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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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— Biblical Data:

A religious rite performed on male children of Jews on the eighth day after birth also on their slaves, whether born in the house or not. It was enjoined upon Abraham and his descendants as "a token of the covenant" concluded with him by God for all generations, the penalty of non-observance being "karet," excision from the people (Genesis 17:10-14 , 21:4 Leviticus 12:3 ). Aliens had to undergo circumcision before they could be allowed to partake of the covenant-feast of Passover (Exodus 12:48 ), or marry into a Jewish family (Genesis 34:14-16 ). It was "a reproach" for the Israelite to be uncircumcised (Joshua 5:9 on "the reproach of Egypt" see below). Hence the name "' arelim" (uncircumcised) became an opprobrious term, denoting the Philistines and other non-Israelites ( 1Samuel 14:6 , 31:4 2Samuel 1:20 compare Judges 14:3 1Samuel 17:26 ), and used synonymously with "tame" (unclean) for heathen (Isaiah 52:1 ). The word "' arel" (uncircumcised) is also employed for "unclean" (Leviticus 26:41 , "their uncircumcised hearts" compare Jeremiah 9:25 Ezekiel 44:7,9 ) it is even applied to the first three years' fruit of a tree, which is forbidden (Leviticus 19:23 ).

Original Significance.
This shows how deeply rooted in the minds of the ancient Hebrews was the idea that circumcision was an indispensable act of national consecration and purification. Nevertheless, there are several facts in the Bible which do not seem to be in full harmony with this view. According to Exodus 4:24-26 , the circumcision of the first-born son was omitted by Moses, and the Lord therefore "sought to kill him" whereupon "Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and made it touch [A. V., "cast it at"] his [Moses' ] feet," saying, "A bridegroom of blood art thou to me." Thus Moses was ransomed by the blood of his son's circumcision.

Strange as was this omission on the part of Moses, the omission of the rite on the part of the Israelites in the wilderness was no less singular. As recorded in Joshua 5:2-9 , "all the people that came out" of Egypt were circumcised, but those "born in the wilderness" were not and therefore Joshua, before the celebration of the Passover, had them circumcised with knives of flint (compare Exodus 4:25 ) at Gilgal, which name is explained as "the rolling away" of "the reproach of Egypt" (see Gilgal ).

Attention has also been called to the peculiar attitude of Deuteronomy and the Prophets toward circumcision. Deuteronomy 10:16 (compare ib. 30:6 and Jeremiah 4:4 ) 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 (see Geiger, "Urschrift," 2:79, and Montefiore, "Hibbert Lectures," 1892, pp. 229,337). Jeremiah 9:25,26 goes so far as to say 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." Obviously, the prophetic view of the sacredness of the rite differed from that of the people.

— Historical View:

Circumcision was known to be not an exclusively Jewish rite. Ishmael was circumcised when thirteen years old that is, at the age of puberty (Genesis 17:25 ). The rite was, in fact, practised not only in ancient Arabia (Josephus, "Ant." 1:12, § 2 Origen, "Ad Genesin," 1:14 Eusebius, "Preparatio Evangelica," 6:11 Shahrastani, transl. Haarbrü cker, 2:35, § 4 Sozomen, "Hist. Eccl." 6:38), but also in Ethiopia (Philostorgius, "Hist. Eccl." 3:4 Strabo, 17:776,824), as well as by almost all the primitive tribes of Africa and by many of Australia (see R. Andree, "Die Beschneidung," in "Archiv fü r Anthropologie," 1880, 13:53-78 Ploss, "Geschichtliches und Ethnologisches ü ber Knaben-Beschneidung," in "Archiv fü r Gesch. der Medicin," 1885, viii. R. Hartmann, "Die Vö lker Afrikas," 1879, 1:178).

This accumulation of evidence points to the fact that circumcision in its primitive form was connected with marriage, whether performed with a view to the facilitation of cohabitation, as Ploss thinks, or, as is far more in accordance with the psychology of all primitive as well as of all ancient nations, to the consecration of the generative powers. At all events, the age of puberty is most frequently selected for the rite and, after weeks of purification, accompanied by tests of courage, the boy is formally graduated into manhood and, bearing a new name, is ushered into the bridal chamber (Niebuhr, "Beschreibung von Arabien," p. 269 Andree, l.c. ). For Egypt the practise is attested not alone by Herodotus (ii:37,104), Philo ("De Circumcisione," § 2 ed. Mangey, p. 210), and Ambrosius ("De Abrahamo," 2:348), but also by the monuments (see Ebers, "Æ gypten und die Bü cher Mose' s," 1:278) and the very valuable Greek text published and discussed by R. Reizenstein ("Zwei Religionsgeschichtliche Fragen," Strasburg, 1901). The rite of circumcision signified admission of the boy at the age of puberty into the rank of priesthood, as "web" (the Egyptian for "pure" or "holy"), the mother's presence being considered especially necessary. In Biblical literature the rite is incidental to the recognition of heirship, and to the adoption of a new name (Genesis 17:4-14 ). Moses' neglect to circumcise Gershom was possibly associated in some way with his (Moses' ) marriage to a Midianite woman. Zipporah, however, ultimately showed her allegiance to the God of the Hebrews by performing the rite herself. The fact that in Arabic "ḥ atana" signifies both "to marry" (compare the Hebrew = "bridegroom," and ="father-in-law") and "to circumcise" shows an original connection between the rite and the nuptial ceremony whereas the terms "ṭ uhur" and "taṭ hir" (purification), applied to circumcision in Arabia (see Wellhausen, "Skizzen und Vorarbeiten," 1887, 3:154 et seq. ), indicate the later religious view (see also Kohler, in "Z. D. M. G." 23:680, and Nö ldeke, ib. xl. 737).

