The Brit Mila or circumcision, signals the entry of a male Jewish child or convert into the ancient covenant between Abraham and the Lord. Brit Mila literally means covenant of circumcision. It is often abbreviated to the first word and pronounced “Brit” in modern Israeli and Sephardic Hebrew, or “Bris” in Ashkenasy (European) Hebrew and in Yiddish.
Brit Mila is ordinarily performed on male Jewish babies when they are eight days old. The ceremony may be postponed if the child is ill. The ceremony is performed by a specially trained mohel. The circumcision performed by urologists is not “kosher” as it does not involve the letting of blood.
The biblical sources for the Brit Mila are in Genesis and Leviticus. In Genesis 17, the Lord told Abraham:
To you and your offspring I will give the land where you are now living as a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan shall be [your] eternal heritage, and I will be a God to [your descendants].’ God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant — you and your offspring throughout their generations. This is my covenant between my, and between you and your offspring that you must keep: You must circumcise every male. You shall be circumcised through the flesh of your foreskin. This shall be the mark of the covenant between my and you. ‘Throughout all generations, every male shall be circumcised when he is eight days old: those born in your house, as well as bought with cash from an outsider, who is not your descendant. [All slaves,] both born in your house and purchased with your money must be circumcised. This shall be my covenant in your flesh, an eternal covenant. The uncircumcised male whose foreskin has not been circumcised, shall have his soul cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.
Leviticus 12:3 states:
On the eighth day, [the child’s] foreskin shall be circumcised
The original act of circumcision is thought to have been less extensive than that performed today. However, during the Hellenistic period, Jews who wished to assimilate are believed to have tried to hide the fact of their circumcision in various ways. In order to ensure the differentiation of Jews, the rite was revised so that the entire foreskin must be removed.
For children, the ceremony is performed even if the eighth day falls on a Sabbath, but for converts, a day is fixed that is not a Sabbath or holiday. Converts who have been circumcised undergo a symbolic letting of blood.
Brit Mila is obligatory for Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and is encouraged but not required by most Reform and Reconstructionist congregations. Circumcision has been found to have health benefits in some scientific studies.
The Brit Mila can only be performed if health authorities certify that the baby is healthy. A common complication that can delay the Brit is neonatal jaundice. The Talmud instructs that a boy must not be circumcised if two of its older brothers, from the same mother as he, died of complications arising from their Brit Mila, a pragmatic ruling that may have been due to experience with haemophilia.
At the Brit Mila, male children are given their Hebrew names, though this tradition is evidently relatively recent. Jewish children are often named in honor of deceased relatives, though not necessarily with precisely the same name. Ashkenasy Jewish children are almost never named after living relatives.
In Ashkenazic Judaism, a person or persons are usually given the honor of holding the baby during the ceremony. This person is the “Kvatter” or godfather. A minyan or quorum of ten Jewish males is desirable but not required. The Brit Mila ceremony is very often accompanied by a celebratory banquet.
Children who are adopted may be circumcised any time before their thirteenth birthday. Until their Bar Mitzvah they may also reject the Jewish faith, so that the conversion is voluntary and not forced on an unknowing infant.
Female children do not undergo “circumcision” or Female Genital Mutilation by Jewish law or in Jewish tradition.