Every Jewish father is commanded to fulfill the Biblical precept (described in Genesis 17:10-14) to circumcise his son on the eighth day or to designate a qualified representative to do so on his behalf. This is accomplished through the Jewish ritual known as a Berit or Bris (the Sephardic and Israeli pronunciations) and is performed by a mohel or professional ritual circumciser. The word Bris means covenant (agreement or promise). The word for cut and for circumcision is Mila. A Bris Mila, the full name for the ritual, means "the covenant of circumcision" and is considered the most important covenant in Judaism. An equivalent covenantal ceremony also exists for girls called a Bris Bat and obviously, there is no medical procedure involved!
The Bris Mila has been described as God's promise that the Jewish people will continue to exist. The ceremony, therefore, centers around the body part that helps to create future generations. The Bris Bat focuses on the name.
The Bris Mila must take place on the
eighth day even if it is the Sabbath or Yom Kippur. If a child is born on a Monday, the Bris would fall on the following Monday. If, however, the child is born Monday night, the Bris would occur the following Tuesday. That's because a new day begins at the onset of evening... not from midnight! The Bris is traditionally conducted during daylight, usually in the morning. That is because the lighting is better for the mohel to see. Nothing, however, precludes an evening ceremony.
Why on the eighth day? Here are some rabbinic interpretations. Some rabbis believed that every baby must experience seven days of Creation so that he contains the whole world within him before the Bris. The baby will also know the sweetness of the Sabbath. Another interpretation is that seven days represents the whole world and the eighth day represents the world to come. There are some medical theories but none have been substantiated.
The Bris Mila includes two parts- - (1) circumcision, which is performed by a mohel, an observant Jew who has been carefully trained and (2) the naming of the baby. The mohel is not necessarily a rabbi, in fact most mohalim/ot are lay persons or physicians. A mohel is capable of performing the entire ceremony. The services of a rabbi are not required but should a family wish to have their personal rabbi present, he or she would be most welcome.
Two thousand years ago, Jews began to name their children not only after great figures in the Bible but after deceased relatives whom they wished to honor. (This custom may have been borrowed from the Egyptians and the Greeks, who named their children after deceased grandparents.) Ashkenazi Jews (who are Jews descended from Eastern Europe) still follow this custom. Sephardi Jews however will, at times, name the baby in honor of living relatives. The Hebrew name may be directly derived from the English name, or may be totally unrelated. If desired, a middle Hebrew name may be chosen. There are no strict rules regarding Judaic names and I encourage consideration of either of the two traditions - Sephardi or Ashkenazi.
Two individuals are traditionally honored during the Bris Mila ceremony by being named godparents. In the past, the godparents were vested with the responsibility of raising the child in a Jewish tradition in the event of the parent's death. Now it is simply an honor for the godparents to present the baby into the room for his circumcision and naming. If godparents are chosen, they do not have to be relatives, and they do not have to be Jewish. If these honored individuals cannot be present at the ceremony, others can be named to represent them in their absence. The godparents' honored role is only ceremonial, their title has no legal meaning and is strictly optional!
Another custom is to include Elijah in the ceremony (just as Elijah is included in the Passover ceremony). Eastern European custom included symbolic chair for Elijah. Elijah was a prophet who, according to Jewish tradition, will announce the coming of the messiah. Because the messiah could be any Jewish child, Elijah has to be at every Bris so that he doesn't miss the baby who will grow up to lead the world to justice, mercy, peace, and plenty. The Sandek shares the chair with Elijah. The Sandek, who is usually one of the baby's grandfathers, is considered to be the greatest honor at the Bris. The Sandek sits and holds the baby at some point during the Bris, but not necessarily during the circumcision. There may be more than one Sandek. The Sandek may be either a man or woman, and does not necessarily have to be Jewish.
The Bris is postponed if an infant is sick. A minyan (ten adult Jews) is not required for a Bris service. There is no magical number but by and large, the best ceremonies have 10-40 guests. Larger ceremonies tend to be somewhat unwieldy. By tradition, guests are asked to stand during the ceremony, if they are able.
The Bris ends with a Seudat Mitzvah, a religious feast. The Talmud says it is a commandment (just as much as the circumcision itself) to celebrate with a meal. Israeli, middle eastern or deli food is appropriate. The meal may be simple ( just a nosh! ) or elaborate. (P.S. - Deli is not necessarily Jewish food... just try to find a deli in Israel!!!) Guests are asked to dress appropriately for a bris by wearing respectful clothing such as a sport coat and/or suit. Ties are nice but not necessary. Kippot for the men are highly encouraged, although not absolutely required. Gifts are also not a part of Jewish custom for a Bris, but people do present gifts to the new baby simply as a matter of secular generosity. The duration of the ceremony is about 20 minutes, the circumcision occurs 80% into the ceremony and takes approximately 60 seconds. Afterward, the baby may be fed immediately.