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Jewish Practices & Rituals: Circumcision - Brit Milah

Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin of the penis. The rite of circumcision (Heb. בְּרִית מִילָה, berit milah; “covenant of circumcision”) is one of the most ancient practices of Judaism. The commandment to circumcise male children was given to Abraham in the Torah (Genesis 17:7­14 and repeated in Leviticus 12:3):

And God said unto Abraham: ‘And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. This is My covenant ... 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 ... And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that should shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.

Rabbinic Attitudes & Halachic Legislations
Philosophical Rationales
Magical and Mystical Understandings of Circumcision
Modern Responses
Implications for Jewish Women
Ritual in Practice


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.” 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 was 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 the 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 the 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 the 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, Mothers and 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 Maimonides, 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 combine ancient apotropaic motivations to avoid disease and promote health by keeping the demonic away. Mystical and magical reasons for circumcision may have also contributed to the 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.

Implications for Jewish Women

The centrality of circumcision raises difficult questions as to the place of Jewish women in the covenant affirmed at Mt. Sinai. H. Eilberg-Schwartz has written that “since circumcision binds together men within and across generations, it also establishes an opposition between men and women” (The Savage in Judaism, 171). S.J.D. Cohen has shown that the rabbis were quite aware that privileging of circumcision as the central marker of Jewish identity rendered half of the Jewish people ineligible. He suggests they evinced little concern because in rabbinic thinking to be a Jew was to be born into an ethnic community. Even if a woman could not be circumcised, she did not need circumcision or any other ritual to be accepted as a Jew. However, Cohen has also noted that for rabbinic Judaism, Jewish women were not Jews in the same way as Jewish men, writing that the rabbis were so convinced of “the fundamental inferiority, marginality and Otherness of women” that “the presence of a covenantal mark on the bodies of men, and its absence from the bodies of women, seemed natural and inevitable.” J. Baskin has suggested that establishing the active agency of men and the passivity of women in reproduction was an important component of rabbinic constructions of female alterity. One aspect of this discourse argued that men were most like God in their ability to generate new life, while women, as submissive nurturers, were subordinate not only in relation to men but in their lack of resemblance to the divine. This dialectic of differentiation, based on the conviction that being like God required fully functioning male sexual organs, emphasized circumcision as the marker of complete status as a human being and as a Jew (Baskin, 18–20).

During the Middle Ages, Christian polemics attacked the exclusion of women from full status in Judaism since they are not circumcised, as opposed to the more egalitarian Christian dispensation, which did not require literal circumcision. Sages responded with the argument that Jewish women demonstrated their covenantal status through obedience to niddah regulations (e.g., Niẓẓaḥon Vetus §237). The excitement that traditionally accompanied the birth of a son as opposed to the disappointment at the birth of a daughter is expressed in rabbinic writings (e.g. Nid. 31b) and in modern literary works by authors such as Devorah Baron in her Hebrew short story “The First Day.” A traditional welcoming ceremony among Sephardi Jews is called zeved ha-bat (“gift of a daughter”). In recent decades, many Jewish families have instituted ceremonies, often called simḥat bat (“joy of a daughter”) or brit banot (“daughters’ covenant”), to welcome daughters into the Jewish community and the divine covenant between God and the Jewish people.


In traditional practice, the child is brought from the mother by the godmother and handed over at the door of the room to the godfather, who, in turn, hands it to the mohel. Before this, the child is welcomed by the congregation with Barukh ha-Ba (“Blessed be he that comes”), and the Sephardim sing a piyyut in which those who keep the covenant are blessed. The mohel places the baby for a moment on the Chair of Elijah, after which it is placed on a pillow on the knees of the sandak (“holder”). The infant’s legs are held firmly by the sandak; the mohel, having previously thoroughly scrubbed and immersed his hands in a disinfectant solution, takes a firm grip on the foreskin with his left hand. Having determined the amount to be removed, he fixes the shield on it to protect the glans from injury. The knife, sometimes double-edged, is then taken in the right hand, and the foreskin is amputated with one sweep along the shield. This discloses the mucous membrane, the edge of which is then firmly grasped between the thumbnail and index finger of each hand and is torn down the center as far as the corona. This part of the operation is called peri’ah. Sometimes this maneuver is performed with scissors, but it is known that a lacerated wound is much less likely to bleed than a cut wound.

