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Brit Milah: The Covenant of Circumcision

“And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you.”  (Genesis 17:7)

Abraham, Journey, Ur, Canaan

Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan, by József Molnár

After leaving his pagan homeland of Ur, Abraham entered into a divine covenant with the Almighty God.  Elohim promised him that he would be the father of many nations, but through Isaac He would establish an everlasting covenant.

Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac.  I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 

And as for Ishmael, I have heard you:  I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers.  He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.  

But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.’  (Genesis 17:19–21)

The sign of the covenant that God sealed with Abraham was circumcision,  which is called brit milah in Hebrew.  It is the first milestone in a Jewish boy’s life. 

Abraham and all his descendants were to be set apart by the ceremony of circumcision.  It was to be a reminder of their everlasting covenant with God throughout all generations.

“This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you:  Every male among you shall be circumcised.  And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.”  (Genesis 17:10–11)

It’s a graphic reminder that our bodies, even that which performs the sacred act of creating life itself, is to be sanctified and devoted to the Almighty.  

Covenant, Abraham

Preparations for the brit milah on the table are: a clamp, scissors, a sharp knife, kiddush cup, sweet wine, and a prayer book.  Man holding the baby boy is sitting on the chair of Elijah while the mohel performs the milah (circumcision).

Naming During the Brit Milah

“On the eighth day, when it was time for His brit milah, He was given the name Yeshua (Jesus), which is what the angel had called Him before his conception.”  (Luke 2:21)

Throughout the generations of Israel, this covenant has been faithfully transmitted,  and so we read in the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) that the Jewish Messiah was circumcised on the eighth day according to the Law of Moses.

In the above verse, we also notice that Yeshua received His name on the day of His brit milah, which was as customary back then as it is today.

Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist) was also named at his brit milah (circumcision).  In fact, a debate arose after the ceremony over his name.  The logic of the day was that the child should be called Zechariah after his father or another relative, but Elizabeth, his mother spoke up and said, “No, he is to be called Yochanan (John).”  (Luke 1:60)

This tradition of naming a boy on the day of his brit milah continues to this day.

Recently, my daughter, Courtney, gave birth to a son here in the Land of Israel.  Eight days later, her infant boy was brought into covenant with the God of Israel through the sign of circumcision. 

And because a Jewish child is usually named at the brit milah (circumcision) ceremony, I eagerly awaited the eighth day to learn of the name of my new grandson – Peleh David.

Brit Milah, eight-day old, grandson

Proud Jewish Grandmother with her daughter and her eight-day-old grandson Peleh David at his brit milah.

The Brit Milah: A Serious Matter in the Hebrew Scriptures

“On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”  (Leviticus 12:2)

Most Jewish people take the commandment of the brit milah very seriously.

It’s such an important Jewish observance that it takes precedence over even the holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).  If  the eighth day after birth occurs on this solemn day of prayer and strict fasting, the bris (as it’s commonly called in some communities) must still proceed as usual.

For instance, my grandson’s bris took place on the holy day of Rosh Hashana, despite what seemed insurmountable odds.

Courtney was still connected to an intravenous infusion, and the mohel (a Jewish man specially trained in circumcision) could not drive his car on this High Holiday because he was an observant Orthodox Jew; he would have to walk quite a distance to the venue….  The brit milah (covenant of circumcision) was nevertheless performed on the eighth day after Peleh’s birth!  Mazel Tov!

Many passages of Scripture confirm that God considers the mitzvah (commandment) of brit milah extremely important.

In a portion of Scripture rarely preached from the pulpit, while Moses is following through on God’s command to deliver Israel from Egypt, God actually seeks to kill Moses simply because he had failed to circumcise his son. 

“At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him.  But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.  So the Lord left Moses alone.”  (Exodus 4:24–26)  

Circumcision, Sakkara

The oldest known illustration of circumcision is a tomb drawing in Ankhmahor, Sakkara, Egypt.

Yet another instance reveals the brit milah’s importance.  When Joshua led the children of Israel from the wilderness into the Promised Land, the first thing God commanded him to do was insist that all the male children be circumcised in order to remove the disgrace of Egypt.  (Joshua 5:9)

Circumcision is actually an ancient custom, originating perhaps a couple of hundred years before the time of Abraham.  As far back as 4000 BCE, young boys were circumcised as a rite of passage to manhood, as is evidenced by ancient Egyptian tomb carvings.

But the uniqueness of the Brit Milah for the Jewish people is found in Genesis 17 where God commanded that all male children be circumcised on the eighth day as a sign of the covenant.

Why the eight day?  According to Jewish tradition, the number eight symbolizes new life – a new cycle following the seventh day of rest that completes the week.

Doctors have since discovered that the eighth day is optimal for blood clotting mechanisms in the body to heal.

