This essay is in honor of my four grandsons:
Mathayus Alexander [Matisyahu Aviel ben Eliezer Meir], b. Aug. 23, 2008
Gideon Joseph [Gidon Yosef ben Dovid Yecheskel] ] b. Mar. 13, 2010
Jonah Benjamin [Yonah Binyamin ben Dovid Yecheskel] b. Nov. 5, 2012
Etzio Solomon [Eliyahu Shemayah ben Eliezer Meir] b. Jan. 25, 2014
for all of whom, I was privileged to serve as Sandak.
"Thou shall keep My covenant, thou and thy seed after thee throughout their generations ... every male among you shall be circumcised --- he that is eight days old ... in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of a covenant between Me and you for an everlasting covenant (Gen. 17:9-13)".
The covenant of circumcision ('Bris Milah'), the oldest of Jewish rites, has been zealously maintained for over three and one half millennia, often in the face of extreme persecution. The remarkable victory of the Maccabees, celebrated at Chanukah, is widely known, but not so much some of the specifics of the persecution that occasioned their revolt. Ancient Greek culture idealized the human body and regarded circumcision as a form of mutilation. The Syrian Greek government, as integral to its universalizing ethos, prohibited that Jewish practice on pain of death. Most Jews, nonetheless, refused to submit, most exemplified by the uncompromising martyrdom of Hannah and her seven sons. Throughout the ages, restrictions on this indispensable rite have been explicitly anti-Semitic. Today, there is a growing anti-circumcision movement, especially in Europe, that while ostensibly based on children's rights, is subtly so. Its proponents' contentions are specious, their intentions malevolent.
With his self-circumcision. Abram was transformed from a temporal illustrious personality into a world-historical figure with an universal mission. This was reflected in his change of name, to Abraham (lit. father of a multitude of nations) and that of his wife, Sarai (lit. my princess) to Sarah (lit. universal princess). By this positive act of removal of his 'orlah' (lit. barrier), Abraham became 'perfect', his body indelibly marked as dedicated to Divine service. So, too, that becomes a covenantal obligation for all following generations of Jewish males.
In view of that, It seems highly significant that this sign is particularly placed on their organ of procreation.There is also here a further important message. Jewish normative practice is to permit, but limit, the entire range of human activities. Human sexuality is to be celebrated. But, unless reasonably restrained, this overwhelmingly powerful impulse would be incompatible with a life of holiness.
Just as Abraham received a new name upon circumcision, so, too, on this occasion, does a new baby boy. Jews have always seen great significance in names. A common Ashkenazic custom is to honor the memory of deceased relatives by giving newborns their (possibly somewhat altered) name. Sephardic custom extends this possibility to living relations, as well. Baby girls have their own naming ceremony. At the first opportunity after their birth, their father receives an aliyah to the Torah, following which there is a prayer for the health of the mother and daughter, including announcement of the baby's Hebrew name.
While the nominal time for the bris is during the eighth day after birth, the well being of the child is of paramount importance. When his medical condition does not permit, principally jaundice, indicative of blood clotting insufficiency, circumcision is postponed. Very low birth date would also demand delay. While as a positive Torah commandment, circumcision overrides the Sabbath and Holidays, this is only when a natural birth occurs unequivocally on those days. Incidentally, medical studies have shown that coagulation factors, essential for the healing process, typically peak at the eight day after birth.
The following are the participants in the ceremony: the child, his father, the ritual circumciser ('Mohel'), the Kvatter (loosely translated as 'godfather'), who brings in the child and hands him over to the Kvatterin ('godmother'), who, in turn, brings the child to the place of the ceremony, and later returns him to his mother, and the Sandak, who, draped in a prayer shawl ('Tallis'), will hold the child during the procedure. A 'Standing Sandak' holds the baby during his following naming.
All assembled now greet the child: 'Baruch HaBah', Blessed is the one who has come. Two chairs have been prepared, one, the Throne of Elijah the Prophet, who is closely associated with the rite of circumcision, the other, for the Sandak. The baby is first placed on the Throne of Elijah. His father then takes him from there and gives him to the Sandak. As the commandment devolves upon the father to circumcise his son, he then authorizes the Mohel to act on his behalf. This being a delicate medical procedure, it requires a specially trained, certified professional, who combines technical skill with religious training and personal piety.
Both Mohel and father recite their respective blessings on their part in the performance of the commandment, the Mohel before, "regarding circumcision", and the father after, "on bringing him into the covenant of Abraham, our forefather". To which the assembled respond: "Just as he has entered into the covenant. so may he enter into [the study of] the Torah, the marriage canopy and the [performance of] good deeds".
Over a goblet of wine, two blessings are then recited: the first over the wine, the second on "His covenant He has placed in our flesh". After this the child is given his Hebrew name(s), combined with prayer for his and his mother's speedy recoveries, concluding again with the above .blessing from the assembled. .
Following the ceremony, there is a festive meal ('Seudas Mitzvah'). At its conclusion, Grace is preceded by a very elaborate call ('Zimun') with an additional six concluding 'Harachaman' (May the compassionate One) prayers, for the parents, Sandak, child, Mohel, and supplications for the coming of Messiah and Elijah.
Among the many distinct Jewish communities, different customs surrounding this rite have arisen. Common among Ashkenazic Jews is 'Shalom Zachar' (Welcome son), a gathering at the home of the newborn on the Friday night preceding his bris. 'Vach Nacht' (Night of the Vigil) , involving study of sacred texts related to milah, also in the home, is held on the night before the bris. Among German Jews, the cloth in which the baby was wrapped at this ceremony was often made into a personalized 'wimple' sash, used to bind a Torah scroll. .Most Sephardic communities celebrate a gathering, called 'Zohar' or 'Brit Yitzchak' (Covenant of Isaac), serving as a substitute for, or in addition to, 'Shalom Zachar', at which passages from the Zohar related to milah are recited on the night before the bris. There is also a widespread custom of placing an 'izmail' (two-edged milah knife) that night under the pillow of the child.
The birth of a child and the joy it brings to family and friends elicits all manner of unbounded anticipation. How beautifully that is expressed in the following verse from a Sephardic liturgical poem ('pizmon'), specifically created for the occasion:
May there be peace in our ranks and tranquility in Israel
Auspiciously a son has come to us
May the Redeemer come in his lifetime.. .