The critical view of the Pentateuch, which ascribes Genesis 17 to the late Priestly Code, and Joshua 5:4-7 to the interpolation of the redactor (see Dillmann, commentary on the passage), sufficiently accounts for the non-circumcision of young Israelites prior to their entrance into Canaan by the following theory: The ancient Hebrews followed the more primitive custom of undergoing circumcision at the age of puberty, the circumcision of young warriors at that age signifying the consecration of their manhood to their task as men of the covenant battling against the uncircumcised inhabitants (see Reizenstein, l.c. ). After the settlement of the Israelites in Palestine, the rite was transferred to the eighth day after birth. In fixing the time of the initiatory rite at an age when its severity would be least felt, the Mosaic law shows its superiority over the older custom. Explanations which find the origin of circumcision in hygienic motives, suggested first by Philo (l.c. ) and Josephus ("Contra Ap." 2:13), then by Saadia ("Emunot we-De' ot," 3:10) and Maimonides ("Morch Nebukim," 3:49), and often repeated in modern times, from Michaelis ("Mosaisches Recht," 4:184-186) down to Rosenzweig ("Zur Beschneidungsfrage," 1878), who recommends its introduction into the Prussian army, have no other than a historical value.

— In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature:

During the Babylonian exile the Sabbath and circumcision became the characteristic symbols of Judaism. This seems to be the underlying idea of Isaiah 56:4 : "The eunuchs that keep my Sabbath" still "hold fast by my covenant," though not having "the sign of the covenant" (Genesis 17:11 , Hebr.) upon their flesh. Contact with Grecian life, especially at the games of the arena, made this distinction obnoxious to the Hellenists, or antinationalists and the consequence was their attempt to appear like the Greeks by epispasm ("making themselves foreskins" I Macc. 1:15 Josephus, "Ant." 12:5, § 1 Assumptio Mosis, viii. I Cor. 7:18 , Tosef., Shab. 15:9 Yeb. 72a, b Yer. Peah 1:16b Yeb. 8:9a). All the more did the law-observing Jews defy the edict of Antiochus Epiphanes prohibiting circumcision (I Macc. 1:48,60 2:46) and the Jewish women showed their loyalty to the Law, even at the risk of their lives, by themselves circumcising their sons.

In order to prevent the obliteration of the "seal of the covenant" on the flesh, as circumcision was henceforth called, the Rabbis, probably after the war of Bar Kokba (see Yeb. l.c. Gen. R. xlvi.), instituted the "peri' ah" (the laying bare of the glans), without which circumcision was declared to be of no value (Shab. 30:6).

Thenceforward circumcision was the mark of Jewish loyalty. The Book of Jubilees (xv:26-27), written in the time of John Hyrcanus, has the following: "Whosoever is uncircumcised belongs to ' the sons of Belial,' to ' the children of doom and eternal perdition' for all the angels of the Presence and of the Glorification have been so from the day of their creation, and God's anger will be kindled against the children of the covenant if they make the members of their body appear like those of the Gentiles, and they will be expelled and exterminated from the earth" (see Charles, "The Book of Jubilees," lv.-lx. 3:190-192). To be born circumcised was regarded as the privilege of the saints, from Adam, "who was made in the image of God," and Moses to Zerubbabel (see Ab. R. N., ed. Schechter, p. 153 Soṭ ah 12a). And great importance was laid upon the shedding of a drop of blood as a sign of the covenant when a child or a proselyte born circumcised was to be initiated into Judaism (Shab. 135-137b).

Abrahamic Covenant.
Uncircumcision being a blemish, circumcision was to remove it, and to render Abraham and his descendants "perfect" (Ned. 31b Gen. R. xlvi., after Genesis 17:1 ). "Isaac should be the offspring of the consecrated patriarch" (Gen. R. l.c. ). He who destroys the covenant sign of Abraham (by epispasm), has no portion in the world to come (Ab. 3:17 Sifre, Numbers 15:31 Sanh. 99). According to Pirḳ e R. El. xxix., it was Shem who circumcised Abraham and Ishmael on the Day of Atonement and the blood of the covenant then shed is ever before God on that day to serve as an atoning power. According to the same Midrash, Pharaoh prevented the Hebrew slaves from performing the rite, but when the Passover time came and brought them deliverance, they underwent circumcision, and mingled the blood of the paschal lamb with that of the Abrahamic covenant, wherefore ( Ezekiel 16:6 ) God repeats the words: "In thy blood live!"

In the wilderness, however, the Israelites omitted only the peri' ah, according to R. Ishmael according to the other rabbis, they did not circumcise their children on account of the fatigue of the journey. According to Sifre, Beha' aloteka, 67, and Ex. R. xix., the tribe of Levi was the only one that "kept the [Abrahamic) covenant" (Deuteronomy 33:9 ). They had, says R. Ishmael, piled up the foreskins of the circumcision in the wilderness, and covered them with earth. To this Balaam referred when he asked: "Who can count the dust of Jacob?" (Numbers 23:10 ) and for this reason it became customary after circumcision to cover the foreskin with earth.

Loyalty to the Abrahamic covenant was shown by the Gentiles who voluntarily espoused the Jewish faith, but not by the slaves of Abraham upon whom circumcision was enforced, the patriarch having done so only because he wished to conform to the Levitical laws of purity. Nor did Esau practise circumcision in his own household: "he despised his birthright" (Genesis 25:34 Tanna debe Eliyahu R. xxiv. [xxii.]). The Ephraimite kingdom also failed to observe the Abrahamic rite wherefore Elijah swore "there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word" (IKings 17:1). Elijah's lot was ever to be persecuted by Jezebel therefore the Lord also swore an oath that no "berit milah" (rite of circumcision) should be celebrated in Israel without the presence of Elijah hence a chair is always reserved on that occasion for Elijah, "the angel [A. V., "messenger"] of the covenant" ( Malachi 3:1 Pirḳ e R. El. xix. see Elijah's Chair ).

