There are many important dates that all Jews should celebrate, as well as there are some important rituals that need to take place for a Jew to mark its relationship with God. Some of these rituals include the Bar Mitzvah for males and the Bat Mitzvah for females. But, Yosef Meystel knows that there is a special ritual that marks the beginning of the relationship between a male Jew and God, it is the Brit Milah or circumcision.
The Brit Milah ritual is the one that defines whether or not a man belongs to the Jewish community. This ritual takes place eight days after the boy’s birth, and it symbolizes the agreement held between Abraham and God in the desert. Circumcision is a sign that the baby boy has entered the Jewish community and is a descendant of Abraham. It is a gesture that shows that the boy will faithfully serve God.
History of the Brit Milah
Ancient history indicates that Abraham and his Israelite descendants were not the only ones who used circumcision with their boys. Actually, there were different tribes in the Near East that used circumcision for adults to get rid of the disgrace of the foreskin.
It was only during the Roman Empire that circumcision was prohibited as it was considered a pagan ritual. This gesture led Jewish to redefine circumcision and understand it as an important religious ritual. At least 200 years b.C, mothers who had their sons circumcised were exiled and forced to parade around the city with their baby boys tied to their breasts.
There were a few Roman Emperors who kept the circumcision prohibition and decapitated any Jew that would perform it on its sons. Even the first Christians rejected circumcision. This constant rejection only reinforced the importance of the ritual for Jews, who were easily recognized for being circumcised.
During the middle ages, Jews living among Muslims didn’t encounter with the same animosity towards circumcision as those living among Christians. In fact, Islam recommends removal of the foreskin with no religious purposes.
Laws of circumcision were not a sacred topic for Jews until the 12th and 13th centuries when rabbis wrote a new chapter of the Jewish law under the name of “The Laws of Circumcision”. In this chapter was included, all relevant information regarding the practice and medieval customs were described for performing the ritual.
In the modern times, Rabbis were the ones responsible for answering questions regarding the practice of circumcision and the ritual evolved based on local and ethnic differences. Due to this, each region had its own preferred publication of The Laws of Circumcision.
Recently, Reform Jews have once again accepted the ritual, along with other religious practices. However, many differences are kept from the Orthodox rituals. One of these differences is the recognition of women as an important part of the process and the acceptance of performing the circumcision to a baby boy born from a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. This way, Reform Jews recognize circumcision as a part of Jewish identity that embraces a mixed society.
One of the oldest and major documents of early rabbinic Judaism, explains the proper form in which circumcision should be performed. During the first few centuries of the Christian era, many volumes of the Jewish law proposed ways to perform the operation, however, there was no chapter or book that was explicitly dedicated to the topic of circumcision. This led to many discussions until the practice was strictly defined by Jews.
The ceremony in which circumcision is performed is called the Brit Milah or the ceremony of “Milah”. During the ceremony a chair is set on one side, honoring the prophet Elijah. According to the Jewish legend, the Milah was stopped being performed in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and this made Elijah very angry. In order to please Elijah, God promised him that no Brit Milah would be celebrated without his presence.
Besides the chair set for Elijah, the Milah ritual must be performed by a trained and experienced Mohel, which most of the times is a doctor. Keeping some similarities with the Christian baptism, during the Brit Milah ceremony a Jewish name needs to be given to the baby boy. In case it is a baby girl, the name would be given in the synagogue.
The Brit Milah needs to be celebrated eight days after the baby boy is born. Also, a set of blessings are said at the beginning of the process and the father of the child needs to stand next to the Mohel and picks up the surgical knife to hand it to him. The Milah is always performed with an extremely sharp knife with two edges in order to avoid the baby from feeling pain.
The ritual ends with the community praying for the father’s duties throughout the boy’s life, such as educating, marrying him off and raise him according to the Jewish laws.
* Featured Image courtesy of Alper Tecer at Flickr.com