The first mitzvah that is performed on a Jewish baby boy is the mitzvah of circumcision. In Hebrew this is called brit milah (lit., “the covenant of circumcision”). This mitzvah is referred to, in the blessing recited by the father at the circumcision, as “the covenant of Abraham,” as it was to Abraham that G‑d commanded1: “This is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and between you and your seed after you, that every male among you be circumcised.”

Reasons for this mitzvah

Many reasons are given for this mitzvah. Several of them are:

  • It establishes a sign, affixed in our flesh, that we are believers in the one G‑d.2
  • It is akin to a branding that, in days of yore, masters would oftentimes imprint upon their slaves. It acts as a reminder for us that we are in G‑d’s service, and must follow His ways.3
  • Sefer HaChinuch4 explains that just as Jewish souls are different than Gentiles’ souls, G‑d wanted there to be a difference in our physical bodies as well. He explains further that G‑d left this sign for us to make rather than creating us with it, in order to symbolize that just as we can and must perfect our bodies, so too we can and must perfect our souls.
  • Why was the reproductive organ chosen for this imprint?
    1. To symbolize that the covenant with G‑d is eternal and must be passed on to the next generations.5
    2. It weakens sexual desire and pleasure, hopefully giving a person more strength to restrain himself from engaging in forbidden sexual encounters.6 In a similar vein, Nachmanides writes7 that the brit reminds us to only use the male organ in a permissible and positive way.
    3. The reproductive organ was chosen, since it is in the merit of our uniqueness and devotion to G‑d that we continue our existence as a race.8

Why the eighth day?

Several reasons are given as to why the Torah commands us9 to wait until the eighth day before performing the circumcision. (Though these may be part of the reason, ultimately we do it on the eighth day—not earlier or later [unless medically necessary, see below]—because this is what G‑d commanded.)

Some of them are:

  1. To allow the baby to gather strength before going through the pain of the circumcision.10
  2. The Talmud11 says that the reason is so that the mother can—technically—be cleansed from her postpartum niddah (ritual impurity) state, which lasts a minimum of seven days.12
  3. The Zohar13 explains that the baby must experience a Shabbat before being circumcised. This imparts to the baby the special soul of Shabbat—as preparation for the brit.14
  4. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains15 that the number seven represents the natural order of this world, exemplified by the seven great heavenly bodies (the sun, moon, and five visible planets), the seven days of the week, and G‑d’s seven emotional attributes—the building blocks with which the world was created. The number eight, on the other hand, represents G‑dly revelation that is completely beyond this world16—the source of the supernatural.17 The brit is a manifestation of the Jew’s connection to G‑d on a level that is completely beyond this world.18

We do not wait beyond the eighth day, because it will be more difficult for the parents to do this to their baby as he grows older. In addition, the older the boy is, the more painful the procedure becomes. And, as explained above, the number eight has special spiritual significance.19

The importance of the brit

G‑d made thirteen covenants with Abraham concerning the brit milah.20 Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains21 that this indicates that the brit milah evokes the revelation of G‑d’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.

Despite Abraham’s great devotion to observing the mitzvot of the Torah, he was not called tamim—“complete”22—until after his brit milah.23

Our sages go as far as to say that if not for this mitzvah, G‑d would not have created the heavens and earth;24 it is the greatest of the positive mitzvot;25 and considered the equivalent to all of the mitzvot of the Torah combined.26

According to some opinions, Abraham circumcised himself on Yom Kippur. In that merit, every year on Yom Kippur, G‑d “sees” the blood of Abraham, and forgives the sins of the Jewish people.27

The rewards for observing this mitzvah

  1. In the merit of the continued observance of this mitzvah, the Jewish people are assured the continuation of the interrupted Davidic dynasty with the arrival of Moshiach, of their continued possession of the Holy Land, and of the continued presence of the shechinah (divine presence) amongst the Jewish people.28
  2. One who is circumcised will be saved from gehinnom (purgatory)29 by our forefather Abraham, who will prevent him from being brought there.30
  3. The Midrash asserts that it is healthier to be circumcised.31 Many health professionals concur, and say that circumcision gives extra protection against urinary tract infections, various sexually transmitted diseases, and even certain types of cancers.32
  4. This mitzvah is one that one continues to “do” throughout one’s life—for one always remains circumcised.33 Thus, even when one is in a place where it is forbidden to do other mitzvot (e.g., the bathroom), one is still doing this mitzvah.34
  5. The blood of the brit milah is stored in a special place in heaven. When G‑d is upset at His people, he looks at this blood and has mercy on them.35
  6. The Jewish soul of a baby boy begins to enter the baby at the time of his brit.36 For this reason, it is better to start washing negel vasser (ritual handwashing upon waking in the morning) with a baby boy after his brit milah.

The consequences of not observing this mitzvah

One whose father did not circumcise him and who, upon reaching adulthood, willfully never circumcises himself, is punished by having his soul cut off from its divine source (karet). As the verse states37: “And an uncircumcised male, who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that soul will be cut off from its people; he has broken My covenant.”38 This is one of only two positive commandments whose neglect carries this punishment. The other is the Paschal sacrifice.39


The Talmud says the Jewish women are considered naturally circumcised.40 This means that they do not have to go through this painful mitzvah in order to achieve all of the objectives of the brit (outlined above). For them, these are inborn traits.

Click here for Part II of this article—The Timing and the Preparations.