Circumcision (Brith Milah)
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Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin. It is an ancient ritual practiced by the Hebrews since the time of Abraham, the patriarch (1800-1700 BCE). It is meant to symbolize a pact, which bound Abraham to a Universal Divine, way before Hebrews adopted the Torah in Mount Sinai (about 1300-1200 BCE). Male Children are circumcised eight days after birth. The same applies to slaves owned by Hebrews (Genesis 17: 9-14).
According to Rabbinical traditions, every Jewish father is to circumcise his male child. Should the father neglect his duty, rabbinical authorities order circumcision. Should rabbinical authorities neglect its duty, the person must circumcise himself in due time. Lack of circumcision was considered shameful among ancient Hebrews (Genesis 34:14; Joshua 5:9; Samuel A, 17:26: Isaiah, 52:1). However, it appears that many Hebrews were not circumcise at the time of the Exodus, as Joshua conducted a mass circumcision just before crossing the Jordan River (Joshua 5:5-7). It is possible that Hebrews delayed circumcision due to wandering in the desert. In fact, according to some tales, Moses intended to delay his children�s circumcision but Zephra took the initiative to administer the ritual herself.
Hebrews conformed to the circumcision edict across generations even under adverse conditions. Greeks (301-167 BCE) and Romans (135-138 CE) attempted to turn away Jews from the practice of circumcision without much success. The opposite, preventing Jews from the practice of their religion led to rebellions.
Circumcision is done on the eight day after birth even if it is a Sabbath. A quorum of ten is normally required. But if ten men cannot be assembled, circumcision is performed anyways. The child is dressed up like a groom. The congregation stands up in his honour and says: �Blessed be he� (baruc haba) as soon as he is brought into the room where the ceremony is held. The infant is then handed over to the godfather sitting on the Elijah Chair. The circumcision practitioner then proceeds with the cutting of the foreskin, blesses Heaven for the edict of circumcision. The father of the infant blesses Heaven for joining the Pact of Abraham and for having had the opportunity to live up to the occasion (she hehyanu). The congregation then says: �as the boy entered the Pact, so he will live to learn Torah, become a groom as well as do good deeds.� A blessing of the wine follows.
Then the child is given a name.� A brief recitation follows, stressing that �the little boy will grow up to be a man.� The infant is seated on the Elijah Chair in the midst of the congregation while it feasts on a festive meal.
In spite of the edict to circumcise a boy on the eighth day after birth, it is strictly forbidden to endanger the life of the child. Thus, if the infant is not well for any reason, circumcision may be delayed. If an infant dies due to circumcision and his parents have another child some time later, circumcision may be passed over so as not to endanger the life of the new infant. Preserving life precedes the edict of circumcision. One must always assume that a circumcision may be held at a later date, once the child shows good health.
Moroccan Jews conform to basic Jewish traditions in all matters relating to circumcision as described above. In this sense there is no difference between them and other orthodox Jews. Moroccan Jews, however, have special customs.
Learning and Atonement
The newborn is given 8 days to recuperate from the shock of birth before he is circumcised, seven days to mourn the loss of the Torah he learnt before birth and one Sabbath to be reacquainted with Heaven, because Friday at sundown, the Divine comes down to earth to honour the infant as he lies on the altar. Saturday before circumcision, the home is transformed into a Temple (synagogue or place of prayer) for the infant to hear the Torah read. �
Moroccan Jews appear to have preserved very ancient traditions, for they recall tales which recount that Abraham took away the sword that contained Lilith�s power. They believe that Lilith has no power in the Holy Land but in Morocco, her might remained potent. Thus people chanted incantations prescribed to guard the newborn from undue harm. At midnight, doors and windows closed and elderly men recited:
�A male and a female of every species came on board Noah’s Arch and Heaven sealed the arch before flood covered the land,� tucking Lilith�s sword (an ordinary knife) under the mother�s pillow, while she chants:
�O midwife, O pure one, your labour is greater than mine. Your delivery is my blessing. In day seven, when I rise, O midwife, I will make you queen.�
Then a prayer leader recites Jacob�s benediction to Ephraim:
�May the angels bless your children and may they multiply like fish in the sea� (Genesis 48:6, 49:22). �May God save you from harm and darkness and spare you dangers and misfortunes� (Psalm 91). �May you be blessed and may Light shine upon you� (Numbers 6: 22-27). �May you sleep with no fear and rise blessed every day� (Proverbs 3:24).
