Brit Milah FAQ
What is a Brit Milah?
The word "Brit" means covenant and "Brit Milah" refers to the pact which G-d formed with Abraham, the first Jew, promising to make a Great nation from him when he circumcised himself, as the Torah states: "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" (Genesis 17:10-11). So "Brit Milah" or "circumcision" is more than just a circular incision — it's an eternal connection with our Creator.
The 8th Day
Did you ever wonder why the Brit Milah is done on the 8th day of a baby's life? In the hospital, a circumcision is usually done on the 2nd day, so why does Judaism want us to wait? Them simple reason is because the Torah (Genesis 17:12 & Leviticus 12:3) commands the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to perform the Brit Milah on the 8th day. The teachings of Kabbalah, which gives insight to a deeper esoteric dimension, explain that the natural physical world as we know it is composed of the number seven — 7 days of the week, 7 continents, 7 seas, 7 notes of the musical scale, 7 colors of the rainbow, our Jewish holidays are 7 days in length... So the number 7 is symbolic of a complete cycle of nature, and therefore, the number 8 is representative of a step beyond nature, a step to an unlimited and infinite level of reality. The number 8 is a digit which has no beginning or end, going on continuously in a circular loop. When turned on its side, the number 8 is actually the mathematical symbol for infinity. The 8th day therefore represents the infinite bond which this Jewish baby boy is experiencing with G-d at the Brit Milah and the ideal day for the Brit Milah because it demonstrates how unlimited and boundless our Creator is. Even if logic and the natural order of the world would dictate otherwise, the Jew's relationship with His Maker transcends all limitations and restrictions because of their inherent infinite partnership with the Divine.
Choosing a Hebrew Name
Our Sages tell us that the name of an individual reflects his character and essence. It is what connects him to his spiritual soul, serving as the conduit to his spiritual sustenance and nourishment. Therefore, the giving of a name is a serious undertaking and involves a great responsibility. The Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (known as the Ari HaKadosh) writes, "When a person is born and his father and mother give him his name...the Holy One puts into their mouth the particular name required for that soul."
The Torah tells us that one of the reasons why God delivered the Jewish people from their bondage in Egypt, was that they did not alter their Jewish identities, particularly, their Jewish names. Indeed, throughout history, Jews have always taken pride in their Jewish names. Our Sages tell us that in the merit of maintaining our Hebrew names we will help hasten the final redemption in our times.
The parents of the child are the ones to choose the infant's name. The giving of the name should be by agreement of both parents. However, if the parents disagree on a name and they live in a place where there is no established custom, a common solution is for the name to be chosen in an alternating order. The father chooses the name for the first child, the mother for the second, and the father for the third, etc.
Some people name their child after a relative, such as a grandparent or great-grandparent, to perpetuate the deceased person's memory. Some choose to name their child after a great Jewish leader or a Biblical figure. Still others choose a Hebrew name simply for its meaning, for example "Chaim" which means "life" or "Simcha" which means "happiness."
Customs vary concerning naming a child after a relative who is still living. Sephardim (Jews of Spanish or Middle Eastern decent) readily name their children after living relatives, whereas Ashkenazim (Jews of Polish, Russian, or German decent) name their children only after someone who has passed away.
In all cases we do not announce the name of the child until after the Bris ceremony for a boy, or naming ceremony for a girl.
Ceremony and Order of Honors
- Kvater - Escorts - Married Couple or brother and sister - this is a segulah to have children. The couple accepts the baby from the mother and brings the baby into the room for the bris (a pregnant woman generally does not perform this honor) as the congregation stands up and proclaims together: Baruch Habah.
- Miyad Liyad - (Optional) Passing the baby from "Hand to Hand." This is an opportunity to honor as many participants as you wish with holding the baby. (During this time, the Mohel recites several passages from the Torah about Brit Mila)
- Kisay shel Eliyahu / Me'al Hakisay Placing the child on the chair of Elijah and then lifting him back off after a prayer is said by the Mohel.
- Birchat Kohanim (optional / if Kohen is present)
- If the father is not the Sandek, the father is usually honored with placing the child on the lap of the Sandek.
- Sandek - Holds the child on his lap during the circumcision. With some exceptions one family should not have the same sandek for two of their children.
- The Mohel will ask the father to designate him to be his agent (Shaliach) to perform this mitzvah. After the Mohel's blessing and the circumcision, the father then makes the blessing: LeHachniso Be'Vrito Shel Avraham Avinu.
- Me'al HaSandek/Sandak MeUmad Taking the child from the Sandek's lap / Standing and holding the baby as he is named.
- Brochos VeKrias Hashem - Blessings celebrating the bris and naming the baby - Hebrew reading required (this honor can be split in half if more honors are needed)
In 2007, the World Health Organization announced that "based on the evidence presented, which was considered to be compelling, experts recommended that male circumcision now be recognized as an additional important intervention to reduce HIV infection in males... circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection by approximately 60%." Additionally, in 2009, studies led by scientists from Johns Hopkins University and published in the New England Journal of Medicine call for an increase in circumcision, as "male circumcision reduces the risk of several sexually transmitted infections in both sexes." Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of Andrological Science records that "in Israel, where almost all males are circumcised, the rate of penile cancer is extremely low: 0.1 per 100,000," as opposed to as high as 10.5 in places where circumcision is not routinely practiced. A decreased rate of urinary tract infections and an increased degree of hygiene are benefits of circumcision. Particularly when performed in infancy and at the hands of an expert Mohel, circumcision can be likened to a vaccine where the momentary pain is outweighed by the tremendous gain.
These medical benefits are certainly reason enough to circumcise, but even if the scientific and medical community one day were to suddenly decide otherwise, we Jews would certainly not stop a 4,000 year old tradition.
The Mitzvah of circumcision is primarily to be done on the eighth day of birth, however most Jewish males from the Former Soviet Union have never been circumcised due to the long-standing communist prohibition of Jewish religious practice.
Our ancestor Abraham was circumcised at age 99. In part, this teaches us that no Jew should be left out of this mitzvah, regardless of age.
Please do not hesitate to contact Rabbi Leeds if you or someone you know would like to perform this tremendous mitzvah.