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CIRCUMCISION (Heb. בְּרִית מִילָה, berit milah; "covenant of circumcision"), the operation of removing part or all of the foreskin which covers the glans of the penis. Circumcision dates back to prehistoric times and together with the trepanning of the skull forms one of the oldest operations performed by man. Originally a ritual procedure, it was undertaken for medical reasons only later. It is performed by many peoples all over the world. Jewish circumcision originated, according to the biblical account, with Abraham who, at divine behest, circumcised himself at the age of 99. Genesis 17:11–12 reads: "Every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations." Abraham circumcised his son Ishmael, all the males of his household, and his slaves. In the following year when Isaac was born, he was circumcised on the eighth day.

The promise that Abraham's seed should inherit the land of Canaan was bound up together with this covenant. The punishment for failure to observe this command was karet, to be "cut off" from one's kind (ibid 21:4), understood by the rabbis to mean "excision at the hand of heaven from the community." This commandment is considered so important that the rabbis declared (Shab. 137b) that were it not for the blood of the covenant, heaven and earth would not exist. Abraham was said to have circumcised himself on the tenth of Tishri, the day later celebrated as the Day of Atonement, when the sins of the people are forgiven (PdRE 29).


It seems that Abraham did not start the practice of circumcision; rabbinic legend suggests that it was known before (Gen. R. 42:8; and cf. "Huppot Eliyahu Rabbah," in J.D. Eisenstein's Ozar Midrashim, 1 (1915), 165). However, circumcision became firmly established among the Hebrews. When Jacob's daughter Dinah was seduced by the Hivite prince Shechem and the question of marriage arose, the sons of Jacob insisted that the Hivites undergo the rite (Gen. 34:14); when Moses failed to circumcise his own son, the fault was repaired by Zipporah, his wife who declared (Ex. 4:25): "Surely a bridegroom of blood (ḥatan damim) art thou to me." The Hebrew term translated as "bridegroom" is connected with the Arabic for "to circumcise" (see EM, 3 (1965), 357, S.V. Hatan Damim). Circumcision was not merely a religious practice; it also took on a national character. Only circumcised males could partake of the paschal sacrifice (Ex. 12:44, 48). Before the Israelites entered Canaan, they were circumcised by Joshua, the rite having been omitted in the wilderness owing to the hazards of the journey (Josh. 5:2).

The importance of circumcision is further evident from the repeated contemptuous references to the Philistines as uncircumcised. There was a period, however, in the kingdom of Israel, under the influence of Queen Jezebel, when circumcision was abandoned (I Kings 19:14). Elijah's zeal in persuading the Israelites to resume the forsaken covenant won him the name of "Herald of the Covenant" (see Chair of Elijah). In the time of the Prophets, the term "uncircumcised" was applied allegorically to the rebellious heart or to the obdurate ear (Ezek. 44:1, 9; Jer. 6:10). Jeremiah declared that all the nations were uncircumcised in the flesh, but the whole house of Israel were of uncircumcised heart (Jer. 9:25). It has been suggested that the Hebrew word for uncircumcised עָרֵל (arel) means properly "obstructed," as is indeed explicitly stated by Rashi (to Lev. 9:23) and the fact that the same word and the related orlah ("foreskin") are also used to describe a certain kind of taboo (ibid.) has resulted in the infelicitous translation of many biblical passages. The word describes the lips of a person whose speech is not fluent (Ex. 6:12, 30) or the heart and ear of a person who will not listen to reason (Jer. 6:10; 9:25; for alternative translations see the JPS translation of the Torah (1962) to Leviticus 19:23 and Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6). Such passages as the foregoing, however, do not warrant a purely spiritual interpretation of the commandment which would make the actual physical circumcision superfluous. Ezekiel is full of contempt for the uncircumcised heathen whose fate he foretells (Ezek. 32:21, 24 et al.).

In Hellenistic times, Jews encountered the mockery of Gentiles who believed circumcision to be an unnecessary and unseemly mutilation and circumcision was widely neglected (Jubilees 15:33–34). Many Jews who wanted to participate nude in the Greek games in the gymnasia underwent painful operations to obliterate the signs of circumcision (epispasm).

The first definite prohibition against circumcision was enacted under Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Macc. 1:48). Many mothers who had their sons circumcised suffered martyrdom. It is recorded (2 Macc. 6:10) that two women who had circumcised their children were led round the city with their infants bound to their breasts and then cast headlong from the wall. Conversely, with the victory of the Hasmoneans and the extension of the frontiers, John Hyrcanus forced the conquered Idumeans to undergo circumcision (Jos., Ant., 13:257f., 318). Religious leaders at that time differed about the necessity for circumcision of proselytes. R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus required both circumcision and ritual immersion for the admission of a proselyte, while R. Joshua held that a proselyte needed only ritual immersion (Yev. 46a; see Proselytes).

