The mitzvah of Brit Milah, the circumcision of every Jewish baby boy, is one of the cornerstones of our faith. The commandment was first given to Abraham in chapter 17 of Genesis, where he was told, “every male among you shall be circumcised…and it shall be a sign of a covenant”.
Essentially, the Brit Milah is an outward physical sign of the everlasting connection between G-d and the Jewish people. Of course, this begs the question of why G-d did not simply create man already circumcised. The answer encapsulates a lesson that might serve us all well for life – circumcision teaches us that just as a human being has the power to perfect the physical aspects of his body, so too is it within human ability to perfect the soul through spiritual correction.
Although Abraham was 99 years old when he fulfilled G-d’s commandment, his son Isaac was the first baby to have a Brit Milah at the age of eight days. Nowadays, circumcision is always performed on the eighth day of a child’s life. One reason for this is that Shabbat, the seventh day of creation, represents the unity of G-d with His universe. The eighth day goes beyond nature and represents a metaphysical connection with G-d. Nevertheless, if a baby is too weak or jaundiced to be subjected to the procedure at eight days old, it is delayed and the mitzvah is performed as soon as the mohel (ritual circumciser) has given the okay. A postponed Brit never takes place on a Shabbat or Yom Tov.
Should a child reach adulthood without being circumcised, the obligation to get it done now falls squarely on his shoulders. Until then, the mitzvah is binding on his father. Ideally a father should actually perform the circumcision on his own son – although fortunately he is allowed to delegate the mitzvah if he is not up to the job. It is also important to note that a purely medical, as opposed to ritual, circumcision will not do the job. The term Brit Milah carries the precise meaning of “covenantal circumcision”, meaning that it must be performed with the specific intention of forging a blood pact between G-d and the Jewish people.
In recent years, circumcision has become something of a controversial issue in society. From a scientific point of view, there are many arguments in its favour – the risk of complication is extremely low and it is associated with a lower incidence of certain kinds of cancer. But for the Jewish community, the debate should be an irrelevant one. The mitzvah of Brit Milah is Torah-given; and a sign of the perpetuation of the Jewish people for all time.
The Brit Milah is often held in the presence of a minyan (quorum of 10 Jewish men over the age of 13) but in cases where this is difficult, it is not strictly necessary. The service itself can take place in a synagogue or in a private home.
When the day of the Brit dawns, the ceremony should be scheduled to take place as early as possible, usually straight after morning services, to indicate the parents’ eagerness to perform the mitzvah. However, if holding the ceremony in the afternoon will accord it with greater honour – for example if the Rabbi or grandparents can’t make it until then – it can be postponed until later in the day, before sunset.
Once everything is prepared, the service begins with the baby’s mother passing the little one to the kvaterin (G-d mother). Often, the baby is carried along on top of a special satin, or embroidered white pillow. The kvaterin then passes the baby to her husband, the kvater (G-d father), who carries him into the room where the Brit is to take place. Here, two chairs will have been set out in preparation. The first one is for the sandek, who holds the baby on his knees during the circumcision. This is considered to be the highest honour accorded at the ceremony. Consequently, the job is usually reserved the new grandfather or an important Rabbi.
The second chair is known as the kisei shel Eliyahu (Elijah’s chair). According to tradition, the prophet Elijah comes to every circumcision to testify to the commitment of the Jewish people to this great mitzvah.
After the mohel has made the bracha (blessing) and performed the Brit and the father has responded with the bracha appertaining to him, two more blessings are recited over a cup of wine and the baby is given his Hebrew name.
Finally, a seudat mitzvah is served. The usual custom at such festive meals is to serve meat, but given that roast chicken doesn’t go down too well as a breakfast dish, fish and other dairy delicacies can be served instead.
For the full service, see pages 779 – 784 in the Singers Siddur (Prayer Book) or pages 208 – 215 in the Artscroll Siddur.
For the contact details of approved mohelim approved to perform Brit Milah please go to the Initiation Society’s website by clicking on the following link – http://www.initiationsociety.net/
In Bushey, most families hold a Brit Milah at home but they can be held in the synagogue. For more information please contact our Rabbi.
Pidyon Haben means ‘redemption of the first born male child’. In the times of the temple, the first son was given to work in the temple. The families were able to redeem their son from this obligation by ‘buying’ him back from the cohanim for 5 silver pieces. As we no longer have the temple, the ceremony is now custom and will only take place if the son is the first born and born naturally (not by C-section). Thus, this ceremony is not common.
