The Covenant of Circumcision

Male converts to Judaism are traditionally required to undergo circumcision or, if already circumcised, a ritual removal of a single drop of blood.

Print this page Print this page

Hatafat Dam Brit--Reenacting the Ritual

For much of this century, nearly all American baby boys underwent circumcision as a health measure, a fact that made adult circumcision unnecessary for most male converts. However, medical circumcision is not the same as brit milah. The removal of the foreskin is only one part of the ritual, which must be performed with the intention of entering a boy or man into the covenant of Israel. Thus, Jewish law requires that circumcised converts undergo a ritual reenactment called hatafat dam brit. Hatafat means "drop"; dam means "blood."

The ritual requires that a single drop of blood be taken from the site of the circumcision--more precisely, from the corona of skin that surrounds the head (or glans) of the penis. The person performing the hatafat dam brit applies an alcohol swab to the area and then pricks the skin either with a hypodermic needle or a sterile lancet. The blood is collected on a gauze pad, which may then be shown to three witnesses.

The ritual is generally scheduled days or even hours before mikveh. Typically, your rabbi will make all the necessary arrangements for hatafat dam brit, which is usually performed in a physician's office, though it can take place in any private place. The convert does not need to fully disrobe. There is no cutting, no suturing, and no subsequent bleeding. The entire procedure takes only a few moments.

Hatafat dam brit is generally performed by a mohel, a ritual circumciser. (The Yiddish pronunciation is "moil," the Hebrew is "mo-hail.") A mohel is someone trained to perform both the covenantal prayers and the surgical procedure of brit milah. Traditionally, one becomes a mohel by apprenticeship with an established practitioner, but since the 1980s the Reform and Conservative movements have recruited, trained, and certified licensed physicians to serve as mohelim for the liberal Jewish community.

Rabbis and mohelim tend to insist that hatafat dam brit is painless. Converts allow that although it's over in a second, "painless" is not an altogether accurate description, though some men find the alcohol wipe more irritating than the jab. Physicians who perform hatafat dam brit sometimes prescribe a numbing cream, which is applied to the area a few hours earlier.

Despite the minor physical and not-so-minor psychological discomfort (the anticipation is always worse than the event), converts invariably say that the importance of the ritual far outweighed any pain. And as one man said, "You wouldn't believe the kind of respect it earned me from my mother-in-law."

There is no liturgy for the ritual of hatafat dam brit. Some mohelim recite a blessing before drawing the drop of blood, but others do not. Afterward, the witnesses, mohel, rabbi, and convert may say the blessing over wine--a universal feature of all Jewish rituals. However, given the emotional and ritual importance of the moment, some rabbis and mohelim now include new as well as old blessings and even a brief ceremony.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.