CCAR RESPONSA

American Reform Responsa

55. Circumcision Other Than the Eighth Day of Birth

(Vol. LXIV, 1954, pp. 78-79)

QUESTION: It is common practice now for hospitals to discharge mother and baby within a week after birth. Since doctors and parents prefer to have the circumcision performed in the hospital, I am getting an increasing number of requests to conduct the service before the eighth day.

I discussed this matter with one of our leading obstetricians who performs many circumcisions shortly after birth. He has written a paper on the subject in which he seeks to prove by facts and figures that the immediate circumcision of the newborn male is followed by no ill effects. He further states that the procedure is now endorsed by seven-eighths of the community's pediatricians and all but one of the obstetricians and gynecologists.

Is it permissible to have the Berit before the eighth day?

ANSWER: It would appear from the approach to the question that, in the mind of the correspondent, there is a close relationship between the testimony of the men of science and the specific question posed. Yet, in reality, the two are in no way related. To the physician, circumcision is a surgical operation indicated by hygienic factors; in Jewish tradition circumcision is a religious rite prescribed in the Mosaic law and designated as a sign of the everlasting covenant between God and Abraham's descendants (Gen. 17:11-14). The day on which the rite is to be performed, the eighth from birth, is also specified in the law, although the reason for it is not given and is still unknown (ibid., 17:12; Lev. 12:3). Hence, it is that on the eighth day the Berit Mila is solemnized with a special religious ceremony which--though neither of Biblical nor Talmudic origin--has been scrupulously practiced by our people for many centuries and has served to enhance the significance of this ancient symbolic rite.

The question, therefore, is not whether it is physically safe to perform the act of circumcision before the eighth day. The answer to such a question, even if it proves inconclusive, must be left to the men in the medical profession. The real question for us to answer is whether it is wise in this instance to depart from the Biblical law which is universally observed by the Sons of the Covenant. Will circumcision shortly after birth, to which our neighbors presumably submit for hygienic reasons, retain its symbolic significance for us? Shall we not be running the risk of converting a religious rite into just another surgical operation? Have we more to gain from turning hygienists than from remaining religionists?

Viewed in this light, the question raised by the correspondent must be answered in the negative. The proposed change is bound to alter, in time, the character of the rite, and it would be sheer folly to persist in an ancient practice and yet have it divested of its religious meaning and purpose.

The slight inconvenience involved in returning the baby to the hospital on the eighth day, where the traditional Berit Mila could be properly solemnized, need hardly enter into our consideration of the question. No religious discipline could long endure were we to consult at every step our personal convenience, whether it be of parents, physicians, or hospital superintendents.

Israel Bettan

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.