Few things are as joyous as the birth of a child. As with most other aspects of Jewish life, this special occasion has its own set of mitzvot to be observed.
The brit milah (bris) or ceremony of circumcision, is perhaps the oldest of all mitzvot and welcomes a son as part of the Jewish people. Abraham received the commandment in Genesis 17:10-12: “This is my covenant that you and your descendants after you are to observe: let every male among you be circumcised. When the flesh of your foreskin has been circumcised, it shall be a sign of the covenant between us. And in all your generations let every 8-day-old boy among you be circumcised.”
As Rabbi Elisar Admon explained, “The ceremony welcomes the baby into the covenant with Abraham. It’s a very emotional time for the family and the community. It’s the first step for the baby into the Jewish world.”
Admon is a Pittsburgh-based mohel who works with Jewish families regardless of denomination. A mohel has been trained to perform a brit milah and is conversant with the requirements of circumcision and Jewish law or halakhah.
The ritual carries a certain amount of anxiety for families. Admon feels it’s important to explain what happens during the bris. “I discuss the ceremony, we discuss the process. I show them all the tools we use. People feel more comfortable after we have the discussion.”
The responsibility of performing the circumcision belongs to the father. Since this is a skill that requires a large amount of training, Admon continued, “the father appoints me as a messenger.” He said he often jokes with the father, saying, “It’s your obligation, your mitzvah, maybe you want to do it? And they say, ‘No, no, no …’”
Why is a father allowed to have someone fulfill this mitzvah for him?
According to Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poale Zedeck, “there are various aspects of Jewish life where we require a professional. Everyone is required to write a Torah over a lifetime, but most people don’t have the technical skills.” When needed, “we can appoint someone to do what we don’t have the skills to do.”
While the bris is often held in the home of the newborn baby, this is not always the case.
“Generally, in our community the custom is to have a bris at the end of the morning service on the eighth day,” said Yolkut, who noted that at Poale Zedeck “people schedule the bris with a festive meal following.”
That meal is called a seudat mitzvah, which is a festive meal required by Jewish law after the fulfillment of certain mitzvot.
Although the ritual is still observed by most traditional families, Rabbi Jeffrey Weisblatt of Temple Ohav Shalom pointed out that “circumcision and brit milah has changed in liberal Judaism, or at least in the Reform movement. It’s now fairly common that a family will have their son circumcised in the hospital and ask a rabbi to do a ceremony afterward, akin to what we would think of as a baby naming for a girl.”
The idea of covenantal language and newborns shouldn’t be limited to boys, explained Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David. “When we say bris or brit, we want to use covenantal language for both males and females. Brit means covenant and I think it’s important because otherwise it creates a hierarchy and that’s problematic. I think just starting with the language is important. The milah is the male part.”
She illustrated this by explaining that when their eldest daughter was born, she and her husband said to friends and family, “‘On the eighth day we’re having a brit’ and they said ‘mazel tov, you had a boy!’ We replied, ‘No we had a girl.’ We thought if people were going to take off work for a boy on the eighth day, they could do it for a girl as well.”
Another important ceremony for a newborn is giving the baby their Hebrew name. With boys this is done during the bris, but for families that choose to have their babies circumcised in the hospital or for girls, the baby naming ceremony can be done “30, 40, 60, 90 days out,” according to Weisblatt.
How do people select a Hebrew name?
Weisblatt said families often ask him what will work. “I ask them: ‘Who has been beloved to you? What traits do you love about that person?’ Then I give them five or 10 choices. Most times it’s biblical. People want to pick biblical names. It’s tradition.”
Symons believes this is an opportunity to connect the newborn to both family and tradition. As an example, she said, sometimes “the baby girl is wrapped in a tallit that was Grandpa’s or her tiny little hand is brought to the Torah and then touches her lips. The little hand can touch a family Bible or siddur. It’s very powerful to think about what ritual moment is important to this family.”
As a keepsake, Symons gives the baby a stuffed Torah. “I always say, ‘The nice thing about this one is that if it touches the floor, no one has to fast for 40 days.’” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@