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Latest revision: 14 August 2014

The Covenant of Circumcision

by Rabbi Dr Bernard Susser BA, LLB, MPhil

People carry out many rituals in different societies whose meaning is lost in the mists of antiquity - a handshake, for example, or a salute. The operation which we call circumcision dates back to prehistoric times and together with the trepanning of the skull is the earliest operation known to man.

Circumcision (Hebrew, Milah), as it is performed by Jews - the Jewish method differs somewhat from the surgical operation - is done in obedience to a divine command to Abraham and his physical and/or spiritual descendants after him:

This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and thy descendants after thee, every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised on the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations (Genesis 17:10-12).

The very fact that there was no need to tell Abraham what was entailed by circumcision, except to restrict the operation to males and to the male reproductive organ, indicates that the procedure was known to Abraham.

In the above passage, God first describes Milah as a covenant (Hebrew, Brith), as though to say that the mere performance of the act is the Jew's fulfilment of his part of the covenant. God goes on to call it 'the sign of the covenant', ie a symbol to represent the Brith. To this day Jews amongst themselves, speaking colloquially, refer to the Brith rather than the Milah.

Not performing the act is tantamount to breaking the covenant, as it says explicitly:

And an uncircumcised male whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; My covenant hath he invalidated (Genesis 17:14).

Biblical Hebrew uses the term 'uncircumcised' in relation to ears (Jeremiah 6:10) and lips (Exodus 6:12), the heart (Leviticus 26:41), and the first three-year growth of fruit (Leviticus 19:23). The term seems to imply something over which people have no mastery, an 'uncircumcised of flesh' is someone who does not have control of his body. By circumcision the Jew's body receives the stamp of submission to the Divine will. 'It is on the body in the first instance', declares the foremost nineteenth-century German Jewish commentator, Samson Raphael Hirsch, 'not on the mind, that God founded his Covenant first of all'. God's covenant with the Jew has no schizophrenic dimension. Body and soul are judged together. The soul cannot be left free to 'soar upward to lofty thoughts and noble conceptions whilst the body wallows in the mire of sensuality'.

This sign of the covenant was expressly designed for the male Jew. In the English and Romance languages the derivation of the word 'male' and 'masculine' is derived from the Latin 'mas', a root meaning heavy or the strong one, whereas the Hebrew word for male is zachar, which has the same root letters as 'to remember'. In the Jewish tradition the male Jew has the obligation of remembering and reminding, of transmitting the tradition. The male Jew needs, because of the nature of all males, ever to be reminded by the sign of the covenant of the Abrahamic tradition. The Jewess, on the other hand, IS the tradition. That is why Scripture follows the covenant of circumcision command to Abraham with a revelation to him that Sarai is in reality Sarah, the mother of the nation. He may never have realized it, he might have regarded her as his princess. It took a Divine revelation (Genesis 17:15) to make him aware that Sarah was the very embodiment of the covenant, and that Sarah's issue and the issue of every Jewess to the end of time would be Jewish, whereas Abraham's issue and the issue of Jewish males by a Gentile woman would not be Jews. Isaac the son of Abraham and Sarah was a Jew, his half-brother Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, was not. To be a Jew it is not sufficient to have an 'Abraham' for a father unless one has a 'Sarah' for a mother. A Jewish woman is her husband's crown, say the Rabbis, he is distinguished through her, but she does not require him to receive the wreath of fame.

'Voltaire spoke with scorn of a God who could care whether or not people cut off their children's foreskins; thus summing up in one entertaining image the whole sceptical reaction to religious form. Spinoza, an equally severe sceptic, was not as funny as Voltaire; in fact there was little fun in him; but he was the profounder of the two', writes Herman Wouk in his This is my God. "So great importance do I attach to this sign, I am persuaded that it is sufficient by itself to maintain the separate existence of the nation forever" (Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) 3:53).

The obligation to ensure that the sign of the covenant is implanted upon the eight-day-old baby is placed upon the father. Seemingly, God considered that it would be too great a strain on maternal love to demand of the mother that she directly involve herself in what is an operation on her new-born son.

In times of emergency, however, Jewish mothers have not hesitated to carry out the commandment, even at the cost of their lives. The Bible seems to indicate that Queen Jezebel placed a ban on Brith Milah (I Kings 19:14), a ban which was vigorously opposed by the prophet Elijah. It is for this reason that when the baby is brought into the room before the ceremony, he is placed on 'Elijah's chair', (many German communities kept a specially designed elaborate chair for this purpose). But the first definite prohibition of circumcision was enacted under Antiochus Epiphanes (I Maccabees 1:48). There we read that many mothers who had their sons circumcised suffered martyrdom. It is recorded:

two women were brought up for having circumcised their children; and these, when they had led them publicly round about the city, with the babes hung from their breasts, they cast down headlong from the wall (II Maccabees 6:10).

The heroic spirit of ancient mothers inspired one Jewish woman who gave birth to a baby boy in the Janowska concentration camp. She confronted a German officer and demanded a knife. Fervently reciting the appropriate blessing she circumcised her child. Then she raised her eyes heavenward and declared, 'Master of the Universe, You have given me a healthy child. I am returning to you a Kosher Jew' (Y. Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (OUP, New York, 1982)).

In happier times, after the Brith Jewish mothers whilst recovering from childbirth would embroider a wrapper which would later be used to bind the Scroll of the Torah. The wrapper, called in Hebrew a mappah, often translated as a wimpel, is a band about 4 to 6 inches wide and of sufficient length to be wound around the entire height of the Scroll. Sometimes the swaddling cloth used at the circumcision was cut into four parts and then sewn together. When the boy first visited the synagogue, usually when he became four years old (and hence, I believe, the four parts of the mappah, though other symbolisms are possible), he would bring the mappah with him and present it to the congregation in a little ceremony which ended with the child being permitted to touch and kiss the Torah and its ornaments.

The mappah bore Hebrew text giving the child's Jewish name (giving a name at the circumcision ceremony was an ancient Jewish custom -see Luke 1:59) and his date of birth. It ended with the stereotyped wish expressed in the circumcision ceremony that the child would grow up to study Torah, enter into marriage, and perform good deeds.

The text was usually embroidered but also sometimes stencilled. Pictures were often painted of birds or animals, or the signs of the zodiac, or next to the good wish of study, somebody holding aloft the Scroll of the Torah (hagbaha); of marriage, a bride and groom beneath the marriage canopy (huppah); of good deeds, bestowing charity. It was customary to use 'his' mappah to bind the Scroll on the Sabbath of his Bar Mitzvah, ie when he was first called to the Torah on attaining the age of thirteen.

The mappah finally made an appearance in the personal life of the boy at his wedding. It was customary to stretch the mappah between the poles carrying the marriage canopy.

In this way the ceremonies of the life-cycle were maintained. Long before State Registration of Births a record was made by a doting mother which found its way into the holy vestments of the synagogue, to accompany her baby through his life. The mappot which survive are today found often only in museums, relics of a bye-gone age. The covenant of circumcision, Brith Milah, however, continues. The Jew keeps his obligation, and the Master of the Universe keeps His.

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