Jewish Circumcision

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Abraham and his son Ishmael being circumcised

Circumcision is the surgical removal of the double layer of skin and mucosal tissue covering the end of the penis, which is referred to as the foreskin or prepuce. The foreskin protects the penis and has a sensory and sexual role.Circumcision is the oldest continuously performed Jewish rite. It is viewed as a Biblical symbol of the covenant between God and the children of Israel. According to Abraham's covenant all male boys are circumcised at the age of eight days. The book of Genesis in the Torah (first books of the Old Testament) says that God issues a command to Abraham that every male child shall be circumcised. The practice is known as brit milah (Covenant of Circumcision) and is carried out according to instructions in the book of Leviticus.

According to the BBC: “Circumcision is an initiation rite for Jewish newborn babies. This usually takes place in a ceremony called a Brit (or Bris) milah witnessed by family and community members. Milah is Hebrew for Covenant of Circumcision. The ritual is an ancient practice that has been carried out by Jewish parents for more than 3,000 years. Such is the importance of Brit milah that circumcision can take place on the Sabbath or a holy day even though the drawing of blood is not normally allowed on these days under Jewish law. [Source: BBC |::|]

According to the Financial Times: “Israel has probably the world’s most extensive experience of 100,000 adult male circumcisions since the arrival of previously uncircumcised Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia in the 1980s.”

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Jewish Museum London ; Jewish History: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; ; Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish

Reasons for Jewish Circumcision

“According to the Torah (Genesis 17: 9-14), Abraham was commanded by God to circumcise himself, all male members of his household, his descendants and slaves in an everlasting covenant. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants 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 that 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. |::|

“Under Jewish law, failure to follow the commandment given to Abraham incurs the penalty of karet (being cut off from the rest of the community of God). The Torah (Genesis 16:14) also says: "Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreksin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." |::|

“Supporters of circumcision argue that there is no real alternative. Circumcision is a religious and cultural act that is fundamental to their religion. They believe that circumcision is divinely mandated. The reality is that few Jews are willing to break what they believe to be a covenant with God. There are many reasons why most members of the Jewish community continue to support circumcision. Here are some of them: 1) It is an important physical statement about man's covenant with God; 2) A covenant of the flesh is akin to a covenant of the heart - the foreskin is like an unneeded part of fruit. Rather like the stem of an apple, it is important at one stage but ultimately it is not part of that fruit; 3) It recognises that God has ownership of the body and it is God who gave the command to circumcise; 4) It is a profound statement of dedication towards one's ancestors; 5) It is an historic act that binds circumcised males to their ancestors and peers; 6) It is a cultural and physical sign that is symbolic; 7) It gives a sense of belonging.” |::|

Famous 11th century rabbi and scholar Moses Maimonides wrote in the “Guide to the Perplexed”, about the rationale for circumcision and its merits: As regards circumcision . . . [s]ome people believe that circumcision is to remove a defect in man's formation; but every one can easily reply: How can products of nature be deficient so as to require external completion, especially as the use of the foreskin to that organ is evident. This commandment has not been enjoined as a complement to a deficient physical creation, but as a means for perfecting man's moral shortcomings. The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired; it does not interrupt any vital function, nor does it destroy the power of generation. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment; the organ necessarily becomes weak when it loses blood and is deprived of its covering from the beginning.

Abraham Nearly Sacrifices His Son

Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravvaggio

Circumcision for Jews is derived by the episode in the Bible about Abraham and His Covenant with God and the near sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac. In Beersheba, Abraham had a vision in which God told him to take Isaac “to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on the mountains," meaning Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, the precious heir to God's promise. Abraham obeyed the first part of the order and took his son to Mount Moriah (later the site of Solomon's Temple and the present-day Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem.

On Mount Moriah, Abraham erected an altar. He tied up Isaac and placed him on a pile of wood. Just as Abraham raised his knife to kill his son, according to Genesis 22:4, God sent an angel to tell Abraham: “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad and do nothing to him. Now I know thou fearest God...Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore." Instead of Isaac a ram was grabbed from a nearby thicket and offered to God as a sacrifice.

Christians tend to see the idea of a sacrificial son as a hint of what will happen later with Jesus; Jews tend to view the event as a parable of the suffering of the chosen people. The story of Abraham and his son also shows that human sacrifice was a real possibility in Biblical times. Jewish scholar Isaac Elchanan of New York's Yeshia University told Time, "Why did God test Abraham? So the world would know that if anyone tells you, "I am committing murder in the name of God, he's a liar."

Can You Become Jewish Without Getting Circumcised?

Can you become Jewish without getting circumcised? This question has been debated by Jews since the time of David, around 1100 B.C., with story of Ruth, and by Christians, since the time of Paul in the A.D. 1st century. Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: There was trouble in first-century Galatia. During his missionary journeys, the Apostle Paul had taught non-Jews in the area that in order to become a follower of Jesus, the Jewish messiah, they need only be baptized and they would be saved by faith. Circumcision, he argued, was not necessary for salvation. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 28, 2019]

His arguments elicited strong reactions from other Jewish followers of Jesus and from the new converts themselves and led Paul to write the sharpest of his letters, the biblical letter to the Galatians. For most of history we have assumed that Paul’s position was a radical and completely innovative suggestion, but now a new book suggests that Paul wasn’t the only Jew to open up Judaism to uncircumcised people.

