Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

When is a bris not a bris?

This past week, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend my new nephew’s brit milah, ברית מילה. The baby cried well before the ritual was to begin, as if he knew what was coming. And while tears came to my eyes as I listened, I also thought about the bris’s significance and the phrase itself.

With the brit milah, literally a Covenant of Circumcision, on the eighth day of a boy’s life, male babies are welcomed into our tribe. In Hebrew, both milah (covenant) and milah (word) are spelled the same, מילה. Not sure who could blame me, but I thought this covenant, this agreement, was also the cementing of a verbal agreement – of words – between G-D and man.

I thought I’d be clever and write something about that tie in. But since I am not a Hebrew scholar, I decided to look up the significance of milah. And everywhere I turned, Covenant of the Circumcision was what I found, never a reference to Covenant of the Word.

Words in Hebrew are based on roots. I assumed these two words had the same root. But in searching for their roots, I learned that milah and milah are actually two different words. That is, in looking up the three-letter root for each meaning of the word, I found they differed. This was very curious to me, Mem – Yud – Lamed is the root for Circumcision but not for Word. That actually has a root of Mem – Lamed – Lamed. While I couldn’t see why there are two lameds, I did remember milulit meant wordy, full of words, and that’s one variation in which you actually have the letter lamed twice.

But then I looked up the Mem – Lamed – Lamed root further and saw it also belonged to the word mallel (מלל), which ironically means words without meaning, empty words, hot air. And then that root made me think of Meyalell (מיילל) Its root, in turn, is Yud – Yud – Lamed – to meow, wail…cry out.

Yes, the baby cried. And the mother and grandmother and aunts and great aunts cried. But then he was circumcised and his crying actually stopped (guess the wine kicked in). Hmmm…wine in Hebrew is Yayin (יין), its root Yud – Yud – Nun. That double Yud again, like in Meyalell, howling. It is also how we represent G-D’s ineffable name.

It is almost like we’ve gone in a circle of sorts, one built of similarities and opposites. I would love to hear from someone far more knowledgeable than myself if there is any significance to any of the roots I’ve been stepping on as I go down this path of words.

So, let’s focus on the brit part of brit milah – It means covenant, agreement, treaty. The word forces us to think about what brings us together. Not what tears us apart.

Turns out as well that while a brit milah is quite a singular event, Muslim circumcision exists too. Called khitan, it is a way to welcome a boy into the religious community, though is not required. Mohammed had his on the seventh day after life, but it is not prescribed to take place then; it can come much later.

Given the Jewish-Muslim women’s group I’ve joined – one in which we want to learn more about each other and try to find what can bring us together instead of drive us apart, I thought it a really interesting similarity.

As I welcome my new nephew into the world and into our tribe, I want to wish him what I wish for us all (and have written about before) – a lifetime of being able to find the right words. May all our words always be precise and clear and suitable and always convey our thoughts in a way others can hear them, understand them and accept them.

About the Author
Wendy Kalman, MPA, MA, serves as Director of Education and Advocacy Resources for Hadassah The Women's Zionist Organization of America, Inc. Previous roles include senior academic researcher for an Israel education nonprofit, knowledge manager at a large multinational as well as roles in marketing and publishing in the US and in Israel. She has presented papers at political science and communications conferences and has participated as a scholar-in-residence at an academic workshop on antisemitism. Wendy lived in Israel for over a decade and is a dual citizen, fluent in Hebrew.
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