Brit Milah: Rabbinic Interpretations

Covenant, conversion, custom, and circumcision.

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Brit milah was thought to be so significant that it also influenced the spiritual fate of people even after their deaths. According to a midrash, or rabbinic folktale, "In the World to Come, Abraham will sit at the entrance to Gehinom [the Jewish equivalent to hell] and not allow any circumcised Israelite to descend into it. As for those [Jews] who sinned [and deserve the punishments of Gehinom], what does he do to them? He removes the foreskin from children who had died before circumcision and places it upon them and sends them down to Gehinom!" (Genesis Rabbah 48:8). Another similarly strange tale states that the heretics and sinners of the Jewish people think to themselves, "Because we are circumcised, we will not go down to Gehinom. So what does the Holy One, blessed be God, do? God sends an angel who extends their foreskins and they descend to Gehinom" (Exodus Rabbah 19:4). Although these are somewhat bizarre examples of rabbinic imagination, they reveal the significance of brit milah for the ancient rabbis--even into the afterlife.

Because of the singular importance of brit milah, the rabbis established numerous and detailed requirements and customs to be observed in the performance of ritual circumcision. It is traditionally the religious responsibility of the father to have his sons circumcised on the eighth day after birth. However, due to the fact that this is a specialized and potentially hazardous procedure, medically and ritually competent Jewish specialists, mohelim (related to the word milah) arose to take the father's place in performing brit milah Today, mohelim train for several years in both practical surgical techniques of circumcision as well as the laws and lore of this commandment.

Even in modern times, when medical controversy still surrounds the putative health benefits of circumcision, brit milah is a remarkably enduring and near-universal Jewish practice, not subject to the vagaries of medical science. Its benefit to the Jewish people is not in the area of health, but in the realm of the spirit.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.