1. The Night Before

There is a custom to make a feast of fruits and beverages on the erev shabbat (Friday evening) before the day that the bris takes place. This is seen as a feast held in honor of performing a mitzvah. Similarly, there is a custom to stay awake studying all night before the circumcision, to protect the child from demons, etc. It is obviously the last chance for the demons to get the child before circumci­sion makes him safe. This is called leil shimmurim (the night of watching).

2. Postpone for Health Concerns

One should not circumcise an infant who is weak, sick, or premature when medical opinion indicates that the circumcision might be dangerous. The bris, in this case, is postponed until a later date.

3. Rules for a Postponed Bris

Although a bris may normally be held on Shabbat or a festival (even on Yom Kippur), if the bris has been postponed because of the health of the child, it should not take place on any of those days.

4. Let There Be Light

It is customary to light candles in the room where the bris is to take place.

empty vintage chair

5. Make Room for Elijah

Another custom is to set aside a chair for the prophet Elijah (who is called the angel of covenant and is reputed to be the protector of little children).

6. Use a Chair

It is also a custom to put the infant on the chair before the actual circumcision.

7. Call Your Friends

Whenever possible, the bris should take place with a minyan (a ­quorum of 10).

8. Stretch Those Legs

It is customary for everyone but the sandek (the person who holds the baby) to remain standing during the ceremony.

9. Involve the Parents

The father--or both parents in more progressive communities--should hand the knife to the mohel and stand by him while he performs the circumcision, to indicate that the mohel is the agent of the parents. If the child's father is not Jewish then traditionally the mohel simply acts on behalf of the community.

10. Add Your Own Flourishes

In addition to the basic elements of the bris ceremony, there is great historical precedent for adding meaningful readings, songs, state­ments, etc.--whatever the parents are into. While psalms, poetry, music, and group readings are appropriate within the context of the traditional bris, you should check nonetheless with the mohel you'll be using.

Reprinted with permission from The Second Jewish Catalog, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.