The pact of Isaac
The night before circumcision is commemorated as Isaac’s eve. According to Jewish mythology, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs, made a powerful team that prevented armies of envious angels from snatching souls of newborn babies since 1900 BCE or thereabouts. It was a war of light against darkness.
Friends and family members played a role in this war on Isaac�s eve. On this occasion, the night before circumcision, friends gather from close and far to face the angels� threat upfront. A candle is lit at the head of the infant�s bed and the congregation chants Psalms. When the moon reaches its peak, the assembly studies Torah, neglecting not the Book of Splendour, until dawn chases the remains of last night’s darkness.
Appeasing the snake
Circumcision takes place at sunrise. According to ancient Jewish mythology, the removal of the foreskin is a form of sacrifice made to appease the Snake, in all likelihood an ancient divinity.
It is important to note that Moroccan Jews distinguish between legend and reality. They are fully aware that some of the rituals practiced by their elders are vestiges of ancient rites. Most people do not hold the old myths as absolute truth. Some of the well-educated and well-informed Moroccan Jews suspected that circumcision might be a vestige of an ancient ritual, a time when the foreskin was a type of sacrifice to a Snake that was once divine. That is before Light won over the Darkness that ruled the world before the time of Abraham (around 1900 BCE).
Circumcision is also regarded as a mean to contain untamed desire; in the same way learning is intended to minimize evil doing in rabbinical Judaism. In fact, circumcision is considered but a pagan act, if a Jew does not dedicate his life to learning and if he does not commit to a lifestyle of good deeds!
Circumcision and related vows
Circumcision takes place as early as possible on the morning of the eighth day after birth. The father makes a vow that the infant would dedicate his life to learning and good deeds.
From the day a boy is circumcised and throughout the days of his life, his parents remind him of his commitment to learning and good deeds; for a father is considered responsible for his children�s misdeeds until the age of Bar Mitzvah. Thus it is in his best interest not only to encourage positive conduct but also discourage irresponsible behaviour. From a theological point of view, it is believed that when good deeds lack, life is not spared and life is the holiest of creation, holier than the Promised Land itself! Because one could live in exile and return to Israel even after thousands of years, but no one can bring dead back to living! When the Children of Israel do good deeds, Heaven inhabits creation and peace reigns on earth!
The night of Isaac�s Pact, Moroccan Jews tell tales. Some are folkloric in nature but most are derived from the Book of Splendour (Zohar). In some of these tales, the basic message conveys that the foetus is confined in the darkness of his mother’s womb, but once born, he risks being subject to temptation. To save his soul, he is to commit to a life of good deeds, like a freed slave who commits, of his own free will, to repay his redeemer. Liberation from the darkness of a mother’s womb equals freedom from idolatry and circumcision is the mark of a commitment made upon liberation from Egypt. For ancient Hebrew ancestors circumcised them-selves on Passover’s eve (Joshua 5:9) and the Divine shined upon them and Its light was so bright, night turned into daylight. When the Hebrew slaves crossed the Willow Sea, water separated them from the life of darkness they left behind. God, not angels, guarded their crossing. And Moses, thinking of the chaos left behind and grateful for the world to come, committed the People of Israel to Heaven�s Rules through good deeds (1300-1200 BCE). But in spite of the miraculous crossing, Hebrews� hearts remained sealed. For fear of the Gods of Egypt lingered and loving Heaven could not rule their mind. For this reason, Joshua circumcised the People of Israel once more, as they approached the Holy Land, to remove the shame of Egypt once and for all (Joshua 5:9). On that day, Hebrews are believed to have cast away the idols they brought from Egypt in order to consecrate them-selves to holy living in the Promised Land.
The Prayer and the Sacrifice
As soon as all sign of darkness disappear and the house of the �circumcision groom� (hatan hamilah) fills with the morning light, family and friends congregate to conduct the Morning Prayers and thereby turn an ordinary home into a sacred temple, complete with a Torah scroll, Elijah Chair as well as the required quorum to honour the Merciful that is believed to descend from heaven in order to inhabit the house of the circumcised that day.
A rabbi, a practitioner of circumcision often leads the prayers, confirming that the night had passed and that a new day was born. For it was prescribed since ancient times that circumcision would not take place while forces of darkness lingered. (Milah, eiyna balayla bei’dna degvurot sholtin).
