Rosh Hashanah card depicting a circumcision ceremony (Yid., bris; Heb., berit milah). The fruits on the “tree of life” are labeled (left to right), “luck,” “life,” and “joy,” and the Yiddish verse reads: “A child, boy is born / May he have happiness and live long! / A child, a joy, sugar-sweet / Today was his bris.” Published by Verlag Central, Warsaw. (YIVO)

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Popular customs and practices regarding circumcision (Yid., bris; Heb., berit milah) seem to have been fairly consistent within the East European Jewish community, both Hasidic and Misnagdic, although there were some regional variations as to details. Through out the days leading up to the bris, care was taken to prevent the demon Lilith from taking the child: schoolboys were brought to recite the Shema‘ prayer every night (for which they were rewarded with sweets), and amulets were placed in the room with the child. The night before the ceremony was to take place, a special vigil (vakhtnakht) was kept. Candles were lit throughout the house. After a special meal (se‘udah), the men present recited psalms and studied Torah until midnight. The ritual circumciser (mohel) who was to perform the ceremony would also be present and would sometimes leave his circumcision knife under the mother’s pillow. All would recite the Shema‘ before leaving.

On the morning of the ceremony, the baby was washed and dressed in clothing provided by the godparents. He was wrapped specially and carried in on a pillow, passed along a chain of relatives until he was placed, momentarily, on the special chair reserved for the prophet Elijah, then settled in the arms of the seated sandek (or kvater [godfather]), the man honored with holding the child during the actual circumcision. It was also considered a great honor to perform metsitsah, sucking the first drop of blood; this role was usually granted to a man highly regarded for his piety. The bris took place at the home of the infant or in the bet midrash or synagogue. It was an occasion for joy and celebration.

Decorative pastries for (left) wedding celebration and (right) wedding or circumcision celebration, possibly baked in Lwów, ca. 1930. (Museum of Ethnography and Crafts, L'viv)

In the first half of the nineteenth century, various European governments considered regulating, if not banning, berit milah on the grounds that it posed potential medical dangers. In the 1840s, radical Jewish reformers in Frankfurt asserted that circumcision should no longer be compulsory. This controversy reached Russia in the 1880s. Russian Jewish physicians expressed concern over two central issues: the competence of those carrying out the procedure and the method used for metsitsah. Many Jewish physicians supported the idea of procedural and hygienic reforms in the practice, and they debated the question of physician supervision during the ceremony. Most significantly, many advocated carrying out metsitsah by pipette, not by mouth. In 1889, a committee on circumcision convened by the Russian Society for the Protection of Health, which included leading Jewish figures, recommended educating the Jewish public about the concerns connected with circumcision, in particular, the possible transmission of diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis through the custom of metsitsah by mouth.

Veniamin Portugalov, who—alone among Russian Jewish physicians—called for the abolition of circumcision, set off these discussions. Portugalov not only denied all medical claims regarding the sanitary advantages of circumcision but disparaged the practice as barbaric, likening it to pagan ritual mutilation. Ritual circumcision, he claimed, stood as a self-imposed obstacle to the Jews’ attainment of true equality with the other peoples of Europe. Echoing anthropologically based political arguments of the day, he revealed the larger, underlying issues about the place of Jews in modern European society that motivated this debate.

Suggested Reading

Shemu’el ben Tsevi Kohen, Ot berit: Toldot ha-milah be-Yisra’el (1903; rpt., [Brooklyn, N.Y., 1993]); Ḥayim Shoys (Schauss), The Lifetime of a Jew (Cincinnati, 1950).