The Brit Milah (Hebrew), also Bris (Yiddish) is a ceremony traditionally practiced in Judaism which welcomes baby boys into the covenant. This is a ritual circumcision performed in the presence of family and friends in a ceremonial manner, followed by a celebratory meal. Baby girls were traditionally welcomed with a smaller and more private naming ceremony.
The Purpose of The Brit Milah
Jews believe that the commandment to circumcise one's male children was to formalize a covenant between Jews and God. Most Jews claim that circumcision is religiously necessary because of its biblical prescription. According to the Bible, circumcision was enjoined upon the biblical patriarch Abraham and his descendants as "a token of the covenant" concluded with him by God for all generations. The penalty of non-observance was karet, excision from the people (Gen. 17:10-14, 21:4; Lev. 12:3). Non-Israelites had to undergo circumcision before they could be allowed to partake of the feast of Passover (Ex. 12:48), or marry into a Jewish family (Gen. 34:14-16).
According to the Bible, it was "a reproach" for an Israelite to be uncircumcised (Josh. 5:9.) The name arelim (uncircumcised) became an opprobrious term, denoting the Philistines and other non-Israelites (I Sam. 14:6, 31:4; II Sam. i. 20) and used synonymously with tame (unclean) for heathen (Isa. 52:1). The word 'arel' (uncircumcised) is also employed for "unclean" (Lev. xxvi. 41, "their uncircumcised hearts"; compare Jer. ix. 25; Ezek. xliv. 7, 9); it is even applied to the first three years' fruit of a tree, which is forbidden (Lev. xix. 23).
However, the Israelites born in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt reportedly did not practice circumcision. As recorded in Josh. 5:2-9, "all the people that came out" of Egypt were circumcised, but those "born in the wilderness" were not. Therefore Joshua, before the celebration of the Passover, had them circumcised at Gilgal.
Deut. x. 16 (compare ib. xxx. 6 and Jer. iv. 4) says, "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart," thus giving the rite a spiritual meaning; circumcision as a physical act being enjoined nowhere in the whole book. Jer. ix. 25, 26 says that circumcised and uncircumcised will be punished alike by the Lord; for "all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart."
Evolution of Brit Milah
The original form of circumcision practiced by Jews was more minimal than the form performed today. This rite, milah, initially consisted of cutting off only the tip of the foreskin, the floppy part that extends past the glans in the normal male infant. Two thousand years ago, Jewish hellenists, wanting to assimilate into Greek society, obliterated the sign of their "tip" circumcisions. Most of their foreskins were still intact, so they found ways to lengthen them, to make it look as if they had not been circumcised at all. This practice was unacceptable to the Jewish community at large; the community responded by changing the circumcision rite to remove all of the foreskin. Babies circumcised in this manner could not later hide the fact that they were Jewish.
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