Opening Words at a Traditional Brit Milah Ceremony

parents and newborn baby

We recently had a traditional Sephardic brit milah ceremony. Although I had many reservations about it for months beforehand, I had the chance to think about it and realized that the main problems I have with this ceremony are the two ways people abandon the little one at the time of his pain: either by not being able to be there with him (not staying close to him, even leaving the room sometimes) or by denying his humanness (telling themselves and others that ‘he doesn’t feel anything’). I thought it would be possible to go through this ritual differently; I had decided to sit very close to my son during the procedure, hold his little hand, and reassure him that I was with him; his father did the same; and these were my opening words, inviting our loved ones to do so as well. (Includes excerpts from essays by Ruth Brin, z”l, and Nancy Cahners)

I would like to thank God for bringing us all together today, and everyone here for joining us for this gathering. I would particularly like to thank my parents, ——— and ——- and my sister —-, who have come from so far to be here, and especially my mom and my sister for being of so much critical help in the last week. I would also like to thank my father-in-law ——- for hosting us, and ——– for accepting our way of doing things a bit differently.

So I thought I would explain the reason we felt it was important that this be a small, private affair. We wanted to know that everyone in the room had agreed to be here with us purely and simple out of complete love for us and our baby, and not simply to attend another brit milah ceremony. The problem is that when we started trying to limit the number of people that love us, it was quite difficult. We are blessed; there are many, many people who love us. So the room is a bit crowded, but – it is crowded with love.

We’re gathered here to continue a fundamental Jewish tradition of the Jewish people. For reasons maybe none of us fully understand, this pact entails a painful experience on the part of the little one. Maybe a pact with God deserves such a frightening, unsettling act. But for whatever reason, that is what it is and it is important for us to recognize that, and not to diminish his pain. Because, its ok. Pain is in fact a part of life, and the avoidance of pain is not our primary goal as parents, in raising children – not abandoning them in times of their difficulty is. So what we want to do as we go through this ceremony to welcome the little one into our covenant as Jews, we want to stay very close to him throughout, and we want you to also.

He’ll likely cry out; we don’t want to – and we won’t – silence his pain. Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the former chief rabbi of Israel, explained that the wordless cry of a baby at the time of his brit milah, like the sound of the shofar, penetrates to the gates of heaven and reaches directly to Hashem. With it, it can carry the prayers of all those assembled for the brit milah at that time.

So we don’t need to silence his pain, silence his cry. We can feel it with him. We can go through this with him and then stay with him afterwards until he is completely healed.

People talk about the trauma of circumcision. I think there is trauma to this ritual when it is so difficult for everyone around to stay with the baby, emotionally; it becomes difficult for us, and we turn our backs on him, because his experience is what is making us uncomfortable. But that is not what we’ll do here today. We’ll all go through this with him. We won’t turn our heads in squeamishness. So we ask for your full attentio – and intention – to be with him in spirit and compassion.

It is said, in Ashrei:

   טוֹב יה-וה לַכֹּל וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו 
Tov Adonay l’kol v’rakhmav al kol ma’asav
is good to all, and has compassion over all of his creations;

it is also said in Mishnah Sanhedrin:

לְפִיכָךְ נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי בָּעוֹלָם לְלַמֵּד שֶׁכֹּל הַמְּאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת
מַעְלִים עָלָיו כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא וְכָל הַמְּקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מַעְלִים עָלָיו כְּאִלּוּ קַיָּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא

(משנה, סנהדרין ד ה)

​L’fikha nivrah adam y’khidi b’olam l’lamed s’kol ham’abed nefesh akhat
ma​malim alav k’ilu ibad olam maley v’khol ham’kayam nefesh akhat malim alav k’ilu kayam olam maley.

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.
And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.

(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9; Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a)

Therefore, we who have given birth have now created a whole world, and get a taste of the divine joy of creation. As well, we get the chance to walk in the path of Hashem, in the sense of taking compassion on our created.

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