The next stage is the performance of meẓiẓah (“suction”). Traditionally, the mohel sucked blood from the circumcised penis. This practice, originally based on medical notions of healing the wound more quickly, became subject to severe criticism by the mid-19th century on both hygienic and political grounds. The method now authorized by most rabbinical courts is for mezizah to be performed either by a swab or through a glass tube, preferably containing a small piece of absorbent cotton. The rounded end of the tube is placed firmly over the penis, pressed firmly over the area of the pubis, and suction by the mouth is carried out through the flattened end of the tube or through a rubber attachment. This is followed by the application of a sterile dressing and the readjustment of the diaper. Immediately after the actual circumcision, the father recites the benediction “Who hast hallowed us by Thy commandments and hast commanded us to make our sons enter into the covenant of Abraham our father.” In Israel, this is followed by the She-Heheyanu benediction. The congregated guests reply, “Even as this child has entered into the covenant, so may he enter into the Torah, the nuptial canopy, and into good deeds.”

The dressing of the wound does not form a statutory part of the rite, but the sages took an active interest in the incidence of hemorrhage after the operation. Hemophilia was apparently recognized in Talmudic times since there is a law that a mother who has lost two children from the unquestionable effects of circumcision must not have her next sons operated on until they are older and better able to undergo the operation. Moreover, should two sisters each have lost a son from the effects of circumcision, the other sisters must not have their sons circumcised (Sh. Ar., YD 263:2–3).

The child is then handed to the father or to an honored guest, and the mohel, holding a goblet of wine, recites the benediction for wine and a second benediction praising God, who established a covenant with His people Israel. The mohel then recites a prayer for the welfare of the child, during the course of which the name of the child is announced. Naming a child at circumcision is an ancient custom already mentioned in Luke 1:59. It is customary for the mohel to give the infant a few drops of wine to drink. The ceremony is followed by a festive meal at which special hymns are sung, and in the Grace after Meals, blessings are recited for the parents, the sandak, and the mohel. Although women are permitted to perform circumcisions, it is only in the liberal Jewish denominations that mohalot have emerged from training programs sponsored by the Reform and Conservative movements in North America.


On the first Friday evening after the birth of a boy, a ceremony called ben zakhor or shalom zakhor is held to express the joy at the birth of a boy since “as soon as a male comes into the world peace comes into the world” (Nid. 31b). On this occasion the Shema is recited as well as Gen. 48:16 and various psalms and other prayers (cf. Isserles to Sh. Ar., YD 265:12). In Oriental communities this ceremony is called shasha or blada, and special prayers and portions of the aggadah are recited from a booklet called Berit Olam in honor of the prophet Elijah. It is customary to serve boiled chick peas on this occasion.

Another home ceremony, called in Yiddish vakhnakht (“watchnight, vigil”), was held on the night preceding circumcision. Candles were lit throughout the home, and following a festive meal, featuring cooked beans and peas, prayers were recited, and the Torah was studied until after midnight. Before departing, the guests recited the Shema aloud at the bedside of the mother. This custom is mentioned as early as the Talmud by the name yeshu’a ha-ben or shevu’a haben (Sanh. 32b; BK 80a). It probably evolved from the fact that when the mohel checked the infant’s health on the eve of the circumcision, he was accompanied by the sandak (“godfather”) and other friends who came to congratulate the parents. This custom later became associated with the belief that it is necessary to guard the child against Lilith and other evil spirits by guarding him throughout the night while reciting prayers and studying the Torah. This vigil, also very popular among Sephardi Jews, is called “midrash” because of a discourse on the weekly Torah section delivered by the hakham. The hazzan also chants appropriate poems and the Kaddish. Poppy-seed, honey cake, and coffee are served at this ceremony. In Salonika, the eve of the circumcision was known as “veula” (“watchnight,” from vigilia – “eve,” “watch”), and the mother stayed awake all night. In Yemen, on the eve of circumcision, care was taken not to leave the mother and child alone, and incense was burned inside the room to ward off evil spirits.

In Persia and Kurdistan, a ceremony known as “Lel Ikd ill Yas” was celebrated during which the Chair of Elijah was consecrated and adorned with silver crowns and various plants. In Ashkenazi communities, it was customary to place the mohel’s knife under the mother’s pillow until the following morning. In some places, the kabbalistic Book of Raziel was also left there. It was customary to donate the swaddle in which the child was wrapped at the circumcision to the synagogue; richly embroidered, it would be used as a band for the Torah Scroll. In Salonika, the severed foreskin was buried in the cemetery.


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. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.