Circumcision in Israel by Nahum M. Sarna

The religious life of the Jew begins on the eighth day of his birth. Since the circumcision is performed on each individual at that age and is not, as it is frequently elsewhere, a ritual practiced collectively, it underscores the singularity of each Jew's relationship to God, his personal dedication and obligation as a member of a covenanted community. It is the distinguishing mark of Jewish identity and, more than anything else, has proved to be a powerfully cohesive force in the struggle for national survival.

father holding infant sonThe history of the observance of the institution among Jews is interwoven with that of the Jewish people itself. In the heyday of Hellenism some Jews tried artificially to efface the signs of circumcision by means of epispasm, that is, by having the prepuce drawn forward to cover up the corona.[1] But when the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes proscribed circumcision in 167 B.C.E., Jewish mothers suffered martyrdom for deliberately violating the royal decree.[2] This kind of resistance was the first sign of the rebellion that culminated in the Maccabean revolt.

When the Roman emperor Hadrian (ca. 130 C.E.) made circumcision a capital crime, this became one of the main causes of the Bar Kokhba insurrection (132-135 CE). Throughout the ages Jews clung tenaciously to the practice in defiance of ridicule and persecution on the part of Christian authorities and in the full consciousness of its vital role in Jewish self-preservation. It is important to note, however, that circumcision is not a sacrament in the Christian sense of the term but an indispensable obligation of Jewish law, since one born of a Jewish mother is automatically Jewish. It is the status of the mother, not the act of circumcision, that determines the infant's religious character as a Jew.

The primary responsibility for circumcision devolves upon the father. Since the average Jew is unable to perform the operation in accordance with the requirements of Jewish law, he commissions a trained mohel to act on his behalf. The mohel is selected not solely for his skill and learning but also for his piety. Similarly, the sandek (from the Greek synteknos, "godfather"), who has the privilege of holding the babe on his knees during the operation, is expected to be a God-fearing man.

The proper time for fulfilling the mitzvah is as soon as possible after sunrise on the eighth day after birth, even if it is a Sabbath or holy day. Should the birth take place just before sunset, that day is still regarded as one complete day. If, however, the child is born in the twilight period, rabbinic authority must be sought as to the correct time for performing circumcision. If circumcision has been postponed for medical reasons, it may not subsequently be carried out on a Sabbath or holy day. Once postponed, it is also not performed on a Thursday because this might lead unnecessarily to profanation of the Sabbath, which would be the third day after circumcision, when the pain is thought to be most intense and some special treatment might be called for.

The actual rabbinic procedure consists of three parts. First comes the surgical removal of the foreskin with a knife (hittukh, milah). Then the inner lining of the prepuce is firmly held between the thumbnail and index finger of each hand, is torn down as far as the corona, and then rolled back completely to expose the glans and the corona (peri'ah). After this, blood is sucked from the wound as a means of disinfection, a rite now often performed with the aid of a swab or glass tube (metsitsah).

From early times, the terms for uncircumcision and circumcision came to be used figuratively. A mind blocked to God's commandments has been described as "an uncircumcised heart,"[3] a heart that required "circumcising;"[4] one unreceptive to God's word as having "an uncircumcised ear;"[5] one impeded in his speech as having "uncircumcised lips"[6]. All these metaphors prove conclusively that circumcision in Israel was no mere formal outward ritual but was invested with a spiritual aspect that betokened dedication and commitment to God.

footnotes [*] This little will grow big. As he has entered into the Covenant so may he enter into Torah, marriage and good deeds (from the Brit milah ceremony). [back]
Maccabees. 1:15; TB. Yevamot 72a [back]
Maccabees 1:60f.; 2 Maccabees 6:10 [back]
Leviticus. 26:46; Jeremiah. 9:25; Ezekiel. 44:7, 9 [back]
Deuteronomy. 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah. 4:4 [back]
Jeremiah 6:10 [back]
Exodus 6:12, 30 [back]

JPS linkFrom: Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Copyright 1989 Jewish Publication Society of America (Philadelphia). pp. 385-87, (excursus 12). Permission of the author and Jewish Publication Society of America.



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