Why I Cry At Circumcisions

(Photo Credit: Avital Pinnick;

Some people cry at heart-wrenching movies, others at hearing a moving story, such as an act of heroism or overcoming adversity, but I cry at circumcisions.

Today, we were at the brit milah for the son of a wonderful local Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin. At the end of the morning Shabbat services, they brought out the little child on the pillow. The crowd welcomed the beautiful baby. The sandek held the baby on his knees for the procedure, and the mohel went to work as the family and friends gathered around to be a part of this special moment.

The baby starts to cry, and the mohel says out aloud, “I haven’t even touched him yet” and everyone is brought to momentary laughter. But as the mohel proceeds, the tension builds (and this is where I start to get emotional). The men in the room look a little uneasy, which is understandable. The women are feeling bad for the baby who is crying out. The parents of the child are anxious that everything should go well, of course. Then the blessings are said, and the deed is done, and everyone starts singing Mazel Tov.

This is an incredible Jewish tradition that goes back 3,800 years to Abraham our forefather. When G-d made the covenant with him (Genesis: 17:10):

Every male among you shall be circumcised.

The surgical procedure is typically done on the eighth day, health permitting. This mitzvah is so important that it is even performed on the Shabbat and Jewish holy days, including Yom Kippur. Aside from the biblical commandment to circumcise on the eighth day, I remember learning that medically-speaking Vitamin K that is critical for clotting is highest in the infant on the eighth day. Moreover, G-d is his infinite wisdom commanded us to circumcise the foreskin of the infant, and medical science has identified numerous potential benefits, including reduced risk of HIV, sexually-transmitted diseases, urinary tract infections, and penile cancer.

Circumcision is the 2nd mitzvah in the Torah, after only the commandment to procreate, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Again, it makes sense that after procreating, we are told what to do upon the birth of the male child to enter G-d’s eternal covenant with his people. It was wonderful to hear the rabbi read today a beautiful handwritten note that was sent to his father from the Rebbe many years ago wishing congratulations and that he should grow up to “Torah, chupah (marriage), and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).”

So, what is there to cry about?

First, I have always looked at the world from a child-centric view. Any child in need or G-d forbid being really hurt or abused in any way makes me feel very emotional and wanting to help. I can’t stand seeing a child suffer, and yes, it does bring me to tears even when I know there may be a good reason for it. While the circumcision is not hurting the child (we’re actually trying to help the child and parents spiritually), even the momentary fear or discomfort of the child make my heart cry out for him, and wanting to race in, scoop the child up, and run out the door with him (no, I wouldn’t really do that!).

Second, and on a positive note, I think I am incredibly moved by this particular mitzvah. Circumcision reminds me of Abraham, our forefather, who was tested and told to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, to G-d. It is truly counter-intuitive for a parent to hurt or sacrifice their child. Yet, this is exactly how G-d tested Abraham before the angel of G-d told him not to raise his hand to Isaac, and instead Abraham then offered to G-d a ram that was caught in the thicket. However, when it comes to circumcision, we are also tested and actually are commanded to surgically remove the male child’s foreskin and as the baby cries out, every parent, no matter how faithful and religiously devoted, winces and feels deeply inside for their child’s pain, even if it is only momentary and soothed by a sip of kosher Kedem Concord Grape wine.

The rite of the circumcision is an incredible transcendental religious experience, where our very faith is tested and we go against our own physical instincts to protect the child, no matter what, and instead we submit ourselves to G-d Almighty, the Master of the Universe to perform the circumcision, because He told us to. Whether there are medical benefits or not, G-d commands, and we obey. We are His people, and his thoughts and plans are infinitely greater than ours. At the circumcision, in an act of complete faith, we graciously give over our male children and ourselves—in body, mind, and soul to G-d. We renounce our desires, our gratification, our very instincts, and put ourselves in G-d’s merciful hands. In that moment of selfless giving, we fulfill our covenant of generations with G-d and we affirm our holiness as individuals and as a nation.

About the Author
Andy Blumenthal is a dynamic, award-winning leader who writes frequently about Jewish life, culture, and security. All opinions are his own.
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