What is a Bris?

The tradition of ritual circumcision, brit milah (or bris milah in Ashkenazic pronunciation) has been embraced by the Jewish people for millennia as a mark of commitment to Jewish identity. It is traditionally performed eight days after a baby is born during daylight hours and is followed by a festive meal in celebration of the event. The word 'brit' means covenant, and represents the bond that exists between G-d and each Jew from the moment of birth. The very first commandment given by G-d to our forefather Abraham was to circumcise the males of his household (Genesis 17:12).

A brit is performed by a mohel, a person trained in the ritual laws that relate to circumcision and who has the necessary medical expertise to perform this operation. The mohel will ascertain that the baby is healthy enough to undergo the procedure on the eighth day (otherwise the brit is postponed, a common occurrence in jaundiced, or 'yellow' babies), perform the brit milah, and perform a follow up consultation with the parents to ensure that the baby is well and healing. Parents should expect to be asked by the mohel the name they wish to give the baby, the number of relatives and friends to be given roles in the ceremony, and any special circumstances or requests that warrant attention.

The brit milah ceremony takes approximately half an hour, depending on factors such as how many people will receive honors, whether there will be many pauses for photographs, etc. The brit milah ceremony begins with the newborn child being carried into the room where the brit will take place by the kvatter (male) and/or kvatterim (female), family members or friends designated with this honor. The mohel will announce the baby's arrival and place the baby momentarily on the kisei shel Eliyahu, a special chair designated for Elijah the prophet who visits each brit as witness to the enduring faith of the Jewish people. The child is then given to the sandek, the person honored with holding the baby during the circumcision. Serving as sandek is a considered a very special honor and is traditionally reserved for the new grandparent.

Since technically it is the parent who is charged with the obligation to circumcise the newborn child, the mohel performing the ceremony will often ask the parents at this time to formally designate him/her as their agent to perform the ceremony. The mohel will then recite the blessings over the commandment of circumcision and perform the actual cutting and peeling back of the foreskin. Those gathered respond by expressing the wish that just as the baby entered the covenant of brit, so too may he grow to study Torah, marry under the chuppah, and perform good deeds. The performance of the brit lasts no more than a few moments and can be finished before the relatives squeezing in for a photograph even have their cameras focused!

Once the actual circumcision is finished the wound is cleaned and dressed. A blessing over wine is then recited and the baby is blessed and given a Hebrew name. An additional person may be honored with the task of holding the baby during this process, and the naming can be done by a Rabbi or other guest aside from the mohel.

The birth of a newborn and the ceremony of brit milah is a joyous occasion and an appropriate festive meal, a seudat mitzvah, is held in celebration. This is an especially fitting time for a parent or Rabbi to say a few words about the meaning of the occasion, the choice of name (often the baby is named for someone in the family), and to offer their blessing to the newborn.