QUESTION: Some couples have recently asked that a berit milah be conducted in the synagogue rather than at home. They feel that the setting is more appropriate for a religious service, and furthermore it makes it easier for a large group of friends to attend there rather than in a small cramped apartment. (Loren Rabinowitz, Cleveland OH)
ANSWER: It is unclear when the custom of a berit milah in the synagogue began. The earliest traces are ninth century Persian, and may reflect Islamic influence as Muslims also require circumcision. The custom subsequently spread both among Karaite and rabbinic Jews (L. Low Die Lebensalter in der Jüdischen Literatur). Later this custom became rather common and many synagogues throughout the world set aside a special "chair for Elijah." This served the practical purpose of providing a setting for the berit milah and also stressed the desirability of having a berit in the synagogue.
Undoubtedly having the berit in the synagogue also made it much easier to assemble a minyan for this occasion. As it was to be festive, this enabled the entire community, who assembled for services either at shaharit or minhah, to participate in the joy of parenthood.
In the liberal congregations of Western Europe and North America a berit was been rarely held in the synagogue. Partly this may have been due to the size of the synagogues which made a small gathering seem inappropriate. More than likely it was due to the prosperity of the families who now had sufficient space at home to conduct the berit even with a fairly large number of guests present.
A berit milah in the synagogue is appropriate for both religious and practical reasons. We have for many years stressed the necessity of having the berit milah as a religious ceremony properly conducted on the eighth day irrespective of the medical reasons for circumcision. An assembly in the synagogue stresses the religious aspect of the occasion, and emphasizes the importance of children and the need to begin their religious involvement to the community. The synagogue should welcome this opportunity to bring young couples into its midst and perhaps provide a special "chair for Elijah" as have so many other synagogues in the past.