Bris / Circumcision

Biblical Background on the Bris

A bris is the ceremony of circumcision for Jewish boys performed when they are eight days old. Bris is the Yiddish term and remains in very common use; in Hebrew the ceremony is known as Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision. The origin is found in Genesis 17:9-14:

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Circumcision was therefore a “sign of the covenant” that God had previously made with Abraham. That covenant promised that from Abraham God would create a great nation, bring about great blessing for the entire world, and lead Abraham’s descendants into a land of their own (see Genesis 12:1-3 and Genesis 15:7-21). This covenant was reconfirmed through Abraham’s son, Isaac and Isaac’s son, Jacob. It is therefore the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the Jewish people—to whom this covenant applies.

The command to circumcise on the eighth day is repeated in Leviticus 12:3 as part of the Torah: “And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”

Significance of Bris and Simchat Bat for Jewish People

Circumcision represents the entryway into the covenant for Jewish boys. In recent times, a parallel ceremony for girls (without any physical aspect) has developed, known as simchat bat, “celebration of a daughter.”

Non-Jews who convert to Judaism under the auspices of a rabbi have traditionally been required to be circumcised (for male converts), as well as to undergo a mikveh or ritual immersion in water. However, Reform and other liberal Jewish movements often do not require either one of a convert.

In the Hellenistic era, approximately the second century B.C., many Jews assimilated to a non-Jewish way of life. Non-Jews frequently had a disdainful attitude towards the practice of circumcision and so Jews who wanted to participate more fully in Greek life—which included athletic games conducted in the nude—often undid their circumcision. Antiochus Epiphanes, the villainous king of the Hanukkah story, actually forbade circumcision, and those who continued to practice it suffered accordingly. But for Jews who did not assimilate and cared about living Jewishly, circumcision was a non-negotiable.

In more modern times, 19th century Reform Judaism attempted to do away with circumcision, but that extreme position was never fully embraced even in Reform circles. Today, a small minority of Jews oppose circumcision on humane or medical grounds, as do some non-Jews, while others argue for the benefits of the procedure.

Traditional Customs and Folklore for the Bris and Simchat Bat

In accordance with Genesis 17:12, the bris takes place on the eighth day after birth, but can be postponed if it is contraindicated by any medical problems. It can take place in the synagogue or at home. Often the procedure is done in the hospital and the ceremony conducted separately.

In modern ceremonies, the baby is typically brought into the room and handed to the sandek, who holds the child during the ceremony. The sandek traditionally is a grandparent or another honored male, and is often translated as “godfather.” But today a woman can also function in the role of sandek. The unusual word sandek may derive from the Greek suntekos, “with-child,” that is, the companion of the child.

Nearby is the “chair of Elijah,” because Malachi 3:1 refers to the “messenger of the covenant,” understood in Judaism to be Elijah. And of course, the bris is all about entering the covenant. According to another tradition, the chair reminds us that Elijah exclaimed to God, “The people of Israel have forsaken your covenant” (1 Kings 19:10, repeated in verse 14). This tradition tells us that Elijah was referring specifically to the failure of the people to have their sons circumcised, leading to God’s response: “Because of excessive zeal for Me you have brought charges against Israel that they have forsaken My covenant; therefore you shall have to be present at every circumcision ceremony.”1 The chair of Elijah is therefore left unoccupied; and it can be anticipated that Elijah will be quite busy visiting each and every bris!

The mohel is the one who performs the circumcision, though if it has already been done in the hospital, a mohel may not be present. Various blessings are recited, such as, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to make our sons enter the covenant of Abraham our father.” The response is then, “As this child has entered into the covenant, so may he enter into Torah, the wedding canopy, and good deeds.”

The bris is also the occasion when the child is officially given his Hebrew name, as is the case also at a simchat bat. Both are joyous ceremonies, and a festive meal often follows.

The Bris in the New Testament

Jesus’ life followed that of other first-century Jews. His bris is recorded in the gospel of Luke 2:21:

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Yeshua, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Here we see both the circumcision and the naming taking place.

Earlier, the same occurs with Jesus’ cousin John, traditionally known as “John the Baptist.” Though John is not often found as a Jewish name in the English language, its Hebrew equivalent Yochanan has been much more common. In John’s story given below, we overhear a discussion on naming the child; note the implication that the baby should be named after a living relative. That practice is found among modern Sephardic Jews, while Ashkenazi tradition calls for naming after a deceased family member. Here, however, an angel has previously instructed the father, Zechariah, to name him John. The writing tablet mentioned below is because Zechariah had temporarily lost the power of speech, read the full story in Luke.

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her [by her bearing a son], and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. (Luke 1:57-63)

In John’s gospel, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath and argues for the propriety of that act by referring to circumcision (see John chapters 5:9-10 and 7:22-23). Judaism universally recognized (and still does) that a life may be saved even if that means otherwise violating the Sabbath; the opinion was not always the same concerning healing. That is why in Luke 13:14, the synagogue “ruler”—was he like today’s synagogue president? or more like the gabbai (sexton)?—seeing that Jesus healed inside the sanctuary on Shabbat, tells the congregants: “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”

In John’s gospel, Jesus  uses an argument known in Judaism as qal vahomer, arguing from the lesser to the greater. If circumcision can take place even on the Sabbath (still the case today) and creates a wound, then surely it is permitted to heal a person on that day! Or perhaps, if we can deal with a small part of the body, surely we can deal with a larger part, or the entire body, on the Sabbath!

The Apostle Paul, whose writings occupy a large portion of the New Testament, has often been accused of denigrating the Torah and circumcision. Paul’s comments about circumcision are mostly directed to non-Jews, among whom he spent most of his time. Before the time of Jesus, non-Jews who wanted to worship the God of Israel in the fullest way possible would become proselytes or converts; they would become Jews, submitting to circumcision and undertaking to fully observe the Torah.

The New Testament recounts that there was debate over whether gentile followers of Jesus needed to become Jews. A council of early Jewish leaders in the Jesus-movement concluded that they did not need to convert to Judaism; God now accepted Jews and non-Jews on an equal footing. In keeping with this, Paul advised gentile followers of Jesus to not be circumcised. Because of Yeshua, God now accepted them as members of His people without the necessity of converting to Judaism.

When it came to Jews, though, Paul spoke highly of the significance of circumcision. With pride, Paul describes his own upbringing: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee…” (Philippians 3:5). He affirms the value of being part of the Jewish people: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way” (Romans 3:1-2). At one point, Paul’s coworker Timothy is introduced as from a mixed marriage: a Jewish mother, a gentile father. Matrilineal descent—counting Jewishness through the mother—is traditionally recognized in Judaism and may have been in place in Paul’s day. Yet Timothy had not been circumcised, and Paul has him undergo that to solidify his Jewish “credentials.” In a Jewish context, Paul was affirmative regarding circumcision.

Yet Paul reminds his readers that circumcision as a sign of the covenant should reflect an inward reality, not just be something that someone “goes through.” He writes: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29). In this he reflects the Torah itself, which offers verses such as: “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).  Similarly, with the Simchat Bat or rejoicing over a daughter, let us remember the Lord rejoices over us: “…he will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). This should cause us to rejoice in his faithful love (Philippians 4:4).

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End Note

1. Chair of Elijah, citing Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 29 and Zohar, Gen. 93a.