The custom of circumcision seems to have spread among the Romans in the Diaspora under the influence of the Jewish community in Rome. Hadrian again proscribed it, and this was one of the causes of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. According to a midrash, when a Roman official asked R. Oshaya why God had not made man as he wanted him, he replied that it was in order that man should perfect himself by the fulfillment of a divine command (Gen. R. 11:6). After the *Bar Kokhba revolt the rabbis apparently instituted peri'ah (laying bare of the glans), probably in reaction to attempts to "obliterate the Seal of the Covenant" by epispasm. According to Tractate Shabbat 19:2, circumcision and peri'ah became part of a unified process in which the mohel disposed of all or most of the foreskin and then split the thin layer of mucosal membrane that is under the foreskin and rolled it downward to uncover the head of the penis. The importance of peri'ah is emphasized in the early rabbinic period and supportive midrashic readings were constructed in order to base it in Torah (e.g. ḥatan damim (Ex. 4:25) is said to imply two acts: the blood of milah, the actual circumcision, and the blood of the peri'ah incision (TJ, Shab. 19:2 17(a)). With the rise of Christianity, circumcision became the sign of difference between the adherents of the two religions. Paul declared that justification by faith was sufficient for converts to Christianity (Rom. 3:4), and in Justinian's Codex surgeons were prohibited from performing the operation on Roman citizens who converted to Judaism.

Rabbinic Attitudes and Halakhic Legislation

Circumcision was long understood as "completing" the male and as essential for male entrance into the covenant (brit), the community, and the world to come. Rabbinic Judaism viewed the brit milah (covenant of circumcision) and the accompanying ceremony as a joyous occasion and the sages believed it important to circumcise converts and slaves as well. Some rabbinic midrash claims that a number of biblical heroes were born circumcised (ARN1 2). Rabbinic explanations of circumcision are not concerned with the philosophical and medical rationales claimed by later sources, but with the sanctification of a divine commandment.

According to rabbinic legislation it is a Jewish father's duty to have his son circumcised (Sh. Ar., YD 260:1). Should he neglect to do so, it devolved on the bet din (ibid., 260:2). It is not a sacrament, and any child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether circumcised or not. Although circumcision may be performed by any Jew (including a woman, if no man is available: Maim. Yad, Milah, 2:1), in the first instance it is desirable that the operator, called a mohel, be a loyal adherent to the tenets of Judaism (Sh. Ar., YD 264:1). Even in talmudic times, he was described as a craftsman. In most modern communities, he has been specially trained in the principles of asepsis and in the technique of circumcision and has received rabbinic recognition. The operation must be performed on the eighth day, preferably early in the morning (YD 262:1), thus emulating Abraham in his eagerness to undertake a divine command. Should the child be premature or in poor health, the rite must be postponed until seven days after he has recovered from a general disease or until immediately after recovery from a local disorder (262:2–263:3). Should a child for any reason have been circumcised before the eighth day or have been born already circumcised (i.e., without a foreskin), the ceremony of "shedding the blood of the covenant" (hattafat dam berit) must be performed on the eighth day, provided it is a weekday and the child is fit (263:4). This is done by puncturing the skin of the glans with a scalpel or needle and allowing a drop of blood to exude. If the eighth day is a Sabbath or festival, the circumcision must nevertheless take place (266:2) unless the child is born by Caesarean section, when it is postponed to the next weekday. There are special laws relating to the time of circumcision of a child born during twilight of the Sabbath or festival (262:4–6). There was a talmudic disputation as to whether preparations for the operation that are forbidden on the Sabbath may be undertaken on that day, if they have been previously omitted (Shab. 130a–132b).

Joshua used flint knives to circumcise the children of Israel (Josh. 5:3). By Roman times metal knives were employed. The traditional lyre-shaped shield to protect the glans has been in use at least since the 17th century; this together with the knife and a flask for styptic powder were kept in a lyre-shaped bag. One set of instruments dating from 1801 also contains a probe. In the Middle Ages, the ceremony was frequently performed in the synagogue – and still is today in some communities. There are set parts of the service during which it should take place. Some synagogues have elaborate "Chairs of Elijah" for the desired presence of the Prophet. Today, the ceremony usually takes place in the hospital or at home; in Israel, maternity clinics have large rooms where the ceremony is performed.