Saving Power of Circumcision.
Talismanic powers were ascribed to the sign of the covenant, as also to the phylacteries. According to the rabbis, David, when he saw himself at the bath stripped of the tefillin and other religious insignia, thanked God for the Abrahamic rite protecting him, and sang the Twelfth Psalm, which bears the superscription "' Al-ha Sheminit" (lit., "on the eighth," explained by the Rabbis as referring to the rite of circumcision Yeb. 43b compare ib. 53b.) Circumcision causes an angel to save the Israelites from the pangs of Gehenna, to which, according to Ezekiel 32:24 , the uncircumcised (' arelim) are consigned (Tan., Lek Leka, ed. Buber, 27 Ex. R. 19: to Gen. R. xlviii., it is Abraham who sits at the gate of Gehenna to save the circumcised (see Abraham ). "Circumcision is of such importance that heaven and earth are held only by the fulfilment of that covenant [after Jeremiah 31:35 ] and all the merits of Moses could not shield him against the danger to which he was exposed in consequence of the neglect of this command. It is a thirteenfold covenant" (Ned. 34b). But "it is also an occasion of highest joy" (Meg. 16b, with reference to Esther 8:16 , and Psalm 119:162 ), especially "for the mother" (Giṭ . 57a, with reference to Psalm 113:9 ), the berit milah having been made the occasion of great festivity from the days of Abraham (Shab. 130a Pirḳ e R. El. l.c. see Banquets ).

"Circumcision is one of the commandments which, having been accepted with joy, are ever obeyed with joy, and, because the people gave their lives for them, are observed with steadfast loyalty" (R. Simeon b. Eleazar, in Shab. 130a). This refers to the martyrdom which the Jewish people underwent during the Hadrianic persecution, which was especially directed against circumcision. "We ought to abstain from marrying," said R. Ishmael b. Elisha, "since the Roman [Yawan] government forbids us to celebrate the festival of the birth of a son ["yeshua' ha-ben," or "shabua' ha-ben"] but then the world would come to a standstill" (B. B. 60b). "Why art thou, O Israel, led forth to be slain? . . . Because I have circumcised my son! . . . It is the love I show for my Father in heaven" (Mek., Yitro, Ba-Ḥ odesh, vi.). "Why did God not make man as he wanted him to be?" asked Tinnius (Tyrannus) Rufus, with biting sarcasm and Akiba replied, "In order that man should perfect himself by the fulfilment of a divine command" (Tan., Tazria' , ed. Buber. 7).

Arguments for and Against.
In Gen. R. 46: arguments for and against circumcision are put forth in the form of a dialogue between God and Abraham. Replying to the question why the command had not been given to Adam if it was so dear to Him, God reminds Abraham that it should be sufficient for him that he and God are in the world— a play on "ShADDAI"— and that the maintenance of the world depends upon the acceptance of the commandment. But Abraham objects that circumcision is an obstacle to the conversion of the Gentiles. This trouble, also, is overcome by the declaration of God's sufficiency to protect both Abraham and the world. In fact, circumcision had been deferred from the time of Abraham's conversion— in the forty-eighth year of his life— until his ninety-ninth year, for the express purpose of facilitating the making of proselytes.

Circumcision of Proselytes.
The problem of proselytism, indeed, had stirred Judaism to its very depths, and had almost separated Hellenistic from Palestinian Judaism. The former would admit Gentiles after having undergone the rite of baptism that is, regeneration by living water (see Sibyllines. 4:164 et seq. : "Wash your whole stature clean from impurity in running streams, and, with hands uplifted to heaven, ask for forgiveness for your doing then the worship of God will heal gross impiety"). With this view, Josephus relates ("Ant." 20:2, § § 3,4), a Jew named Ananias sought to make converts to Judaism. He succeeded with Queen Helena and the women of the court, and her son Izates was eager to follow her example. But Izates' mother, on hearing of his determination to submit to circumcision also, implored him not to do so, as the people might take umbrage at his act of compliance with strange and abhorrent rites, and overthrow the dynasty. His instructor, Ananias, also tried to dissuade him and to allay his scruples with arguments based on the meritoriousness of his intention, which would atone, in the sight of God, for the non-performance of the rite. But, through the influence of another Jew, Eleazar, from Galilee, the home of the Zealot party, Izates was easily induced to submit to the operation and he informed both his mother and Ananias of what he had done. He was rewarded for his fortitude and piety for "God . . . preserved both Izates and his sons when they had fallen into many dangers, and procured their deliverance when it seemed impossible, demonstrating thereby that the fruit of piety is not lost to those who wait for Him and who put their sole trust in Him." Compare the story related in Gen. R. xlvi.: "King Monobaz and Izates, sons of King Ptolemy [an error: read "Monobaz" for "Ptolemy"], read the Book of Genesis together. When they came to the passage 17:11 they wept and each, without the other's knowledge, underwent circumcision. The next time they read the chapter together one said to the other: ' Wo unto me, my brother!' They then disclosed what they had done. Their mother, on hearing of the matter, told their father that they had needed circumcision as a precaution against phimosis, and he signified his approval. As a reward for their action they were saved by an angel from being killed in an ambush during a war in which they had become involved" (compare Grä tz, "Gesch." 3:430 et seq. ).

Circumcision Necessary or Not?
The issue between the Zealot and Liberal parties regarding the circumcision of proselytes remained an open one in tannaitic times R. Joshua asserting that the bath, or baptismal rite, rendered a person a full proselyte without circumcision, as Israel, when receiving the Law, required no initiation other than the purificative bath while R. Eliezer makes circumcision a condition for the admission of a proselyte, and declares the baptismal rite to be of no consequence (Yeb. 46a). A similar controversy between the Shammaites and the Hillelites is given (Shab. 137a) regarding a proselyte born circumcised: the former demanding the spilling of a drop of blood of the covenant the latter declaring it to be unnecessary. The rigorous Shammaite view, voiced in the Book of Jubilees (l.c. ), prevailed in the time of King John Hyrcanus, who forced the Abrahamic rite upon the Idumeans, and in that of King Aristobulus, who made the Itureans undergo circumcision (Josephus, "Ant." 13:9, § 1 11, § 3). According to Esther 8:17 , LXX., the Persians who, from fear of the Jews after Haman's defeat, "became Jews," were circumcised.

