The Brit Milah (Bris) Ceremony

The basics of this ceremony for an eight-day-old Jewish boy

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Excerpted with permission  from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press.

There are no special rules about the place in which the rite is to be carried out, although, if possible, pious Jews prefer it to be done in the synagogue during the morning service. The infant is taken into the room where the circumcision is to take place by a godmother who hands him to a godfather who, in turn, hands him to the sandek (a word of uncertain origin but meaning the man who holds the infant on his knees during the rite). In some communities the honor of acting as godfather and godmother is given to an engaged couple or to a childless married couple in the belief that their participation in the rite will provide a blessing for the couple themselves in the form of a child.

The function of the sandek is usually performed by a grandfather of the infant or by a man learned in the Torah. The sandek is instructed by the man who performs the rite, the mohel, to grasp the infant firmly so that the circumcision can more easily be performed. Only a man highly skilled in the performance of the rite is qualified to be a mohel. Nowadays, there are special organizations for the training of mohalim. A doctor, provided he is Jewish, can serve as a mohel, but many doctors admit that a trained mohel is best qualified to per­form the delicate operation.

Before carrying out the circumcision, the mohel recites the benediction: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy command­ments, and hast given us the command con­cerning circumcision." As soon as the mohel begins the circumcision the father recites: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to make our sons enter the covenant of Abraham our father."

All present then respond: "Even as this child has entered into the covenant, so may he enter into the Torah, the nuptial canopy, and into good deeds."

The mohel then takes a cup of wine and recites over it a prayer for the infant in which he gives the infant his Hebrew name. (A girl is named in a special prayer in the synagogue on the Sabbath after her birth or at a ritual of contemporary innovation, often called a brit bat, a "covenant for a daughter.")

A drop or two of the wine is placed in the infant's mouth and the father drinks some of the wine, sending the rest to the mother who [traditionally] is not normally present in the room when the rite takes place. Afterwards there is a festive meal, and special prayers are recited in the grace after meals, blessing the parents, the infant, the mohel, and the sandek.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.