While the congregation chants, the circumcision groom lies in complete hush, ready for the sacrifice. His mother takes him in her arms from time to time, glancing at him and at the congregation intermittently.
The day of circumcision is a holiday for the family of the circumcision groom. The father stands by his son�s side, ready and willing to let the rabbi shed his blood. The act of shedding blood is believed to sanctify the newborn. His circumcision is meant to convey not only a renewal of an Old Pact but also a promise to live a life of good deeds.
The Father�s Pact and related obligations
When a child is born fatherless and without foreskin, his mother is not obliged to circumcise her son. Moreover, mothers are exempt from the duty of circumcision to spare them heartache. Under certain circumstances, even fathers could delay circumcision to save children from undue risks. But Moroccan Jews normally consider circumcision as an essential ritual and mothers do seek the help of relatives to assist them in performing the prescribed circumcision.
Moroccan Jewish women follow the example of Zephra in matters of circumcision. According to oral traditions based on Jewish mythology, archangel Raphael scolded Moses in his dream for thinking to delay his son�s circumcision on account of desert wandering and that the morning following the dream, Zephra had already circumcised her son and cast his shame (i.e., foreskin) away. As the boy bled, his flesh became earth again and Heaven blessed him (1300-1200 BCE). Although Moses saved Israel from slavery, he was not forgiven the thought of delaying his son’s circumcision. For this reason alone, Moses was doomed not to cross Jordan into Israel. He could glance at the Land of Promise only from far.
The father of the circumcision groom wears a prayer shawl and takes his place on Elijah’s Chair. As the house fills with cries of joy, the mother of the infant groom hands the boy to the father (or a godfather). The father hold the infant on his lap as a circumcision practitioner prepares to remove the foreskin.
Circumcision and the Appeasement of Lilith
Elijah�s chair is placed in the middle of the room where the circumcision is to take place like the Holy of Holies in the heart of Jerusalem. Elijah was once upon a time a prophet, the pride to Israel. For in 875 BCE, approximately, he single headedly defended the right to circumcise the newborn in ancient Israel, suffering as a consequence exile to the edge of the world, which Moroccan Jews believe was the Land of Morocco, at that time. One night, Heaven appeared in Elijah�s dream and said: �because of your zeal, Priest, you will witness every circumcision on earth from now till the End of Days.�
According to tradition, it was a father�s duty to circumcise his son but in his absence a relative may assume the responsibility or confer it to a circumcision practitioner. The person to whom the responsibility of circumcision is conferred must be a learned person of unblemished reputation, as he is to leave his mark on the infant for a lifetime.
As most fathers do not have the skill to circumcise their children, they enlist skilled practitioners to conduct the ritual. However, in practice, practitioners tend to prepare the boy for circumcision while the father is handed the surgical knife used to remove the foreskin. The last murmurs of prayers pronounced, hush takes over the house. Moroccan Jews believe that at that very moment, the house wears splendour, a sign that the Shecina comes to earth to accept the circumcision offering.
The infant is bathed and dressed in his father�s prayer shawl like a groom. The father whispers a prayer, wishing the boy that he be granted wisdom and piety.
When a boy is born without foreskin, the edict of circumcision may be foregone. Birth without a foreskin is considered a good luck. It is also believed that the messiah will be born without foreskin.
When a boy is born without foreskin, a minor and symbolic cut is made on his penis. It is believed that the sight of blood appeases Lilith, then darkness dissipates and the Divine shines upon the circumcision groom. Then the congregation chants:
Holy, holy is Israel, circumcised, without foreskin.
Heaven, Heaven, O, hear.
Holy, holy is Ben Moshe,
May he be destined to prophecy!
The boy is then considered consecrated, like the Holy of Holies, and the soul, which hovers over his head since birth, takes place in my body. Then grace is said that all went well and that the boy has become a sanctified vessel able and ready to learn Torah, neglecting not deeds to bring creation to completion. At that moment, the archangels, take note of the boy�s commitments (made by the father on behalf of his child) and they hang over his crib till his recovery is complete.
So is the tradition among the Jews of Morocco. Nowadays, the depth of beliefs and knowledge of old tales and traditions tend to be shallow. Circumcision tends to be an ordinary ritual, but some people still seek a deeper understanding of old customs.
For ritual and tales preceding circumcision, see also the birth section.