The rigorous view is echoed also in the Midrash: "If thy sons accept My Godhead [by undergoing circumcision] I shall be their God and bring them into the land but if they do not observe My covenant in regard either to circumcision or to the Sabbath, they shall not enter the land of promise" (Gen. R. xlvi., with reference to Genesis 17:8-9 ). "The Sabbath-keepers who are not circumcised are intruders, and deserve punishment," ( Deut. R. 1: Ma' ase Torah, ed. Schö nblum see also Hippolytus," Refutatio, Omnium Hæ resium," 9:21).

It appears, however, that while the Palestinian Jews accepted the uncircumcised proselytes only as "Proselytes of the Gate"("Gore Toshab," Yeb. 47b see Proselytes ), non-Palestinian Judaism did not make such a distinction until the Roman wars, when the more rigorous view became prevalent everywhere. Thus Flavius Clemens, a nephew of the emperors Titus and Domitian, when with his wife Domitilla he embraced the Jewish faith, underwent circumcision, for which he suffered the penalty of death (see Grä tz, "Gesch." 4:403 et seq. , 702).

It was chiefly this rigorous feature of Jewish proselytism which provoked the hostile measures of the emperor Hadrian. And, furthermore, it was the discussion of this same question among the Jews— whether the seal of circumcision, (see Shab. 137b Ex. R. xix. Targ. Song of Song of Solomon 3:8 Hermas, "Similitudines," 8:6, 9:16 II Clemens to the Corinthians, 7:6, 8:6 Grace at Meals for heathen parallels of the expression "seal" see Anrich, "Das Antike Mysterienwesen," pp. 123-124, and Reizenstein, l.c. pp. 7-8), might not find its substitute in "the seal of baptism"— which led Paul to urge the latter in opposition to the former ( Romans 2:25 et seq. , 4:11, and elsewhere), just as he was led to adopt the antinomistic or antinational view, which had its exponents in Alexandria (see Philo, "De Migratione Abrahami," xvi. ed. Mangey, 1:450).

While in Biblical times the mother (perhaps generally) performed the operation, it was in later times performed by a surgeon, or , also called by the specific name "mohel" ( see Josephus, "Ant." 20:2, § 4 B. B. 21a Shab. 130b, 133b, 135,156a) or "gozer" (). In the Codex Justinianus (i:9,10) physicians were prohibited from performing the operation on Roman citizens who had become converts to Judaism.

Circumcision Not a Sacrament.
Unlike Christian baptism, circumcision, however important it may be, is not a sacrament which gives the Jew his religious character as a Jew. An uncircumcised Jew is a full Jew by birth (Ḥ ul. 4b ' Ab. Zarah 27a Shulḥ an ' Aruk, Yoreh De' ah, 264,1). A non-Jewish physician may, according to R. Meï r, in the absence of a Jewish expert, perform the ceremony, as may women, slaves, and children (' Ab. Zarah 26b Men. 42a Maimonides, "Yad," Milah, 2:1 Yoreh De' ah, l.c. ), although the more rigorous Shammaite rule was forced by the Amoraim compare Gen. R. l.c.

Circumcision must, whenever possible, take place on the eighth day, even when this falls upon the Sabbath (Shab. 19:1). The Samaritans and the Karaites, however, dissent from this rule (see Karaites and Samaritans ) if by reason of the child's debility or sickness the ceremony is postponed, it can not take place on the Sabbath (Shab. 137a). It is the duty of the father to have his child circumcised and if he fails in this, the bet din of the city must see that the rite is performed (Kid. 29a).

The Ceremony.
As early as the geonic time the ceremony had been transferred from the house of the parents to the synagogue, where it took place after the service in the presence of the whole congregation. In order to give it the character of a festival certain prayers of a mournful nature, such as "Widduy" and "Taḥ anun," were omitted, and occasionally appropriate hymns were recited instead. In the tenth century there appears, in addition to the mohel and the father of the child, the "ba' al berit," also called "godfather" ("sandeḳ " corresponding to the σ ύ ν τ ε κ ν ο ς , the godfather in the Greek Church, who lifted the neophyte from the baptismal water). The sandeḳ holds the child on his knees during the operation. As a rule, the wife of the godfather carries the child in and hands it to the mohel, while the congregation greets it with: "Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Psalm 118:26 ). Beside the chair upon which the sandeḳ is seated another chair is placed, called, as has been stated above, "the chair of Elijah" (see Elijah's Chair ). Upon this the mohel places the child, reciting Genesis 49:18 Psalm 119:156,162 , 166 and the first half of Psalm 65:5 , the congregation responding with the latter half. He then takes the child from "Elijah's chair" and places it, upon a cushion, in the lap of the sandeḳ , reciting the benediction: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments, and hast enjoined us to perform the commandment of circumcision." When the operation is over, the father of the child recites the benediction: "Blessed art Thou . . . who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments, and hast enjoined us to make him enter into the covenant of Abraham our father" and the congregation responds with: "As he hath been made to enter the covenant, so may he also be made to enter the study of the Torah, the ḥ uppah [nuptial chamber], and the performance of good deeds." The use of the pronoun "him" in this peculiar benediction of the father, and in the congregational response given in the ancient Baraita (Shab. 137b), seems to indicate that originally the child was named immediately after the circumcision, as was the case in New Testament times (Luke 2:21 compare Genesis 17:5 ), and that the congregation then blessed the child just named. Hence, also, the prayer recited at the close. Owing to the fact that the original "se' udat berit milah" (see Banquets ) was later on postponed or changed in character, the two benedictions introducing it are now recited by the mohel, who, taking the cup of wine, says: "Blessed be Thou . . . who hast created the fruit of the vine." "Blessed be Thou . . . who hast sanctified the beloved one [Isaac] from the womb, and hast ordained an ordinance for his kindred, and sealed his descendants with the sign of the holy covenant. Therefore on this account do Thou, O living God, our Inheritance and our Rock, command [Thy angels see Maimonides, "Pe' er ha-Dor," responsum No. 134] to save Thy beloved kindred [Israel] from the pit [of Gehenna], for the sake of Thy covenant which Thou hast put upon our flesh! Blessed be thou, O Lord, Maker of the Covenant" (Shab. 137b).

