"EIGHT DAYS A WEEK" - CUSTOMS OF THE BRIT MILA
The Brit Mila (circumcision) is one of the most important rituals in Judaism. Every Jewish male since Avraham has been commanded to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life (or as soon as possible), and it is thus the Brit Mila that was often the commandment that foreign oppressors sought to prevent us from performing. It is one of only two positive commandments whose punishment is kareit (spiritual excision) if it is not kept.
While we will look at some of the philosophical aspects of Brit Mila next week, along with some select laws, our focus now will be on some of the various customs that have developed regarding this most important ritual. As we will see, the Midrashic and halachic literature have given rise to a myriad of practices that are widely kept, despite their not being mandated by the Torah or the Talmud.
Going in chronological order, we begin with the night before the Brit Mila. Based on statements in the Zohar, the pre-eminent work of Kabbala (Jewish mysticism), the custom developed to have a "Wach-nacht," or a night of guarding. The practice itself is for the father to spend the night learning, preferably the nineteenth chapter of Masechet Shabbat, which serves as the source for many of the laws of Brit Mila. Additionally, people gather in the home of the family to say Tehillim, and young boys participate by saying "HaMalach HaGoel" (Yaakov's blessing to Menashe and Ephraim).
While all of these practices in and of themselves are associated with protecting the Jewish people by calling upon Hashem to look favorably upon us and our actions, why is this done specifically the night before the Brit Mila? Two answers are given. The more kabbalistic answer is that a baby undergoing circumcision is in some degree of danger for health purposes, and thus we want to invoke protecting for him for the surgery he is about to undergo. The second reason is more historical. As mentioned above, Brit Mila was one of the rituals that was more frequently targeted by enemies of the Jews, specifically by the Greeks and Romans. Thus, people would gather together at the home of the new parents the night before a Brit Mila was to happen as a way of secretly coming together for this mitzva, as well as to keep the new parents safe. Even after the decrees were annulled, this practice remained as a reminder of harsher times.
Connected to this latter reason is the custom of having candles lit on the day of a Brit Mila. During times in history when it was forbidden to perform a Brit Mila, people would often announce that there was a Brit Mila in a house by leaving lit candles in the window. A more upbeat reason for this practice is brought down byYa'avetz based in the verse in Megillat Esther, "La-Yehudim hayta orah v'simcha v'sasson vikar." We learn that each of these words expressing joy represents a different mitzva, with "sasson" referring to Brit Mila. However, since it appears in the same verse as "orah," meaning light, we light candles to symbolize a more total and all-encompassing type of happiness.
This idea of involving other mitzvot in the Brit Mila is expressed as well in the practice of leaving one's tefillin on while the Brit Mila is being performed. AsShach notes, both tefillin and the Brit Mila are referred to as "ot," a sign of Hashem's presence in our lives, and thus we want to show that presence in as many ways as possible.
(Interesting, one of the reasons given for now wearing tefillin on Shabbat is because they are both considered to be signs, and thus there is no need for the sign of tefillin when we have the sign of Shabbat. This seems to operate in a manner diametrically opposed to the logic that pervades this custom by the Brit Mila. I am unsure as to why each works in the way that it does, and I welcome any suggestions.)
There are also several customs concerning guests at a Brit Mila. ThePitchei Teshuva (Y.D. 265:18) writes that the practice is not to formally invite people to a Brit Mila. This is based on a gemara in Pesachim, where we are told that anyone who does not partake of a se'udat mitzva (festive meal connected to a mitzva) should be excommunicated. Tosafot ad loc. interpret this to be speaking about the meal eaten after the Brit Mila. Thus, we do not invite people since if someone was invited and then was unable to attend for some external reason, there is the fear that he could be included among those excommunicated or worthy of such a punishment.
Speaking of guests, there is one guest who is invited to every Brit Mila, namely Eliyahu HaNavi. Traditionally, there is a chair set aside for Eliyahu, and the baby is either placed on the chair before the Brit Mila or during the Brit Mila itself (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 265:11). The reason that Eliyahu appears at every Brit Mila is based on a Midrash. In Melachim Alef (I Kings), chapter 19, when Eliyahu runs to Mount Chorev, he tells Hashem that he was zealous on behalf on Him, but the Jewish people refused to listen and continued to worship the Ba'al idols. He went on to say that the Jews had violated the covenant (Brit) between them and Hashem. As a result, Hashem rewarded Eliyahu by having him appear at every Brit Mila in the future, when the Jews would re-affirm their covenant with Hashem (see Abudraham).
Finally, there are a series of liturgy issues that we will deal with concerning the Brit Mila. In terms of the Brit Mila itself, it should be noted that we do not say the blessing of shehecheyanu, even if it is the father's first son. There are several reasons for this. The first reason is that we normally reserve this blessing for some time after thirty days have passed (i.e. we make this blessing on every holiday, each of which occurs only once a year). However, since a Brit Mila happens after only eight days, we omit the blessing. Even if the Brit Mila were to be delayed and not performed until after thirty days, this blessing would still be left out, since it is a blessing with a happy tone to it, and thus it is inappropriate to say it when the child is in such pain (this same reason is given to reject the possibility of saying "she-hasimcha bim'ono" in Birchat HaMazon at the Brit Mila).
It is also appropriate for the Brit Mila to be done where there is a minyan. The reason for this relates to the theme of the child being seen as one who was saved from captivity in his mother's womb. Since a person who leaves prison is one of the four people who has to praise Hashem in public (Birchat HaGomel), we gather a minyan for the event that represents this praise to Hashem (Chochmat Adam 149:21). For the same reason, the custom is for the verse "Hodu LaShem ki tov ki l'olam chasdo" to be recited twice. This is the verse that most succinctly represent praise of Hashem, and since the child is both a prisoner set free as well as one who has recovered from illness, we say this verse twice to represent the two reasons why he should be praising Hashem.
Finally, the Brit Mila is performed the morning services are totally complete. We reserve the recitation of Aleinu for after the Brit Mila. The reason for this is that in Aleinu we thank Hashem for not making us like the other nations of the world, and thus we want to wait until the child is a Jew in the most distinct way possible so that he can clearly be included in this praise as well.
Back toChabura-Net's Home Page