Rabbi Elyssa Cherney, soon-to-be mom of two, shares the meaning behind the Jewish circumcision ritual, and what you need to know if you're hosting or attending a brit milah ceremony.

By Rabbi Elyssa Cherney, as told to Melissa Bykofsky
Rabbi Elyssa Cherney and her daughter.
Courtesy of Rabbi Elyssa Cherney

My home life has a myriad of rituals. You name it, we try it. We say blessings and we celebrate Shabbat. But when I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I decided that if we had a boy, we would not want to have a public circumcision, a ritual that is traditional in our Jewish culture. We did not find out the sex of our baby during my pregnancy, but if we had a boy, we discussed having him circumcised medically in a way of our own choosing.

When our daughter was born, we chose to have a naming within the first week of her life. We did not share her name with family or friends until she was welcomed into the community at the naming ceremony. I am now pregnant with our second child, and should we have a son, a naming ceremony will be held in the same way so the community can gather and be a part of the celebration. For us, personally, we do not want our child's sex to play a part in the welcoming and naming ceremony. I spent many years training on LGBTQ issues, and it is in my heart that gender is developed by society and children should be free to make their own choices as they continue to grow in the world. I want our children to be celebrated in the same way at birth, no matter their sex or gender.

As a rabbi, I empower people to take ownership of their own Jewish journey. I just started my own religious non-profit called Tackling Torah to help everyday people search for holiness in our everyday lives. There is a shift in how millennials and young families are choosing to engage with religion so I am meeting them where they are at in order to provide them with a meaningful Jewish life. I help couples plan personalized lifecycle events—like a wedding or birth—and figure out what families can do to include their religion into the ceremony in a way that is comfortable to them.

I have had a lot of conversations with families about circumcision. There are a lot of things families consider when they are presented with welcoming a baby boy into their lives. Some families continue to carry on the tradition as it is described in the Torah and others want to find ways to combine original traditions with their more modern family values to create a ceremony that is special and unique for their child.

Here's how I would explain a Jewish circumcision to families who are curious about the process.

Historically, circumcision ritual was a commandment by G-d.

Circumcision is first mentioned in the Book of Genesis 17:9-14, where it’s written that the Jewish people are commanded to circumcise all males within the tribe. Promises of peace and protection in the land of Canaan for Abraham, his family, and his tribe were made in exchange for them following G-d’s teachings. They were commanded to have a physical sign upon the people to distinguish them and that sign in the text is circumcision at 8-days old. It’s written that Abraham and his 13-year-old son Ishmael were both circumcised at that moment. Any male born after that point would be circumcised at 8-days old.

A Jewish circumcision ceremony is called a brit milah or bris.

Historically, it was an obligation for the father to perform the circumcision—this has evolved to involve someone called a mohel or mohelette who is trained to perform the ritual. Within the reform movement of Judaism, mohels are often trained physicians with medical experience who use anesthetic during the ceremony. The ceremony also includes a “Kvatterr,” who brings the baby into the ceremony room and a “Sandik” who holds the baby while the circumcision is performed—these roles are typically held by a godparent  and grandparent.

The baby also receives his name at his bris.

The mohel recites a blessing that says G-d has sanctified us to perform this circumcision and the father recites a blessing saying that he is taking on the responsibility of bringing his son into the covenant—that is the "brit" part of brit milah. Then the circumcision is performed and all the people who are present recite a blessing that thanks G-d and acknowledges their commitment to ensuring this baby grows up with a life of study, marriage, and good deeds.

The prayer is followed by a healing process for the baby in addition to a kiddish— the prayer for wine. The baby receives his Hebrew name through a "Mi Sheberach" prayer, which is read on behalf of someone who is sick or suffering. There is another specific prayer called “birkat h’gomel” that the mother who recently gave birth can recite for gratitude of having arrived safely on the other side of a dangerous journey of childbirth.

The Jewish circumcision age is 8 days.

Baby boys are traditionally circumcised at 8-days old. If the child is unable to be circumcised on this day the ritual waits until the child can undergo the medical procedure. The Jewish concept of Pikuah Nefesh, saving a life, overrides everything health-related. Health and safety are prioritized over religious traditions.

The circumcision ceremony is followed by a festive Seudat Mitzvah.

At any celebration that happens within Judaism, there is a meal of the good occasion—that’s really what makes it a celebration, a party. A celebratory meal is actually required to fulfill the mitzvah commandment. At a brit milah you can usually expect brunch type food as they commonly occur in the morning. 

Not all Jewish families have a brit milah ceremony for their sons.

Some of the families I work with do want to circumcise their sons but don’t want to have that be the focus of the ritual welcoming. They will do it at the hospital before they leave and they may choose to say the traditional prayer and be present. Others will still have the circumcision performed when the baby is 8-days old, but in a small private way before they have a larger public celebration. There are a growing number of families who do not plan to circumcise their sons at all.

When I officiate the ceremony where the circumcision is not happening, we still welcome the child into the Jewish community through other ceremonies with Jewish rituals like wrapping the baby in the Jewish prayer shawl called a tallit—this ritual was introduced into the community by Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Some families pass the baby wrapped in a tallit from generation to generation. This is taken from both Reconstructionist and Reform movement B’nai Mitzvah rituals where the Torah is passed down the generations. By emulating this ritual with the new child symbolizing the Torah, it shows that the baby comes from their own ancestral line and is learning from their community around them. There are other alternative ceremonies involving Jewish ritual items, like awakening the babies senses with candles, wine, spices, and song. 

You can still attend a bris even if you are not Jewish.

A bris is held to welcome a newborn son into the family's larger community. Nowadays, parents want everyone who will play an active role in this child’s life to be present regardless of that person's own religion. Our communities and families are made up of people of many faiths.

In many Jewish families, it's superstitious to hold a party for the child prior to birth in order to make sure the child is healthy and is able to fully join the community. So instead of having a baby shower, a family will host a large bris celebration to acknowledge that the healthy birth has happened and celebrate their child with their community. Though not religiously traditional, parents who have a daughter may choose to hold a similar celebration to announce the baby's name, called a b'rit bat—daughter of the commandment.

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