Here follows in the liturgy a prayer, preserved from geonic times by Abraham b. Nathan, Tanyah, and Abudrahim, referring especially to the naming of the child: "Our God and God of our fathers! Preserve this child to his father and mother, and let his name be called in Israel N the son of N. Let the father rejoice in him that came forth from his loins, and let the mother be glad in the fruit of her womb as it is written . . . [Proverbs 23:25 ]: and it is said . . . [Ezekiel 16:6 (see above) Psalm 105:8-10 Genesis 21:4 Psalm 118:1 ]. Let the child named N wax great!" Whereupon the congregation again responds, saying: "As he hath entered into the covenant, so may he be permitted to enter the study of the Torah, the ḥ uppah, and the performance of good deeds."

Reform Judaism and Circumcision.
After having for centuries been practised as a distinctively Jewish rite, circumcision appeared to many enlightened Jews of modern times to be no longer in keeping with the dictates of a religious truth intended for humanity at large and its abolition was advocated, and made the shibboleth of the "Friends of Reform" ("Reformfreunde") in Frankfort-on-the-Main in 1843. Under the leadership of Theodor Creizenach, M. Stern of Gö ttingen, and others, the association published in the "Frankfurter Journal," July 15,1843, and in "Der Israelit des Neunzehnten Jahrhunderts" of the same year articles in which, besides the abolition of circumcision and the transfer of the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday, the renunciation of historical Judaism in its entirety was declared necessary, and a sort of Jewish Church, based upon the Mosaic monotheism, was recommended. These articles called forth the protests of many rabbis, even in the Reform camp, among whom were Joseph Aub and Samuel Hirsch of Luxemburg (see S. D. Trier, "Rabbinische Gutachten ü ber die Beschneidung," Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1844). A bitter controversy raged in the Jewish congregations and press. Samuel Holdheim took sides with the Radical Reformers David Einhorn, with a number of other rabbis, opposed the merely negative Standpoint of the Frankfurt Reform-Verein, but emphatically indorsed the view that he who disregards the law of circumcision, whatever the motive may be, is nevertheless a Jew, circumcision having no sacramental character. Zunz and Aub, however, endeavored to attribute to circumcision a semi-sacramental character (see Ceremonies ) but Geiger, who, in his private correspondence with Stern, sympathized with the Radical Reformers, objected, with others, to this arbitrary position (see Geiger, "Gesammelte Schriften," 5:174,181). On the other hand, Samuel Hirsch, in a series of discourses on the Messianic mission of Israel (1843), preached a sermon on the symbolic value of circumcision.

In 1847 Einhorn, as chief rabbi of Mecklenburg, became involved in a controversy with Franz Delitzsch of Rostock, who denounced him for acting contrary to Jewish law in naming and consecrating an uncircumcised child in the synagogue. Einhorn, in an "opinion," published a second time in his "Sinai," 1857, pp. 736 et seq. , declared, with references to ancient and modern rabbinical authorities, that a child of Jewish parents was a Jew even if uncircumcised, and retained all the privileges, as well as all the obligations, of a Jew. This view he also expressed in his catechism, his prayer-book, and his sermons, emphasizing the spiritual character of the Abrahamic covenant— "the seal of Abraham placed upon the spirit of Israel as God's covenant people."

The abolition of circumcision in the case of proselytes, on the ground of its being a measure of extreme cruelty when performed upon adults, was proposed by Isaac M. Wise at the rabbinical conference in Philadelphia in 1869, and was finally agreed to by the Reform rabbis of America at the New York conference in 1892 (see Conferences, Rabbinical Proselytes Reform ).

Bibliography :Hastings, Dict. Bibl. s.v. Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl. s.v.:Hamburger. R. B. T. s.v. Beschneidung Schudt, Merckwü rdigkeiten der Juden , Indexes Gideon Brecher, Die Beschneidung der Israeliten , Vienna, 1845 Friedreich, Ueber die Jü dische Beschneidung , Anspach, 1844 M. G. Solomon, Die Beschneidung , Brunswick, 1844 S. Holdheim, Ueber die Beschneidung , Schwerin, 1844 A. J. Glasberg, Zikron Berit la-Rishonim , Berlin, 1892 S. D. Trier, Rabbinische Gutachten ü ber die, Beschneidung , Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1844 Schechter, Studies in Judaism , 1896, pp. 288-299 H. Ploss, Geschichtliches und Ethnologisches ü ber Knaben-Beschneidung , Leipsic, 1885 Redmondino, History of Circumcision . Philadelphia-London, 1891 G. B. Arnold, Circumcision , in The New York Medical Journal , Feb. 13,1886 Kohler, The Sign of the Covenant , in The Jewish Reformer , 1886, No. 2 S. Kohn, Die Gesch. der Beschneidung bei den Juden (Hebrew), Cracow, 1903 S. Kutna, Studien ü ber die Beschneidung , in Monatsschrift , 1901, pp. 353-361,433-453 Year Book of Central Conference American Rabbis , 1891-92.E. G. H. K.