Kelalei ha-Milah by R. Jacob ha-Gozer and his son R. Gershom ha-Gozer (13th century) contains the earliest guide to the laws of circumcision. The rite itself preserves the ancient notion that the deity desires the sacrifice of the whole child but is appeased with the offering up of the metonymic portion of the member and thus spares the life of the child. The tradition of naming the child at the time of circumcision is medieval, but it is mentioned in the Talmud (Shab. 134a) and Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 48. The medieval ritual confirms that the deeper meaning of circumcision is in the shedding of blood, not the removal of the foreskin, and connects the naming with the (rescued) life of the child: "Our God and God of our Fathers, sustain this child for his father and mother and let his name in Israel be ________ son of ________. May the Father rejoice in the child from his loins, and the mother receive happiness from the fruit of her womb, as it is written: 'When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you "Live in spite of your blood." I said to you "In your blood live"' (Ezek. 16:6)." Recent scholarship on the medieval parallels between baptism and circumcision has focused on shared conceptions of the salvific power of blood, the role of "god parents" or co-parents during the ceremony, and the staging of the ceremony itself (Baumgarten, Mothersand Children).

Philosophical Rationales

Philo of Alexandria advanced four reasons for circumcision: protection against the "severe and incurable malady of the prepuce called anthrax or carbuncle"; the promotion of the cleanliness of the whole body as befits the consecrated order; the analogy of the circumcised member to the heart (following Jeremiah); and the promotion of fertility. Philo also claimed that circumcision "spiritualizes" the Jewish male by decreasing pride and pleasure, hence enhancing the spiritual persona of the Israelite male (De Circumcisione, 11:210). For Maimoinides, circumcision both quiets lust and perfects what is defective morally. The "diminution" of the penis is not performed to correct a congenital problem but to diminish the pleasure principle through the painful surgical process. It alters the sensibilities of the male in ways commensurate with the optimal moral life of the Jew. Maimonides' ascetic attitude to sexual relations seems to inform his rationale for circumcision, and this type of logic was not adopted by the majority of legal scholars (Yad, Milah).

Magical and Mystical Understandings of Circumcision

The excision of the foreskin and the shedding of blood combines ancient apotropaic motivations to avoid disease and promote health by keeping the demonic away. Mystical and magical reasons for circumcision may have also have contributed to belief in the blood of circumcision as potent and expiatory. In Exodus 4:25, it is the circumcision blood that saves Moses' life when Zipporah circumcises Moses' son (or possibly Moses, himself). The creation of a collective tribal brotherhood based on circumcision ensured the continuity of the patriarchal lineage and acculturated the baby boy into maleness while publicly diminishing the female birthing role. Some have seen the performance of circumcision as a ritual of male empowerment that bonds men in a phallic way to the service of a deity who functions through men and their bodies, not only in procreative activity but also as the source of cultural and intellectual creativity. In Jewish mysticism, the Zohar implies that only one who has been circumcised can fully commune with or see God. Several central kabbalistic concepts are based on interpretations of the meanings of circumcision. These include the "inscription" of the name of God in the flesh and the viewing of the Divine Presence or connection to *Shekhinah through the physical berit milah.

Modern Responses

In the 19th century, some Reform rabbis and theologians sought to eradicate circumcision on the grounds that it excluded the Jew from fulfilling his universal potential. Others viewed circumcision as a vestigial post-biblical practice and unnecessary accretion to true Judaism which was unhygienic and barbaric. Mohalim were considered medieval and unprofessional. Other Jewish criticisms of this era included charges that circumcision either robbed the Jewish man of his sexuality or promoted hyper-sexual behavior. Some 19th century German Jews created new welcoming ceremonies for boys without circumcision. Although such rituals were strongly opposed by most rabbinic leaders across the denominational spectrum, they set a precedent for innovative religious ceremonies in American, European, and Israeli society. In the 21st century, opposition to ritual circumcision continues among some Jews on humane grounds, although without any denominational sanction. On the other hand, in the past 100 years, supporters of circumcision, including physicians and many religious leaders, have argued the medical benefits of the procedure, including the claims that circumcision reduces the risks of urinary track infections, cervical cancer in women, and AIDS.


A. Asher, Jewish Rite of Circumcision (1873); A.J. Glassberg (ed.), Zikhron Berit la-Rishonim (1892); S. Kohn, Ot Berit (1903); J. Snowman, Surgery of Ritual Circumcision (19623); N. Gottlieb, A Jewish Child is Born (1960); J. Morgenstern, in: HUCA, 34 (1963), 35–70; S. Talmon, in: Eretz Israel, 3 (1954), 93ff.; C. Weiss, in: JSOS, 24 (1962), 30–48; S.B. Hoenig, in: JQR, 53 (1962/63), 322–34. FOLKLORE: S. Schechter, Studies in Judaism (1896), 282–95, 358; H. Schauss, The Lifetime of a Jew (1950), 31–76. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J.R. Baskin, Midrashic Women (1992); E. Baumgarten, Mothers and Children (2004); S.J.D. Cohen, Why aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? (2005); H. Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism (1991); L. Glick, Marked in Your Flesh (2005); I.G. Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle (2004); N. Rubin, The Beginning of Life (Heb., 1995); E. Wyner Mark (ed.), The Covenant of Circumcision (2003).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.