It’s time to celebrate! And to start planning a Bris Milah for the circumcision ceremony. This commandment of Bris Milah has great significance for the baby and the parents as well.
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The Meaning of a Bris Milah Celebration
Why Does a Jewish Baby Boy have a Bris (or Brit) Milah?
The performance of a Bris Milah starts with the commandment in the Torah where G-d commands Avraham Avinu (Genesis 17:1-2) to circumcise himself as a covenant between G-d, Avraham, and his descendants. All of us Jews are Avraham’s descendants, and your precious little boy has a vital place in the tribe as well.
The commandment of Bris Milah was the very first commandment Avraham received. After becoming circumcised, Avraham was then called complete by G-d. The act of circumcising a baby boy makes him complete spiritually. The Ohr Hachaim (Genesis 17:5) also points out the profound meaning a Bris Milah has in Jewish tradition. G-d made sure that Avraham’s Bris Milah take place before Avraham’s wife, Sara, would become pregnant, so that all future generations would be borne into a circumcised lineage. Even if we can’t entirely understand the spiritual ramifications of Bris Milah, seeing how important it was to G-d that Avraham be circumcised before the Jewish nation was birthed, helps us understand how central the commandment of Bris Milah is for every Jewish family.
A Bris Milah is performed by a mohel on the eighth day after the baby boy is born. The ceremony is held during the day, when the baby is eight days old, unless the baby is ill or weak. In that case, the bris milah is postponed until the baby is strong enough.
The father of a baby boy must ensure that his son has a bris. Since a mohel is trained to perform the actual cutting, the father gives the mohel permission to be his messenger for performing the act.
The day of the Bris Milah, when the baby’s parents are granted an opportunity to fulfill this very special Torah commandment, is a day of spiritual elevation and joy. It is an opportune time to pray for the spiritual and physical health of the new baby, as well as for the entire family. Some people will also sponsor a charitable event, or donate charity for a worthy cause on this special day.
The Bris Milah Ceremony
It is customary to perform the Bris as early as possible to show the excitement for carrying out this commandment. The baby is brought from the mother to the room where the Bris will take place. Often this is in the Synagogue as everyone is already there for the morning prayers. When the baby is brought into the room for the Bris, it is customary for everyone to greet the baby with a “Baruch Haba” (welcome).
In order to give honor to more close family and friends, the baby is then passed among the selected people, then to the father, and finally to the sandak, who holds the baby for the duration of the Bris Milah.
A special chair, sometimes especially created for this purpose, called the Chair of Eliyahu Hanavi is also placed near the sandak. Eliyahu Hanavi attends every single Bris Milah, and he has been doing so throughout the generations. The reason for this is that during the times of King Achav, when many Jews failed to fulfill many Torah commandments, Eliyahu Hanavi had complained to G-d that the Jews were no longer circumcising their babies. G-d then determined that Eliyahu Hanavi would visit every future bris ceremony and testify that the Jewish people do indeed preserve this commandment. Although we cannot see him, having Eliyahu Hanavi in our presence during a Bris Milah is a great honor.
A pillow is usually placed on the sandak’s lap for the baby to lay on, for comfort. The mohel then performs the Bris and when doing so recites the blessing “Baruch…asher kidishanu b’mitzvotzav v’tzivanu al hamilah” upon the act of the Bris Milah itself. The father then recites another blessing, upon the commandment of bringing his son into the covenant of Avraham Avinu: “Baruch…asher kidishanu..lehachniso b’vriso shel Avraham Avinu.”
After the procedure is complete, the baby may either remain with the sandak, or the baby may be passed onto another guest at the bris. At this point, the rabbi or another guest will make the blessing of Borei Pri Hagefen on a cupful of wine. This is followed by an additional blessing acknowledging the sanctification of the baby: “Baruch…asher kidesh yedid mibeten…” Afterthat, the baby’s name is announced. The mohel then recites a short prayer for the health of the baby.
It is customary for two drops of wine from the cup to be placed in the baby’s mouth so that he too partakes of the blessing which he has just heard, then the baby is passed back to the mother. At that point, the mohel will brief the family on proper care for the baby. (The mohel will also check in on the baby regularly over the coming days.)
Communal Customs Around the Bris Milah
In addition to the fundamental procedures at a Bris Milah, there are additional customs surrounding the bris milah in communities:
- Ashkenazim, for example, like to give honor to more of the guests and select a few men who will form a human chain and pass the baby from hand to hand, until it reaches the baby’s father. Another custom is to honor the bringing and returning of the baby to a couple who would like to merit having children. They call this honor the kvatter. The wife takes the baby from the baby’s mother and passes the baby to her husband, who in turn, takes the baby into the room where the bris will be performed. At the conclusion of the bris milah, the same thing happens in reverse.
- Some Sephardim say the Shehechiyanu blessing after the mohel completes the bris. As well as the ‘atzei besamim’ blessing on the myrtle leaf.
- The evening before the bris, there’s an Ashkenazi custom to have young boys come to the home of the baby and recite the Shema before him. Sephardim hold a night of learning the night before the Bris, called a Brit Yitzchak. A special order of learning is done, often with ten men present. Candles are sometimes lit and there is singing.
- In some Sephardi homes, the mother of the baby says the ‘hagomel’ blessing standing by the door when ten men are present for the Brit Yitzchak, or at the meal of the Bris Milah.
- Many people make an extra effort to attend a Bris as it is said that when the baby cries during the Bris Milah, the gates of prayer in Heaven are wide open. Praying in those moments for personal needs is therefore a special opportunity.
- Some people will also sponsor another baby’s bris milah on the day, or within the week, of their child’s bris milah.
A Jewish name holds great significance. It is not simply a word by which to call a person; it goes much deeper than that. G-d differentiates a soul from everything else in this world (from plants and animals) by creating people with names. Jewish tradition holds that the parents receive a degree of prophecy when naming their child since the name is linked to the very essence of the person. Since the name is that of the child’s soul and is linked to his character and essence, G-d gives the parents a part in the naming process with a level of prophecy.
Naming the baby boy after the circumcision also stems from the above-mentioned commandment to Avraham. Immediately after G-d commands him to perform a bris milah, G-d then changed Avraham’s name from Avram to Avraham. The commentary Rashi explains that the literal meaning of Avraham’s name changed: Avram denoted him as the father of a single place – Aram (which was his homeland). Avraham denoted him as the father of many nations. For this reason we learn that the Bris Milah is the appropriate time to name a new baby boy.
After the Bris, the attendees will wish the baby and his parents that he should grow well and that just like he enters the covenant of Avraham, so too shall he enter marriage, learn Torah and commit good deeds.
Seudos Mitzvah: A Celebratory Meal
The baby’s parents and guests now have the opportunity to celebrate the Bris Milah with a bris seudah. Usually a minimum of ten men are present at the meal, and challah or bread loaves with meat or fish is served. It may take place at a small catering hall, restaurant, or at the family home.
The occasion of a Bris Milah is likened to a Yom Tov. Therefore, it is customary for guests to wear Shabbos or Yom Tov clothing when attending. This is especially true for the baby’s immediate family, for whom the entire day is like a Yom Tov.
There are no rules when it comes to dressing the guest of honor at a Bris Milah. Often, though, the baby is dressed in white clothing that is easily accessible for the Bris Milah.
There’s no special gifts invited guests bring for a Bris. The parents will surely be happy with any gift received, just like for any newborn baby.
An especially meaningful way to gift the baby and parents on the day of the Bris Milah is by making a donation to their favorite charity in their honor. This gift is very heartwarming for the baby’s parents, and it gives the baby and his family special merits on a special day.