April Rubin, MD
Fellow, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Graduate, Jewish Theological Seminary Brit Kodesh
Brit milah is possibly the oldest ritual in our nearly 4,000 year history: thus, it is rich with many beautiful customs. I will describe the customs I routinely follow, although I am always willing to incorporate other customs, especially family traditions.
Prior to the ceremony, I will examine your son, apply a topical anesthetic to his penis or a penile block, and review the ceremony with you. I normally arrive 30 minutes prior to the ceremony to do this.The ceremony itself has three parts. The first part comprises the ceremonial aspect of the brit as well as the actual circumcision. This part lasts twenty to thirty minutes. The circumcision itself is very quick, usually no more than a minute. The second part of the ceremony is the baby naming. This is usually an emotional event as parents are encouraged to talk about the person(s) the baby is being named after, and the characteristics they hope their baby will have in common with the honored individual(s) who previously bore this name. The third part of the ceremony is the customary festive meal (se-udat mitzvah) for all of your guests.
Photo credit: Betty Adler
The ceremony itself starts with a friend or family member lighting the candles. The origin of lit candles is not clear. The Talmud refers to the practice during a time when circumcision was prohibited: a lit candle in a window signaled the community where and when a brit was to take place. A more spiritual origin may be that a lit candle represents a spark of life, a new soul entering the Jewish community.
Following the lighting of the candles, I exclaim 'kvatter' and one or two appointed guests bring the baby into the room. As the baby enters the room, everyone stands and greets him with the words, Baruch Habah! (Blessed is he who enters!) The Kvatter then places the baby on a chair, which has been set aside for the prophet Elijah. The chair for Elijah is in recognition of his honor to be at each brit. Elijah the prophet is called the guardian angel of children because G-d allowed him to miraculously revive the lifeless son of a widow in the town of Zarepeth. Also, Elijah lived in the time of Ahab, king of the northern kingdom of Israel. Under the influence of Jezebel, Ahab's wife, people disobeyed G-d's commandments to the extent that they worshiped idols and did not perform brit milah. Elijah railed against the people for their false ways, and they eventually returned to worship G-d and perform brit milah. Finally, according to tradition, Elijah will return to Earth to announce the coming of the messianic era. Elijah's chair thus represents our silent prayer for the baby's safety, a sign of our faithfulness to G-d's law, and an expression of our hope that G-d will bring the Messiah soon, perhaps during the life of the child or even in our own lifetime. For these reasons, it is customary to decorate this chair.
A parent then takes the baby from Elijah's chair and hands him to the Sandek, who will hold the baby during the circumcision. The Sandek will place the baby on the pillow placed on the table on which the circumcision will be performed. The table on which the brit will be performed is considered an altar. It can be beautified by covering it with a blue and/or white cloth, placing flowers and/or pictures of relatives (especially the person(s) your son will be named after) on it and the presence of your Kiddush (wine) cup.
The Sandek holds the baby on the pillow while I recite the blessing of ritual circumcision and perform the circumcision. The parent(s) then recites the blessing of the covenant. I then recite the Kiddush and several prayers of thanksgiving, and the baby is swaddled and handed to his mother. I (or a rabbi if present) then perform the naming ceremony. Usually at this time either the mother or father (or both) will speak about the person(s) for whom the baby is named. Any other suitable short readings (poetry or prose) may be selected for reading or recitation by parents, relatives or honored guests either at this time or just prior to the naming part of the ceremony. Following this, we normally sing and then celebrate with the festive meal. I customarily stay for 15-30 minutes following the ceremony to allow sufficient time to ensure that your baby is not experiencing any complications and has weathered his entry into the Covenant with G-d in fine shape. During this time, I will change the baby's diaper with you and go over care of the circumcision.
Some have asked what is done with the foreskin, which is removed. By custom, it is placed in earth or sand. Some will do this in their yard and plant a tree in the same spot. They may then cut a branch of this tree to be used in the huppah when that son marries. If you would like to bury the foreskin after your son's brit, please let me know and I will give it to you. Otherwise, I will dispose of it in an appropriate manner.
Under the tab Information for the Brit I list the honored roles you may wish your guests to fulfill at the brit. Also, there is a form I need filled out in advance since it provides information necessary for the ceremony.