God further said to Abraham, As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
The Brit Milah ceremony is one of the most well-known ceremonies in Judaism. A Jewish baby boy undergoes this ritual at the age of eight days. The Brit Milah entails much excitement including the experience of birth and the bringing of a new member into the family and the community.
The Brit Milah is the first of many rites of passage that ingrain in their participants the basic values of our culture and tie them to the past and future of the Jewish people.
In the Rambam's Book of Love, we learn the following concerning the laws of circumcision:
There are no detailed descriptions of the Brit Milah in the Bible or the Talmudic writings, but it is possible to learn different details through the laws and agadot (a type of rabbinic literature) that discuss, mainly indirectly, the topic. The main thing the sources indicate is the Brit Milah's importance and centrality to our faith and customs. This centrality is expressed not only in performing the commandment but also in the way it is performed. Already in ancient times, it was the custom to perform this commandment with the accompaniment of a large celebration despite the fact that the ceremony and the celebration are not necessary components of the ritual of circumcision
An ancient example of the party accompanying the Brit Milah is described in the famous story of Elisha Ben-Abuya. In this story, the Brit Milah celebration of Elisha Ben-Abuya himself is described. From the story, we learn that already in this period it was the custom to have a festive meal for the Brit Milah with singing and dancing:
My father, Abuyah, was one of the important people in Jerusalem. When the day of my circumcision came, he invited all the important people of Jerusalem and sat them down in one room, with Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua in another room. When they had eaten and drunk they began stamping their feet and dancing. Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Yehoshua: While they are occupying themselves in their way we will occupy ourselves in our way. So they sat down and engaged in the study of the Torah, from the Pentateuch to the Prophets, and from the Prophets to the Writings. And fire fell from heaven and surrounded them.
Abuyah said to them: My masters, have you come to burn my house down around me?
They said: God forbid! But we were sitting searching around in the words of the Torah from the Pentateuch to the Prophets and from the Prophets to the Writings, and the words were as alive as when they were given from Mt. Sinai. And the fire shone around us as it shone from Mt. Sinai.
Abuyah, my father, said to them: My masters, if this is the power of the Torah, if this son of mine lives I will dedicate this son of mine to Torah.
(Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Hagigah 2:1, 77b)
Elisha Ben-Abuya, one of the sages of the Mishnah, lived in Eretz Yisrael during the second century of the Common Era. He was the rabbi of Rabbi Meir and the friend of Rabbi Akiva. At a certain point in his life, he entered the bad culture, leaving the way of life of the Talmudic sages. The character of Elisha, an important sage, who left his position as an older and respected member of his community, captured the imaginations of people in his own generation and later generations. During the Haskalah period, for instance, his leaving the house of learning received a special meaning.
From this agada on the Brit Milah of Elisha Ben-Abuya, it is possible to learn many things about the Brit Milah of the Mishnah and Talmudic period. As stated above, we see that the Brit Milah was an impressive ceremony. We also see that there were different ways of celebrating the event in this story, for instance, the party took place in two different locations and in two different ways. The Jerusalem sages celebrated with eating, drinking, singing, and dancing, whereas others celebrated by learning Torah.
We may additionally learn from this story that a great sense of anxiety hovers over the Brit Milah ritual. During ancient times, the Brit Milah entailed a significant danger to the life of the child. This concern for the life of the child is present in the words of Abuya to the sages: If this son of mine lives . . . "
Another agada describes a beautiful custom which connects the Brit Milah to the future rites of passage in one's life. The agada tells us of people who went to a Brit Milah party. At the party, The father of the baby gave them aged wine to drink and said: Drink from this good wine, and I trust in my God in heaven that I will also give you wine to drink on the day of my son's wedding. The guests answered: Just as he has entered the covenant so may he enter into the Torah and the marriage canopy. (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 3) The blessing of the participants indicates that they see the Brit Milah as the first stage in the child's joining the community. It is their hope that one day this child will expand his role in the community through Torah study, good deeds, and marriage.
The parents say:
Behold, we are prepared and ready to perform the positive commandment that the Creator, Blessed is God, has commanded us to circumcise our son.
The parents appoint the mohel (optional):
Behold, we appoint you to perform the circumcision of our son.
The Holy One, Blessed be God, said to Abraham, our forefather, 'Walk before me and be perfect.' Behold I am prepared and ready to perform the positive commandment that the Creator, blessed be God, has commanded us, to circumcise.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us regarding circumcision. (All: Amen)
The Mohel performs the circumcision.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to bring him into the covenant of Abraham, our forefather.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
The person reciting the Kiddush (this may be the rabbi or any family member or guest): Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, Ruler of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, Ruler of the universe, Who sanctified the beloved one from the womb and placed the mark of the decree in his flesh, and sealed his offspring with the sign of the holy covenant. Therefore, as a reward for this, O Living God, our Portion, our Rock, may You issue the command to rescue the beloved soul within our flesh from destruction, for the sake of His covenant that He has placed in our flesh. Blessed are You Hashem, Who establishes the covenant.
Our God and the God of our ancestors, preserve this child for this father and mother, and may his name be called in Israel (the child's name) the son of (father's and mother's names). May his father rejoice in the issue of his loins and may his mother exult in the fruit of her womb.
Just as he has entered the covenant so may he enter into the Torah, the marriage canopy, and good deeds.
The blessings are said by the rabbi, parents, or any one of the guests in attendance who is chosen by the parents (one may choose one of the blessings or say both of them):
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And Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.
Every festive ceremony is accompanied by an obligatory festive meal. Like Abraham who performed the first circumcision, we also hold a festive meal immediately after the end of the Brit Milah ceremony.
At the close of the ceremony, the Grace After Meals is said.