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Rabbi Zachary Hepner

A Brief Introduction

The word “bris” (or “brit” in Sephardic pronunciation) means covenant. The Brit Milah ceremony reaffirms the original covenant made between God and Abraham, our forefather over 3,500 years ago. The reason we perform this ceremony, for the Jewish people, has nothing to with health or medical reasons. It is the sign of the covenant and it identifies one as a member of the Jewish people.

The Torah states that the Brit Milah ceremony is to take place on the eighth day. The Torah does not explain why the eighth day was chosen, so we follow it as a matter of great faith. The bris is performed during the daylight hours only and never at night. Should the day of the bris coincide with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or even the Sabbath, we do the bris as long as there is a reliable, religiously observant mohel who can walk to the bris. If there is no local mohel available or you are unable to make arrangements for a mohel to stay in your neighborhood for the Sabbath or holiday, the best religious decision is to make the bris on a Sunday or a weekday.

A bris is not a circumcision. Many people hear the word “bris” and think “circumcision.” They are not the same. A bris is a beautiful religious life cycle event that is performed on the eighth day by a religiously observant, properly trained mohel. People are honored during the ceremony to hold the baby, the baby’s Jewish name is announced and a festive meal is served following the bris. A circumcision is a medical procedure preformed by a doctor in a hospital. It has no religious underpinnings whatsoever.

Finally, the ceremony has nothing to do with the Jewishness of the child. Jewishness is determined and transmitted through the mother of the baby. If there is some medical reason that a Jewish child cannot have a bris, he is Jewish, he just hasn’t had a bris yet. We welcome the baby into the covenant and into the community of Israel and acknowledge God as the third partner in the miracle of creation.

Scheduling the bris ceremony

Even if the affiliation of the family is Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist, it is better to make the bris on a Sunday or a weekday rather than have anyone ride or drive on the Shabbat or holiday. We will be assured of a proper bris and avoid many unnecessary religious conflicts. There are some exceptions to the eighth day rule, so please confirm the correct day with the mohel before informing the guests and ordering the food.

The ceremony is performed in public amid a congregation of family and friends. It is never meant to be hidden away or closed off in a back room. The ceremony is brief and lasts about ten minutes. The actual bris takes approximately thirty seconds and should never take any longer than that. At a traditional bris, the baby is placed on a double pillow on the lap of the Sandak, not on a table or strapped down. Many babies may start crying long before the ceremony begins and continue long after the ceremony ends. A mohel is obligated by Jewish law not to do anything that increases the discomfort or difficulty to the baby one iota. Conversely, the mohel must have the quickest, most gentle and most compassionate way to perform the bris.

A minyan (quorum of ten) is preferred, but not required. The appointing of godparents is not a Jewish tradition. If a Jewish family wishes to appoint godparents, they may do so-it is simply an honorary title. There are no rules, responsibilities or religious obligations for godparents and you may appoint as few or as many as you wish. One need not be a rabbi or a cantor to be a mohel. One must be religiously observant, possess the necessary skills, and be fluent in the laws and customs of this ancient rite. One should also have a love of the mitzvah and a compassionate heart.

I also recommend that children not be permitted to watch the actual bris. There is no need to leave the room when the ceremony begins. It is a beautiful ceremony and I think you will be very pleased when you see how well the baby does and how quick the bris is.

The order of the ceremony

We welcome the baby to the brit milah ceremony with the same words that we welcome a groom to the wedding canopy: Baruch Habah!

A number of verses are recited about Pinechas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the High Priest who was awarded a covenant of peace on behalf of his actions for G-d and the Jewish people.

The baby is placed on a specially designated chair called the Chair of Elijah. We welcome Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) as a guest of honor at all brisses. He is called the “Angel of the Covenant” and is considered the guardian of all the children. According to Jewish tradition, Elijah will someday announce the coming of the Messiah.

The bris is performed and the Naming Kiddush is recited. The baby is taken out and the festive meal is served. It is customary to explain for whom the baby was named and to offer a few words of Torah in honor of the bris.

Mazel tov!