Brit, milah

The brit milah is performed by a mohel, one who is specially trained to perform the rite of circumcision.

Brit Milah in Traditional Jewish Observance

While circumcision is a relatively simple procedure, within traditional Judaism elaborate customs have been developed around this observance, although these customs do vary somewhat between communities.  

The location of the brit milah is often at home or at a special venue such as a hotel or banquet center.  

This event is accompanied by a catered celebration, in which honored guests such as friends and family are invited to witness the moment the child enters into this holy covenant.  

The person performing the circumcision, called a mohel in Hebrew, is usually designated as the father’s shaliach (representative) since it’s the father’s responsibility to circumcise his son.  

The mohel must be an observant Jew who is a respected spiritual leader in his Jewish community.  He must also be specially trained to perform the rite of brit milah.

Several special, honored participants play a role in the brit milah of the child.

The first honored role is that of kvatterin, the person who takes the baby from the mother’s arms to the room where the circumcision will be performed.  In Orthodox Judaism, this is the only honor given to a woman during the bris.

As the baby is ushered into the room, the guests recite in unison “Baruch Haba B’shem HaShem” (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord), which is from Psalm 118.

Chair, Elijah, kisei Eliyahu, Jewish Tradition, Brit Milah, Prophet Elijah

The chair of Elijah (kisei Eliyahu): according to Jewish tradition, just before the brit milah one person sits with the child on the chair to welcome the Prophet Elijah.

The participant honored next is the kvatter who transfers the baby  from the kvatterin to the person standing next to kisei Eliyahu (the chair of Elijah).

Interestingly enough, the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) plays an important role in many Jewish customs, including the brit milah.  It’s traditionally believed that Elijah attends each brit milah as an honored guest.

While no one actually sits in the seat of Elijah (left facing seat), the baby is symbolically placed in the chair.  Because Elijah the Prophet was the faithful guardian of the covenant in his generation, the child entering this same covenant is first presented to Elijah.  

The baby is next transferred from the chair of Elijah to the father, who then presents him to the person who will hold the baby during the ceremony, the Sandek

The Sandek sits on a chair and holds the baby securely on a special pillow to await the work of the mohel.

Both the mohel and the father recite special blessings and prayers before and after the procedure, which is performed swiftly.  No anesthetic is used but the baby is given pain killers beforehand and a few drops of sweet Kiddush wine.   

Sabato_Birkat_Kohanim_Brit

Rabbi blessing the baby at a brit milah

Spiritual Lessons of Brit Milah

As vital as this ceremony is, understanding the spiritual lessons of circumcision is perhaps, of greater importance.

The Torah emphasizes that circumcision reminds all that our whole being – every part of our lives – needs to be submitted to God.

“Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.”  (Deuteronomy 10:16)

A heart that loves God is a circumcised heart.  Such a heart is accomplished through the work of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) and is not something accomplished with human efforts, unlike the physical act of brit milah, which teaches us some human effort is required in keeping covenant with God.  

“The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love Him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”  (Deuteronomy 30:6)

Yeshua-hand

“I will take hold of your hand.  I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.”  (Isaiah 42:6)

The Significance of the Brit Milah in the Brit Chadashah

At some point in Judaism, the question arose regarding Gentiles who wanted to join themselves with Israel’s faith.  In addition to living a Torah observant lifestyle, converts were required to undergo a mikvah (ritual water immersion) and circumcision.

This issue was also discussed at the Jerusalem Council as described in Acts 15.  Here, the mikvah became the primary requirement for Gentiles to be joined in faith through the Messiah.

The Brit Chadashah (New Covenant) reaffirms that the spiritual lesson of the Brit Milah is a circumcision of the heart accomplished through Messiah Yeshua (Jesus).

It’s in union with Him that the heart is circumcised with a circumcision achieved by stripping away the old nature’s control over the body.  (Colossians 2:9–11)

“In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, but in a [spiritual] circumcision [performed by] Messiah by stripping off the body of the flesh (the whole corrupt, carnal nature with its passions and lusts).”  (Colossians 2:11)

Gerrer, Rebbe, Yaakov, Alter, Sandek, Brit Milah

Gerrer Rabbi Yaakov alter performing the role of Sandek at a brit milah.

Although the circumcision of the heart is emphasized as of primary value, the New Testament never denounces the Brit Milah.

In fact, before Timothy was sent to minister to the Jewish people (his mother was Jewish but his father was Greek), the apostle Paul made sure that he was first circumcised.  (Acts 16:1–3)

Likewise, most Messianic Jews continue to practice the commandment of Brit Milah, keeping in mind that the outward sign of circumcision doesn’t make anyone righteous.  We understand that our righteousness is made through Yeshua the Messiah.

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