the second child whenever he becomes healthy and strong, even if they will not be at the same time.

Vach Nacht - Awake Night:

It is customary for the father to stay awake the night before the Bris - in close proximity to the infant - and learn Torah. This night is called "Vach Nacht" (awake night).

Young children are brought to the infant the night before the Bris, to recite the Shema and other prayers. This serves as a protection for the infant.

Day of the Bris:

On the eighth day following the child's birth, the Bris is performed. For example, if a child is born Sunday (from Saturday Sunset through Sunday until sunset) the Bris is held the following Sunday.

This applies even if the eighth day occurs on Shabbat or a major festival (providing the birth is not by caesarean section). If the Bris is delayed (due to any reason), then one is not allowed to circumcise on Shabbat or Yom Tov and it should take place at the first opportunity on any other day (Talmud, Shabbat, 132a).

One should not invite people to a Bris; merely inform them of the time and place. This is because it would be improper for someone to decline an invitation to an event where Elijah the Prophet is present.

The day of the Bris is regarded as an extra joyous day, not just for the parents, but also for the Sandek and Mohel.

Time of the Bris:    

"Speedy people hasten to perform mitzvot" (Talmud, Pesachim 4a). The circumcision should be held in the early morning as a sign of our eagerness to do G-d's will. However, it can take place any time during the daytime and must never take place before sunrise or at nightime.

Since milah is best accompanied by rejoicing (as cited in several places regarding the rejoicing at a Bris), this supercedes the requirement that "speedy people hasten to perform mitzvot". As we see from experience that the degree of rejoicing depends upon the number of people attending and sometimes there is even sadness whe some are unable to attend. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe in Igros Kodesh, Vol 4, p 144).

Whenever the Bris takes place, it is a very special occasion and at the appointed times family and friends joyfully gather - in the presence of a minyan (ten men over bar mitzvah) if possible.

The assembled at a Bris should stand - if possible - during the circumcision.

The Kvater: 

For Kvater (those who bring the child to the room where the Bris is held) usually a married or engaged couple is chosen. The woman takes the child from his mother's arms and in turn hands him to the man who brings the child into the room. The child is then placed on the special chair designated for Elijah.

It is a Jewish custom to refrain from having a pregnant woman as Kvatterin. On the other hand, tradition has it that giving the Kvater to a childless couple confers upon them a special blessing that they conceive and have children of their own.

Elijah the Prophet:  

At every Bris, Elijah the Prophet is an honored guest. Long ago a king of Israel - under treacherous influences - abolished circumcision. Elijah cried out to G-d that Israel had forsaken His precious covenant. G-d thereupon instructed him to be present and to witness all circumcisions. Elijah refused to attend any Bris unless G-d forgave all who were present for their transgressions. G-d promised to do so. For this reason at every Bris we designate the chair in honor of Elijah by placing the child on the chair and the Mohel reciting: "This is the chair of Elijah the Prophet".

Subsequently the father places his son on the lap of the Sandek.

The Sandek:

The Sandek - the one who holds the child during the circumcision - should be a person held in great esteem by the family and the community.

It is customary not to honor the same individual as sandek for siblings. Even if a father is the sandek for his own child, he should do so only once - for one son. This does not apply to the local rabbi, who can be honored as sandek for more than one child of the same parents (the Rama).

It was related by Rabbi Moshe Marazov that the previous Rebbe (1880-1950) served as sandek for two of his brothers. This was after the Rebbe Rashab (1860-1920) explained to his father "when does this rule apply? When it is done as an honor for the sandek. But if this would result in honor for the infant, then the same sandek can serve for two brothers."

[Apparently it is likened to offering the incense in the Temple. Which stipulates that only newcomers may offer the incense. But that rule applies specifically to ordinary Kohanim (priests); but the Kohen Gadol (high priest) may offer incense whenever he wishes] (Talmud Yoma 14a).

It is proper for the Sandek to wear a Talis during the Bris. It once happened that the previous Rebbe went to a bris in order to serve as sandek; he ordered his tallis to be taken along and then put it on without a blessing (this was several hours after he had prayed). The Rebbe would do likewise.