The Pidyon Haben Ceremony takes place on the thirty-first day of a child’s life, in front of a minyan of ten men. Even in cases where the Brit Milah has had to be postponed for some reason, the Pidyon will still go ahead.
As with all good Jewish lifecycle events, a slap-up meal is incorporated into the event, which even has its own specific associated foods. Cloves of garlic and cubes of sugar are placed around the table or wrapped up and given to the guests to take home, bonbonniere style. The kabbalistic reason behind this little ritual is that garlic and sugar are both foods with strong tastes. Hopefully, they will subsequently be cooked and used to flavour large quantities of food, thus extending the merit of the mitzvah to as many people as possible.
After the assembled guests have washed, been seated and eaten some bread, the baby is carried in to a Cohen on an ornate silver tray. In order to adorn him as finely as possible for his Pidyon Haben, women guests may also be invited to remove some of their jewellery and arrange it around the baby. Then, the baby is redeemed by his parents, as they hand the Cohen five special silver coins. Finally, the Cohen blesses the child and hands him back to mum and dad.
For the full service, see pages 789 – 792 in the Singers Prayer Book or pages 218 – 221 in the Artscroll Siddur.
In Bushey, most families hold a Pidyon Haben at home but they can be held in the synagogue. For more information please contact our Rabbi.
It’s a girl! When do you name her? When should you throw the party? After eight days, two weeks, a month?
As opposed to a Brit (circumcision) for a boy on the eighth day, there are no explicit rituals for a girl. Instead, there are customs for a Simchat Bat, celebration of a birth of a daughter.
The Aramaic words for Simchat Bat are Zeved Bat, which means gift — G-d gave me a good present. Rabbi Moses Maimonides (Rambam), a 12th century philosopher, explains the words to mean that this is a good material or better yet this is a good branch — that the daughter is the mother from which many other branches stem.
Naming a Baby
Most Ashkenazi Jews name a baby girl the first Sabbath after she is born, but it’s acceptable to name her at any Torah reading (the Torah is read Monday and Thursday mornings as well as holidays and the Sabbath). The father is called up to the Torah (Aliyah) and the child is given her name. A special prayer is also said at this time for the well-being of the mother and daughter. The prayer starts off with mentioning the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If the mother is present she says a Thanksgiving Prayer, or her husband can say it on her behalf. In general, the Thanksgiving Prayer is said when one has survived a life threatening situation and delivering a baby falls into this category.
Many Sephardi Jews also name the baby at the Torah reading and in addition read a verse from Song of Songs, chapter 2, verse 14, “At the sea He said to me, ‘O My dove, trapped at the sea as if in the clefts of the rock, the concealment of the terrace. Show Me your prayerful gaze: let Me hear your supplicating voice, for your voice is sweet and your countenance comely.’” If the girl is the first born, an additional verse from Song of Songs is said, chapter 6, verse 9, “Unique is she, My constant dove, My perfect one, Unique is she, this nation striving for the truth; pure is she to Jacob who begot her. Nations saw her and acclaimed her; queens and concubines, and they praised her.” In contrast to the Ashkenazi blessing which begins with the patriarchs, the one by the Sephardim begins with the matriarchs: Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
In some Sephardi communities, the girl is only named at home. They believe that the mother and baby shouldn’t leave the house for a month and therefore the naming is done at home so both mother and daughter can be present for it. There are also various customs performed to ward off the evil eye.
Modern Day Simchat Bat
The birth of a child is a momentous occasion that we all want to share with everyone around us. That is why families, in modern day times, have created a more formal service of bringing their daughters into the world — into the covenant with G-d — the same as what we do for our sons. Since there is no specific format to go by, people have created their own traditions as to when to have a “party” for the baby — celebrate the Simchat Bat — and what rituals, if any, are performed at the festivity.
Some have a light meal after synagogue the Sabbath in which the father has named the baby, while others invite family and friends to their home or to a hall on a different day to share in their joy (Simcha). Others opt to make it into more of a traditional ceremony citing various prayers (such as from the Book of Psalms), saying a special blessing over wine and having a festive meal.
Whichever form of celebration is followed, Jewish families are increasingly finding formal ways of expressing joy on the birth of a girl as well as the birth of a boy.
If you are interested in holding a Simchat Bat please contact our Rabbi.