Perspective and Guidelines for the Bris
A quick history of the Bris & the Mohel
General rules of the Bris & Honors at the Bris
The Ceremony & The baby naming
A Quick History of the Bris, Jewish Ritual Circumcision
The words "brit milah" or "bris milah" (there are variations in the way the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews tend to pronounce this phrase) mean the covenant of circumcision, commonly referred to as the "bris".
This name is based on the biblical account (Genesis, Chapter 17) of the covenant that God made with Abraham. God promised him that he would be a father of a nation whose spiritual influence would extend to the rest of human civilization. As a sign of the covenant, he and all his male progeny throughout the generations would be circumcised.
The Jewish people in every generation have faithfully continued to uphold this commandment, often at great risk. The Greeks, Romans, Communist Russians, and others that have ruled over the Jewish people tried to ban this practice, but the Jews held fast.
In the 19th century, medical circumcision became popular among the general population in certain countries. The medical community has been debating for several decades the pros and cons of routine circumcision for newborns. No matter which way the pendulum may swing in the medical community, Jewish parents will continue to bring their sons into the covenant of Abraham.
As part of training in medical school, most doctors are trained to perform routine circumcision on newborns. It is usually performed within a few days after birth in the hospital. This is circumcision, but only a mohel can perform a bris. He is not only trained extensively in medical techniques but he is an expert in Jewish law and ritual related to this time-honored ritual.
After completing extensive apprenticeship under an experienced mohel, the apprentice performs several circumcisions under the supervision of his mentor. After proving his expertise in all areas related to the bris, he receives his certification.
It is noteworthy to mention that many doctors will call upon a mohel to circumcise their own sons, recognizing their expertise in this area. Even Queen Elizabeth called upon the official mohel of the London Jewish Community when Prince Charles was born.
General Rules of the Bris
The bris of a healthy boy must be held on the eighth day after birth. This applies even on Shabbat or Yom Tov (Jewish holiday), unless there was a caesarian delivery in which case it is done on the day after Shabbat or Yom Tov, or if the mohel is not withinwalking distance. Postponing the bris due to other considerations, though understandable, is not approved.
The eight days are calculated by counting the day of birth as the first day. Thus if a child was born on Monday before sundown, the bris would be the following Monday. If he was born after sundown (the beginning of the Jewish day), it would take place the following day a week later(Tuesday).
The ideal time of day to have the bris is in the morning hours, but it can take place any time before sundown.
If either the doctor or the mohel have any concerns about the well being of the baby (i.e. infant jaundice) the bris is postponed until all concerns are resolved.
It is ideal to have a minyan (quorum) at the bris, but not mandatory.
It is customary to serve a festive meal in honor of the bris. (For help with food arrangments see caterers in resource section).
Honors at the Bris
The bris ceremony is replete with meaning and emotion. Friends and family can be honored at various parts during the ceremony to help make this a significant moment.
The honors that can be bestowed are as follows:
Candle Lighting - One or more candles can be lit immediately before the bris.
Kvaters (commonly translated as "godparents") - A husband and wife and/or others are honored to bring the baby forward into the room.
Kisei Shel Eliyahu - (The chair of Elijah) - Places the baby on a chair before the bris.
Sandek - holds the baby during the actual bris. Considered to be the highest honor - often given to a grandfather.
Omed Al Habrachos - The person who holds the baby during the blessings and baby naming. (This honor can be shared among two people).
A brief introduction by the mohel or another rabbi is given about the bris. If candles are being lit, they would be done at this point.
The mother then hands the baby to the Kvaters as he is brought forward to the area where the bris will take place. Often the parents will read a special prayer together at that moment. The person designated to place the baby on the chair of Elijah takes the baby and places him on a chair as an explanation for this custom is given. The father takes his son, is given the "choice" whether he would like to perform the bris himself, and gives him to the sandek.
The bris is performed as the mohel and then the father each
make a blessing. The baby is handed to someone to hold him for
the blessings and baby naming. Often the parents will add a few words of their own about their child’s namesake and other thoughts on their mind. The bris concludes with the singing of Siman Tov and then everyone partakes in the festive meal.
The Baby Naming
Our forefather Abraham, at the age of 99, received his name at his bris (before that his name had been Abram) and therefore it became customary to bestow a child’s name upon him at his bris.
Parents should choose a Hebrew name for their child with care. Often he is named for a deceased relative who had special meaning in the life of the parents.
Among Sephardic Jewry, it is common to name a child after a living grandparent or relative. Others will choose a name of a great individual or because the name has special appeal to them.
Two (and sometimes three) names can be given to one child. Even if you don’t call your child by his Hebrew name, pick a name that he will be comfortable with when he is in religious school or at his bar-mitzvah. Though commonly done, there is no requirement to have a Hebrew name that corresponds to the English one.
Time of day
It is ideal to have the bris is in the morning, showing one’s desire to perform the commandment as soon as possible. However, anytime of day before sundown is acceptable. During the summer when sundown is much later in the day, many people prefer to make the bris after work hours so that more friends and family can attend.
Rabbi Asa tries to accommodate everyone’s schedule. However, the bris is scheduled on a first come, first serve basis and sometimes there are multiple brises taking placing the same day. It is best to call the mohel as soon as possible after the baby is born to reserve the desired time of day.
A bris can take place in any location that the parents desire. Traditionally, a bris took place in the synagogue. However, many people prefer having the bris take place in a home. Others (especially if you are expecting a large crowd) opt for a hotel or other large area.
Traditionally, the bris is held in front of all those present. If the parents don’t feel comfortable with doing it that way, the actual circumcision can be held in a side room and the blessings and baby naming done afterwards with all those present.
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