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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Reflecting on the Importance

For Jews threatened with the Inquisition to continue to practice circumcision, and for an adult to undergo this ritual voluntarily, required a conscious awareness of its significance in Judaism. Thus, from the 15th to the 18th cen­turies, some of these Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin reflected upon the impor­tance of this ritual; their thinking reflected the society in which they lived and their familiarity with contemporary Christian views.

One example is Isaac Cardoso, who noted that circumcision differentiated God's people from others. He repeated that cir­cumcision enabled perfection of the body and the spirit, and the absence of a foreskin lessened a man's sexual impulses; however, in contrast to the rabbinic view, he wrote that Abraham's circumcision and sacrifice of Isaac took the place of crucifixion in compensating for Adam's original sin and that, without circumcision, a Jew could not be redeemed. He also gave a kabbalistic interpretation of the Hebrew word for circum­cision, milah, which in gematria [a system of equating letters with numeric value] is equivalent to a Hebrew appellation of God, Elohim. He also took a phrase in Deuteronomy 30:12 ("who among us can go up to the heav­ens ... ?") and pointed out that the first letter of each Hebrew word in this phrase spells milah, whereas the last letter of each word spells the tetragrammaton [the biblical four-letter name for God, whose original pronunciation is lost to us].

The Early Modern Period

In the early modern period, rabbis continued to answer practical ques­tions that arose in the fulfillment of the duty and to document local customs. Differences evolved in details of the ritual according to the locality and ethnic ori­gins of the community. For example, small differences were noted in the blessings, in the choice of readings, and in the songs sung in a Yemenite community, in a Sephardic community, and in an Ashkenazi community. For this reason, each community had its own preferred publication of the Order of Circumcision.

Also in the early modern period, emancipation began to affect attitudes to circumcision within the Jewish community. Emancipation led directly to a move­ment of Reform Judaism away from ceremony and ritual, although reformists main­tained Jewish ethics and morals. In 1843, leaders of Reform Jewry in Frankfurt proposed abandoning circumcision, on the grounds that Mosaic law mentions only once the command to circumcise one's sons, and this command is not repeated in Deuteronomy. This proposal sparked an emotional controversy between reformists and traditionalists. The chief rabbis of Frankfurt and Hamburg each kept a notebook for a few years in which they blacklisted wayward parents who had not circumcised their newborn sons. The dispute raged for many years, but it had no lasting effect on the continuing practice of circumcision among Jews.

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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.