Brit milah

From Academic Kids

Brit milah (Hebrew: ברית מילה; literally "covenant of circumcision"), also bris milah (Ashkenazi pronunciation) is a Jewish ceremony which welcomes infant boys into the covenant through ritual circumcision performed by a mohel in the presence of family and friends, followed by a celebratory meal.


Biblical origin

According to the Bible, circumcision was enjoined upon the biblical patriarch Abraham and his descendants as "a token of the covenant" concluded with him by God for all generations. The penalty of non-observance was karet, excision from the people (Genesis 17:10-14, 21:4; Leviticus 12:3). Conversion to Judaism for non-Israelites necessitated circumcision; otherwise one could not partake in the Passover offering (Exodus 12:48) or marry into a Jewish family (Genesis 34:14-16).


The original form of circumcision practiced by Jews since the time of Abraham was probably more minimal than the form performed today. This rite, milah, initially consisted of cutting off only the tip of the foreskin, the part that extends past the glans in the normal male infant. A more extensive form, involving periah (clearing the glans) was commenced at Mount Sinai.

Two thousand years ago, Jewish hellenists, wanting to assimilate into Greek society, obliterated the sign of their circumcisions by finding ways to lengthen them, to make it look as if they had not been circumcised at all. This practice was unacceptable to the Jewish community at large.


As with many commandments, the Torah gives no specific reason why the covenant had to be remembered through circumcision.

The 1st century Jewish philosopher Philo stated that circumcision "represents the excision of the pleasure of sex, which bewitches the mind". A similar view is voiced by the 12th century Jewish scholar Maimonides once argued that one of the purposes of the Brit milah was to reduce sexual behavior and to weaken the sexual bond between man and woman (Guide for the Perplexed part III, chapter 49).

Social context

According to the Bible, it was "a reproach" for an Israelite to be uncircumcised (Joshua 5:9.) The name arelim (uncircumcised) is used opprobriously, denoting the Philistines and other non-Israelites (I Samuel 14:6, 31:4; II Samuel 1:20) and used synonymously with tameh (unclean) for heathen (Isaiah 52:1). The word arel (uncircumcised) is also employed for "unclean" (Leviticus 26:41, "their uncircumcised hearts"; compare Jeremiah 9:25; Ezekiel 44:7,9); it is even 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 reportedly did not practice circumcision. As recorded in Joshua 5:2-9, "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.

Deuteronomy 10:16 says: "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart," suggesting that ethical acts (among people) are as important as spiritual acts (between people and God). 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. 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."

Recent views

Historical view

Recent historians maintain that the "limited" form of circumcision, with only the removal of the tip of the prepuce, was actually practiced up to the time of the Syrian-Greek occupation, when the procedure was extended to make it impossible for men to "undo" their circumcision. There is no basis for this view in classical rabbinic sources, which state that the "extended" form of circumcision was introduced at Mount Sinai.

The anti-circumcision movement

The anti-circumcision movement has not made significant inroads into any of the Jewish denominations. However, a small number of contemporary Jews are choosing not to circumcise their sons. 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.

This ceremony is not officially approved of by the Reform or Reconstructionist rabbinical organizations. Rabbis in these movements strongly recommend circumcision for all male infants, and for all men who converted into Judaism. In contrast with Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism, these latter liberal denominations generally have made this a strong recommendation as opposed to an obligation (requirement). Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism has often accepted medical circumcisions performed by doctors as sufficient to fulfill the commandment of brit milah. However, in recent years these movements have began stressing the religious and ritual nature of circumcision, have begun training their own experts in this ritual.

See also

External links

Template:JewishLifeCyclede:Brit Mila it:Brit milah he:ברית מילה nl:Briet mila


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