parsha of the week

This week’s commandment: Circumcision

Our columnist, himself a mohel, offers advice on what to ask a mohel before a bris milah


Everyone knows that the Bris Milah, the Covenant of Circumcision, dates back to the covenant forged between G-d and Abraham, covering chapter 17 of Bereshit. What is sometimes overlooked is that the commandment to circumcise is not so much based on that family tradition begun 4,000 years ago as on a verse in this week’s parsha that describes the immediate aftermath of the birth of a boy — “and on the eighth day, his foreskin shall be excised” (Vayikra 12:3). The view that we circumcise on account of the commandment given at Sinai is championed by Maimoinides in his commentary to Mishnah (Hullin chapter 7) where he writes:

“You must know that everything we are careful about or do today, we only do it because of a commandment of G-d [delivered] through the hand of Moshe. … And we do not circumcise because Abraham circumcised himself and the men of his household, but because G-d commanded us, through Moshe’s hand, to circumcise.”

This week, which included Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), the obsession over Jewish circumcision is easily recalled through such Holocaust films as “Europa Europa” (1990), in which the protagonist, Solomon Perel, a member of the Hitler youth, hides his circumcision, and a prisoner proves he is not Jewish by showing that he is uncircumcised.

For the Jewish people, circumcision is not only a tradition, and a mitzvah, but our oldest identification mark. While it is true that circumcision today is a widespread custom through much of the world, and was even practiced at different time periods in ancient Egypt, it is largely identified as a Jewish act, perhaps more identifiable in this sense than anything other than Passover.

The Jewish gangsters of the 1930s and ’40s violated just about every Jewish tenet one could imagine, but they mostly married Jewish women and all circumcised their sons. Why? Probably because they were proud of being Jewish, even if they did not practice (though Samuel Levine tried not to kill on the sabbath).

In his Guide to the Perplexed (3:49), a chapter which must be read in its entirety, Maimonides makes this point: “This commandment has not been enjoined as a complement to a deficient physical creation, but as a means for perfecting man’s moral shortcomings. The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired; it does not interrupt any vital function, nor does it destroy the power of generation. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust.”

While I don’t think I need to sell circumcision to the readers of this column, there are some things worth noting about the so-called religious circumcision industry, and the methods of circumcisions employed today. As in anything, let the buyer beware, and always do your research before hiring a mohel!

Methods of circumcision: There are primarily three methods utilized by mohels today — freehand, shield, and clamp. Very few people use the freehand method. While those who use it argue that it is the least painful to the baby, it is also the second most dangerous as it doesn’t adequately protect the baby from an accidental amputation. Using a shield is the safer traditional method, which protects the parts we don’t want to touch, while not entering the realm of the problematic clamps. When used correctly, clamps have the chance to give the most asthetically pleasing and bloodless circumcision. While asthetics are certainly something to concern with, a bloodless bris is invalid, and Google “botched circumcision” to see how dangerous clamps can be. Find out which method your mohel uses before hiring.

Metzitzah: The ancient ritual of removing blood from the circumcision spot immediately after the incision has been in the news of late because of the largely-Hassidic custom of doing this with the mouth directly. In a modern world, this method should go the way of the dodo-bird. Halakhically valid metzitzah through a sterile-tube conforms with modern sensibilities and does not put the baby at risk. Find out how your mohel does metzitzah before hiring!

Sterility: Some mohels autoclave their instruments. Some dip them in alcohol before circumcising. Inquire — he’s your baby! Some mohels wear gloves when they circumcise. Some refuse to. If you wouldn’t let a dentist clean your teeth without wearing gloves, how can you consider allowing a mohel to circumcise your baby, causing a significant open wound, without his wearing sterile gloves?

Marking the foreskin with a surgical pen: Experienced surgeons mark their incision spot before operating, to guide their work and to remove one element of potential human error. The benefit to babies with less foreskin or smaller surface area to work with cannot be overstated, and the appeal of a more precise and exact circumcision should be obvious to all. Inquire how your mohel assures the proper amount of foreskin removal.

All of these suggestions are meant to help glorify this mitzvah and make its fulfillment more appealing and more honorable. Better than negative press about bris milah is no press about bris milah, when we simply fulfill our mitzvah without fanfare and we are blessed to have circumcisions that go without incident, with babies healing properly and families moving on with their Jewish lives.

May the first mitzvah in the life of each baby boy be worry-free and filled with joy.

Rabbi Avi Billet, who grew up in Woodmere, is a mohel based in Florida. He can be found at