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Monday, January 11, 2010

Bris v. Circumcision

No - it's not one of those landmark Supreme Court cases.
But it is a question that comes up a lot: What's the difference between a circumcision and a bris? Isn't a bris just a souped up circumcision?

It is true that a bris contains a circumcision as part of its process, but a circumcision alone does not a bris make.


Male circumcision is the removal of some or all of the foreskin (prepuce) from the penis. (I got the concise definition from wikipedia, though the page has graphic images I don't recommend for the sensitive...)


A Bris includes the circumcision (though it would more accurately remove all of the foreskin), but also has ritualistic components as well as religious significance that is extremely important for the history and continuity of the Jewish people.

This is not the forum to respond to anti-circumcision people - so don't expect that here.

Do a google search of "anti-circumcision" or "against circumcision" and you will find hundreds of websites and millions of hits. This is not our issue. I assume you are looking to circumcise your son, just don't know if it would be better to do it with a doctor in the hospital or with a mohel in a bris ceremony.

A Medical Circumcision...

...consists of either an operating room procedure or an office procedure. Depending on who does it and how much pride the person takes in the outcome, and in his/her relationship with the baby and his family, you can get all kinds of different outcomes.

Doctors will use all different kinds of methods - some which produce excellent cosmetic results, some which produce shoddy results.

In cases where parents sign a waiver allowing hospitals to take care of the circumcision, unless they request otherwise, there is a good chance that a medical student will be operating, for the first time, on their baby.

Local anesthetic may or may not be used, and depending on the method of choice, the baby might be in a degree of discomfort for between 7 to 30 minutes.

Cosmetic results will differ based on the skills of the operator. A doctor who does many of these procedures will usually have it down to a science and should produce wonderful cosmetic results. Otherwise, you are at your own risk.

I have been inside operating rooms in which the surgeon took pride in his work, took the time, marked the foreskin, and made a clean and even incision, gently and carefully, all around the circumference of the glans.

I have also been in the operating room when the child in question was put "out" for a hernia operation, and the choice was made to do the circumcision at the same time, while the baby was under general anesthesia. In my own observation, while the doctor may have taken all the time in the world to do the hernia properly, the circumcision was an afterthought, and was treated as such. No mark, quick snip (forgive me), and a suture job afterwards that was not to my satisfaction. Argument: "It's only a 'circ.' What's your problem?" My problem is that it isn't "only" a circ.

A Bris...

... takes much less time. Depending on the operator, he may use a bronstein (Mogen) clamp or a Traditional Jewish shield, but will usually finish the procedural (circumcision) component in under a minute.

A bris requires the entire foreskin to be removed, as well as the mucosal membrane beneath the foreskin to be completely removed from the circumference of the glans. In addition to being the fulfillment of the requirement, this will inevitably produce a more asthetically pleasing result.

Not that we're doing this for asthetics.

The circumcision carries with it the promise made by God to Abraham in Genesis 17 that He will be the exclusive God for Abraham's descendants (defined in Genesis 15 as those who descended to Egypt, and ultimately experienced the Exodus and Revelation at Sinai - the Children of Israel) if they bear the mark of the covenant in their male offsprings' flesh.

For the Jewish people, this prospect of being "the firstborn of God" (see 4:22) is highly significant.

The Bris Ceremony makes reference to Biblical defenders of the faith, who outwardly defended the covenant and the concept of circumcision - Abraham, Pinchas, and Elijah the Prophet. It includes prayers to God on behalf of the operator (mohel), the father of the baby, the sandak (who holds the baby during the bris), and, most importantly, the baby - that he should experience his circumcision with minimal pain and discomfort and that he should heal speedily.

There is symbolism in the blood that emerges from the incision (compare this to the blood on the doorposts (12:7-13) that was used to effect the "Passover" event)

There are blessings that are recited invoking God, the covenant, and national significance for all the Jewish people.

The baby is given his name in ceremonial fashion, with a cup of wine - just as we have for kiddush on Sabbath and holidays, and at other important ceremonies such as a wedding.

And, perhaps most significantly, friends and family gather together to celebrate the arrival of the baby, the continuing of a tradition, and the continuity of the Jewish people.

I conclude with the words I've already written in this posting

The doctor v mohel question is for a different discussion - it has been addressed in the second half of this posting.

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