Brit Milah (the Covenant of Circumcision)
The ceremony of circumcision, by which a boy enters the Covenant of Israel on his eighth day of life, goes back to Abraham, who was commanded by God to circumcise himself, his son Ishmael, and all the males in his household, as a sign of the covenant (Genesis, chapter 17). Since then, Jews have circumcised their sons, often risking grave danger, to welcome them into the Covenant.
Circumcision has played an important role in Jewish identity and culture for more than three millennia, and continues to do so today. Circumcision is performed on the eighth day unless health considerations advise against it (in which case it is postponed until a physician gives permission) and may even be performed on Shabbat or Yom Kippur, indicating its importance in Jewish tradition.
While parents are commanded to circumcise their sons, few are qualified to perform this surgical procedure and appoint a mohel as their agent. It is traditional to schedule the brit milah as early in the day as possible, signifying one’s eagerness to observe the mitzvah. The baby is brought into the room by the sandek (godparent) who sits and holds the child in a chair that has been designated as Elijah’s Chair. Following the circumcision, the child’s Hebrew name is announced. The connection between circumcision and naming also derives from the seventeenth chapter of Genesis, because after God forges the covenant of circumcision with Avram, God changes Avram’s name to Avraham.
Our ritual committee is available to answer any questions you may have regarding this most important of Jewish life cycle events. If you wish to follow the Brit Milah with a Kiddush or festive meal, you can contact our temple office.
(Redemption of the Firstborn)
In B’Midbar (the Book of Numbers 18:15-16) we read: “The first issue of the womb of every being, human or animal, that is offered to the Lord shall be yours [the priest’s], but the firstborn of humans shall be redeemed, and the firstlings of unclean animals shall be redeemed. Take as their redemption price from the age of one month up, the money equivalent to five shekels by the sanctuary weight, which is twenty gerahs.” The Torah claims for God every firstborn, human and animal. The firstborn male of ancient Israelite families had special obligations since, from the day of birth he was consecrated to the vocation of assisting the priests in the conduct of the sacrificial cult. Once the Tabernacle was built, the duty was transferred to the Levites. Since that time, firstborn Jewish males have been released from their obligation through a ceremony called Pidyon HaBen.
Pidyon HaBen applies only to the firstborn male child of a Jewish woman who “opens the womb,” that is, who is delivered vaginally. Babies delivered by Caesarean-section do not have to be redeemed because they did not “open the womb”. In addition, if the woman had previously been pregnant but miscarried, redemption of a subsequent full term pregnancy is required only if the miscarriage took place within 40 days of conception. If a woman’s first child was delivered by C-section, and she subsequently gives birth to a son, the second born son does not have to be redeemed (because he is not firstborn). Finally, the firstborn of Kohanim and Leviim are exempt, as are the firstborn of daughters of Kohanim and Leviim.
The redemption ceremony takes place when the child is a full thirty days old, hence from the thirty-first day of life, unless that day falls on a Shabbat or festival, in which case it is postponed one day because the ceremony involves a monetary transaction. It is customary to use five silver dollars, since we no longer have shekalim and the dollars are considered equivalent for this purpose. The five silver dollars are transferred to a Kohan during the ceremony, and are often donated to charity.
The Pidyon HaBen, as with all Jewish Simchas, is followed by a Kiddush or a festive meal.
Simchat Bat and Brit Banot
(Welcoming a Daughter into the Covenant)
Traditionally, the only rite recognizing the birth of a daughter is the naming. Her father is called for an aliyah following her birth and prayers are said for the child’s and mother’s health, and her name was announced publicly.