What is a brit milah?
Dr./Mohelet Jennifer Novick was our honored guest speaker in the Gesher class on Tuesday, November 22. Jen led a fascinating discussion of both the ritual and procedure of Brit Milah, ritual circumcision, for our students as part of our Jewish Life Cycle study. Some of the content of our discussion follows. For more information, ask a Gesher student!
The session began with a discussion of “brit” or covenant. What is a covenant? The Brit Milah is an agreement between God and the Jewish people. In Genesis, chapter 17, G-d promises to be our G-d and to give us the Land of Israel. In exchange, Avraham promises, on behalf of all Jews, to let G-d be our G-d and to circumcise our sons as a sign of our agreement. The circumcision is a permanent marking of the body that cannot be undone. In fact, the mitzvah to circumcise one’s sons is a hok, a type of law for which there is no logical rationale. We must do it because G-d said so.
The mitzvah of Brit Milah is specifically for fathers and if the father cannot circumcise his own son he must find somebody, a mohel (male) or mohelet (female), who can do it for him. One student asked, but my father isn’t Jewish? Jen answered then it is then the mother’s responsibility. And if the child is an orphan, then the responsibility falls on the Jewish community.
According to the Yorei Deah, giving one’s son a Brit Milah is the most important commandment in Judaism. It's the one that created the Jewish people and it insures Jewish continuity. The brit milah dedicates a child as the beginning of the next generation of the Jewish people.
A student asked, is Brit Milah contradictory to Torah values since we’re not supposed to mar the body? (It is forbidden to cut oneself or tattoo for ritual or aesthetic reasons.) Nonetheless, we are required to circumcise. Some commentators suggest that circumcision offers humans the opportunity to partner with G-d in the process of Creation. Similarly, the bracha for bread is ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz (who brings forth bread from the earth). Human beings must harvest wheat, mill the wheat into flour, and make bread from the flour in order to have bread with which to make this blessing. G-d gives us this opportunity to partner with G-d in order to achieve holiness and to perceive G-d’s presence.
We learned that the Brit Milah service has four parts: (1) Everybody and the baby are welcomed. It is a special honor to bring the baby into the room in which the Brit Milah will take place and an even greater honor to hold the baby during the circumcision. (2) The circumcision (3) naming the baby and (4) the seudat mitzvah or festive meal (all Jewish milestone events are punctuated by a communal meal).
And we learned that the foreskin is not discarded. It is buried.
Jen brought some of the tools, forceps and a Morgan clamp, used in the brit milah. Students were fascinated!
HaMorah Margalit (aka Gretchen Marks Brandt)