THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF THE JEWISH RELIGION
EDITORS IN CHIEF
R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, Geoffrey Wigoder
NEW YORK & OXFORD
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS 1997
CIRCUMCISION (Heb. milah), removal of the foreskin in an operation performed on all male Jewish children on the eighth day after birth and also upon male converts to Judaism. Circumcision was enjoined by God upon Abraham and his descendants (Gn. 17.10-12) and has always been regarded as the supreme obligatory sign of loyalty and adherence to Judaism. As the sign of the *covenant (berit) “sealed in the flesh,” circumcision came to be known as berit milah or the “covenant of our father Abraham.”
The presence of the foreskin was regarded as a blemish, and perfection was to be attained by its removal (cf. Ned. 31b). The generation born in the wilderness, however, was not circumcised, an omission repaired by Joshua (Jos. 5.2-9). Many Hellenistic Jews, particularly those who participated in athletics at the gymnasium, had an operation performed to conceal the fact of their circumcision (I Me. 1.15). Similar action was taken during the Hadrianic persecution, in which period a prohibition against circumcision was issued. It was probably in order to prevent the possibility of obliterating the traces of circumcision that the rabbis added to the requirement of cutting the foreskin that of peri’ah (laying bare the glans).
To this was added a third requirement, metsitsah (sucking of the blood). This was originally done by the mohel (circumciser) applying his lips to the penis and drawing off the blood by sucking. For hygienic reasons, a glass tube with a wad of cotton wool inserted in the middle is now generally employed, or the blood is simply drawn off by the use of some absorbent material.
Unless medical reasons interpose, the circumcision must take place on the eighth day after birth, even if that day falls on a Sabbath or Yom Kippur. If circumcision has been postponed for medical reasons, the ceremony may not take place on a Sabbath or major festival.
The only exception permitted to the otherwise universal requirement of circumcision is if two previous children of the family have died as a result of the operation: that is, in cases of hereditary hemophilia. The duty of circumcising the child is the responsibility of the father. In his absence or in case of his failure to do so, the religious authorities are bound to see that it is performed.
The occasion of a circumcision is regarded as a festive event for the whole community and takes place, where possible, in the presence of a minyan. If one of the participants (the father, godfather, or mohel) is in synagogue on that day, all penitential and supplicatory prayers are omitted. A sentence in the prayer of Elijah (I Kgs, 19.10), “for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant,” was understood by the rabbis to mean that the Israelites had abandoned the rite of circumcision, which is always referred to (on the basis of Gn. 17.9) as the berit (covenant). Elijah is regarded as the patron of circumcision, and it is said that his spirit is present at all circumcisions. This is the origin of the chair of Elijah (see ELIJAH. CHAIR OF), now an integral part of the ceremony. In eastern communities, and in Hasidic groups, where the ceremony takes place in the synagogue, such a chair is a permanent feature of synagogue appurtenances.
Among Ashkenazim, it is customary to appoint a couple as kvatter (godparents). The godmother carries the child from his mother’s room to the room in which the ceremony will take place and gives him to the child’s father, who, in turn, hands him to the mohel.
The mohel places the child upon the chair of Elijah and proclaims, “this is the chair of Elijah, may he be remembered for good.” He then lifts up the child, places him upon a cushion in the lap of the godfather (*sandaq), and, in this position, after the mohel recites the appropriate blessings, the operation is performed.
The father also recites a blessing to God “who has sanctified us by his commandments and commanded us to enter our sons into the covenant of Abraham.” According to some authorities, the father also says the *She-Hebeyanu blessing. The mohel then recites a prayer dating from geonic times, in the course of which a name is bestowed on the child. The circumcision ceremony is normally followed by a Se’udat Mitsvah, a meal of religious character. Special hymns are sung, and blessings for the parents, the sandaq, the child, and the mohel, as well as for the advent of the Messiah and the righteous priest, are inserted in the Birkat ha-Mazon.
Nineteenth-century Reform Jews were opposed to circumcision, but now it is usually performed, although often by a doctor rather than a mohel.
Circumcision is enjoined upon male proselytes (and slaves) as an essential condition of their acceptance into the Jewish faith.
Circumcision was widespread in many ancient cultures. Some of these also practiced female circumcision, which was never allowed in Judaism.