My daughter converted to Orthodox Judaism and married a Jewish man. They are expecting to have a boy, which of course will mean circumcising the baby according to Jewish practice. As gentiles, we would like to know what to expect about the ceremony in order to 1. Avoid as much as possible feeling out of place, and 2. In order to appreciate it as much as possible. Thank you for your consideration.
First, I offer my best wishes for your anticipated joyous occasion. Also, I commend you and your family’s openness to learn about, and be a part of, the naturally unfamiliar aspects of your daughter’s Jewish life. May you always have a loving and fulfilling relationship with her and her family.
The mitzva of circumcision is called brit milah, a sign of the covenant with G-d. I’m sure the parents will choose a certified mohel (the term for the person who performs the brit) who is an expert in the Jewish and medical requirements for the procedure. The mohel, together with doctors’ recommendations, decides if the brit can be performed on the required 8th day after birth, or when after that, if it needs to be postponed for health reasons. The mohel is responsible for examining the baby before and after the brit to ascertain all is well. It is at the brit that the name is formally announced, and most people are particular not to reveal the name until at the brit.
At the beginning of the actual ceremony, various people are honored to deliver the baby on a specially decorated and embroidered pillow or cushion, hand to hand, from the mother through the assembled until the baby is finally placed on the knees of the sandek (the one who holds the baby during the brit). This is often initiated by a couple who doesn’t have children, and this mitzva of kvatter is considered to be a segula (venue of good influence) for them to be fruitful. The wife of this couple takes the baby from the mother in the women’s section and passes it to her husband in the men’s section.
The baby is then passed among those honored, from person to person, in the direction of a special chair near where the brit will be performed, which looks like a kind of throne, called the Chair of Elijah the Prophet, who is considered to be present and overlooking at each brit. The baby is placed on the Chair of Elijah, as special prayers are recited to invoke divine favor on behalf of the infant.
Then the baby is taken from this chair and placed along the length of the thighs of the sandek, who also sits on a type of large, elevated throne-like chair, specially prepared for this purpose. The head of the baby is toward the waist of the sandek; the legs of the baby are toward his knees, facing the mohel. The sandek holds the baby’s knees open, while the mohel performs the brit. During the actual brit, those involved in the ceremony wear a tallit (special prayer shawl), so that the sandek sits with the tallit draped over his head and the baby’s face. This all takes place accompanied by the recitation of verses, supplications and blessings. Of course, there are very deep spiritual intentions to keep in mind.
The mohel applies an ancient, simple but ingeniously designed, sterilized instrument which isolates the foreskin to be removed, while simultaneously guarding the body part which remains. Then, the actual brit, which is the removal of the foreskin, is performed with great precision and alacrity, such that there is little blood and crying. The incision is immediately wrapped with special bandage by the mohel, the baby is quickly diapered, dressed, presented anew on the special pillow, and given some wine-dipped cloth to suckle, and usually stops crying straight away. The entire circumcision procedure usually takes less than one minute.
After the brit, the child is lifted with the pillow from the sandek, and the name that the parents choose is announced for the first time by a person honored with this rite, in the context of a special blessing over a silver goblet of wine. The baby is then returned via the kvatter couple back to the mother, who usually nurses him right away. A festive meal ensues in honor of the occasion, where small speeches of Torah ideas are shared, as well as spiritual singing. The entire day is considered to be a holy day for the entire family!