A History of Brit Milah

A comprehensive look at the history of the Jewish practice of circumcising baby boys on the eighth day of life--and of various attempts to end this rite.

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The Middle Ages

The animosity toward circumcision of non-Jews continued into the Middle Ages, reinforced by the seventh-century Catholic Visigothic Code in Spain, which forced Jews to renounce the rite and further strengthened its importance for the Jewish people. This Code influenced Spanish anti-semitism for centuries.

Jews living among Muslims did not meet with the same hostility to cir­cumcision as those living among Christians, because Islam recommends removal of the foreskin, although Islamic circumcision is not a covenant and does not have the religious significance that it has in Judaism. In Babylonia, in gaonic [post-rabbinic] times, Jews intro­duced the custom of circumcising an infant who died before he was eight days old, at the grave before burial, so the infant's soul would not go to Gehenna.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, rabbis compiled a new chapter of halakhah [Jewish law] headed "The Laws of Circumcision," sometimes still under the heading of the Laws of Shabbat, but increasingly as a legal topic in its own right. Here they col­lected all the laws pertaining to circumcision from earlier sources, discussed questions that had arisen in the practice of the ritual, and documented medieval customs for performing the ritual.

ancient circumcision

At that time, new ideas emerged about circumcision. Maimonides pointed out that everyone who was circumcised bore the same sign that he believed in the unity of God. He also said that the ritual was not performed merely to achieve bod­ily perfection, but also to perfect man's moral shortcomings, because removal of the foreskin counteracted excessive lust, weakened the libido, and sometimes also reduced the pleasure of sexual relations. In the 13th century, a rabbi developed this idea to counter an anti-Semitic, Christian accusation that Jews were guilty of immoderate sexual behavior, enabled by their circumcision. The rabbi emphasized that the re­moval of the foreskin lessened a man's sexual desire and enabled him to concentrate on the Torah.

 

At this time, Jews began to think of the ritual as a sacrifice, and the father who circumcises his son as a high priest. And mystics taught that circumcision enables one to find holiness in the Shekhinah, the divine presence.

From the 15th to the 19th centuries, during the Inquisition of the Roman Catholics to stamp out heresy on the Iberian peninsula and colonies (Goa in India, Central and South American colonies, the Philippine Islands, and the Canary Islands), many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, yet some continued to practice Judaism secretly—and any Jewish man from a converted family who had himself or his son circumcised was condemned to death. Many of these "New Christians," known as Marranos, or Conversos, eventually found refuge in safe havens in the Ottoman Empire, in the Netherlands, and England, where adult men would have themselves and their sons circumcised.

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Michele Klein has a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of London. She is the author of New Life: A Diary For Jewish Parents and A Time To Be Born.