The Mitzvah of Brit Milah

Brit milah, the covenant of circumcision, was commanded by God to Abraham over 3,700 years ago. It has been carried out faithfully, from generation to generation, even during times of religious and ethnic persecution when Jews were forced to practice their rituals in secret. The acceptance of this commandment, or mitzvah, established an eternal bond between God and the Children of Israel. Its observance today is testimony to the continuity and strength of that relationship, which requires us to perform the mitzvah with adherence to the laws and customs prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by our sages.

God appeared to Abraham when he was 99-years-old and commanded him to circumcise himself, his son, Ishmael, all the males of his household and all his slaves. When Isaac was born, he was circumcised on the eighth day. In return for his faithfulness, God promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation and inherit the land of Canaan for eternity.

Circumcision dates to prehistoric times and is one of the oldest operations performed by mankind, but for the Jewish people, the rite supersedes the surgical procedure. The rabbis believed it so important they declared, Were it not for the blood of the covenant, heaven and earth would not exist. (Shabbat 137b) Punishment for failure to obey this commandment was to be karet — cut off from one’s people, excluded from the community by Divine decree. Gradually, brit milah acquired a national identity, making its performance today as mandatory for the modern secularists as for the traditionally observant.

Day & Time

Rashi teaches that it is a mitzvah in itself to make brit milah as beautiful and meaningful as possible. This is accomplished, in part, by careful attention to the details of carrying out the commandment, such as determining the day and choosing the time.

Various explanations are offered for the Torah’s specification of the eighth day. There is a midrash that teaches that God had compassion on the child and waited until he had the physical strength to undergo the rite. (Devarim Rabbah 6:1) Also suggested is the fact that one Shabbat must pass between birth and the eighth day, providing the child with spiritual strength from his first Sabbath experience. Finally, classical medical studies have found coagulating factors to be at peak at this time of life.

The day of birth counts as the first day. In Jewish tradition, the day begins with the preceding nightfall. Therefore, the child must be born before sundown for that day to be counted as the first. For example, if a baby is born on Monday during daylight hours, the brit takes place on the following Monday. However, if the baby is born on Monday night, the brit takes place the following Tuesday. A brit performed before the eighth day is considered invalid.

An act that causes bleeding is forbidden on Shabbat. However, because the Torah declares the day of milah as the eighth, the Talmud interprets that the act, in its proper time, takes precedence provided the laws of Shabbat are upheld. Rabbinic opinions state that in instances where this cannot be guaranteed, it is religiously preferable to postpone the ceremony to the following day.

A brit may not be performed on an ill child and must be postponed until he has fully recovered. The general rule is to schedule a brit immediately upon recovery from a local disorder, one that affects a specific part of the body, but to wait seven 24-hour periods after recovery from a systemic disorder, one that affects the entire body. The mohel makes the proper determination in consultation with the child’s pediatrician or neonatologist. A brit delayed for any reason, a brit for the purpose of conversion or a brit for a baby born by Caesarean section may not take place on the Sabbath or a festival holiday.

Because the Torah tells us that Abraham circumcised Isaac on the eighth day, we understand this literally to mean daytime. A brit can be scheduled any time between sunrise and sunset. Since it is preferable to perform mitzvot eagerly and speedily, it is customary to schedule a brit as early in the day as possible. Brit milah cannot be performed at night and is considered invalid if done so. If a baby is born bein hashemashot, during the period of twilight prior to nightfall preceding Shabbat or a festival holiday, specific laws apply. In such cases, the mohel will determine the day, with rabbinic input, if necessary.