— In Ethnography:

Distribution: The rite of circumcision appears to be both the oldest and the most widely spread surgical operation known. According to Andree ("Die Beschneidung," in "Archiv fü r Anthropologie," 13:76), it is still practised by more than two hundred million people, which is quite a conservative estimate, since the followers of Islam alone are reckoned at two hundred and fifty million. Though not a principle or religious duty, it is spread throughout the Mohammedan world consequently both the age at which the operation is performed and the mode of treatment vary among Turks, Persians, Algerians, and Arabs. Among the Arabs circumcision seems to be a test of endurance. Philostorgius found it practised by them as early as 342 B.C. A much earlier instance, however, among Egyptian mummies, is that of Amen-en-heb, (lived between 1614,1555 B. C. ), which H. Welcke has found to be a true case of circumcision ("Archiv fü r Anthr." 10:123). The practise extends over part of the Balkans, Asia Minor, Persia, part of India, and the Malay Archipelago, besides practically the whole of North Africa. Nor can this be due to Mohammedan influence, as it occurs quite as frequently among the tribes of the east and west coasts of Africa which have not been in contact with Islam. Even the Christian Abyssinians, the Bogos, and the Copts, the first of whom probably learned it from Jews, still observe the rite. Indeed, so universal is the practise in Africa that it would be simpler to give a list of the tribes that do not circumcise than to enumerate all those that do. Zobirowski attempts to prove that it is found in Africa only among those tribes which have plants of Oriental origin, like millet, rice or sorgho (boura), and appears to suggest that it has slowly spread through the dark continent from Egypt but the absence of complete induction and of historic records renders his contention very doubtful.

The possibility of an Egyptian origin for circumcision is, however, completely disproved by the extent of the practise in Australia. The Australian evidence is of particular interest, the operation being performed there with a stone knife, as is recorded of the Israelites (Spencer and Gillen, "Tribes of Central Australia," p. 323 compare Exodus 4:25 ).

The practise is almost equally wide-spread among the islanders of the Malay Archipelago.

For America the evidence is somewhat scanty, and relates chiefly to the central part of the continent, though Petitot reports the practise among the Athapascans and McKenzie among the Dog River Indians. An analogous practise is reported by Squier among the inhabitants of Nicaragua, who draw blood from the organ and sow corn dipped in it. In Mexico a similar practise was found by Cortez, according to the report of Garcia de Palacio (1576) but the blood drawn was offered at the altar. Las Casas reports it among the Aztecs and the Mayas of Yucatan still have an analogous practise. The Caribs of the Orinoco and the Tacunas of the Amazon practise the rite, as well as the Automecos, the Salivas, and the Guemos, who perform it on the eighth day, the earliest time recorded among savage tribes.

The possibility of this wide distribution of the practise being due to a dispersion from a single center like Egypt or southern Arabia, is disproved by the great variety of methods by which the removal of the prepuce is effected, some of the practises, as in New Caledonia and the Fiji Islands, throwing light on the "peri' ah" of the Jews.

The subject can not be adequately treated without a reference to the analogous operation of clitoridectomy performed on girls of nubile age, sometimes accompanied by the so-called "infibulation" of the adjacent parts. According to Ploss (in "Zeitschrift fü r Ethnologie," 1871, pp. 381 et seq. , summarized in his "Das Kind," 1st ed., 1:305-324), this occurs among the S. Arabs, in Egypt, in Abyssinia, among the Gallas, the Susus, the Mandingos, the Masai, and the Waknosi (all of whom likewise circumcise their boys), as well as in Peru and on the banks of the Ucayale River. The operation is in nearly every case performed simultaneously on males and females, though they are kept separate during the periods of preparation and operation. One sect of Jews, the Falashas, also circumcise both sexes (Andree, "Zur Volkskunde der Juden," p. 84) it is probable that this practise has been adopted from the surrounding Abyssinians.

The instrument with which the operation is performed is in almost every case an ordinary knife of iron or steel but, as stated above, the Australians use stone knives, as the Jews and the Egyptians (Pliny, "Hist. Nat." 35:46) did formerly, and as the North-American Indians and the Abyssinian Alnajas still do (Ludolf, "Hist. Æ thiop." iii. 1:21). A case in which a stone knife was used by Jews is mentioned by Schudt as late as 1726. Mussel-shells are used in Polynesia. The Marolongs of South Africa used a "fire-stone" (meteorite), but now circumcise with an assegai.

Much variety is found in the age at which the rite is performed among different tribes. The earliest occurs among the Jews, on the eighth day after birth (Falashas even on the seventh), and among the southwestern Arabs, who perform the rite on the seventh, fourteenth, twenty-first, or twenty-eighth day. The Susus near Timbuctoo and the Guemos of South America are also said to perform the rite on the eighth day. In East Africa the Mazequas perform it between the first and the second month. The Persian Mohammedans circumcise in the third or fourth year the Christian Copts, between the sixth and eighth. The Fijians perform the operation in the seventh year, as do also the Samoans. But, apart from these instances, all the tribes who perform this rite do so at the age of puberty, which is of course a very significant fact. The exceptional position of the Jews in this regard has to be emphasized in any discussion of the light which ethnology can throw upon the Biblical command.

Accompanying Ceremonial.
The act of circumcision is generally accompanied by some special ceremonial. In Samoa it takes place when the youth is named but most often it forms a part of the general set of ceremonies initiating the young of both sexes into mature life. This is generally accompanied by trials of endurance for the lads or young men and from a certain point of view circumcision may be regarded as one of these tests, as is definitely the case among the Jauf of South Arabia (Halé vy). As instances may be mentioned the elaborate ceremonials of African and Australian savages but there is nothing specifically religious in the initiation ceremonies, the elders of the tribe performing the operation and instructing the neophytes. Among the Falashas three old women perform the rite, possibly because it is practised on girls as well as boys. Occasionally, however, the operation is performed by the priest and in the New Hebrides a distinctly mystic character is imparted to the ceremony, no woman being allowed to be present. Similarly, Livingstone found it impossible to obtain access to the "boguera" of the Bechuanas. Among the Bourana the lads are kept apart in a special hut and on the day of circumcision an ox is sacrificed, and all smear themselves with its blood. Among the Sulus the blood is received in a cup of ashes and buried, while with the Marolongs the removed foreskin is buried. The rite is mostly common to the whole population, but occasionally, as in Rook Island, it is performed on the rich only, while in Celebes it is only resorted to in the case of princes who have no children. In Mexico it seems to have been a prerogative of the upper classes.

