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Rituals and Ceremonies of a Jewish Circumcision

A brit milah, or a Jewish covenant of circumcision, is normally scheduled for the eighth day after a boy is born, even if that day falls on Shabbat or some other holiday, which means that if a child is born on a Wednesday, the bris falls on the following Wednesday.

However, if the baby is born on a Wednesday night, then the bris would occur on the following Thursday morning because Jewish days begin at sundown and the bris is traditionally performed during the day. (Note that the Talmud states if the baby’s health is in question, then the bris must be postponed.)

A number of different reasons exist for waiting a week before this important ceremony in Judaism. Some rabbis teach that every baby must experience all seven days of creation before the bris. Others say the baby should first know the sweetness of the Shabbat. Still others point to medical research, which seems to indicate that this is the optimal time to perform the bris.

Other than a few standard ritual words and items, the ceremony of a brit milah allows for a lot of flexibility. Either way, the actual Jewish circumcision only lasts a few minutes. Typically, candles are lit; the child is brought into the room, often handed from one family member to another, and handed to the sandek, whose chair is usually designated as “Elijah’s chair.”

Tradition has it that the prophet Elijah will announce the next messiah, and Elijah is also seen as the “angel of the covenant” and protector of the child in Judaism.

After the mohel recites some blessings, he or she performs the circumcision, during which one or two drops of blood must be drawn. The foreskin is saved and normally buried after the ceremony. If a tree has been planted to honor the birth, the foreskin is buried beneath that tree.

The baby is then officially named and blessed. Traditionally the mohel recites, “Just as this child has been brought into the Covenant, so may he be brought to a life of Torah, to a marriage worthy of blessing, and to a life filled with good deeds,” and says a blessing over wine.

After this blessing, the parents drink, and some wine is given to the baby on a piece of cloth. Finally, the child is returned to his parent to rest, and it’s time for the seudat mitzvah, the ritual celebratory meal.

The whole ceremony (not including the meal) is often no more than ten minutes long. Although any additions should be kept brief to ensure the comfort of the baby, here are a few ideas that you may consider when planning a bris:

  • You might read a poem or other short piece before the circumcision.

  • Sephardic communities often use incense during the ceremony.

  • Some people like a rabbi to give a short teaching during the ceremony.

  • Ask each person present to offer a personal blessing for the baby. Even better, have people write their blessings down or ask them to record them on an audio or video recorder, perhaps during the meal.

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