The Mohel:  

The Torah obligates a father to circumcise his son. Most fathers are not qualified to perform the procedure and a Mohel generally performs the Bris. The Mohel chosen to perform the Bris Milah should be competent and a G-d fearing Torah observant Jew. The practice of having a surgeon circumcise a child is not halachically sound and such a child still requires the proper Bris performed by a Mohel. Even a Jewish surgeon needs the appropriate training to qualify as a Mohel.

It is proper for the Mohel to wear a Talis during the Bris.

Following the circumcision, blessings are recited, at which time the child receives his Hebrew name.

The Festive Meal: 

A Seudas Mitzvah (festive meal) follows the circumcision.

It is customary to light candles in honor of this very joyous occasion.

There is a Chassidic custom that during the course of the meal, the father delivers a Chassidic discourse relating to the subject of a Bris. Today, most recite the discourse "Be'etzem Hayom".

When present at a Bris, the Previous Rebbe would donate money on behalf of the infant to a yeshiva. He would say that it was a down payment for the child's tuition (for when he gets older). Based on the above, in many circles it has become customary to give money to a Jewish school which the infant will attend when he gets older, as a down payment for tuition.

The Torah obligates a father to circumcise his son.

General Laws and Customs regarding Bris: 

It is a mitzvah for a father to circumcise his son, (Talmud, Kiddushin, 29a) or to appoint another Jew as his agent. If one was not circumcised as an infant, he is responsible to have himself circumcised upon becoming Bar Mitzvah.

An infant who is born without the foreskin is not considered circumcised until a Mohel draws a drop of blood and says the appropriate blessings.

If the circumcision was performed at night or before the infant reached eight days old, or the infant was not in perfect health during the circumcision, the infant is considered as if he were born without the foreskin (see above) (Shach on Yoreh Deah 262).

Once one has appointed a Mohel to perform a Bris it is forbidden to retract and invite another one unless the original one could not perform the Bris.

The knife that is used for circumcision should have a two edge blade thus avoiding using the wrong edge in error and thereby putting the infant in danger (Taamei minhagim 105b).

The father should stand nearby the Mohel during circumcision, to indicate that he is his agent.

If a Bris is being performed on an older child or an adult, it should only be performed under localized anesthesia, in a way that it temporarily removes all sensation of pain, but does not put the patient to sleep and therefore he remains in full possession of all his faculties (and thus remains fully obligated in the mitzvah).

When circumcising someone for conversion, since this Milah is not an independant mitzvah, but merely a prerequisite to the conversion, all opinions would agree that he may be put to sleep.

Procedure at a Bris: 

When the child is brought into the synagogue (or room where the Bris takes place), everyone present recites: "Blessed is he who has entered." The Mohel then recites: "Happy is the man You choose...and the L-rd spoke...Pinchas ben Elazar... My covenant of Peace...your Holy Temple."

When the child is placed upon the Seat of Eliljah the Mohel says: "This is the Seat of Elijah..."

Right before the Bris the Mohel recites the following blessing: "Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning circumcision."

Upon the foreskin being removed, the father recites the following blessing: "Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to enter him into the Covenant of Avraham Avinu." Those present respond: "Just as he entered into the Covenant, so may he enter into Torah, into marriage and into good deeds."

After the Bris someone is appointed and takes the cup of wine and says: "Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine."

And he continues: "Our G-d and G-d of our fathers, preserve this child...and his name is Israel shall be called..."

Many have the custom of dipping a pacifier in the cup of wine (or any other clean sterile object) and giving it to the baby while saying the words: "and I said to you: You shall live through your blood; and I say to you: You shall live through your blood."

A child is given to drink of the wine over which the blessing has been made or he (who recited the blessings) should drink it himself. Then the Mohel and the father of the infant recite the following prayer: "Sovereign of the universe..."

The Mohel then says: "May He who blessed..."

It is customary that toward the end of the "Grace after Meals" we recite special passages of blessing beginning with Harachamon for Bris Milah


Reprinted from Birth of a Jewish Child, copyright 2005, compiled and distributed by Rabbi Pinny and Chani Lew

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