There are certain indications which seem to show that primitive peoples adopt or drop the practise without much ado, possibly because it is not regarded as definitely religious. The Zulus and the Gallas have discarded the custom since Europeans have become acquainted with them, and Reinach gives reasons for believing that the Philistines, though specifically mentioned as uncircumcised (Judges 14:3 1Samuel 17:26,36 18:25 Ezekiel 32:30 ), had adopted circumcision by the time of Herodotus (ii:104) and Aristophanes ("Birds," p. 507)— i.e. , between 575 (Ezekiel) and 445 B.C. (Herodotus)— while the Idumeans, who appear to have been circumcised in the time of Jeremiah ( Jeremiah 9:26 ), had entirely discarded the practise by the time of John Hyrcanus, who forcibly reintroduced it among them ("L' Anthropologie," 4:28-31).

The exact object for which this widespread custom is practised has been long a subject of dispute. The theories mainly held point to three originating causes: tribal, sacrificial, and utilitarian. For the tribal view there is to be said that circumcision, like other mutilations of the body intended for tribal marks, takes place at the age of puberty, when, for example, the Hereros of Africa knock out the front teeth but as the organ is almost invariably hidden, it is difficult to see how circumcision could be regarded as a tribal mark (see Gerland in Waitz, "Anthropologie," 6:40).

The sacrificial theory, which sees in circumcision an offering to the deity of fertility, has to draw for illustration from the practises of Yucatan and Nicaragua, where the custom itself is only in a stage of survival, if it exists at all. Others regard it as a substitute for human sacrifice (Movers and Ghillany), and place it on the same level as eunuchism (Letourneau, Elie Reclus). Hence Herbert Spencer suggests that it was a mark of subjection introduced by conquering warriors to supersede the punishment of death. The appeal made to Samson by his father (Judges 14:3 ), and that made to the Israelites and to Saul by David (1Samuel 17:26,36 ), give a certain amount of plausibility to this theory but the fact that the practise is either common to all the tribe or is reserved for the upper classes, as in Mexico, the Celebes, and Rook Island, tells strongly against this last form of the sacrificial theory.

Utilitarian Theories.
The suggestion of Sir Richard Burton ("Memoirs Anthrop. Soc." 1:318) that it was introduced to promote fertility seems to be contradicted by the practise and arguments of many tribes (see Riedel, in "Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft fü r Erdkunde zu Berlin," 1885, No. 3). The claims of cleanliness and health have been strongly urged, especially for hot countries, where phimosis is likely to be induced if the natural secretions of the parts are retained by the prepuce. Philo ("De Circumcisione," ed. Mangey, 2:210) gives this as one of the motives for the Biblical injunction and later writers, such as Claparè de ("La Circoncision," Paris, 1861) and Rosenzweig ("Zur Beschneidungsfrage," 1878), have for this reason recommended its general adoption. But the practise is found among so many tribes who have not the most elementary notions of cleanliness, not to speak of hygiene, that this is not likely to be the prevailing motive for its adoption.

An Initiation Ceremony.
The fact that circumcision is almost invariably found practised as a rite of initiation, and frequently on both sexes, gives the clue to its general adoption, as H. Ploss contends in an essay ("Geschichtliches und Ethnologisches ü ber Knaben-Beschneidung," in "Deutsches Archiv fü r Gesch. der Medicin," 8:312-344) mainly based on Andree's materials. According to the wise custom among savages of initiating their youth into all the duties of the mature life, the elders prepare the lads for their marital life at this time and circumcision, often of both sexes, is resorted to as part of the preparation. The only ancient legend about Zipporah circumcising Moses (as would seem to be implied by her exclamation, Exodus 4:25,26 ) confirms Ploss's view to some extent but the exceptionally early age at which Jews perform the rite takes it entirely out of the category of initiation ceremonies among them, and proves it to be of a religious or symbolic nature, as indeed is expressly claimed for it.

Bibliography :Index Catalogue of Surgeon-Major's Library , Washington, 1st and 2d series, s.v. Circumcision (ritual) , gives a tolerably complete list of works and papers.The above article is founded mainly on the material collected by Andree and Ploss, with the use of M. Zaborowski's La Circoncision, sa Superstition en Afrique , in L' Anthropologie , 7:653-675 idem, De la Circoncision des Garcons et de l' Excision des Filles Comme Pratique d' Initiation , in Bulletin Soc. Anthrop. Paris, 4th series, 5:81-104.Special references are only introduced in correction or supplementally for other statements authorities will be found in Andree.J.

Anatomy of the Parts.

— In Medicine:

To perform the operation and to avoid any danger that may be connected with it, an acquaintance with the anatomy of the tissues involved is necessary. The organ terminates in a conical fleshy substance called the glans. The skin covering the organ is prolonged forward in a loose fold, which covers the glans and is supplied with an inner lining of the character of a mucous membrane, which, being reflected, also forms a covering of the glans proper. The prolonged portion of skin with its lining is termed the prepuce or foreskin. The prepuce has no large blood-vessels and therefore circumcision is not attended by any dangerous hemorrhage, except when the glans is injured by unskilful handling of the knife, or in very exceptional cases where there exists an abnormal tendency to bleeding.

Circumcision varies considerably as practised by the Jews and by the Mohammedans. Among the Jews it means not only the excision of the outer part of the prepuce, but also a slitting of its inner lining to facilitate the total uncovering of the glans. The Mohammedans pursue the simple method of cutting off the integumental portion of the foreskin, so that almost all of the inner layer remains, and the glans continues covered.

