Ritual Circumcision

by Rabbi Daniel Schur

The fulfillment of the ritual circumcision, Brith Milah, is contingent upon proper differentiation between the RITE and the ACT of the circumcision, which when misinterpreted can preclude the necessary understanding of the spiritual-ritual importance relative to the scientific-medical influences.

The rite of circumcision is defined as a Brith or Covenant. This usage is based on the verse in Genesis(1) where circumcision is the sign of the covenant G-d made with Abraham:

And G-d said unto Abraham: "and as for thee, thou shalt keep my covenant, thou and thy seed after thee throughout their generation. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep between me and you and thy seed after thee; every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generation; he that is born in the house, or bought with money, any foreigner, that is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with the money must needs be circumcised; and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people. He hath broken my covenant."
Immediately after Abraham is commanded to circumcise himself, Abraham's name is changed from Abram to Abraham. Thus, the tradition of giving the baby his Hebrew name at the time of the circumcision(2). It is at the time of fulfillment of the covenant, and because of the covenant that a child is given his name during the ceremony.

Careful examination of various passages throughout our biblical and talmudical sources, demonstrates the importance and status of the circumcision rite within Jewish practice.

Rabbi Ishmael says "Great is the precept of circumcision since thirteen covenants were made therein, the word covenant occurring 13 times in Genesis 17." (3) The Rabbi recognizing the importance of maintaining the rite of circumcision as a basic element in Judaism, had long before ordained that the rite of circumcision, observed properly and with certainty, sets aside the Sabbath observance.

Rabbi Jose concurred that "circumcision is a great precept for it overrides the strictness of the Sabbath." (4)

Rabbi Joshua Ben Karha says: "Great is the precept of circumcision for neglect of which Moses did not have his punishment suspeneded for even a single hour.(5)

Rabbi says "Great is circumcision for despite all the religious duties which Abraham, our father, fulfilled, he was not considered 'tamim' (perfect) until he was circumcised."(6) As it is written in Genesis 17.1, "Walk before me and be thou perfect."

"Great is circumcision since but for that, the Holy One would not have created his world."(7) As it is written, "Thus said the Lord, 'But for My covenant by day and night I would not have set forth the ordinances of Heaven and earth'."(8)

Rabbis' teaching also relates that "Great is circumcision for it counterbalances all the other precepts of the Torah." As it is written in Exodus,(9) " ... For after the tenor of these words I have made a Covenant with thee and with Israel."(10) "The tenor of these words" refers to all G-d's precepts, "Covenant" is used synonymously with circumcision. Hence the balance between the precepts of the Torah with the covenant of circumcision.

Rabbi Eleazar of Modium said: "He who makes void the Covenant of Abraham our Father has no position in the World to Come."(11) Careful examination of Biblical sources(12) seems to indicate that the Rite of circumcision is a means, a sign, or symbol of the covenant. However, the circumcision, in itself is not defined as a covenant.

The Act of circumcision involving the removal of the prepuce does not fulfill the obligation of the Rite of circumcision. There are basic conditions to this rite or covenant.(13)

The eighth day is a biblical prerequisite of the fulfillment of the Brith or covenant, and is stressed throughout the Jewish law. "And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac, at the age of eight days, as G-d had commanded him."(14)

As stated by Beth Joseph(15), and Ramah(16), any circumcision that has been performed before the eighth day does not fulfill the original covenant of Brith Mila that G-d made with Abraham. Mere cutting or removing of skin, even according to Jewish law does not fulfill the covenant. Hence, if one circumcises a child prior to the eighth day, this individual has no share in the world to come.

Great is the importance of the fulfillment of the covenant connected with the circumcision, that if one who is circumcised has in mind to render himself by artifical devices uncircumcised, he has no share in the world to come.(17)
We have thus far illustrated that Brith Milah is a sign or symbol of the covenant, and that removing the skin of the prepuce is a means of fulfilling this covenant. However, this fulfillment is hinged on the concept of the eighth day which is biblical.

Another condition for fulfillment of the Brith Milah is that a stranger to Judaism, even if he is circumcised, or an Israelite who does not follow the rules of Brith Milah according to the dictates of the Torah, or one who is himself uncircumcised, or still, one who desecrates the Sabbath -- is forbidden to circumcise. Furthermore, if these individuals have circumcised,(18) we have made void the ritual of circumcision. For in order to fulfill the rite of circumcision, one must himself be imbued with a commitment and conviction of circumcision. Hence, it is not only the removal of the prepuce, but also the psychological, emotional, and religious state of the Mohel, the one who performs the circumcision, that allows the covenant to be meaningfully culminated.

Thus, in summary, ritual circumcision is based on ritual theology rather than on any medical or health doctrine. Removal of the prepuce does not ascribe meaningful fulfillment of the ritual Covenant of Brith Milah. Before the eighth day a Brith is declared void. An observant Jew must be the Mohel, the one who performs the circumcision; technically trained and religiously authorized.


  1. 17.9-14.

  2. Genesis: 17.5

  3. Mishna-Nedarim 3-11.

  4. Nedarim 3-11.

  5. Nedarim 3-11.

  6. Nedarim 32-A.

  7. Nedarim 3-11.

  8. Jeremiah 33.25.

  9. 34.27

  10. Nedarim 32-A.

  11. Avoth 3-15.

  12. Genesis 17.9-14.

  13. Genesis 21.4.

  14. Genesis 17.

  15. Chapter 364, p. 196.

  16. Chapter 364, p. 83.

  17. The Mishna and Herbert Danby, 451-13.

  18. Ose Shalom, 364, small paragraph 5, and the Bach-Yera-Deya, 364.