What Everyone Should Know About Brit Milah

Jews and Christians share many things, and what we share is no less profound than our differences.

We share a belief in a God who can be approached through prayer and worship, a God who loves and is revealed in the Bible and in history. We share a book, the Hebrew Bible, which most Christians call the Old Testament.

Both Jews and Christians celebrate religious rituals at the beginning of life. In virtually all cultures, rituals for babies are moments of sacred initiation, and many share certain elements-especially joy and gratitude for the gift of a new person in the world. Most Jewish and Christian birth rituals also bestow a name upon a new baby. By doing this within a religious framework, both traditions give a spiritual ’s identity.

Along with these many similarities, stand differences between the rites of the two faiths. The Christian ritual of baptism, for example, uses water as a sign of identification with the death and resurrection of Jesus and as a sign of welcome into the Christian community. Jewish baby ceremonies, including those that use water, all signify a child’s entry into the Jewish covenant with God. The Hebrew word for covenant is brit.

refers to the relationship between the Jewish people and God. A covenant is a contract-an agreement between responsible parties; a two-way street. Circumcision is one of the terms of that agreement, which was set forth in the Bible. From the beginning of the Jewish people, starting with Abraham and Sarah, Jewish parents have been called to welcome their eighth-day old sons into this covenant with a ceremony that is also called a "brit." Girls are welcomed into the covenant with a ceremony called a "Berit Bat" or "Simchat Bat," which features some of the same prayers, songs and traditions found "brit milah."

The covenant of circumcision (brit milah, brit or bris) is the oldest continuous Jewish rite; a ritual that unites Jews throughout ages and across cultures and signifies the connection between individual human life and the Holy. With this ancient ceremony, parents announce their commitment to taking on the responsibilities and joys of raising a Jewish son.

The circumcision itself is not the core element of the service. It is the blessings and intention to bring the child into what is also known as "the covenant of Abraham" that gives the ritual its religious significance. A Jewish male who has not been circumcised is still Jewish-he is considered simply a Jew in need of a "bris." Likewise, a Jewish male who was circumcised without Jewish rites is considered in need of a symbolic, "ceremonial bris."

Circumcision itself has been deemed safe by the American Academy of Pediatrics. A circumcision performed in the home, rather in the hospital, is also very safe and may be better tolerated by the baby. Although he does feel some pain, the baby’s discomfort will be brief (the procedure takes only a few minutes), and can be easily soothed following the procedure.

The person who performs the circumcision for the purpose of bringing a child into the Jewish covenant is called a mohel (pronounced mo-hail or moil). The mohel is not ordained but is trained in the procedures and blessing of Brit Milah, and some are also physicians.

Similar to a christening, a Jewish boy receives his name at a bris. A Hebrew name, which may or may not be different from his English name, will be announced. The Hebrew name will be used on religious documents and to summon readers to the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Names are most often given in memory of a loved one who has died, as a tribute.

One interesting difference between Jewish and Christian birth rituals concerns godparents. Christian godparents often have an important religious function, speaking on behalf of the child at a baptism or christening, and sometimes agreeing to act as the child’s spiritual guides in the future. In the Jewish tradition, however, godparents (kvatter and kvatterin) play a strictly honorary role at the ceremony, which often entail bringing the baby into the room or holding him or her during some part of the ritual.

The Hebrew word for joy, simcha, is also the Hebrew word for party. A bris is a simcha that signifies the triumph of life, the promise of a new generation. According to Jewish law and tradition, all life-cycle events include a meal of celebration and expressions of happiness.

A joyful heart is the most important gift you can bring to a Brit Milah.*

It would be my honor to attend your son’s Brit Milah.


Dr. Richard I. Roberts - Certified Mohel
Cell: 516.455.2374

*Source: "The New Jewish Baby Book" by Anita Diamant.