Implements and Accessories of Circumcision (18th Century) . 1. Cup of benediction. 2. Shield. 3. Knife. 4. Spice-box. 5. Tape. 6. Cotton and Oil. 7. Sand. 8. Powder.
(From Bodenschartz, "Kirchliche Verfassung," 1748.)
The operation up to very recent times was exclusively performed by laymen, to whom the act had been taught by others who, by experience, had acquired the necessary knowledge and skill. The tests of a good operator, or "mohel" (circumciser), were that he should perform his work quickly, safely as to its immediate effect, and successfully as to the condition which the parts would permanently assume. As a rule, the majority of these operators developed great dexterity and accidents were remarkably rare. In case the glans was not sufficiently exposed after the healing process was completed, much anxiety was occasioned for in some exceptional instances a second operation was resorted to.

The operation consists of three parts: "milah," "peri' ah," and "meẓ iẓ ah."

The child having been placed upon a pillow resting upon the lap of the godfather or "sandeḳ " (he who is honored by being assigned to hold the child), the mohel exposes the parts by removal of garments, etc., and instructs the sandeḳ how to hold the child's legs. The mohel then grasps the prepuce between the thumb and index-finger of his left hand, exerting sufficient traction to draw it from the glans, and places the shield (see Fig. 1, next column) in position just before the glans. He now takes his knife and with one sweep excises the foreskin. This completes the first act. The knife (see Fig. 3) most commonly used is doubleedged, although one like those ordinarily used by surgeons is also often employed.

After the excision has been completed, the mohel seizes the inner lining of the prepuce, which still covers the glans, with the thumb-nail and index-finger of each hand, and tears it so that he can roll it fully back over the glans and expose the latter completely. The mohel usually has his thumb-nail suitably trimmed for the purpose. In exceptional cases the inner lining of the prepuce is more or less extensively adherent to the glans, which interferes somewhat with the ready removal but persistent effort will overcome the difficulty.

Modern Implements of Circumcision . 1. Shield 2. Mouthpiece. 3. knife. 4. Cup for Meẓ iẓ ah.

By this is meant the sucking of the blood from the wound. The mohel takes some wine in his mouth and applies his lips to the part involved in the operation, and exerts suction, after which he expels the mixture of wine and blood into a receptacle (see Fig. 4, below) provided for the purpose. This procedure is repeated several times, and completes the operation, except as to the control of the bleeding and the dressing of the wound. The remedies employed for the former purpose vary greatly among different operators and in different countries. Astringent powders enter largely into these applications. In North Germany the following mixture is extensively used: dilute sulfuric acid, one part alcohol, three parts honey, two parts and vinegar, six parts. A favorite remedy with many operators is the tincture of the chlorid of iron, which is a recognized efficient styptic. These solutions are applied by means of small circular pieces of linen with openings in the center, into which the glans is placed, and the dressing is closely applied to the parts below. This is secured in its place by a few turns of a small bandage. A diaper is now applied, and the operation is finished. The dressings are usually allowed to remain until the third day. The nurse in the mean time is instructed to apply olive-oil, plain or carbolized. When the parts are then uncovered the wound will in most cases have healed.

To guard against any mishap through suppuration or erysipelas, the genitals should be washed with soap and water, and afterward with a solution of bichlorid of mercury, 1 to 2,000. The mohel should deal similarly with his hands, and especially with his nails, using a nail-brush and all the instruments to be used should be immersed in boiling water for about five minutes. The dressings should consist of sterile or antiseptic gauze or similar material. All the preparations relating to the dressings, the instruments, and the hands of the operator should be made before the child is brought into the room in which the operation is to be performed, in order to avoid unnecessarily prolonging the anxiety of the mother. A basin with the bichlorid of mercury solution should be at hand, into which the operator may dip his hands immediately before he begins his work.

Precautions to Be Observed.
Care must be exercised in grasping and making traction on the foreskin just before the knife is used. The outer layer is much more elastic than the inner and if the outer and inner layers are not held firmly together at the margin, it may happen in making traction that the outer layer may become folded upon itself, with the result that the cut will remove a circular piece of skin just behind the edge of the foreskin. Of course this will require the subsequent removal of the remaining edge.

Some operators dispense with the shield, but this is not to be commended for it will expose the child to the risk of having a piece of the glans cut off, and to dangerous bleeding in consequence.

When the operator uses his nails to tear the inner layer (peri' ah), he should be careful to have them absolutely clean. Should they not have the requisite shape or firmness, or should he prefer avoiding any risk attaching to that method, two pairs of short forceps may with advantage be substituted, and are now often used. The tear should be made carefully, so that it will not deviate greatly from the median line, and should not be carried back too far for at the margin of the corona it might give rise to unnecessary bleeding. When the inner lining is tough, or bound down by adhesions, a probe-pointed scissors may be used for the peri' ah. Drs. Kehlberg and Lö we recommend the use of the scissors in all cases claiming that the wound made by them is more favorable, and infection less liable. Against this, however, is the well-established principle in surgery that a lacerated wound is less apt to bleed than one made by a sharp instrument.

Danger of Meẓ iẓ ah.
Considerable opposition has of late years been made against the meẓ iẓ ah on the ground that it is entirely in conflict with the aseptic treatment of wounds, which should be adhered to in all instances, but more especially in consequence of a case in Cracow in which it became known that syphilis was communicated to a large number of Jewish children through an infected condition of the mohel's mouth (Glassberg, "Die Beschneidung," p. 27). The result has been that a number of mohels have discarded the meẓ iẓ ah altogether. The majority of Jews, however, remain averse to such an innovation, the more so because it is condemned by the Orthodox rabbis. As a compromise, which has received satisfactory ecclesiastical authority, a method has been adopted which consists in the application of a glass cylinder that has a compressed mouthpiece, by means of which suction is accomplished. Before the cylinder is applied a small quantity of sterilized absorbent cotton is placed in the mouthpiece, which effectually protects both the child and the operator.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Circumcision'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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