It’s easy to see why Paul’s converts in Galatia thought that circumcision was important. After all, according to the Bible, circumcision is the sign of the covenant that Abraham forged with God. It’s an identity marker. If men wish to enter into this covenant then, surely, they have to sacrifice a piece of themselves too? It’s the reason that Jewish infants continue to be circumcised today and it’s a principle for which, according to the books of the Maccabees, Jews have been willing to sacrifice their lives.

What About Women and Others Who Don’t Have a Foreskin

Jewish family circumcision scene

The issue of uncircumcised predates Paul, especially when it comes to women and other people that may not have a foreskin. Are they semi-Jews like Ruth , the legendary grandmother of King David, or are they non-Jews. Can women really be converts when God told Abraham that is was necessary to circumcised to fulfill the covenant with God? [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 28, 2019]

Jill Hicks-Keeton, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, told The Daily Beast, “Women in antiquity were incorporated into the kinship group of their husbands, a move that included venerating that group's god or gods. Jewish circumcision was (as now) only available to male bodies and so was not available as a mechanism of incorporation available to women. Women, such as the biblical character of Ruth, were added or not depending on their usefulness for male Israelite identity. Women’s inclusion was not fully theorized until the rabbis developed the criterion of matrilineal descent for Jewishness.”

Candida Moss wrote: In the recently released Arguing with Aseneth: Gentile Access to Israel’s Living God in Jewish Antiquity, Hicks-Keeton argues that Judaism wasn’t the restrictive tradition that people sometimes assume it is. Her book discusses the story of Joseph and Aseneth, a turn-of-the-era Jewish romance novel that reimagines the story of the wife of the patriarch Joseph (he of technicolored dreamcoat fame). In Genesis 41, Asenath is a minor character: the daughter of an Egyptian priest Potiphera, she becomes Joseph’s wife and bears him two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. And this is pretty much all the Bible tells us about her. She doesn’t speak, she doesn’t act, she just bears sons. Written centuries after the book of Genesis, the anonymous Joseph and Aseneth fleshes out the details and, in the process, uses her story to work out how to incorporate foreign non-Jewish women into the covenant the Jews made with God.

In the story, Aseneth (now a beautiful virginal main character with an ‘e’ in her name) marries Joseph and abandons the Egyptian gods of her ancestors. Joseph initially rejects her because of her polytheism, but it all works out in the end: she locks herself in a tower, becomes a monotheistic devotee of Joseph’s God, and is visited by an angel who accepts her repentance and conversion. The way the story presents Aseneth is different from the way foreign women were presented in the Bible and offers a model for how gentiles might be fully accepted into the community. As Hicks-Keeton told me: “Joseph and Aseneth re-imagines a female character from Genesis as a mythic model and mediator of God’s covenant to future penitents. The tale writes into Israel's sacred story … a precedent for inclusion of non-Jews in the people of God by using a woman, whose body is ineligible for circumcision, to imagine a way in for gentiles as gentiles.”

This doesn’t mean that everyone in the Hellenistic period agreed with the author of Joseph and Aseneth. Hicks Keeton told me that while people did not argue with the book directly there were others, like the author of the book of Jubilees, who took a hard line on the inclusion of outsiders. And, of course, Paul encountered his own share of strong opposition.

Jewish Circumcision Ceremony

In a ritual known as bris , the boy is snipped by a mohel (circumcisor) and given a Hebrew name. A prayer is said for the child to "commit himself to the Torah, to marriage, and to good deeds." Tools used in the ceremony include a beaker, bowl, clamp, knife and a funnel which is used to give the baby a sip of wine after the ceremony.

According to the BBC: “There are no special rules about where the ritual should take place. Most often it is held at the family's home but some people prefer it to be done in a synagogue. The ritual is performed by a mohel (circumciser), usually an observant Jew, on the eighth day after birth unless there are medical reasons to prevent it happening. The mohel is required to have studied the religious laws and have the surgical skills essential to the operation. In the UK, the Initiation Society of Great Britain and the London Beth Din (Jewish Ecclesiastical Court) oversee the training and examination of student mohels. [Source: BBC |::|]

“The Bris is an important family celebration for Jewish people. It is required that the father and mohel must be present but it's usual for other family members to participate too. Traditionally, an empty chair is set aside in the room for the prophet Elijah, who oversees the proceedings and ensures the continuation of the ritual. |::|

“The child may be brought into the room where the circumcision is to take place by the mother and other female family members. During the circumcision, the child is held on the lap of a person who has been chosen to act as sandek. The grandfather of the child or the family rabbi often takes this role and it is considered an honour to do this. Blessings are recited and a drop or two of wine is place in the child's mouth. He is given his official Hebrew name. Afterwards the family celebrates with a festive meal.” |::|

Jewish Circumcision in 1645

Reporting from Rome in January 1645, John Evelyn wrote: "I went to the Ghetto where the Jews dwell...Being lead through the Synagogue into a private house, I found a world of people in a Chamber: by and by came an old man who prepar'd and layd in order silver Instruments brought by a little child of about 7 years old in a box. These the man layd in a silver basin: The knife was much like a short Razor to shut into the haft."

