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Additional Sephardic Circumcision Customs

Additional Sephardic Circumcision Customs

The customs of Sephardim and Oriental Jews at a Brit Milah

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Photo: Aneta Blaszczyk
Photo: Aneta Blaszczyk

The laws of the brit, ritual circumcision, are equal for all, but customs may vary between various Jewish communities. Some Sephardic customs pertaining to brit are:

Prior to the Circumcision

In most Sephardic communities, on the night before the circumcision, the men of the family and their friends gather to recite portions of the Zohar related to circumcision. The gathering itself is called Zohar or Brit Yitzchak (Covenant of Isaac). Cakes and various sweets are served and the Chacham (rabbi) delivers a Torah lecture.1

Many hang Kabbalistic charts on the walls and door of the child's room as a protection against the “evil spirits” (Satan and his cohorts). These signs bear many protective Biblical verses. Some also place the circumcision knife under the child’s pillow for added protection.2

The Day of the Circumcision

At Syrian circumcisions, a large tiered tray is filled with flowers and candles. Guests place contributions on the tray and, following the brit, the tray is sold to the highest bidder. The money that has been bid, along with the money on the tray, is then donated to charity. Some use this “money of blessing” towards a new financial endeavor (e.g., to start a business, to buy a home). It is considered an omen for success.

At Persian circumcisions, a large tray of apples is placed on the table and young couples are encouraged to partake. Assumedly, this custom is based on the Midrash that explains how, when Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill all newborn Jewish males, the Jewish women hid in the apple orchards. There Heavenly emissaries assisted them with the birth and subsequent care of the baby. This is alluded to in the verse, “Under the apple tree I begot you.”3 Thus, apples are propitious for easy labor and delivery.

In many Sephardic communities, the father bestows upon his son the blessing, “May G‑d make you like Ephraim and Menashe.”4 Some add: “May it be His will that you be a brother to seven and also to eight.” This latter blessing is a play on Ecclesiastes 11:2, and is an allusion to the princes of Menashe and Ephraim, who were the seventh and eighth tribal leaders to bring their offerings at the inauguration5 of the Tabernacle that was erected in the desert, as the Jews traveled from Egypt to the Land of Israel.6

Moroccan Jews place a dish of sand near the mohel, ritual circumciser, to signify that the child should be as fruitful as the grains of sand, as is written in the verse, “And the count of the Children of Israel will be like the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured nor counted.”7 This sand is also used to cover the excised foreskin.

Throne of Elijah

At Syrian circumcisions an ornate curtain bearing the name of Elijah the Prophet is draped over the chair designated as the Throne of Elijah.

In Moroccan families, on the night prior to the circumcision, the Throne of Elijah is brought from the synagogue to the home of the infant, where it is decorated with many colorful fabrics.

In Sefrou, Morocco, once host to the country’s largest Jewish community, the Throne of Elijah was placed near a doorpost in the home of the child. This was considered auspicious for the long life of the child, as alluded to in the verse, “And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts… in order to prolong your days.”8

Spanish Jews drape the chair set aside for Elijah with purple and gold braided material to give it the appearance of a throne. The chair is placed next to the sandek, one who holds the baby, and a Pentateuch or prayer book is placed on it, as a reminder that the chair represents Elijah’s presence and is not to be used by anyone else.

At the Circumcision

In many Sephardic communities, the infant is accompanied by musical instruments when brought to the synagogue where his circumcision will take place. The women ululate in high staccato sounds that sound like "Lelelelelelelele," a chant of joy in many Middle Eastern countries. 9

It is customary to bring the baby in on a large pillow draped with colorful scarves and shawls of exquisite lace and embroidery.

Among some Sephardic communities, the family name is included in the naming of the child (e.g., if the family name is Haddad, the child is given the name Moshe ben [son of] Gabriel Haddad).

It is customary to smell fragrant spices following the blessing over the wine. At Moroccan circumcisions dried rose petals are traditionally used for this purpose. Some explain the custom of smelling spices as an allusion to the verse regarding the creation of Adam, “And G‑d blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.”10 The Zohar11 writes that a Jewish male attains the [beginning of connection of the] soul at his circumcision. Therefore the sense of smell is used, which is reminiscent of the original infusion of the soul into man.12

Others see the use of fragrances as an allusion to the Midrash, which relates that when Abraham circumcised the members of his household, he piled their foreskins into a heap. The odor of the foreskins rose to heaven, and was as appreciated by G‑d as the fragrance of the incense burned on the Altar in the Temple.13

FOOTNOTES
1.

Some celebrate this evening instead of the Shalom Zachar that Ashkenazic Jews celebrate on the Friday night following the birth.

2.

Both of these customs are also practiced in some Ashkenazic circles.

3.

Song of Songs 8:5; Rashi to Sotah 11b.

4.

Genesis 48:20.

5.

Numbers 7:48, 54.

6.

This custom is based on Targum Yonatan to Genesis 48:20. He paraphrases: “this blessing will be conferred by a father on the day of his son's circumcision” (R' Yaakov HaGozer).

7.

Hosea 2:1.

8.

Deuteronomy 11:20–21.

9.

Zichron Brit LaRishonim, p. 178.

10.

Genesis 2:7.

11.

Zohar, Shelach.

12.

Ohel David III to Psalms 44:23.

13.

Midrash Shir HaShirim 4:6 a; Yalkut Shimoni, Lech Lecha 82.

Content courtesy Rabbi Levi Y. Heber, certified Mohel and author of Circumcision.net
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Discussion (1)
February 3, 2014
Additional Sephardic Circumcision Customs
This was very educational! I remember reading about Sephardic Jews using lots of spices.
Lisa
Providence, RI
Circumcision is the first commandment given by G-d to Abraham, the first Jew, and is central to Judaism.