In New Book, a Mohel Reveals All
So You Want to Make a Bris by Dr. Henry Michael Lerner, Outskirts Press, November 2020.
So You Want to Make a Bris was written because, as a practicing obstetrician and mohel, I have seen so many young Jewish couples struggle with their decision after the birth of a newborn son as to whether or not to have a bris, how to set up the bris, how to find a mohel, etc. The book covers all aspects of setting up a bris and — perhaps even more importantly — discusses the religious and historic significance of doing so.
Below is an excerpt from the book:
Why the Eighth Day?
Many rules pertaining to the performance of a bris for non-Orthodox Jews are flexible — but that the brit milah is to be done on the eighth day after the birth of a baby is not — with certain technical exceptions to be discussed below. Why is this the case? Why is this requirement for having the bris ceremony on the eighth day so important?
There are three major reasons.
1. Because God Says So
The first reason is that it is divine law. In Genesis, God specifically tells Abraham to circumcise his son Isaac on the eighth day and that all Jewish male newborns are likewise to be circumcised on the eighth day in perpetuity.
No special reason is given in the Bible for this specific time frame in which to fulfill the commandment that marks the entry of a Jewish male into the covenant between God and the Jewish people, but as with many aspects of Judaism, theories and stories have arisen to fill the explanatory vacuum. One such is that seven days represents the cycle of creation in which God formed the entire world and then rested for a day. With the work of creation out of the way, it was thus logical that the eighth day be designated as the time for the binding of the covenant between God and each new generation of the Jewish people.
Most women having a vaginal delivery in the United States will have the following experience: after delivery, if the baby is vigorous, he or she will be placed on the mother’s chest for skin-to-skin bonding. After about five to ten minutes, a nurse will ask the mother if she can take the baby to the warmer to evaluate the baby and give the baby some medications. These medications are erythromycin ointment to prevent infection of the eyes and an injection of vitamin K to help augment the baby’s blood-clotting factors.
Why is the vitamin K shot needed? It turns out that a baby’s blood-clotting factors do not mature spontaneously until about the eighth day. Therefore, probably by trial and error, it was determined in ancient times that the safest day for the minor surgical procedure of circumcision was about the eighth day.
Additionally, by the eighth day, a healthy baby is usually strong and stable enough to safely undergo the circumcision procedure.
A tradition in ultra-Orthodox communities holds that by performing the bris ceremony on the eighth day, every baby gets to live through one twenty-four-hour period of Shabbat holiness before having his bris and entering into the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Performance of the bris on the eighth day is considered so sacred a commandment that it even supersedes the normal regulations of not performing work on Shabbat, Yom Kippur, and other Jewish holidays. Exceptions are as follows:
- If the bris ceremony is postponed because of a baby’s health issues, the bris would not be subsequently scheduled on a Shabbat, Yom Kippur, or other holidays.
- A bris performed for conversion likewise is not performed on Shabbat, Yom Kippur, or other holidays.
- If a baby is born via cesarean section on Shabbat, his bris would be postponed to the ninth day, a Sunday. Likewise, after a cesarean birth a bris would not be performed on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, or other Jewish holidays, even if that were the eighth day. The ceremony would be delayed until after the holiday.
It is very clearly stated in Jewish law that all requirements for performing the bris ceremony on the eighth day following the birth of a boy do not apply if a baby is ill or for whatever reason is considered not healthy enough to undergo the procedure. This is consistent with all Jewish law, which follows the general rubric that Jewish laws exist to enhance life, not for blind fulfillment that would hamper health or life. Health reasons for postponing a bris include the following:
- Jaundice of the baby
- Being underweight
- Respiratory instability
- Abnormal anatomy of the penis
If a bris is postponed for health reasons, it can be rescheduled on any day at least seven days after the baby’s physician says that the baby is healthy enough to have a circumcision, but, as noted above, not on Shabbat or other Jewish holidays.
Calculating the Eighth Day
According to the rules of brit milah (bris), the eighth day is defined as the same day of the week that a baby is born but one week later. Since by Jewish law a new day begins at sunset, if the baby is born after sunset, that new day defines the starting point for the calculation of the eighth day. There are various arcane rules concerning when a bris should be performed if a baby is born at dusk, but in general it is safe to lean toward doing the bris one day later than potentially doing it too early.
Bending the Rules
One of the biggest issues for mohels (those who perform the bris ceremony) is when they are asked for reasons of convenience, family travel, or other issues to perform a bris on other than the eighth day. This dilemma arises because the rule concerning the eighth day is such a vital part of the entire covenantal ceremony. In the end it is up to the mohel and the family having the bris to determine if reasons for not having it on the eighth day are significant enough to warrant violating this honored tradition.
Such a situation might arise when 1) there is a death in the family, 2) relatives’ travel plans are complicated by bad weather, or 3) some other major family crisis occurs. Bottom line: A bris should not be rescheduled from the eighth day unless there is a compelling reason for doing so.
Dr. Henry Lerner, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Medical School and an emeritus Assistant Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Harvard Medical School, has been in practice for over 40 years. He is also a certified mohel. He has delivered more than 10,000 babies, performed more than 4,000 circumcisions, and officiated at more than 500 brises.