"They burnt some Insense in a Censor, which perfum'd the room all the while the ceremony was doing: In the basin was a little cap made of white paper like a Capuchin's-hood not bigger than my finger, also a paper of red astringent powder, I suppose of bole: a small Instrument of silver cleft in the midst, at one end to take up the prepuce."

"This all in order the Women from out of another Chamber brought the infant swaddled and deliver'd it to the Rabbi, who carried, and presented it before an Altar of Cuppord dress'd up, on which lay 5 books of Moses, and the Commandments a little unrowled. Before this with profound reverence...all the company fell to the singing of a Hebrew hymn, and in a barbarous tone, waving themselves to and fro."

"The Infant now striped from the belly downwards, the Jew took the yard of the child and Cahaf'd it with his finger till it became a little stiff, then with silver instrument before described...he tooke up as much of the Preputium as he could possible gather, and so with the razor, did rather Saw, than cut it off: at which the miserable babe cry'd extremely, while the rest coninu'd their odd tone, rather like howling than singing."

Portuguese Jewish circumcision ceremony in 1741

"The Rabbi lifting the belly of the child to his face, and taking the yard all bloody into his mouth he suck'd it a pretty while, having before taken a little Vinegar, all which together with the blood he spit out in the glass of red wine, the French wine. This done he stripp'd down the remainder of the fore-skin as far and near to the belly as he could, so as it appeared to be all raw, then he strew'd the red powder on it to stanch the bleeding and covered up the paperhood...Then two of the Women, and two men...and the Rabbi, who Circumcised it...drank some of the Wine mingl's with Vinegar, blood and spittle; so ended the lovely ceremony."

Jewish Opposition to Circumcision

According to the BBC: “Although circumcision is widespread in the Jewish community, not all Jews accept the cutting or removal of a baby's foreskin as an absolute requirement. Some groups are now questioning the tradition, arguing that it is not essential to be circumcised to be a Jew. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Opponents claim that the religious arguments are not clear. While circumcision may be an outward sign of one's commitment to the Jewish religion and culture, they stress that a child's Jewish identity is inherited through his mother. Critics also point to the Torah's prohibition on marking or altering the human body as another reason why circumcision should be questioned. (Lev: 19:28). The Torah states: "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord." |::|

“They argue that this passage contradicts the requirement for circumcision because it involves the cutting and marking of the genitals. This, they claim, is not consistent with Jewish law and values. Opponents also insist that the Torah does not allow another person to be harmed. (Exodus 21: 18-27). In this context, growing awareness of infant pain has brought the ethics of circumcision into question. |::|

“Ronald Goldman, a Boston psychologist and author of Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective, argues that "Judaism values ethics above doctrine and reason." He claims that a high percentage of Jews circumcise their sons for social rather than religious reasons. He points out that both Moses and Theodor Herzl, the leader of the movement to establish a Jewish state, did not circumcise their sons. He also says that circumcision was totally neglected during the 40 year period in the Wilderness. (Joshua 5:5) |::|

“In an article in the Jewish Spectator (1997), he wrote: "Because most Jews are non-traditional and are not aware of the religious meaning of circumcision, most Jewish circumcisions are done for cultural not religious reasons. These cultural reasons often tend to be related to beliefs, attitudes, and feelings about Jewish survival and identity." He adds: "Many Jews believe that males must be circumcised to be Jewish. This is not true. As stated in the Encyclopedia Judaica: 'Any child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether circumcised or not.'" |::|

“Jews who decide against circumcision but still want a ritual sometimes opt for a naming ceremony. The alternative circumcision-free ritual is known as bris shalom. The ceremony allows Jewish parents who object to circumcision the chance to take part in a ritual that can also be used for welcoming newborn baby girls into the community. |::|

Jewish circumcision

Jewish Baby Rites

According to the BBC: “Like some other religions, Jewish baby rites differ for male and female babies. Any child born to a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. A Jewish girl does not have to go through the same initiation ceremony as a baby boy. The Brit Milah (circumcision ceremony) is an important initiation rite for young Jewish boys. [Source: BBC, July 24, 2009 |::|]

“Circumcision is a religious obligation on Jews recalling the covenant that God made with Abraham. Ordinarily circumcision ceremonies take place when the child is eight days old but it can be delayed for medical reasons. The Brit Milah is usually attended by men. The child is placed on the lap of a male friend or relative who has the honour of being the Sandek. He has the responsibility of holding the child still whilst the circumcision is performed by a Mohel. |::|

“Naming the baby: Baby boys are also given their names at their circumcisions; it is customary to keep the name a secret before the ceremony. It is traditional for the child to receive his or her name at the first public gathering, so if the child is a girl, then she will be named at the first public reading of the Torah at the Synagogue. There are other Jewish traditions but these are more to do with superstition than having any real religious significance; for example pregnant women must not visit cemeteries.” |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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